Topic 53B – Novel, tale and poetry in the united states. H. Melville, e.a. poe and w. Whitman

Topic 53B – Novel, tale and poetry in the united states. H. Melville, e.a. poe and w. Whitman

He was born in Boston in 1809. His parents were professional actors. His father abandoned the family some months after Edgar had been born. His mother would die two years later. Poe goes under the protection of John Allan, a scottish merchant. The relationship between Poe and Allan was difficult from the first moment. This lost of the parents has been taken as a key of analysis by psichoanalitic critics.

Allan supplied Poe with a formal education both in American and English colleges. He went to Charlottsville´s university. He left the university because his insolvence to pay some doubts produced by gambling. It has been found out later that Poe´s incomes from Allan were insufficient to pay his studies, and that he had to complete these incomes by gambling. After leaving the university he breaks all relation with his protector.

He joins the army, and later enters the Military Academy of West Point, which supposed a momentary reconciliation with Allan.

He gets expelled from the academy, he gets in bad terms with Allan again and goes back to New York, to present his first book of poems, whose costs were paid by his friends in West Point, to an important editor. This book contains the poetic creed of the author:

His aestheticism, his hedonism, in opposition to the didactism of the simple things of Wordsworth.

He spends some years in his aunt Mary Clemm´s house, which would be a spiritual north in his life, he suffered from poverty and hunger, and composed prose satires full of bitterness.

His Message found in a bottle got a prize of 50 dollars in a literary contest?. John Pendleton Kennedy, member of the jury, got him a job as assistant of a literary editor. His work as editor was here, as it would be in later jobs as an editor, bright, reflected in a great increase in suscriptors to the magazines where he was working. By this time, Poe had already suffered depressive episodes, problems with alcohol. In 1836 he marries his cousin Virginia, thirteen years old and suffering a serious disease.

After having achieved some literary fame, by means of his collaborations, he moves to NY and gets published The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which pretended to fit into the likes of Harper´s editions, but which takes the reader to psychologic and metaphysical depths unknown in the American fiction.

In 1840 he publishes his Tales of the grotesque and the arabesque, collection of 25 tales that make him one of the most remarkable authors of all times, but which hardly represented for him any monetary betterment in his poverty.

Poe lived a life of misery, deception, with depressive crisis, and a strong dependence to alcohol. There are three keys to explain this:

It was obvious that the society of the time was too conventional and puritan (genteel tradition, victorianism translated to america, looking at europe, james…….against humourism), to accept Poe´s flashes of horror and pure imagination.

He neither had the luck of getting an easy job, as Hawthorne or Melville, but only the poverty and idealism of the writer life.

To the poverty and the problems of alcohol and depression, it was added the illness of his Virginia, which slowly became an agony.

In 1844 he publishes The raven, which brought him some literary recognition. In 1847 Virginia dies. After 2 years in which Poe continuously debated between hope and depression, fighting against his problem with alcohol, trying to create his own literary magazines, he died in the middle of an alcoholic crisis.

Poe has influenced:

Was the precedent of the french simbolist movement, Paul Valéry, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme, Rimbaud.

the development of detectivesque fiction,

the north american trascendentalism (through his literary radicalism).

the development of the Gothic novel, (which had previously inspired him)

the scientific philosophy,


practical criticism.

His literary production is irregular and very varied, but it hasn´t the consistence of the narrative production of Melville, Hawthorne, or Twain:


Paradise recreations The valley of unrest

Games of logic deduction The purloined letter, the gold bug, the crimes of the rue morgue

Deep melancholy The fall of the house of Usher

Macabre dance of Hop frog

Ideal spheres of ligeia

Maniatic personality The tell tale heart

Descomposition of the organic world The facts in the case of Mr. Valdemar.


The first question we should ask about Poe´s narrative, is why it is so attractive, so popular, and where is the key for that attraction.

2 keys:


Poe had an enormous ability

to describe sensations in the limits of madness,

the irrational borders of mind (, hipnosis, extra developed perception, the frontier between life and death)

the mental torture of his solitary heroes.(obsessed narrators)

The appeal of his narrative would be then related to the idea that Schiller, the German idealist, had expressed: the gloomy, the distressing and even the horrible seduces us with irresistible charm, as if it was a universal phenomenum of our nature.


His tales are like clock work mechanisms precisely adjusted, designed to produce an effect on the reader, of the kind of the fall in The fall of the house of Usher.

In his theories about the short story, (with Henry James he laid the foundations of the functions and characteristics of the short story) shown in his introduction to Hawthorne´s Twice told tales, he says that in every composition all words should be related to a pre-established design to achieve this effect. This theories were carried out with the most level of precision and success.

When Poe begins to write he had a knowledge of the influence of the European gothic tradition in America, where the books The monk, (Gregory Lewis), The mysteries of Udolpho, (Ann Radcliffe).

Gothic novel was the romantic prose input to the insight in human irrational mind, this time by means of terror and disease. Medieval castles and convents are used here as physical as well as mental prisons, and nature used as a source of terrifying elements, in the form of thunders, rain, and the silence and sounds of night. With the Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, we have to mention Gregory Lewis´ The Monk, where terror is mingled with moral and physical recoil in what we could term horror.

Taking these novels as a point of departure, he goes a step further. His intention was to transform

absurdity into the grotesque

The sinister into the horrible

The witty into the burlesque

The singular into the mistic

Although these european books served as influence to the development of his following narrative, Poe was one of the least european of the American writers. From the first time he was concerned with the idea of creating a national literature: “there is nothing under the sun as disgusting as our submission to the English criticism”. The american writer of the beginning of the XX, adjusted himself to the moral realism that was born together with the cultural american nationalism.

Most writers explored the american reality through the description of sceneries and national episodes that hardly ever allowed for the aparition of supernatural phenomena. (Semi exception Hawthorne, through filter of past…). Going beyond the limits of this realism, falling in the pit of superstition, madness, or aberrant fantasy, was to undermine the foundations on which the national experience was built. In this context, Poe´s literature involves a violation of the conventions that had led the literary creation in the US during the century XVIII and part of the XIX.

Poe´s concern was always aesthetic, never didactic nor moralizing, so he is not forced to put limits to the imagination and fantasy until limits unknown in that time.

Poe accepts terror as a means to trascend reality, to get to that what is beneath the seeming, just as Melville had chosen the allegory of Ahab and the Whale, or Whitman his fusion with nature and humanity.

The way Poe has to achieve this terror, is related to what Coleridge called imagination, in opposition to fancy. For him, fancy is the ability to see a link between two objects, which, although possibly obscure, can be established logically. The true poet, however, worked with the imagination, fusing objects by links undiscoverable by the operation of reason. The difference is that, while for Coleridge, imagination is our hope of contact with the eternal forces, the whole spiritual world, for Poe, it is just a device the writer has to modulate, order and manufacture, to produce an effect on the reader. So with Poe we find the aesthetic version of what other romantic writers formuled by means of mistic and spiritual terms.

His tales of horror can be classified in three sub-groups:

Murder stories

Stories of love and marriage

Stories of death.

Murder stories:

The black cat: The narrator in this tale suffers as in many other tales (The tell-tale heart, Berenice), from an exaggerated acuteness of his senses agravated by the effects of alcohol. This leads him to the obsession and murder. Here it appears the theme of the premature burial, a kind of living death, which would be a favourite resource of horror in Poe´s narrative, and which simbolizes the intangible and trascendental border between life and death which Poe wanted to explore.

The tell-tale heart: In this tale, the exaggerated perception of the narrator not only makes him commit the crime, but it is also the cause of his discover by the police. (he hears the heart, or thinks he hears it).

In this two tales the narrator insists in that he is not crazy, which increases his pathetism.

The cask of amontillado: A sadic narrator, a given time (carnival) and space (Venice), and again the theme of the premature burial. Poe was concerned with the psychology of characters, not with the moral and social aspects of evil.

Stories of love and marriage:

Ligeia: That border between life and death is represented here by reincarnation. The narrator is again a man whose perception is beyond normality.

Stories of death:

The masque of death:

The fall of the house of Usher: Again the theme of premature burial. One of the most succesful “controled effects” in his tales is the final fall of the house, as the rational world of the main character, Roderick is demolished by the apparition of her sister Madeleine, supposedly dead.

The facts in the case of Mr Valdemar: In this tale Poe uses the device of hipnosis (“in articulo mortis”) to capture that border between life and death. What Poe tries is to transform the process of death, an event which is punctual, with no time dimensions, in something which lasts enough to be appreciated.

Berenice: Another “visionary” narrator which is lead to madness through the obsession for a vision, the teeth of his loved.

Tales in which the narrator is self-desctructive, perverse, criminal:

The black cat, The tell-tale heart, The masque of the red death.

In a few other tales, Poe mixed the grotesque and horrorous with elements of the humourism so fashionable in those times: The man that was used up. Diddling considered as one of the exact sciences, Bonbon, Devil in the belfry, A tale of jerusalem.

Tales of the sea: A descent into the Maelstrom, The narrative of Gordon Pym, Message found in a bottle. In these tales, the author takes us to polar regions, as absolute limits of the human exploration and knowledge. The texts, specially The narrative….Pym, provides the reader with an extense scientific and documentary information. This realistic, detailed and documentary approach are in debt with R. Crusoe, a pioneer in this kind of novel. In those times, several expeditions to the South Seas , the sources of Nile and the northwest of the US had been made. These documentary accounts are intended to give veracity to the story narrated. The entry into these regions that descend to the centre of the earth through falls and whirls leads the narrator to secret knowledges whose revelation implies his own death. In the three tales, we have a thrilling end (the effect towards which the story is designed) in which the narrators die, while they descend through the fall or whirl (in A descent into the Maelstrom).


While in the tales of terror we are presented with the disolution of reason,

in the 4 tales that make up this group The gold bug, the purloined letter, the murders in the rue morgue, the mistery of Marie Roget, reason is led to inverosimil limits.

The figure of the extra-rational Auguste Dupin, has been the antecedents of Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason among many others. Dupin has a lot to do with its creator, given his like for criptograms, his love for books, his loneliness, his analitic capacity, his former aristocratic condition.

The murders in the rue morgue is the tale where we have a more reliable portrait of Dupin´s hyperanalitic mind. We get it by means of the narrator, to which Dupin reveals his thoughts and deductions.

These tales evidence the lack of concern of Poe in moral and social aspects of his works: the criminals have no social motivations, the absence of punishment for the criminals. If we put this together with the fact that Dupin beats the authority of Paris, we understand why these tales weren´t appreciated by his contemporary society.


Stories of death

The masque of death

The Fall of the house of usher


The facts in the case of Mr. Valdemar

Stories of love and marriage


Stories of murder

The black cat

The cask of Amontillado

The tell-tale heart

Terror + humourism

Diddling considered as one of the exact sciences

Devil in the belfry.


Tale of Jerusalem

The man that was used up

Tales of the sea

A descend into the Maelstrom

The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

Message found in a bottle

Tales of ratiocination

The murders in the Rue Morgue

The purloined letter

The mistery of Marie Roget