Friday, July 31, 2009

Silence like a sea that overwhelms

Perhaps the quintessential Poe short story that few have read, "The Premature Burial" was published for the first time in the July 31, 1844 issue of Philadelphia's Dollar Newspaper. Only a few of Poe's works feature the concept of being buried alive, yet, for some reason, I often read that Poe was obsessed that he would be buried prematurely. It's hard to say if this is true but I have yet to find any evidence at all that Poe was personally concerned with being buried alive.

Instead, Poe was responding to the popular concern about premature burial among his readers. Poe was, after all, a pop culture writer trying to appeal to a mass audience (the most obvious piece of evidence is that "The Premature Burial" was published in a cheap newspaper, not a high-end book). Even Poe's only novel was a direct response to the common interest of the masses.

I could argue that the reason American readers were suddenly interested in stories about premature burial is based on a general interest in death at the time. Concepts of death shifted from a Puritan "dirty death" point of view to a more romantic Victorian idealism. Medical science, however, was beginning to help define the moments where life and death meet at the same time that Spiritualism, galvanism, and similar movements were becoming popular. All of this created, I think, a sort of anxiety over death. Coffins in Poe's time could be affixed with bells and other emergency devices in case the "deceased" suddenly awoke after burial, organizations like the "Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive" were formed, and it was reported that hundreds of people were mistakenly pronounced dead while, in fact, still living.

Can you blame Poe for writing a story like "The Premature Burial"? As Poe writes in this tale,
It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs — the stifling fumes from the damp earth — the clinging to the death garments — the rigid embrace of the narrow house — the blackness of the absolute Night — the silence like a sea that overwhelms — the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm — these things, with thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed... We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth — we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell.
In addition to being written specifically to appeal to popular tastes, what makes the story so quintessentially Poe? Well, its vaguely frightening storyline is not based on blood, guts, violence, or the supernatural. Instead, it's a psychological story that creeps you out more than scares you. And, also very Poe-like, the story turns out to be a comedy at the end. Who knew??

By the way, Poe's other stories which feature premature burial are "Berenice," "The Cask of Amontillado" and, most notably, "The Fall of the House of Usher."

*Above, "The Premature Burial," as illustrated by Harry Clarke, 1919.


Gina said...

A safety coffin! Not a bad idea.

Poe Forward said...

If you find this intriguing, may I suggest BURIED ALIVE by JAN BONDESON is an excellent history of this subject.

Rob Velella said...

I just bought that book, actually. Haven't cracked it open yet but it's a fascinating topic!