A.G. Exemplary? Selected Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

The fifth installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

“Hop-Frog,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” “The City in the Sea,” “Ulalume–A Ballad,” “Annabel Lee,” and “Dream-Land” by Edgar Allan Poe

Crow’s headnote hails Edgar Allan Poe as a “master of the Gothic tradition, in poetry and prose,” and so perhaps not surprisingly Poe (with four tales and five poems) is the most widely represented author in the anthology. Nevertheless, Poe makes for a curious case, for while he is an American writer of Gothic works, he is not necessarily a writer of American Gothic works.

Poe typically turns overseas for his tale settings, in either identifiably European (such as the Italy of “The Cask of Amontillado”) or vaguely feudal locales. While “The Fall of the House of Usher”–with its gloomy mansion, decadent family, instances of premature burial and seeming revenant vengeance–is suffused with Gothic elements, there is nothing to mark the Ushers or their eerie estate as distinctly American. In “Hop-Frog,” the fiery uprising by the titular court dwarf might (as Crow suggests) touch upon the dread of slave rebellion in the antebellum South, but only on a subtextual level. Although Poe’s macabre (and ultimately gruesome) tale of mesmerism, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” points to the cultural fascination with such pseudoscience in mid-19th Century America, the story itself proves only passingly American: the title character is noted as a longtime resident of “Harlaem, N.Y.,” and is cited as the perfect specimen for the narrator’s entrancing experiments simply because the transplanted foreigner has “no relatives in America who would be likely to interfere.”

Likewise, Poe’s poems–with their entombed females and grief-stricken male speakers (of suspect reliability)–often feature Gothic scenes and scenarios, but there is little that is recognizably American about such pieces. “Ulalume” transports readers far afield to the “woodlands of Weir,” “Annabel Lee” to some “kingdom by the sea”; “Dream-Land” and “The City in the Sea” deliver us to more phantasmagoric remotes. The most prominent decorative item in the speaker’s chamber in “The Raven” is a bust of the Greek goddess Athena, and the “lost Lenore” finds her nominal precursor in the doomed heroine of Gottfried August Burger’s 1773 German supernatural ballad.

Ironically, these works by the preeminent Gothicist Poe anthologized here actually end up diverting the focus from the American Gothic. Their inclusion doubtless speaks more to the popularity of the author than to their own exemplarity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.