The work of Edgar Allen Poe is popularly associated with the gloomier aspects of the human experience, namely mortality. As such, his prose is more often than not branded “horror fiction,” and with this label he is made to occupy one niche within broader gothic and romantic traditions. In reality, Poe’s oeuvre doesn’t fit squarely within one—or two or three, for that matter—genre or literary tradition. Indeed, scholars have argued for Poe’s place in the vanguard of traditions ranging from mystery novels to literary criticism to satire. The following set of objects explores two such distinct traditions—science fiction and satire— in attempts to interrogate the boundaries of genre and better understand Poe’s style and influence.
THE GENRE IMBROGLIO
Genres are manufactured via the discourses that surround a set of authors, works, and traits within works. Generally speaking, they emerge as a way for popular, commercial, and academic communities to put a finger on a phenomenon within the literary field. Further, those who shape discourses surrounding such literary phenomena often have their own agendas, be they commercial, personal, political, or otherwise. Thus, a genre is a nebulous sort of category, unable to be precisely and objectively defined. In his attempts to shape the trajectory and definition of science fiction, Hugo Gernsback reprinted works by Poe in SF magazines. Numerous scholars and DIY cultural critics have pointed to the more humorous aspects of Poe’s works as evidence of his acumen and influence with regard to satire. The following brief discussion will engage with these two broad evaluations, using objects from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection.
Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint understand Gernsback’s preoccupation with Poe in terms of Poe’s treatment of the sublime. According to Bould and Vint, many examples of Poe’s works fluctuate in their treatment of the sublime—from a force that “cannot be directly conceived by the human mind nor described by language” to a sensation or experience that Poe reveals is containable, via the privileging of “cognition over affect, pleasure over awe.”
Works such as “MS. Found in a Bottle,” with its measured, rational tone that slowly degenerates as prodigious storms fling the narrator into the depths of a ghost ship and eventually drown said ship, exemplify this quality of Poe’s work.
Similarly, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket strikes an interesting balance between the scientifically explicable and the sublime/fantastic by juxtaposing factual, concrete data from expeditions with sensational, fictional occurrences to craft the tale of a semi-scientific odyssey to Antarctica.
Both “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “Mesmeric Revelation” feature more psychological plot points and phenomena, as Poe made use of contemporary research on and popular interest in the “magnetized conscious.”
As mentioned above, the average reader of Poe (in the present day, at least) tends to associate his work with the macabre. Unsurprisingly, “humor” is a term rarely employed to describe his pieces, at least within popular discourses. Nevertheless, humor—and especially satire—pervades Poe’s writings of all genres. In fact many of his stories—and portions thereof—can be read as satires or parodies. Further, for decades satire has been used to memorialize Poe and his works.
Merriam-Webster defines satire as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.” Essentially, satire uses irony, hyperbole, and other humorous literary techniques to highlight the absurd and/or unjust elements—including people—preexistent within society.
Poe’s “A Chapter on Autography” is an early example of the writer’s satirical shrewdness. For this piece, Poe used the fabricated signatures of figures both real—often his peers in the publishing industry—and imaginary to make statements about character flaws and writing abilities, among other things, serving as a lighthearted platform for Poe to voice his opinions.
Several Poe scholars and humorists have noted the satirical undertones that color tales such as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which, due to its absurdity and Poe’s modification of gothic conventions, can be read as a parody of Germanism or gothic literature. (This analysis by Poe scholar Robert Tally Jr. provides further detail.)
Finally, Many a humorist after Poe has taken to the writer’s morbid persona and ghoulish oeuvre for the purposes of parody, as evidenced by “The Hip Raven,” a rewriting of Poe’s iconic, dark poem “The Raven” using “hip” lingo.
As an aside, it is worth mentioning the other forms of humor with which Poe engages: he had a propensity for wordplay and hyperbole; his biting wit embellishes reviews and essays; and the absurd creeps into his tales and essays both gruesome and benign.
Several of Poe’s tales share qualities associated with science fiction, as established by Gernsback and others, while many of Poe’s essays and works of fiction exhibit the hallmarks of satire. Poe’s works, like those of so many artists, cannot be collectively categorized by genre. Still, it is useful to mobilize preexisting formulae established by literary scholars and consumers for the purpose of better ascertaining the veracity of mythologies surrounding Poe and his oeuvre.
REFERENCES, PERTINENT LINKS, & FURTHER READING
The Collection of Susan Jaffe Tane is home to all objects discussed above; images courtesy of recent exhibition The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore & Beyond.