U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe: Part I

PoePoePoePoePoePoePoeI have found a fascinating document of U.S. intellectual history. Published in 1973, it is poet laureate Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe— yes, that’s seven Poes– one of the most curious works of literary criticism you will ever read. Hoffman, who bears a striking (and eerie) resemblance to his subject, Edgar Allan Poe, calls the book: “This, my chronicle of Poe’s life and work and reputation and influence and how Edgarpoe wormed his way into my guts and gizzard and haunted my brain and laid a spell upon my soul which this long harangue is an attempt to exorcise” (Hoffman, 25).

Hoffman thus characterizes his effort on page twenty-five of the book, not in the introduction, but in the middle of a sober paragraph on Poe’s family. He then returns to a matter-of-fact discussion of John Allan, Poe’s adopted father, a merchant in the antebellum South. And there is no typo in that marvelous quotation– “Edgarpoe” is sometimes, but not always, how Hoffman refers to Poe throughout the text. This is not your average work of literary criticism. For while he is concerned with Poe’s biography, his literary style, his influences, his philosophy, and how other writers have engaged with his work, Hoffman is attempting, above all, to capture something beyond the life or work, beyond the historicity, of Poe. He wants to render the feeling that lingers long after you’ve forgotten Poe’s words, and the shiver that stirs before you begin to remember them. The title, with its seven Poes, is not, as one might guess, a reference to the idea that there are many different Poes– Poe the critic, Poe the businessman, Poe the lover, Baudelaire’s Poe, T.S. Eliot’s Poe, nineteenth-century Poe, Cold War Poe, etc. Rather, the title is meant to evoke semantic satiation, or the phenomenon by which a word repeated over and over becomes but a meaningless sound. Hoffman is attempting Poe beyond language.

To deliver on this incredible proposition, Hoffman uses several different tactics. Calling his subject “Edgarpoe” is one of them. Edgarpoe signifies that Hoffman is not discussing “Edgar Poe,” as the poet was known during his lifetime, nor is he analyzing the work of “Poe,” as a critic would refer to him in scholarly writing. The nickname Edgarpoe is Hoffman’s term for the feeling or presence of this man and his mind; it is Edgarpoe who “wormed his way into [Hoffman’s] guts and gizzard,” who “laid a spell” on him, and who haunts his soul.

Hoffman also inserts his own biography, in addition to his feelings about and struggles with Poe, into this work of criticism. In the beginning of the book, Hoffman returns to New Rochelle, New York, where he grew up. Poe also spent a short time in New Rochelle, as Hoffman divulges with pride and awe, imaging that his childhood wanderings took place on the same paths Poe once trod. During his adolescence, Hoffman was indeed haunted by his required school reading of the macabre author. He could not decide whether he loved or hated Poe, but he was taken. Hoffman describes a reoccurring dream he used to have back in New Rochelle, in which he climbed a clock-tower, stuck his head out of a small opening in the face of the clock, and was slowly decapitated by the minute-hand. After years and years of searching for the origin of this dream that plagued his youth, Hoffman discovered it comes from an obscure story by Poe. Although Hoffman had forgotten reading the story, it clearly made quite an impression on his subconscious.

In the 1950s, Hoffman earned a Fulbright Fellowship to teach Poe in France. The experience of “bringing” this American poet to Europeans who admired him more than Americans ever have makes its way into Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. In a particularly amusing section, Hoffman explains how his own “imp of the perverse” prompted him to stand before an audience of expectant and reverent French scholars, and read a list he compiled of Poe’s cheesiest, most phoned-in lines, pointing out their inanity. This did not go over well.

Perry Miller, who taught American literature in the Netherlands in 1949 on a Fulbright Fellowship, also wrote about the perplexing experience of representing the American writer to his devout European admirers. In his essay, “Europe’s faith in American Fiction,” Miller marvels at Poe’s European reception, and wonders whether his own sermons on the power and meaning of American literature would not be more useful back in the United States.

Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe was something I picked up for my dissertation research. I am exploring the canon-formation of the American Renaissance, a canon that I believe ultimately came to include Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman. The process of canon-formation was long, complex, and contested; each of these seven names were not always included. F.O. Matthiessen did not include Poe as one of the major writers in his seminal American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941). It took longer for Poe to be included in the same group with New England brahmins, Transcendentalists, and Whitman: poet-redeemer of mankind.

I suspect that Poe’s American Renaissance is connected to a desire among mid-twentieth-century scholars, such as Miller and Hoffman, to find an American Romanticism. Critics of the Enlightenment, these scholars yearned to belong to an American tradition of dissent, and Poe helped them define it. As I conduct more research and continue reading the fascinating and highly amusing Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, I hope to understand more about how adding Poe to the canon changed the meaning of the American Renaissance, and how the sanctification of Poe has shaped understanding of American literature.

Interestingly, the scholars who contributed to the canon-formation of the American Renaissance were all as “haunted” by their favorite American authors as Daniel Hoffman was by Poe– Miller by Emerson and Thoreau, Lewis Mumford by Melville, and Matthiessen by Whitman. Perhaps Hoffman’s curious text will provide insight for intellectual historians into how to explore this aspect of intellectual experience. What effect did “Henrythoreau,” in addition to the writings of Henry David Thoreau, have on Perry Miller? How can historians capture this experience? How can we– and should we– go beyond language? I  look forward to finishing Hoffman’s book to see how successful he was in conveying that which haunted him.

I wonder if any blog readers have had similar experiences reading Poe. Does anyone share some of Hoffman’s affliction? Have you felt enraptured, bewildered, perturbed, infected, or haunted by Edgarpoe?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great Post and love Poe whats more I’m a great fan of the Imp of the Perverse. I once under the strain of undergrad angst submitted the Imp as a temporary substitute for a paper as a sort of explanation for my failure to get the paper in on time. My professor was not amused, need I say understandably?

  2. Thanks for this. I have always been fascinated with–and haunted by–Poe, particularly with his marvelous short story “The Man of the Crowd,” which I still think is one of the best American short stories I’ve read and particularly interesting historically, up there with “Barlteby” and “Wakefield.”

  3. Rivka: You juxtapose an imagined “American Romanticism” with a really existing “American Renaissance.” Don’t a number of scholars find them to be the same? There’s this and this
    , both overviews that say they’re the same thing, for example. And I’ve often heard of Emerson referred to as an American Romantic. Are you arguing the contrary, that there’s a hard line between the two, or the “American Romanticism” is a false construct? – TL

  4. I’m always stunned by the richness and excellence of the poetry, specifically via “unity of effect.” Not a syllable can be accused of being arbitrary or fungible. Further, unlike the more mercurial types, he was able to explain his approach.

    http://www.expansivepoetryonline.com/journal/zukpoe.html

    “The Poetic Principle” is an essay that has permeated our poetic unconscious so completely that we are no longer aware of its influence. When it first appeared, it must have seemed like an original, though curious and contrarian, work. In the years after the major Romantic poets had staked their reputations on long poems like Wordsworth’s The Excursion or Keats’s Hyperion fragments, Poe argued that “a long poem does not exist.” In the decade before Tennyson published his summary of his age’s philosophical doubts and Christian faith in In Memoriam, Poe maintained that “with the Intellect or with the Conscience, [poetry] has only collateral relations.” And, long before such ideas became commonplace, Poe believed that poems should be built on intensity, unity of effect, and the immediacy of the poet’s impressions.

    But if “The Poetic Principle” failed to shape the poetry of the nineteenth century, it did define the taste for the type of poem that would fill the pages of literary journals in the twentieth: the short lyric that culminates in a single emotional effect, whose subject matter is either an idealized nature or the author’s reflections and impressions. It may seem strange to attribute the typical modern poem to Poe, whose own poetry does not resemble the short, confessional lyric in the least. Yet today “The Poetic Principle” reads like a rationale for modern taste.

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