Thursday, December 3, 2009

The fatal resemblance

On December 3, 1844, the Paris, France-based newspaper La Quotidienne began publishing installments of "James Dixon, ou la funeste resemblance" (which translates to "James Dixon, or the fatal resemblance"). Though it included a byline of Gustave Brunet, the story was, in fact, an adaptation of Poe's doppelganger story "William Wilson." This was two years before Charles Beaudelaire began his translations of Poe. The same Paris newspaper would soon publish a controversial translation of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

As I've noted elsewhere, French readers have long been devoted followers of Poe. I would say that their appreciation for Poe could never be overstated. An entire book has been written about it, so I could never do it justice here. But, to get an idea, besides the admiration of Charles Baudelaire, Poe is credited as the main inspiration for the Symbolist poetry movement that took hold in France, particularly the work of Stephane Mallarmé. This "James Dixon" is the first known translation of Poe's work into French so, in a sense, this one started it all.

More than that, however, the publication of "James Dixon, ou la funeste resemblance" is the first known version of the work of Poe in any language other than English. Even during his lifetime, Poe was becoming a figure of world literature. Some foreigners find it ironic (or, in the case of Baudelaire, unconscionable) that Poe earned greater respect outside of his native country. I would argue that he has come to be much better appreciated here in the United States since then, but that most Americans make their assessment of him based on a very narrow selection of his works. Many readers in countries like France, Spain, England, the Czech Republic, Russia, and scores of others in Europe and South America in particular do not consider Poe a horror writer. They embrace the full span of his various works, including science fiction, comedy, and romantic poetry. I've been particularly surprised to see how much non-American readers have come to love strange works like Eureka and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

I have two questions: If you are an American, when do you think we will come to know Poe beyond his horror works? If you are from elsewhere, what has been your experience with Poe?


Kristen M. said...

Honestly, I think the average American reader will never change their view of Poe as simply a horror writer. They like to think of him in a certain way -- one that is sensational and creepy. It satisfies the American need for drama.

Rob Velella said...

I think you're right, and part of it is exposure, particularly in middle school or high school. But even when I talk to teachers, they don't know that Poe wrote anything other than horror. I still blame Griswold a bit for all of this.

TODOMODO said...

As a lot of young Frenchmen, I've read Poe's tales about fiveteen years old. For us Poe is much more than a horror writer or the first detective story writer : he's a classical writer as Nodier, Gauthier, or Jules Verne.

Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valéry are all poets : Poe is recognized by his peers for its writing style and its work on text and language. Then for us Poe's literature is not popular literature (as Eugène Sue or Paul Féval) but hight and classical.

For instance I'm very surprised by some american cover books of Poe's works with all that disgusting cheap rubbish of horror. Or some bad taste items we can by on Poe Museum's online stores... Poe revisited by Halloween (that folk tradition did not succeed in France).

For the reader as an adult, some remarkable studies as "Les cahiers de l'Herne" or that precious book of Henry Justin "Avec Poe, jusqu'au bout de la prose" show us that Poe is far from that "cliché" of a writer for pimply teenagers : Poe has created an aesthetic dedicated to the text. The Claude Richard's edition of Poe in "Robert Laffont" insists on that.

One thing more : alas ! Baudelaire is responsible in part for the black legend of Poe as a drunker and "opioman".

Rob Velella said...

TODOMODO, I was hoping you'd leave a response. Thank you for sharing your French point of view of Poe. It's a shame Americans put Poe into such a small definition - but at least Americans read (and enjoy) some of his works. I also agree with what you said about Baudelaire; he helped further create the "Poe myth," as I call it.