|Professor Robert Regan
Edgar Allan Poe
April 24, 2000
An accomplished academician, Regan is an expert in American literature of the 19th century. He is currently pursuing a critical project concerned with the misreadings of Poe. Recently he served as a consultant and participant for a documentary film on Poe that was produced by PBS. Professor Regan is also the author of numerous academic works and lectures on Poe including Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, "Hawthorne's 'Plagiary': Poe's Duplicity," and "Poe's Narrators and Narratees."
Currently a Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Regan spent a distinguished 40 year career teaching American literature. During his 30-year tenure at Penn, Regan served twice as the Undergraduate Chair of the English Department. His critical work is not limited to Poe; Regan is also a noted scholar and published author on the works of Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor, William Dean Howells, and Emily Dickinson. He is currently working on an edition of the shorter travel writings of Mark Twain, which is to be published by the University of California Press. His articles, reviews, and essays have regularly appeared in numerous academic journals such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Poe Studies, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction.
|It's Monday, April 24, 2000 outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We are sitting with Professor Robert Regan, an expert on the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe. We're ready for our first question.
|We're here to talk about Edgar Allan Poe, who, by the way, never called himself that. He called himself Edgar A. Poe, or simply Edgar Poe, as the French invariably term him. He is the most famous of all American writers, if we think of the world as his arena. Americans are inclined to prefer some of their other writers — perhaps Mark Twain, Walt Whitman. But if we ask the rest of the world about American literature, Poe comes out at the very top of the list. Years ago the French, who have for almost a century had a prestige edition, it's very like the Library of America, which is actually modeled on it. It's called Les Edition Pleiade which was restricted to French authors until the 1960s. Then they decided to bring out international figures as well. The first two were Shakespeare and Poe — but the other way round. Poe came first. It says something of his reputation in France, and that of course, considering French cultural domination of most of Europe, says something about his domination in the rest of the European community. Well, let's see what we have on our mind about Edgar Allan Poe. Questions, friends....
|Our class learned that Poe worked for literary magazines like Graham's and Leslie's. What did he do? Who bought the magazines? Who was Poe's reading audience?
|Poe spent most of his life as an editor of magazines. That's the way he supported himself and his family. The first of the magazines was in Richmond, Virgina and it was called The Southern Literary Messenger. Poe brought two things to the Southern Literary Messenger. First, extraordinarily intelligent and often very cutting criticism. Second, fiction and poetry.
He was not regularly paid for supplying fiction and poetry, that wasn't his job. But, he got a few extra dollars,typically $10 a story for those contributions. And I think they contributed more than his critical articles to making the Southern Literary Messenger a very popular, widely-read magazine. I won't go though all of Poe's magazines, but I do want to say that the Southern Literary Messenger tripled its subscription list in the five years in which Poe was the de facto editor. He then moved to Philadelphia for 5 years and wrote for and edited three magazines in Philadelphia. One of those, Grahams,increased its subscription list 7 times during Poe's tenure.
It would be impossible to say that Poe wrote for a low-brow audience. The low-brow audience probably got their fiction from what we would think of as newspapers, weekly newspapers. But, he was not writing for an exclusively high-brow reading public either. He aimed at a general audience, but he always dreamed of having a truly select audience and wanted to establish his own magazine. He tried and tried but never succeeded in that enterprise.
|Why were all of Poe's stories so dark?
|First, Bob, not all of Poe's stories were so dark. A full 1/3 of Poe's short stories are funny. Well, now, I don't want to say that without adding a note that you might not find them funny. He was not a very good humorist. And, of course, humor, more often suffers from the passage of time than serious things do. Nevertheless it is true. Why were the other stories so dark? Because that's what sold. What Poe discovered when he was at the Southern Literary Messenger was that you can please an audience more with horror than you can with the beautiful. Some of his worst stories, one is called"Berenice" (I don't recommend you read it) are positively disgusting. But, the audience loved it. I wonder, Bob, if you have you read Stephen King? Why do you think he is so successful? I think that if you will answer that question for yourself, you will see why Poe saw commercial success to lie in a particular kind of dark story.
|Professor, many of Poe's stories seem to center around women who have died. Why is this? Didn't he have a young cousin who died?
|Poe had a young cousin who died. This young cousin who died happened also to be his wife. He married her when she was 13 years old. And he was 26. That bothers me a little.
|But, we'll set that aside for the present and say that she suffered, a decade later, of symptoms of tuberculosis and that her illness became more and more serious and she died in her mid 20s.
Poe had 2 other very traumatic deaths to deal with. The first was his mother. His mother was a singularly beautiful English actress. I call her an English actress because she was born in England, but she had come to America as a child actress, and she had made her career on the American stage. In her mid 20s, with 3 young children, she fell ill in Richmond, Virgina and died. Poe was on her pillow in the illustration of her death that ran in the local newspaper.
Poe was then adopted (but not legally adopted) by a Richmond family — the Allans. After Poe had completed his 1 year at the University of Virginia and had served a year and a half in the United States Army, Mrs. Allan died. So there were 3 very significant deaths. There was also a woman — - Mrs. Stoddard — - Poe had fixated upon when he was a high school boy, in Virginia. She died when Poe was 15. He always claimed that his greatest poem "To Helen" was written as a tribute to her.
So a lot of women, dying women, in Poe's background may have generated material for the dying women in those tales. But, I want you to notice one thing about those dying women. Poe was always sympathetic to them. Now, one of the stories, "Ligeia" may lead you to a different conclusion. Poe was not sympathetic to Ligeia, but he is sympathetic to the lady Rowena. And maybe we will return to this difference in attitude later.
|Are we to believe that Forunato in the "Cask of Amontillado" is insane or rationally avenging his family?
|I think, Jennifer, that we are to believe that he is rationally avenging his family if we understand rational in his terms, but of course, we don't. What has happened to Fortunato? Nothing. Montresor has done him a wrong he simply does not specify. I want you to notice that the names of these two characters — Montresor and Fortunato — are the same name. They both mean "treasure" or "fortune" — Italian and French. And I would suggest we have here another of the cases of the "double" that we so often confront in Poe, for example in "William Wilson."
|How do we know what is true about Poe when we also know that people distorted his reputation? How do you sort it out?
|That's a very, very cogent question. We go to the right sources. I want to suggest a "right source" to you. There is a wonderful book called, The Poe Log. It's by Dwight Thomas and David Jackson. It tells us, day by day, all we can find out about Poe from letters, newspaper articles, and any other documentary source from Poe's own time. I wish all of his biographers had had access to The Poe Log. I wish his biographers for the future would read it carefully.
Poe was a good husband, a good provider for his wife and mother-in-law, an extraordinarily effective journalist, who as I have already suggested, made the magazines he worked for extraordinarily successful. Almost all of his friends of his friends genuinely admired, perhaps even loved, him.
After his wife's death, three women fell in love with him and one of them — a women who had been his girlfriend when he was in high-school in Virginia, but whose family had compelled her to marry someone else — became his fiancee.
The allegations that Poe was some kind of monster are explicable. Wwe know where they come from, but they are entirely untrue.
|Which did Poe enjoy writing more, poetry or stories?
|Poe claimed that he enjoyed writing poetry more than stories. And that his greatest accomplishment was his poetry. It is of course true that the things he wrote early in career were exclusively. But the thing that made him money and established his reputation was undoubtedly his prose.
|What brought Poe to Philadelphia?
|The first thing that brought Poe to Philadelphia was that he lost his job in Richmond. The owner of the Southern Literary Messenger found Poe not to his taste. Poe did have one very significant weakness — he occasionally took a drink or two — a drink or two was enough to put poor Edgar Poe on his ear. This seems to have happened on the day when the magazine was supposed to be printed on one or two occasions. The exact circumstances of Poe's leaving are not known. Sadly, there do not seem to have been letters, or they weren't kept. But, we can be reasonably sure that Poe wanted to leave, and that the owner of the magazine wanted him to leave. It was, by the way, a great mistake for the owner of the magazine whose subscription lists began to sink after this.
Why Philadelphia? One could still argue that Philadelphia was the cultural capital of the United States at that time, though dominance was shifting toward New York — fast. Some of the best magazines in America were in Philadelphia. Poe secured a position at one of those magazines and came. I say came, I must tell you that I am in Philadelphia.
|Are Poe's narrators all crazy?
|That, Jennifer, is a superb question. If we look at the narrator of "The Purloined Letter," we won't for a moment think that he is crazy. As a matter of fact, he is a very a very astute intellectual — not as smart as the great detective whose story he tells. But then, Dupin, is a world-class genius.
But, let's talk about "Ligeia" The narrator of "Ligeia" is obviously crazy. What is the narrator of "Ligeia" doing for us? Think for a moment what has happened — the real action we know about in this story. The narrator has murdered his new wife, Rowena. One may assume that Rowena's kinfolk, who live just down the road in this western part of England, will be displeased about this turn of events. So, where is the narrator of "Ligeia"? Let me call him, "Mr. Ligeia." When he tells us his story, he is in a cell. And he is copping a plea. It's the insanity defense. Poe does not allow us to decide whether he is really insane, or only pretending to be insane. But it hardly matters. I suggest that when you go back and read the story again, you try this notion: There never was any Lady Ligeia. She is purely a figment of the narrator's imagination. Or, a fiction he has invented. He is a homicidal maniac, a wife-killer, and in that respect he is quite typical of Poe's narrators. Poe the feminist will again and again give us the brutal man who has injured or murdered a guiltless woman.
One more story--"William Wilson." Wilson tells us where he us at the very beginning where he is, if we read carefully. He has committed some dreadful acts that we need not hear about. He won't even tell us his name. He is the Charlie Manson of his time. If he told us his real name, we would immediately know what a monster he is. But, why did he commit all of those dreadful crimes that he will not tell us about? It's because of that other William Wilson that he confronted in school. Was there really another William Wilson? Poe won't tell us. Maybe this homicidal maniac is really a homicidal maniac, or maybe he is a homicide who is trying to get off on the insanity defense.
|I've always thought of Poe as a poet but his stories seem to have more purpose. Social commentary rather than art and expression. Do you think Poe had a distinct "agenda" for each of his stories?
|No. And in fact, I don't see much social commentary in Poe, except on the one issue that I have already addressed, the dreadful situation in which women found themselves in the America of the 1830s and 1849s. Poe avoids the other great social issues of his time. A southerner, we might expect him to write extensively about the slavery issue. But, there is virtually nothing about race in Poe's stories.
|Who was the narrator in the "Fall of the House of Usher?" Is he sane?
|Another splendid question. And just, I think, the one I think Poe wants us to ask. Sadly, he is not going to provide an answer for us. The key to Poe's narrator's sanity is style. Read, I suggest aloud, the the beginning page of "Ligeia" and the beginning page of "William Wilson." These two narrators are remarkably agitated. Their syntax is fractured. They are given to exclamation points! Now, read the beginning of Usher. Tranquility reigns here in the style. The narrator is clearly sane. He is telling us precisely what he sees. But the narrator of "Usher," at the beginning of the story, is quite different from the narrator of "Usher" at the end of the story.
The French have an expression that psychiatrists have borrowed — a follie deux — a folly for two, or a madness for two. Pyschological literature records many real cases of people who lived together in isolation. The sane one, taking on the neuroses of the other. By the end of "Usher," I would argue, our narrator is as unreliable as Roderick Usher.
In the middle of the story, we have one of Poe's great poem's, "The Haunted Palace." Poe first wrote and published the story, then wrote the poem and incorporated the poem into the story. Isn't it likely that he saw the necessity of communicating a sane mind's falling into insanity to his readers? That's what the poem is about, of course. It seems to be only about Roderick's going insane. But it seems to me possible, that it is also to suggest that the narrator is going insane. If this is the case, Madeline Usher is just where the two friends put her — buried deep under the House of Usher — that's where bodies tend to stay — isn't it?
|Is it true that Poe is the first to create spylike character?
|No. No, as a matter of fact, Aphra Behn, a late-17th century novelist, is the first person I can think of who incorporated spies in literature. Poe is great for firsts. Everyone acknowledges that he invented the detective story. Almost everyone acknowledges that he invented the unreliable narrator story. Many claim that he invented science fiction. But I won't credit him with spy thrillers.
|How was Poe able to write so knowledgably about detective work and codes
|Poe was fascinated by codes. He read everything he could find on the subject and played code games with the readers of the magazines he edited in Philadelphia. He made up cryptograms and challenged his readers to break them. He offered prizes. He accepted the challenge of breaking any cryptogram they could send him. He once had to demonstrate that the cryptogram they sent him wa unbreakable, but he did that successfully.
As for detective stories, Poe read a great amount of what we would now call true crime reportage. Magazines were full of it. Nobody else had written a fictional detective story, so here Poe invented the form exnihilo (from nothing.)
|What examples of science fiction are found in Poe's writings?
|Who was Poe inspired by to write science fiction?
|The question for Poe's inspiration for putting science in his fiction is a tough one. He chose to study science from an early time and he was an extraordinarily good mathematician. But, it's really difficult for us to say where all of this comes from. But, among the science fiction pieces that I would particularly suggest your looking at, I'll begin with one you wouldn't think of as science fiction at all. A thrilling story called, "A Descent into the Maelstrom." Poe could not have written this story without having learned a great deal about oceonography. His science here is impeccable. My favorite Poe science fiction pieces tend to be things that are psychological in nature. For example, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdamar." Hypnosis was a new form. Poe read about it and probably did not believe in it. And so, he gives us this silly story of "Mr. P," the hypnotist, who has a dying friend, M. Valdamar. M. Valdamar agrees to be hypnotised at the moment of death. Mr. P preserves him in the state for months and then brings him back to life. Suddenly, what does he have before him? Mush. It's a disgusting story, and Poe meant it to be a disgusting story, and I suspect, funny. The only really funny thing is that it was republished, twice, in England in scientific journals, as a report of a true mesmerism experiment conducted in America.
Poe's finest contribution to science, however, is not in any of his science fiction tales, but in his last great, non-fiction work. It is called, "Eureka." And it's a short book and a tough read. Lots of mathematics. What it aims to tell us is where the world came from. And it is, as far as I know, the first true big-bang theory of the creation of the universe. The French scholar Claude Richard discovered in Princeton a letter from Einstein extolling this as a discovery which foreshadowed his own discoveries. Sadly, Richard — one of the most reliable Poe scholars of the 20th century-- died before he published his finding and no one else has seen the letter.
|I'd like to know from someone who has studied Poe for a long time why you think we are still more fascinated by him today than by a lot of other writers?
|Hmmm...(thinking) Perhaps the correct answer to that is that Poe succeeds in both of the two primary modes of reaching an audience and making that audience care. On the one hand we admire the detached author who is in no way involved in his or her story. Poe is the radically sane figure with no personal affinities that might attach him to those mad narrators we've been talking about. And then, on the other side, Poe is the misunderstood, Romantic genius, who in poems like, "Romance," suggests the transtion from an idyllic and happy childhood to a miserable later life. Now, the truth of the matter is that Poe's childhood was not idyllic and Poe's later life was not quite so tragic as is often thought. But the figure who emerges from these poems, and also from many of the tales, is a character we identify with and think we know.
Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens ... these are writers in whose works we think we are seeing the author and coming to love the author. Henry James, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner .. these are writers we would never confuse with the characters in the stories they tell us. These writers, these six, are good at the particular thing they do. Poe was good at both. Maybe that's the explanation for the tenacity of the Poe Canon.
|How can we tell the difference between what the narrators imagine and what is really happening in Poe stories?
|The joy of Poe's stories is that we never can quite be sure. Style is our greatest key. In some stories, for example, "The Pit and the Pendulum," we know that the narrator is telling us exactly what he is really seeing. Even in those moments when he is losing consciousness and perhaps momentarily hallucinating, he is radically sane. But, style is the key. And when we find a narrator sounding like the narrator of "The Black Cat," we know at once that this narrator is mad. Knowing that does not mean that he did not murder his wife, wall up her body, and by mistake include the cat inside. What he tells us is true. But he would not be able to determine himself whether it was true or not. The excitment in Poe, it seems to me, lies principally in determining what is and what is not really going on.
I have, by the way, moved from believing that Ligeia was real to believing that she was figment of the narrator's imaginating, then back again, and back once more. I foresee changing my mind at least twice in the future! These are really splendid questions, by the way. I keep changing my mind because I believe that Poe wants it that way.
|Can we classify "The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym" as a novel?
|Poe thought "The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym" was a novel. The definition of novel was not as fixed in Poe's time as it is today. So, yes, we can call it a novel. I would prefer to call it, using a classic distinction of American literary history, a Romance. The novel, in this division, represents the everyday realities of life. The Romance takes liberties with those everyday realities. It allows certain elements of the supernatural, or at least the inexplicable, to enter the narrative. Here, particularly when we think of the ending of Poe's book, Romance seems a better description than novel.
|I have read Poe was an epileptic. Is this true and if so how did it affect his writing?
|We don't know. I doubt that he was epileptic. We have no record of seizures. One of my students, also a medical doctor, suggested that Poe had serious problems metabolizing sugars. He had a fancy medical name for that which I forget. That's one of the possibilities.
The strongest argument against theories of a serious and long-term illness lie in Poe's athletic accomplishments. He was a very, very strong teenager, indeed. He once accepted a challenge to a race swimming upstream in the river that runs through Richmond, Virginia. Seven miles upstream, he swam. And when he came to the end and was pulled by his handlers into the rowboat, he said to the other young man, "We'll double the wager and swim back." The other young man collapsed. Poe was abroadjumper and right though his brief career at West Point showed signs of robust health.
|In "The Raven," the narrator asks "Is there balm in Gilead?" Was there "balm" in Poe's life? Was he a tortured soul? Did he drink so much to "escape?"
|We'll take this as the final question. When Poe drank, and he drank seldom, he did not have to drink much. But he drank indeed on those occasions when he had something to forget. The principal occasion was on the death of his wife. And one of his friends, Dr. Thomas Dunn English bears witness to his having been seriously under the influence of alcohol for some days after her death. We'd like to thank everyone for joining us today.
|We thank Professor Regan for his wonderful reflections on Poe.
|Thanks Professor Regan...it was fascinating
|I loved it cause I love Poe.
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