Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most popular writers in the history of American literature. In the twenty-first century, Poe finds himself at the center of movies, television shows, and internet memes; the very name or image of Poe can be considered “click-bait” on the web. Yet the pop-cultural version of Poe is not a very accurate picture of the man, as a number of Poe scholars (a.k.a. pedantic killjoys) like to point out. Although biographers reveal the man to have been a savvy, business-like, professional magazinist, someone who knew what sold in the literary marketplace and who gave the people what they wanted, most fans prefer to confuse Poe with some of his more memorable protagonists. Many readers envision Poe as a dark, brooding, Gothic madman, a visionary poet obsessed with waking nightmares, horror, and the mysteries beyond the grave. The author of “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Raven” is assumed to be obsessed with premature burials, murder, and death. But what if this is all a ruse? What if, to employ a term that Poe uses with approval, Poe is “diddling” his audience. In Poe and the Subversion of American Literature: Satire, Fantasy, Critique, I argue that Poe is perhaps best viewed as a practical joker, a highly skilled literary prankster whose fundamental talent lay in putting one over on people. More frequently than we care to admit, the victims of these confidence games, these diddles, are us, the readers. While we are thrilled by otherworldly wonders, aghast at inhuman terrors, and in awe of supernal beauty, Poe is grinning.
Although Poe is best known and best loved as a figure of dark romanticism, he was also a humorist. In fact, Poe wrote far more pieces that could be considered humor or satire than those that would be called horror. If his first published tale (“Metzengerstein,” which actually could be viewed as a burlesque) was not intended to be comical, then his second (“The Duc De L’Omelette”) certainly was, and one of the last tales published during Poe’s lifetime, “X-ing a Paragrab,” was a silly little piece lampooning the newspaper or magazine industry itself. As David Galloway has pointed out, “comedies, satires, and hoaxes account for over half of his output of short stories.” (Significantly, Galloway’s observation appears in his introduction to a collection of short stories titled The Other Poe, whose title serves to emphasize the degree to which Poe is not widely known for his comedies and satires.) By numbers alone, one could argue that Poe was primarily a humorist, if sometimes a black humorist, and that his tales of terror or mystery were secondary to the main body of his collected works.
But it is not just that Poe wrote humorous articles; Poe was essentially a practical joker. This is obvious in those writings that can easily be categorized as hoaxes, since their very purpose is to trick his audience. However, even in his seemingly sincere, philosophical, and artistic tales and poems, those which are classified as horror, mystery, romance, among other related genres, there are elements of mischievous humor. From this perspective, it may be hard to take many of Poe’s “serious” tales seriously. Even the sublime beauty of his poetry is also frequently leavened with seriocomic or downright laughable content. “The Raven,” for all its pathos, is a story of a man talking to a bird, after all! Or consider the absolute ludicrousness of Poe’s imaginary philosopher in the opening part of Eureka, the mountaineer who upon reaching the peak of Mount Ætna spins himself around on his heel in order “to comprehend the panorama of the sublimity” of the universe. To begin his philosophical “prose poem” with this absurd image of the transcendental philosopher as a ludicrously whirling dervish only underscores the degree to which Poe is probably joking. Readers who take Eureka seriously are, perhaps, the victim of a diddle. One wonders, with good reason, whether Poe is laughing at us.
Even though we thoroughly enjoy them, many of these practical jokes are “on us,” possibly in a “Ha! Made you look” kind of way. Tom Quirk, for one, argues that this is why Poe’s humor is not funny, because it is “fundamentally antisocial.” Referring especially to those tales written in the discernible genre of humor, but the same could be said for most of Poe’s work, Quirk observes that “[o]ne senses in Poe’s humorous tales that the author is having a great deal of fun, but one also senses that he is laughing up his sleeve, immunized against the social contagion of general good humor and fellow feeling.” Poe’s own comments about the nature of satire would seem to confirm this suspicion, since Poe finds an element of malevolence to be a critical component of the form. In his review of James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for the Critics, for example, Poe argues that sarcasm is “the principal element” of satire, but if the “intention to be sarcastic” is visible, then the satire fails, for the “malevolence appears.” In other words, malevolent sarcasm is an essential element of satire, but the reader cannot be allowed to know it is there. For Poe, the only satire worth pursuing is that which “at least appears to be the genial, good humored outpouring of irrepressible merriment.” Poe’s concern for the way in which the work appears to the reader, often a way that requires fooling the reader or even making a fool of the reader, is essential to his perverse literary theory. As is most obvious in a piece like “The Balloon-Hoax,” which he was able to perpetrate by conspiring with a newspaper publisher to produce a fake news story, Poe seemed to enjoy duping his audience.
This is the art of the practical joke. Or, perhaps, it is practical joking elevated to an art. After all, Poe is the great theorist of the “diddle.” In “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences,” Poe humorously re-categorizes mankind, not as a social animal (Aristotle’s zoon politikon), but as “an animal that diddles.” He then goes on to list the “ingredients” necessary for successful diddling, which include such elements as ingenuity, audacity, and originality. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the characteristics that would make someone an excellent diddler are also to be found in a successful writer of magazine articles in Poe’s day. The comparison may not be particularly welcome to the reader, who is cast as the dupe in this process. Poe concludes that the final element of the diddle, its sine qua non, in fact, is the grin. “Your true diddler winds up all with a grin. But this nobody sees but himself. […] This is no hypothesis. It is a matter of course. I reason à priori, and a diddle would be no diddle without a grin.” Perhaps the popular vision of Poe as a brooding, half-mad, poète maudit is another aspect of Poe’s elaborate diddling, which makes not only contemporary readers, but also his legions of fans worldwide today, helpless but willing victims. Throughout his career and extending into his the afterlives of his literary legacies in the twenty-first century, the prankster-poet Poe appears to get the last laugh.
[coming soon, Joker Poe, Part 2: The Poet as Prankster]
© 2014 Robert T. Tally Jr.
Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University. His books include Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism (forthcoming); Poe and the Subversion of American Literature; Spatiality (The New Critical Idiom); Utopia in the Age of Globalization; Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel; Melville, Mapping and Globalization; and, as editor, Geocritical Explorations and Kurt Vonnegut: Critical Insights. Tally is also the general editor of Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies, a Palgrave Macmillan book series.