exagerrated gothic conventions and aristocratic ideology

greenspun.com : LUSENET : The Work of Edgar Allan Poe : One Thread

try to explain the relationship of Poe's exaggerated gothic conventions to aristocratic ideology.

-- Anonymous, January 29, 2003


My responses completely failed in the server yesterday. I will shorten them. Poe was an American, a dispossessed foster child, a writer at odds with his editors. He didn't like authority, tyranny of lesser men, decadent nobility, or the abuse of power. Not that he wouldn't have liked a taste of money and literary power himself. He relished his role as fierce critic. "The Philosophy of Compostion" shows his influence by William Godwin, a socialist liberal in Britain. Godwin's "Caleb Williams" is about the evil influence of honor adopted by the hero. "The Cask of Amontillado" shows the viciousness and cold arrogance of the Euro nobility at its worst. Whenever Poe wants to present ultimate and dreamy faraway evil he uses nobles(Prospero, Montresor, King Pest, Usher sort of, fate and pride being the themes rather than the Imp of the Perverse for the ordinary killers and madmen. They are not easy to beat. The few times Poe uses the supernatural he does so to take down Prospero and Metzengerstein. Hop Frog is the ultimate Poe statement reprising, turning the tables on all his prior uses of the Gothic, beating the nobles with a clever dwarf.

-- Anonymous, January 30, 2003

Up to a point, Mr Murphy. Whether or not Poe 'liked' nobility is irrelevant. A decaying aristocratic family is a conventional gothic trope, so his use of such themes (in 'Usher', say) tells us as much about literary history than Poe's own opinions.

However, returning to the original question, I challenge whether Poe did use 'exaggerated' gothicism in his tales. Compared to some writers in this genre, he was quite restrained. In any case, is a gothic tale an attack on aristocracy or a representation of the fears of a nobility which fears its time has come? The answer might be both, depending on who was writing and why.

It is surely no accident that the height of gothicism coincided with the turmoil of the French and American Revolutions. At this moment in history it must have seemed as if aristocracy really had come to the last generation, and that previously great houses were about to crumble to dust.

However, Poe was writing two generations later than this particular moment. What, then, might be the issues which his brand of gothicism were addressing? Although 'Usher' is set in a nameless country, it is a tale written by an American to be read by Americans. In the 1830s and 40s, aristocratic ideology had been co-opted by the slave-owning plantocracy to defend their economic system. (It was also something projected on them by abolitionists, who saw it as an accusation.)

It was generally believed by Southerners that slavery was inevitably going to vanish, the only question was how -- slave revolt, abolitionism, gradual decline, etc. This, however, was a source of much anguish (and when combined with guilt, conscious or unconscious) leads to an identification with the old nobility of Europe. For an excellent example of this, see the notorious 'Paulding Review' which uses noblesse oblige as a defence of slavery. [This review is 'notorious' because it is believed by some to be by Poe, and thus a proof of his pro-slavery views. It is not by him (but by Beverley Tucker), but still provides an excellent insight into the relationship between a defence of slavery and aristocratic ideology.]

The fall of the House of Usher can thus be read as a metaphor for the inevitable collapse of the Old South (although, of course, new philosophies rose to defend the system as permanent, such as scientific racism; so it didn't vanish quite as quickly as some hoped or feared). If you buy this line, it is open to question whether Poe was expressing his fears for the South or celebrating its imminent demise. This depends on how you see Poe's biographical relationship to slavery, and was one of the most hotly debated issues in Poe Studies in the 1990s.

Personally, I believe that Poe left his tales deliberately ambiguous, so while 'Usher' shows the fall of an aristocratic line and is, almost certainly, about the Old South, just what it 'means' is undecidable.

-- Anonymous, January 31, 2003

Moderation questions? read the FAQ