U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe: Part II

PoePoePoePoePoePoePoeSeveral months ago, I posted some initial thoughts on the first chapter of poet-laureate and literary scholar Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. I called this work of criticism, published in 1973, “fascinating” and “curious”; Hoffman called it 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).

Now I turn to the second chapter of Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, in which Hoffman calls his subject by several new names aside from Edgar Poe (the biographical subject), Poe (the author of works subject to literary analysis), and his trademark, Edgarpoe, signifying the emotional affect of the figure of Poe and the mood of his works. In this chapter we meet “Hoaxiepoe,” the trickster, “Idgar I-Am Poet,” the self-published writer between ages eighteen and twenty, who followed his id and struggled to fashion himself as a Poet, and finally, for the first time, “Eddie,” Hoffman’s derogatory name for his hero (Hoffman, 32, 36, 47). Hoffman devotes a surprising amount of space in the second chapter to deriding “Eddie” for all the terrible, cliché lines he cranked out in the midst of truly inspired verse.

Hoffman continues in this second chapter the ambitious project he laid out in the first: to attempt Poe beyond language. Beginning with a discussion of Poe’s early life and sliding conversationally into a literary analysis of several of Poe’s poems, Hoffman probes questions of death and longing, past and present, meaning and that which is beyond meaning. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe continues to be a fascinating document of U.S. intellectual history, of the history of American literary criticism, and, indeed, of philosophy of history.

In the beginning of the chapter, Hoffman reveals his theory of the relationship between biography and literary analysis. “Reveals,” upon second thought, may not be the right word here. For what Hoffman declares about Poe is true of himself as well: “His art conceals while it reveals, reveals while it conceals” (Hoffman, 75).

Poe’s passions and longings, the inner-workings of his psyche, are essential to Hoffman’s textual analysis. He conveys this, however, by first rejecting the importance of biography. Dismissing previous biographies of Poe, Hoffman complains that past scholars “examine his life, his circumstances, his whole personality, and conclude that he was psychically impotent.” “That seems an impertinence, doesn’t it?” Hoffman asks rhetorically, “I mean, there’s something rather tasteless in hypothesizing about the sexual relations of a man who died over a century ago. None of our business, that.” “What is our business, though, is not what Poe did or couldn’t do in the dark womb of his conjugal bed, but what he wrote,” Hoffman insists. At first, Hoffman’s words suggest that he favors analysis of text without any regard for context or biography, until he adds one more sentence: “And that, of course, brings us around once again to what he lived, what he suffered” (Hoffman, 27).

In other words, for Hoffman, Poe’s biography– “what he lived, what he suffered”– is his writings. While criticizing biographers who have mused about the juicy details of Poe’s life out of sheer voyeuristic fascination, Hoffman affirms the importance of those details, as long as they begin and end with “what he wrote.” Text is context.

Thus, throughout Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, Hoffman integrates fragments of biography here and there, sometimes as a point of departure for discussing a poem or prose piece, and sometimes as an aside to elucidate or add significance to a line in a poem. He does not tell Poe’s biography in a linear narrative, and he occasionally quotes from one of Poe’s poems to explain an event in his life.

In addition to demonstrating his understanding of the relationship between text and context or biography, Hoffman discusses– yet again– the idea that there is something in Poe’s work that is inexpressible, unable to be conveyed in his words, yet somehow transmitted between the lines. In my previous post on the first chapter of this book, I asked if it was possible to write about this elusive aspect of Poe, and pledged to evaluate Hoffman’s success at delivering on his promise to show us Poe beyond language. Does Hoffman capture “Edgarpoe” in Chapter Two?

In this chapter, Hoffman uses two techniques to show us “Edgarpoe.” First, he again asserts himself into his story. Of Poe’s poem “To Helen” Hoffman declares: “I cant remember when I didn’t know it.” He recalls that he was asked to memorize the poem in eighth grade but states, “I seem to remember that there was no problem, for I already knew the poem.” “I always knew “To Helen” by heart,” he avers (Hoffman, 62). “Edgarpoe” is what stirs before memory– like “To Helen”– and what remains after forgetting– like the Poe story that haunted Hoffman’s dreams in high school, long after he’d forgotten the story’s origins (discussed in the first chapter).

The second technique Hoffman uses is more radical and creative. Deriding “Eddie” for his cliché and clumsy lines is one way for Hoffman to get away from the Edgar Allan Poe of language and access the Edgarpoe of affect. By proposing that Poe’s words sometimes failed him, Hoffman deemphasizes the importance of specific language to his analysis of the emotional power of Poe. “I spoke a moment ago of Poe’s vision being clearer than his language,” writes Hoffman, “but the fact is, what he so clearly saw was a vision of something inexpressible.” “He cannot bring himself,” Hoffman explains, “to speak of certain truths at the very dead center of his psychic life.”(Hoffman, 62).

So Hoffman pokes fun at some of Poe’s failures, all the while calling him a genius. “For years and years I thought “Lenore” ridiculous; now . . . I wont go so far as to say I like the poem,” he admits (Hoffman, 72). “For years,” he states on the next page, “Ulalume” made me sick” (Hoffman, 73). Having belittled many of Poe’s words, Hoffman is free to turn to the mood that the poet nonetheless communicates, without being weighed down by the importance of Poe’s language. Perhaps most shocking, in order to recreate the mood of Edgarpoe, Hoffman does violence to some of the poems themselves, reproducing them in the book with certain lines that Hoffman deemed distracting or cringe-worthy simply omitted.

It remains unclear whether Hoffman can really capture what haunts him about Poe– the feeling conveyed not in the words, but beyond or behind them. What is clear, however, is that from his views on text and biography, to his insertion of himself into the narrative, to the violence he does to Poe’s texts, Hoffman is attempting something epistemologically and literarily different in intellectual history, biography, and literary criticism– and it’s thrilling to read.

05hoffman-superJumboPlacing Hoffman in a tradition of American literary criticism is difficult. In my dissertation I attempt to place the thinkers who built the literary canon of the American Renaissance in the context of rising interest in American folk music and folklore in the 1930s and 40s. Hoffman, who wrote his dissertation on Paul Bunyan, fits into this context. His idiosyncratic writing on Poe also makes him fit philosophically into the group of mid-twentieth century scholars– including Perry Miller, F.O. Matthiessen, and Van Wyck Brooks– who experimented with radical philosophies of time and history, and whose frustration with modern mechanical society lead them to engage intimately with Romantic writers of the nineteenth century and thereby create a literary canon.

For example, Hoffman confesses that he needed Poe’s “Sonnet to Science” specifically while on military assignment during the Second World War. Because of his service in the military, Hoffman testifies, he was “ready for the disciplined argument of a sonnet,” but, he adds, ready “especially for the seeming rejections, in Poe’s sonnet, of Science which preyed upon the world and drove Imagination into exile.” “In those days,” recalls Hoffman, “I was writing abstracts of aeronautical literature– articles . . . tech reports on aerofoil design, strength of materials, power plants, superchargers, injection pumps . . . being thus entrapped by science, stifled by technology . . . you can imagine how I longed for the guiltless indulgence of my wayward indolent imaginative faculties” (Hoffman, 49). Perry Miller, who shared Hoffman’s sense of being “entrapped by science and stifled by technology,” also spoke of Poe’s sonnet, but with less hope of finding redemption therein. In a speech at a conference in 1961, Miller explained:

“We read [Edgar Allan Poe] by the light of an electric lamp, warmed in the dead of winter by an oil-burning furnace, having dined on a dish of frozen peas and been gratefully assured with the latest reading on our electrocardiograph that we are in no immediate danger. By sharing his anguish, we enjoy the illusion of being entirely independent of all these daily conveniences. Yet in point of brute fact, we cannot do anything about their hold over us. Still, as long as we can respond to Poe we are able to assure ourselves that we have not become wholly rigidfied in . . . the ‘air- conditioned nightmare’ of the American way of life.”*

With his early interest in American folklore, deep sense of being haunted by the past, and frustration with the mechanization of modern life, Hoffman fits into my drama of the canon formation of the American Renaissance. His obsession with Poe, however, sets him apart from many of the scholars who helped create that canon (with the exception of Miller, who was also haunted by Poe). As I continue reading Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe for insight into what adding Poe to the foundational canon of American literature did to alter ideas about America, American literature, and the meaning of the “American Renaissance,” I am increasingly curious about Hoffman’s own intellectual and institutional context.

I welcome any thoughts from readers that may help unravel the mystery of Daniel Hoffman (Danhoffman?), as I read more about the mystery of Poe to see how Hoffman continues to attempt to render and analyze the specter that haunts him.
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*Perry Miller, “The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines,” 1961.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Daniel Hoffman strikes me, through your retelling of his narrative, as more eccentric and unsystematic than the rest of your dissertation intellectuals. Given that, it seems his audience would be limited to like-minded intellectuals or super Poe enthusiasts. Do you know anything about the sales of Hoffman’s book, or his readership? What of reviews of this book? Is there a Hoffman archival collection where you can assess his audience? Did Hoffman ever correspond with Miller, Brooks, or Matthiessen? A general reception history might help you unravel the mystery of Hoffman’s ‘place’ in literary criticism.

    With those questions in mind, what does the “Poe subculture” think of Hoffman’s work? How does he resonate with the Cult of Poe, today and over time?

    All that aside, it’s been fun reading these posts and thinking about the quirky ways people relate to prominent/great books and authors. Hoffman certainly cultivated his own “Poe Sensibility”! – TL

  2. Rivka: A quick note to say that I love this post, and I like your dissertation topic. So I am looking forward to reading more. In case you missed by “Great Books in USIH” list, it includes F.O. Matthiessen, “American Renaissance.” It would be amazing if you could post something on that book on the week when I blog about it. I’d love your insights. Cheers. AH

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