Thursday, April 30, 2009

Misery is manifold

On April 30, 1835, Poe wrote an amazing letter to justify his decision to write sensational horror stories. This was early in his career; he had just published "Berenice" (one of my personal favorites), a story which is one of his most violent — though there are no scenes of violence anywhere in the story. Instead, the piece focuses on suspense and psychology, as would many later works. Nevertheless, there was some public outcry for its gruesome nature. Poe took the time to defend himself to Thomas Willis White, editor of The Southern Literary Messenger:
"Your opinion of it is very just. The subject is by far too horrible, and I confess that I hesitated in sending it especially as a specimen of my capabilities... But what I wish to say relates to the character of your Magazine more than to any articles I may offer... The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in natureto Berenice... You ask me in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical. You may say all this is bad taste. I have my doubts about it... But whether the articles of which I speak are, or are not in bad taste is little to the purpose. To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity. They are, if you will take notice, the articles which find their way into other periodicals, and into the papers, and in this manner, taking hold upon the public mind they augment the reputation of the source where they originated."
Poe concludes that he admits "Berenice," in fact, "approaches the very verge of bad taste—but I will not sin quite so egregiously again." He notes that similar stories are coming, but he asks White not to judge them without first considering their impact on the circulation of the magazine.

"Berenice" was Poe's first true horror story. In later editions, Poe did self-censor a tiny bit (it's hardly noticeable) but he didn't really back down in the theory he discussed in the above letter to White. He purposely tried to bring his stories right to the edge of grotesqueness, but still keep them entertaining. This letter allows us to question the sincerity of his horror stories and if he really believed they were worthwhile literature. This "pop culture" approach justifies his decision to use themes like premature burial, mesmerism, and other subjects which audiences gobbled up. Of course, Poe presented these themes very differently than most; as mentioned above, gratuitous violence was replaced with suspense and underpinnings focused on the narrator's psyche.

Either way, to me, this shows that Poe knew the publishing industry and, most importantly, he knew his audience. His line about being read in order to be appreciated refers just as much to White as himself; he was holding a carrot in front of White's nose to let him know he intended to increase the magazine's circulation - for White's benefit. And, from what we can tell, he succeeded.

Of course, Poe wasn't entirely sincere about never sinning quite so "egregiously" again. And White knew that. White seems to have had a decent relationship with Poe in his early career and tried to support him through a difficult time. Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman suggests a "fatherly" interest. It's also possible that Poe pursued White's daughter Eliza, then 18, as a potential wife (about a year later, Poe married his young cousin Virginia instead).

*The image above is a screenshot from an amateur film adaptation of "Berenice," created for a graduate film course. The full video (before a custom soundtrack was added) is here.


Gina said...

On first reading I thought Berenice had become a vampire and he'd de-fanged her. That'll teach me to skim a Poe story!!

Rob Velella said...

I think at least one scholar has analyzed this as a vampire story, as a matter of fact. I think a more likely vampire story is "Ligeia," but it depends on which vampire folklore you are tapping into.

Anonymous said...

where do you think I can find this letter of Poe to Thomas W. White, April 30, 1835? It'd be greatly appreciated.

Rob Velella said...

You'll find it in the collection "The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe" compiled from John Ward Ostram. I'm not sure where the original letter is housed these days but the full text is here.

Jasony said...

wow rob, thanks so much. I didn't think you'd reply. I'm currently doing a thesis on Poe, so I needed this letter to maybe prove his intentions or reasoning bhind these haunting novels. Thnx again! I will check in occasionally...