Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Black Cat: probable events with improbable circumstances

August 19, 1843 saw the first publication of one of Poe's most famous works. The Saturday Evening Post published "The Black Cat" in its issue with that date. In fact, the story was featured right on the front page. The editors noted:
"The Black Cat," by Mr. Poe, is written in that vein of his which no other American writer can imitate, or has, successfully. The accompaniment of probable events with improbable circumstances, so blended with the real that all seems plausible; and the investiture of the whole with a shadowy mythic atmosphere, leaving a strong and ineffaceable impression upon the reader's mind, is an effort of imagination to which few are equal... Cruelty to animals is a sin which deserves a punishment as severe as Mr. Poe has inflicted upon his hero.
"The Black Cat" is one of Poe's most violent works, difficult for many readers because of its blatant animal abuse. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the violence of the story was purposeful as it was intended as a "dark temperance" tale, meant to scare people away from alcohol.

If I can editorialize for a moment, there are a couple of unfortunate aspects of the story which are ultimately not Poe's fault. Its use of alcohol as a predominant theme has only added fuel to the incorrect generalization that all of Poe's works are about alcohol (or, worse, written under the influence of alcohol). Further, it is often paired in middle school or high school classes with "The Tell-Tale Heart" and/or "The Cask of Amontillado," implying all of Poe's works are about murder or concealing corpses.

As much as I love "The Black Cat" and those other horror stories, maybe teachers should consider pairing "The Black Cat" with "X-ing a Paragrab"? Or maybe with "Landor's Cottage" or "Mystification"? Horror is great, but Poe is not a "horror writer" — he is one of the most diverse writers of his generation, and we don't show it often enough.

*The illustration above is by Alphonse Legros, 1860.


Matthew Pearl said...

You're right, Rob, I think its misread frequently. I was assigned to read it in high school and, as I was involved in animal welfare from a young age, I was repelled by it. Luckily, we were also reading "The Purloined Letter" and so I saw another side to Poe that kept me going with my reading. Its also worth noting that Poe's loved his cat and spoke often in very affectionate terms of her. Again, readers of Poe should be encouraged not to confuse him with his characters, or jump to conclusions about his life because of his stories.

Rob Velella said...

Thanks, Matthew - that's an important perspective. I remember giving a tour of the Poe House in Philadelphia and a young boy (probably 6 or 7) asked why Poe hated cats so much. Poe loved cats, of course, and - like Matthew said - he and his fictional characters are not interchangeable!

Poe Forward said...

When I think of Poe and cats, I don't think of THE BLACK CAT immediately. First, I think of poor Virginia lying in her cold sick bed at Fordham, warmed only by Poe's grandfather's military coat and their precious cat.