Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Poe and Tradition

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Poe and Tradition

Article excerpt

Poe has proven the most difficult American writer to put in proper perspective. There has been, for example, a historical reluctance to define the nature and location of his achievement; instead, it has been somewhat mystically distributed over four categories--poetry, criticism, journalism, fiction--and he has emerged as that figment so beloved of dead scholarship, an "influence." Even so lively and sensible a critic as F. O. Matthiessen succumbed to the tendency, and in his judicious essay in the LHUS he reached the conclusion that Poe was "an original creative force," implying that his ultimate value resided somewhere else than in producible texts. (1) In this view, which T. S. Eliot fostered, Poe is a figure in international Romanticism, a mediator of ideas and attitudes to authors more valuable than himself, chiefly Baudelaire. Eliot in fact, playing Atticus, went so far as to hint that had Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Vallery been more competent in English they would have lost interest in Poe, but handicapped as they were they found him stimulating. (2) Separated like this from the words on the page, criticism might just as well serve up the figure of the daguerreotypes or The Legend for all that it advances real understanding.

Interlocked with this failure to define is the puzzling question of Poe's Americanness. As a hovering international influence he seems to lack native identity and much of a concern with his native land. Eliot asked rhetorically, "What is identifiably local about Poe?" and Matthiessen admitted that one consequence of the position he took was that Poe seems "remote from the main currents of American thought." (3) In his widely praised Poe: A Critical Study, Edward Davidson says, "My approach to Poe's mind and writing has been primarily through the critical and metaphysical theories of Coleridge," and he adds that as a result, "I may have increased the distance between Poe and his age or between Poe and the American experience." (4) This instinctive tendency, like so much in Poe studies, goes back to Baudelaire, who could not believe that the poete maudit of his construction could have anything to do with the land of Franklin except to shake its dust from his artistic feet: "From the midst of a greedy world, hungry for material things, Poe took flight in dreams. Stifled as he was by the American atmosphere, etc." (5) Killis Campbell is sometimes supposed to have disproved this, but the contrary tendency has never really sunk roots wide or deep. It is noticeable, for example, that the two most ambitious recent books on Poe, David Halliburton's Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological Study (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973) and G. R. Thompson's Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973) both analyze his work with tools cast in the die shop of Continental philosophy. And the latest European these devotes Gallic logic and four hundred footnotes in thirty pages on "Poe et l'Amerique" to showing that "Non seulement Poe est en dehors de la tradition americaine, mais son oeuvre est encore a l'ecart de la vie americaine, et s'il fut citoyen des Etats-Unis, c'est pur accident de naissance." (6)

Killis Campbell stoutly denied all this. He heroically collected all the references to things American throughout the canon that he could find, showing for example that twelve of the seventy tales are set in America and that they refer to such New World phenomena as watermelons, Bowie knives, and Lewis Gaylord Clark. (7) He suggested that Poe's "tales not only reveal a genuine interest in the political and economic life of his day, but they also reveal a genuine concern about the social life of his time." (8) However, he does not actually show this or allow it to control his argument, for his topographical method of cataloguing references does not permit it, and after saying that "several early reviews touch on slavery" (the verb is significant) he proceeds to considerations of a different type. …

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