Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Tawdry Physical Affrightments": The Performance of Normalizing Visions of the Body in Edgar Allan Poe's "Loss of Breath"

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Tawdry Physical Affrightments": The Performance of Normalizing Visions of the Body in Edgar Allan Poe's "Loss of Breath"

Article excerpt

In response to a gift copy he received from the illustrator of a new Poe volume, William Butler Yeats complained, "Analyse the Pit and the Pendulum and you find an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affrightments, at least so it seems to me who am yet puzzled at the fame of such things" (77). Yet while the popularity of physical sensationalism in antebellum American literature, professional medical journals, magazines, and theater undoubtedly influenced the composition of Poe's fiction, this fiction opposed the mass cultural entertainment of Poe's day, entertainment in which extreme bodily violence, sensationalistic suspensions of physical reality, and hyperbolically physical performances abounded. Poe strove to construct prose works of finer taste and sophistication than those he believed he encountered in popular culture by exposing the crudeness and absurdity of the literary bodies commonly consumed by American readers.

Certainly, there are bizarre "physical affrightments" aplenty in Poe's own work: dismemberment, decapitation, violent medical intrusions on the body, and murder. Moreover, Poe's penchant for creating characters with abnormal bodies is evident in all phases of his career. The short-statured Pompey, Hugh Tarpaulin, and Bon-Bon appear in the comic and satiric tales of the 1830s while later, more horrific tales, such as "Hop-Frog," feature protagonists with multiple physical abnormalities. These intriguing visions of extraordinary bodies for which Poe is so famous, however, ultimately are founded on a core vision of bodily normality that forms the ground for his critiques of antebellum popular culture. To diverge from established bounds of physical normality, or the presumed "natural" conditions of human bodily existence, is, in the context of Poe's short fiction, to be aesthetically vulgar, linguistically disruptive, and racially inferior. In satirizing antebellum popular literature and entertainment from this point of view, Poe simultaneously reinforced his culture's racist ideology. This essay considers how one early comic tale--"Loss of Breath"--demonstrates the profoundly conservative nature of Poe's vision of the body, a vision that insists upon the enforcement of rigid, normalized conceptions of the body, the transgression of which results in collapse into aesthetic, social, and political absurdity.

"Loss of Breath" (titled "A Decided Loss" when first published in November of 1832), depicts the misadventures of a narrator, appropriately named Mr. Lackobreath, who--while preparing to scream insults at his wife--suddenly loses the ability to breathe and must comically struggle to live as a body without "respiration" in a world where such a body is, of course, an impossibility. Structurally, the tale is quite odd. Its central conflict occurs in the opening paragraphs while the remainder of the text offers only a loosely plotted description of the trials and tribulations Lackobreath suffers as a physical "anomaly," ordeals which only render his body even more abnormal. While travelling in a cramped coach he is crushed by three men "of colossal dimensions," such that ultimately "all [his] limbs were dislocated and [his] head twisted on one side." They then hurl him from the coach, causing the "breaking of both [his] arms," and when they throw his trunk after him, they "fractured [his] skull." Lackobreath is soon picked up and, believed dead, sold to a surgeon who, he claims, "cut off my ears ... made an incision in my stomach, and removed several of my viscera for private dissection" (67). (1) Poe's darkly slapstick humor becomes, in its excess, farcical.

While one might be inclined to read the tale as a comedic quest, an impaired man's odyssey to correct his physical deficiency, Lackobreath spends very little time actually searching for his lost breath and stumbles upon the resolution to his dilemma (bargaining with "Mr. Windenough" for some of his surplus breath) by accident. …

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