Poe and Prophecy: Degeneration in the Holy Land and the House of Usher
Robey, Molly K., Gothic Studies
'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1839) - the story of a man who visits a childhood friend suffering from a mysterious disease, only to see the friend and his sister swallowed up in the apocalyptic implosion of their mansion - remains one of Poe's most widely-read tales and a touchstone for critics investigating Poe's preoccupation with degeneration. Recently, Jacob Rama Berman has linked Poe's 'aesthetic fascination with decadence and decay' with the author's representations of the arabesque and Arab culture.1 Images of the arabesque, an 'ornamental design' of Near-Eastern origin characterized by 'flowing lines of branches, leaves, and scroll-work fancifully intertwined', appear frequently in Poe's writings, especially, as Berman suggests, in the author's depictions of disintegration and dissolution.2 In 'Usher', the arabesque appears synonymous with decay, as seen in Poe's much-cited description of the story's central figure, the ill Roderick Usher:
Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; - these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay so much of the change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous luster of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.3 (my emphasis)
In this passage, Roderick Usher's wild, 'Arabesque' hair signifies his marked deterioration and seeming regression into an inhuman state. However, I want to point out that Poe's representation of decay in this passage depends upon not only the word 'Arabesque' but also the word 'Hebrew'. Poe aligns the healthy, younger Roderick with 'Hebrew' and the degenerate, sickly Roderick with the 'Arabesque'. It is the progression between these two terms through which Poe expresses Roderick's decline. These Hebrew and Arabesque images, I argue, draw us not only geographically to the Near East, but also to a particular reading of the Near East as Holy Land.
In 1839, when Poe published 'Usher', a 'Holy Land mania' was taking hold in the United States.4 The Near East - in particular, Palestine - fascinated nineteenthcentury Americans, as scholars such as John Davis, Tim Marr, Hilton Obenzinger, and Brian Yothers have recently demonstrated.5 During the nineteenth century, US readers voraciously consumed travel narratives, biblical geographies, and magazine articles about Palestine, the place many Americans perceived as the Holy Land, a space of religious revelation and historical conflict for the three Abrahamic monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the 1830s, the publications of the first US-authored Holy Land narratives and geographies made Palestine accessible to Americans and were thought to provide an ongoing testament to biblical veracity. The Holy Land that readers encountered in these texts was a degenerate place, languishing in ruin under the Islamic rule of the Ottoman Empire. …