Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thou hast murdered thyself

October 1, 1849 — Poe's whereabouts are still unaccounted for. Though I don't mean to keep the story in suspense, I'd like to offer a quick interlude in honor of the first day of October. If 2009 hasn't pulled you into Poe yet, the amazing line-up of Poe events around the world throughout October just might. What better month to celebrate the macabre side of America's greatest imaginative genius?

Looking back, you might be disappointed to see how few of Poe's October-appropriate stories were first published in October or October issues of periodicals. "MS. Found in a Bottle" was published in October 1833, "The Landscape Garden" was published nine years later in October 1842. A year after that, a humorous story called "Diddling" made its October appearance, followed by the very funny "Angel of the Odd" a year later. Poe's essay on "The Rationale of Verse" was also published in October, in 1848. Poems include "The Divine Right of Kings" and "The Coliseum." The major one is "Annabel Lee," but I'll tell that story another day. "Ulalume," of course, takes place in "the lonesome October," but it was actually published in December 1847. In other words, Poe's Octobers were fairly empty of appropriate October writings.

But then there's "William Wilson." More complicated than a simple "horror story," "William Wilson" was published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1840, which likely hit shelves sometime in October 1839 (giving plenty of time for early Christmas shoppers... we haven't changed much, have we?). One of Poe's most complicated and under-appreciated tales, the main character made his name up to protect his own identity (symbolically making himself the "son" of his "will"). The setting of the tale, somewhat Gothic and daunting, was inspired by Poe's early childhood in England and the title character shares a birthday on January 19 with the author.

William Wilson meets a man who shares his name and even his birthday. Soon, the narrator sees this doppelganger as a competitor. To make a long story short, one William Wilson seeks to murder the other. However, after the deed is done, the image of the corpse turns out to be a mirror, revealing that both murderer and victim are one and the same. The closing line of the tale confirms what we all knew would happen: "thou hast murdered thyself."

The epigraph above the story asks, "What say of it? what say of conscience grim, That spectre in my path?" Is there a moral here, despite Poe's apparent dislike of using literature to teach a lesson? Maybe. But it's still a great story. And a great way to celebrate October (or Christmas, apparently!).

*The image above is by Harry Clarke.

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