Thursday, October 8, 2009

Poe: Baltimore comes to bury him; I come to praise him

Last week, in this bicentennial year of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore staged a second wake and funeral procession for the writer most responsible for recognizing the unique characteristics of the short story as an artistic form. The following is a quote from The Baltimore Sun:

"Edgar Allen Poe is finally getting the send-off he always deserved -- from a city that has spent decades claiming him as one of its own.

True, he's spent more than a century-and-a-half buried in the hallowed grounds surrounding Baltimore's Westminster Hall. It's also true that Baltimore isn't the only city celebrating Poe, in this bicentennial of his birth on Jan. 19, 1809. At least four other East Coast cities -- Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Boston -- have legitimate claims to Poe's legacy. The five cities have been squabbling for years, and have spent the past year exploiting their connections to the pioneering writer and early master of the horror and mystery genres.

But Baltimore has something that none of the rest of them have. And over the coming week, his fans here are going to flaunt it for all it's worth -- in ways the macabre Mr. Poe would doubtless appreciate.

"We have the body!" says Poe fan Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law. No one else can say that."
Which explains why Baltimore will be holding a second wake, funeral procession and funeral for the long-dead Poe, 160 years after the first.

On an early October day in 1849, Poe was found walking the streets of the city, bedraggled, incoherent, possibly beaten up, dressed in clothes that didn't belong to him. He died four days later at Washington College Hospital (later Church Home & Hospital, closed in 2000) and was buried at Westminster the next day, after a sparsely attended three-minute service. His death warranted a paltry four-sentence obituary in The Sun. "This is Baltimore's chance," says Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, where a Wednesday-afternoon-and-evening viewing of the famed poet and author's body will begin a five-day commemoration of both his mysterious death on Oct. 7, 1849, and the quiet, almost secretive funeral services that followed. "This is what I've been working for, to honor Poe and to say, 'Thanks.' It's the least I could do."

I did a book on Poe’s short fiction several years ago. He has always been a favorite of mine, much underestimated by many of my colleagues. I remember once when I was teaching a full semester course on Poe’s work, one of my fellow teachers said to me, “I don’t understand what you can find to say about Poe for a whole semester. I can barely fill up one class meeting on his work.”

In honor of Baltimore’s "reburial" of Poe, I come to praise him, not to bury him, by making a few comments on his contribution to the theory of the short story as a completely different narrative form than the novel.

It can be argued that a literary genre does not really exist as long as it is merely practiced. Because a genre concept is just that--a concept--it only truly comes into being when the rules and conventions which constitute it are articulated within the larger conceptual context of literature as a whole. Poe's rigor as a literary critic and genre theorist is thus as important for understanding his contribution to the short story form as is his skill as a short-story writer.

There is little doubt that Poe was, if nothing else, a thoroughgoing formalist, always more interested in the work's pattern, structure, conventions, and techniques than its reference to the external world or its social or psychological theme. The meaning of the work for Poe was its technique, so much so that in many of his stories he thematizes aesthetic and literary theory issues, making the creation and explication of unity the central thematic "truth" of the work.

Since there was no theory of the short prose tale when Poe was writing, he took theoretical ideas from those genres that did posses a critical history, such as drama and poetry, and applied them to the Gothic tale form which was popular during his time. The following generic elements are the most important ones Poe made use of: (1)the conventionalized and ritualized structure of the drama; (2)the metaphoric and self-contained unity of the lyric poem; (3)the technique of verisimilitude of the eighteenth-century novel; (4)the point of view and unifying tone of the eighteenth-century essay; and (5)the spiritual undercurrent and projective technique of the old romance and the Gothic story.

When you add to these the notion of prose assuming the spatial form of painting, which Poe suggested in the 1842 Hawthorne review, you have the basis for a new generic form. Poe's notion of short fiction as a picture is particularly important, for to see narrative as a painting is to see it as a design in space rather than a movement in time. Although the consequent implication of considering characters as static groupings in a composition means a loss of dramatic effect, this is compensated for by a gain in emphasis on overall pattern, which is equivalent to thematic design.

Poe’s 1842 Hawthorne review is of course the central document for understanding Poe's contribution to the theory of the short story, for it derives from his earlier discussions of the relationship between aesthetic unity and the concept of plot and looks forward to the ultimate implications of pattern and design in Eureka. The logic of the argument in the Hawthorne review is quite clear: What is most important in the literary work is unity; however, unity can only be achieved in a work which the reader can hold in the mind all at once. After the poem, traditionally the highest of high literary art, Poe says that the short tale has the most potential for being unified in the way the poem is. The effect of the tale is synonymous with its overall pattern or design, which is also synonymous with its theme or idea. Form and meaning emerge from the unity of the motifs of the story.

Poe carries his concern with unity of effect even further in "The Philosophy of Composition," for here he asserts the importance of considering the work backwards, that is, beginning with its end. Obviously, the possibility of beginning with the end is what distinguishes fiction from reality, what transforms reality into narrative discourse. A narrative, by its very nature, cannot be told until the events which it takes as its subject matter have already occurred. Therefore the "end" of the events, both in terms of their actual termination and in terms of the purpose to which the narrator binds them, is the beginning of the discourse.

It is hardly necessary to say that the only narrative which the reader ever gets is that which is already discourse, already ended as an event, so that there is nothing left for it but to move toward its end in an aesthetic, eventless way, i.e, via tone, metaphor, and all the other purely artistic conventions of fictional discourse.


Noconah said...

I enjoyed your discussion of the short story's spatial qualities, and wonder if the short story, like the poem, at its best, has the alchemical power to turn time into space, the way, according to Eliade, sacred space does. Here, I think, the linkage between short story and myth, that you have suggested before, is most clear. Certainly Atlas did not suffer in novel form, nor Icaurs plunge into the sea in Chapter 26.

Thank you for championing this Caesar, far too many, even among my educated and well read friends, come to bury.

Charles E. May said...

Noconah, thank you very much for your insightful comment. I have used Eliade's ideas in the past to shed light on the kind of story the short story tells; sacred space is indeed the most helpful. However, even more enlightening, I think, is the anthropological philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, whose discussion of mythical thinking has been of great help to me in understanding the short story's difference from the novel.