A historian of celebrity culture might include in a footnote the curious emergence, brief duration, and inauspicious decline of a “star system” in academic literary studies in last quarter of the twentieth century. The recent publication of an authorized biography of Stanley Fish, who was among the most famous of those stars in the brave o’er hanging firmament of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s, offers an occasion to reflect upon this strange moment in modern literary studies. After all, Fish was not merely one among many stars at the time, but he also developed a persona as well as a critical theory that actively fueled this sort of academic glamour, decadence, and celebrity in literary studies at the time. Stanley Fish, America’s Enfant Terrible, by Gary A. Olson, is not so much a study of the life of an influential literary critic and university administrator than it is a tabloid-styled celebration of a popular celebrity. It is less Cleanth Brooks and more Khloé Kardashian.
In his fascinating study of the rise, spread, and ultimate decline of “French theory” in America, François Cusset identified the emergence of academic stars as one of the more striking side-effects of the phenomenon, but he also observed that these “stars” became better known for their roles in the star system than for their own writings or ideas. Thus, for example, “scores of Americans have heard of Stanley Fish’s car collection, Cornel West’s salary, Stephen Greenblatt’s circle of friends, Donna Haraway’s provocative wardrobe, and queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s late conversion to Buddhism before – and, also, all too often instead of – knowing their academic works.” Each of these figures proved themselves to be influential teachers, scholars, and literary critics, but if such publications as the New York Times took note of them, it was not always because their research seemed especially newsworthy. But also, lest we give overestimate the grandeur of this star system, please note that Cusset says “scores,” not hundreds or thousands; notwithstanding the enthusiasm of some, there were not all that many stargazers.
Among such luminaries as Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Edward Said, Richard Rorty, and Fredric Jameson, all discussed by Cusset, Fish stands out for a couple of reasons: first, because he became the most widely known outside of the groves of academe, appearing in well-publicized debates, writing a regular online column for the New York Times, and generally making himself familiar to an audience far beyond that found in Milton Studies or similar such communities; but second, because – unlike some of other “public intellectuals” of this era, such as Said, Gates, or West – Fish develops a theory and practice more or less designed to celebrate celebrity. Becoming a “star” was one of Fish’s professional aims, as Olson’s authorized biography of him makes clear. We might even say that, if there were not a star system for him to join, he’d have had to invent one. We might even say that he did.
I’m not sure that it ranks as high as pictures of baby animals, meme-based quizzes, “infotainment” listicles, or Kim Kardashian’s prodigious rump, but Kurt Vonnegut’s very name seems to have become a powerful form of clickbait in the twenty-first century. Judging from my own Facebook feed, there must be weekly (if not almost daily) blog posts or internet articles citing the wit and wisdom of the great Hoosier novelist. Vonnegut’s birthday on November 11 – serendipitously, it coincides with Armistice Day, otherwise known as Remembrance Day, but in the United States (and to Vonnegut’s dismay) it is now called Veteran’s Day – occasioned another wave of links crashing upon my social media screens, including this one, bizarrely titled “So It Goes: A Life of Guidance from Kurt Vonnegut in 11 Quotes.” As with other such worshipful pieces, all of the quotations are taken completely out of context, but errant web-surfers apparently find his words all the more meaningful, inspiring, or “guiding” for their being context-less. It matters little that Vonnegut was writer who consistently lamented the loss of memory and who derogated the false promise of an afterlife, particularly when he is being memorialized on the internet in such a way as to reinforce the memory-loss and to celebrate immortality. More than seven years after his death and more than 45 years after the publication of his most famous novel, Vonnegut lives a vibrant, seemingly eternal life as a ghostly but wise internet presence. Hi ho!
For Vonnegut fans, the author’s virtual afterlife might be gratifying, as it justifies their own fandom and lends support to the view that Vonnegut, despite appearances, remains a timely figure whose sage wisdom is perfectly suited to our perilous, uncertain times. (Although, as Vonnegut himself might have noted, all times that can be labeled “the present” are equally perilous and uncertain.) Vonnegut scholars, as distinct from fans, are more apt to be dismayed by the outsized and artificial figure of the pop-culture Kurt, whose guru-like status among these consumers of dime-store philosophy and BuzzFeed-styled advertising-posing-as-thoughtful-reflection clearly betrays Vonnegut’s own caveats about gurus, every single one of whom are mountebanks, grifters, confidence men, or worse … politicians.
Like any writer, of course, Vonnegut craved an audience. He wanted to be taken seriously, perhaps more than ever when he was joking. But what he has mostly received from his many fans in the internet age is adulation, adoration, and even various forms of tribal worship. The website of The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, a marvelous shrine in the novelist’s erstwhile hometown Indianapolis, features photographs of Vonnegut-inspired tattoos, emblazoned into the flesh of his zealous acolytes, for instance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, naturally, but it’s hard to imagine the Brooks Brothers suit-clad Vonnegut rushing out to get Mark Twain quips permanently inscribed on his shoulder blades. In what must be a cosmic joke on the order of some of Vonnegut’s best science fiction, then, we find that the imaginative creator of the false faith of Bokononism, a practical religion based exclusively upon lies, has become an internet prophet and truth-teller of the new millennium.
“Ha! ha! ha! – he! he! – a very good joke indeed – an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo – he! he! he! – over our wine – he! he! he!”
These giggling words are among the last uttered by Fortunato, the rather unfortunate victim of a deadly practical joke in Edgar Allan Poe’s memorable tale, “The Cask of Amontillado.” In that short story, the narrator Montresor directly discloses neither the “thousand injuries” he’d received from Fortunato nor the final “insult” that led him to vow revenge, but he does present his plan as the solution to a puzzle: “I must punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” In other words, Montresor must take his revenge upon Fortunato in such a way that the victim knows all, while the perpetrator is in no danger of being caught. Montresor’s elaborate charade with the wine, the catacombs, the trowel, and the stones reveals his ingenious solution. As is well known, Poe himself took great pride in his analytical, puzzle-solving abilities, and Montresor’s plot reveals a certain gift for ratiocination that Poe valued. At the final moment, after Fortunato has been almost completely immured, Montresor calls his name. “There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” And thus is buried another “jingle man.”
In this series of posts, “Joker Poe,” I have argued that Poe is best viewed as a literary prankster, a practical joker who employed his prodigious intellect, his acute awareness of the marketplace, and his gifts for writing to satirize the culture and society of his era. In a sense, his own readers are suckered in by his tales, poems, and criticism, while Poe himself is likely having a chuckle at their expense. Poe was the great theorist of “Diddling,” which he considered as one of the exact sciences, and he insisted that no diddle—a swindle, confidence-game, or prank—is complete without a “grin,” but only one that the diddler himself wears, seen by no one else. Poe’s propensity for diddling extended to his literary career, which can be seen not only in those works which are clearly hoaxes, but also in his poetry, his tales, and his criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe made enemies, some of whom have not been so sanguine in accepting the thousand injuries and uncounted insults visited upon them by the grinning diddler.
After Rufus Griswold, whose calumnious portrait of Poe in an obituary caused outrage but likely led to Poe’s eventual enshrinement in a popular-cultural canon, perhaps the most famous of the fabled detractors of Poe during his lifetime was also America’s leading public intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The phrase “jingle man” is well known in American literary studies, not to mention infamous in Poe Studies, as Emerson’s dismissive appraisal of Poe. That the Sage of Concord might dislike Poe is not surprising, since Poe was probably as ardent an opponent of Emersonian transcendentalism as anyone other than Herman Melville, and Poe’s invectives were especially caustic when it came to the Boston literati, many of whom appeared to be well-nigh slavishly devoted to Emerson’s thought. Poe also criticized Emerson himself as belonging to “class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever—the mystics for mysticism’s sake.” In a follow-up to Poe’s eccentric little series on “Autography,” in which he proposed to analyze the handwriting of famous authors, Poe humorously suggested that “[t]he best answer to his twaddle is cui bono? […] to whom is it a benefit? If not to Mr. Emerson individually, then surely to no man living.”
In this series thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps best viewed as a literary prankster or practical joker. In Part 1, I argued that the great theorist of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” was also, in his various works, a master “diddler,” frequently putting one over on his readers. In Part 2, I discussed the “poet as prankster,” suggesting that even Poe’s poetry is not always as serious as it seems, while examining one poem (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or mystery, might be considered as humorous, frequently functioning as comical send-ups of popular fictions of the era. In this entry, I want to consider another genre of writing for which Poe was quite famous in his own time: literary criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe’s literary criticism bears the mark of the prankster’s spirit, as his book reviews and essays are often filled with sardonic humor.
As a literary critic and book reviewer for a number of magazines, Poe developed an infamous reputation as a “tomahawk-man,” a harsh critic who, in the words of his great contemporary James Russell Lowell, “seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Lowell’s own humorous aside does not detract from his judgement, stated one line earlier, of Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Perhaps because of this discriminating, philosophical fearlessness, Poe-the-critic was loathe to suffer fools gladly or even at all, and some of his best known zingers have come at the expense of his fellow poets and fiction writers.
For example, in an 1843 review of William Ellery Channing’s Our Amateur Poets, Poe writes: “His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.” A paragraph later he calls for the author to be hanged, but—out of deference to his good name (Channing Sr. having been a “great essayist”)—Poe urges that the hangman “observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord.” Presumably, the remainder of the book review represents that figurative execution.
In my previous entries in this series, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe might best be thought of as a literary prankster, a “diddler” or a practical joker, who delighted in “putting one over” on his readers. This flies in the face of the wildly popular depiction of the nineteenth-century poet and littérateur. To his legions of fans and to the multitudes of merchants making commercial hay (and no small amount of money) off of Poe’s mythic image, Poe remains best known and best loved today as dark, brooding, alcoholic, madman-genius. However, to the great disappointment of my own students, all biographical evidence suggests that this image is largely false. Yes, Poe had his occasional problems with the bottle, although in this he was not all that far from the norm in his besotted epoch, and yes, he wrote some stories about madness, mayhem, mystery, and mortality, although he wrote far more burlesques, hoaxes, satires, and spoofs. Above all, Poe was a canny magazinist, an astute judge of the appetites of the reading public, and he used his own literary talents and business acumen to give the people what they wanted.
One of the things that readers desperately wanted, as Poe knew better than most, was a shock, especially in the form of tales combining elements of the bizarre, extravagant, terrifying, and weird. If Poe is best remembered today for his tales of terror, it is in part because he recognized that such tales would be the most popular in his own time. For example, after one publisher objected to the gruesomeness or bad taste of “Berenice” (a rather disturbing tale, it’s true, but well worth the read!), Poe explained that “to be appreciated, you must be read,” and he pointed out that such stories are “invariably sought after with avidity.” What kind of stories are so popular? “The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles” whose nature consisted of the following: “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.” In other words, Poe asserts, excessive, over-the-top stories are what the people demand. So, again, if Poe became a master of horror, it is because Poe knew that horror sells.
How does this relate to my argument that Poe is best viewed as a literary practical joker? Poe’s burlesques, hoaxes, bizarreries, and practical jokes are obviously examples of his perverse sense of humor. But what about those stories that are “clearly” meant to be read as works of horror, mystery, or suspense? It is not for nothing that Poe is widely considered a master of Gothic fiction, right? (My use of the scare-quotes is an obvious giveaway, indicating my skepticism over whether any of Poe’s work could “clearly” be so described.) I would assert that even Poe’s apparently Gothic tales of terror are, on one level or another, also examples of satire, humor, or hoaxing. That is, even in his apparently serious fiction, Poe’s impish, satirical, and critical attitude prevails. This is not to say that we need to re-categorize Poe’s tales of terror as comical pieces, but it is to suggest that the prankster’s spirit infuses all of Poe’s work. As an example, I would like to look at “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of Poe’s most famous and celebrated works of Gothic horror. Notwithstanding its gloomy atmosphere, mysterious characters, and horrifying climax, the story of Roderick and Madeline Usher’s frightening downfall is thoroughly suffused with playful humor. Continue reading →
In my last post, I suggested that Edgar Allan Poe was essentially a practical joker. That is, although he remains best known today for tales of terror and mystery, of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe in his own time was very much a satirist or humorist. Not infrequently, the joke is on us, the readers, who are duped into believing the most incredible things, as becomes embarrassingly clear in “The Balloon-Hoax” or “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” for example. After all, Poe was the philosopher who was able to explicate “diddling” – that is, tricking or swindling – as “one of the exact sciences.” In his various hoaxes, satires, and “diddles,” Poe proved himself to be an accomplished prankster, which unsurprisingly stood him in good stead in the bumptious literary marketplace of his era.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the way that Poe the Poet might also be considered a practical joker. Poe’s poetry, unlike his more well-known prose tales, is generally thought to represent the Romantic ideals of supernal beauty. In the best poems, Poe’s mastery of sound and sense helps to produce poems of haunting loveliness, as in “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee.” But, then, it should also be observed that many of his poems appear to be crudely imitative; Poe concedes that his earlier poems were essentially attempts to reproduce Byron, for instance. Some might be labeled failed experiments, while others appear to be downright awful. Who can listen to “The Bells” more than once without going mad? The pealing repetitions are so intensely jangling to the nerves that one can only conclude that such was the poet’s intention. The point of the poem is to drive us crazy! But even in Poe’s most successful poems, there is a lurking sense that Poe is putting one over on us. The reader of Poe’s poems must always be on guard, as one cannot shake the vague suspicion that the poetry may be an ornate armature upon which to hang a joke in poor taste. However, we can identify at least one poem in Poe’s corpus that is unquestionably also a practical joke: “O Tempora! O Mores!”
“O Tempora! O Mores!” is one of Poe’s earliest poems, although it was not published until years after his death. Its title, deriving from Cicero’s famous lament and translated “Oh, the times, Oh, the manners [or customs]!,” is already suggestive of humor in a modern context. The phrase is generally reserved for those satirizing the jeremiads of the era. Studying the poem more closely, we see that the jaunty doggerel appears to lampoon a single character, a handsome salesman or clerk who has charmed his lady customers, but who the poet recognizes as an unintelligent and unworthy “ass.” The poem was written sometime in 1826, when Poe was only 17 years old, and in my own reading I had taken it to be a satirical critique of the crass, commercial culture of the United States in the nineteenth-century. That is, like the biographer Kenneth Silverman, who noted the poem’s “scorn toward the clerk as a plebian vulgarian, and its contempt for the world of merchandising,” I saw the young poet in “O Tempora! O Mores!” as a Romantic bemoaning the unrefined, boorish, middle-class values of the day. Like nearly everyone else, I was perplexed about the final word of the poem, in which the speaker names his object of ridicule, “Pitts.” But, in the end, I was able to file this away as mildly interesting juvenilia.
However, I heard a fascinating talk by renowned scholar Richard Kopley at the 2014 MLA convention, which shed light on the backstory of the poem. (An abstract of the talk appears in The Edgar Allan Poe Review 14.2 [Autumn 2013]: 250–251.) Alas, I can offer only a teaser here based on my faulty memory of the presentation, but Professor Kopley is currently working on a scholarly biography of Poe, which I have no doubt will be well worth the wait. For now, let me just say that the poem “O Tempora! O Mores!” was the acid coup de grâce of an elaborate practical joke.
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.