Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Txld yxu sx, yxu knxw!"

One of the many pieces published in the Flag of Our Union toward the end of Poe's life was the comedy "X-ing a Paragrab" — released on May 5, 1849, though the issue carried the cover date of May 12. "X-ing a Paragrab" is, quite simply, one of Poe's funniest works, and its humor easily stands the test of time after a century and a half.

The story follows a "wise man" from the east named Mr. Touch-and-go Bullet-head, whose intellect is easily proven by his being an editor. He also had a bit of a problem with stubbornness, which he considered his greatest strength. After moving to Alexander-the-Great-o-nopolis ("or some place of similar title") in the West, he established a newspaper called The Tea-Pot, assuming no other newspaper existed. He was wrong; the Alexander-the-Great-o-nopolis Gazette had been quite successful for years. Nevertheless, Bullet-head establishes his Tea-Pot offices right next door to the Gazette. As you can imagine, rivalry ensues. No matter how often I read it, Bullet-head's final editorial in The Tea-Pot always has me laughing out loud. Try it yourself. Seriously, read it!!

Poe was openly mocking a couple of things that make the humor even deeper. For one, he was clearly making fun of the "irascibility," "firmness" or, really, obstinacy of editors like Bullet-head. He also mocked the sort of rivalries which became common in the press during this period. Newspapers were battle-grounds; for example, many staunchly supported one political party over another, resulting in back-and-forth arguments printed between opposing party papers. Poe was stretching to ask what would happen if these rivals took their wars beyond the printed page (though, ultimately, the war stays within those printed pages anyway).

Poe's humor has had many, many critics, who suggest that Poe knew nothing about comedy and was only able to present dark, death-obsessed comedy. "X-ing a Paragrab" is either the exception or the proof that this generalization is untrue. There is no blood or gore in this story, even for humorous effect. This is, to put it simply, a cute comedy — and it really is funny.

I also use the story as an example to note Poe's understanding of the printing technology of the day. The humor relies on movable type. There is evidence that Poe was directly responsible for typesetting here and there throughout his career as a writer. As an aside, Walt Whitman knew about movable type as well and personally oversaw the type-setting for the first edition of Leaves of Grass, resulting in the poem's odd yet artistic spacing.

I will be speaking more in-depth on Poe's understanding of his contemporary publishing world, including its technology, a week from today at the Boston Public Library. The lecture, sponsored by the bibliophiles in The Ticknor Society, is called "Poe and Publishing." All are invited: May 12 at 6:00 p.m. in the orientation room of the McKim Building.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi! You commented on my Poe article on my blog Market Macabre. Thanks for your feedback and I really wish I had come across your blog earlier because you have some great stuff here that I could've used in my article. I'm aware of Poe's other accomplishments besides horror, but for the purposes of my class blog, that was what I focused in on. I never read this story, but it sounds real interesting so I'll check it out when I get a chance.