Finding Mr. Poe: Intertextuality and Periodicity between Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens

 

Katie Bell is a PhD student at the University of Leicester. Her thesis is titled “The Diaspora of Dickens: Death, Decay and Regeneration”, the focus of which is the intertextuality of Dickens’s works and 20th century American texts of the Southern Gothic genre. The American authors examined in her thesis are William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.  She is based in the United States where she is also a volunteer docent for The Wren’s Nest, the home of Atlanta author Joel Chandler Harris most famous for his ‘Br’er Rabbit’ tales.  She can be found on Twitter @decadentdickens

 

Edgar Allan Poe is remembered as an eccentric loner, a poet, and a writer of gothic “tales.”  He earned his living (albeit a meagre one) as a journalist, writing more literary criticism than poems or tales.  As a critic, he quickly gained the nick-name of “the man with the tomahawk,” a racist epithet but one which was meant to make light of his cutting negative critiques, for which his reviews became popular for giving.[1]  From 1835 until his death in 1849, Poe wrote approximately one thousand critical pieces and defined the American “standard for book reviewing.”[2]  In these pieces Poe criticised many American newspapers for “puffing” second–rate American books simply because they were American, and he identified himself as being one of the first American fans of Charles Dickens when he reviewed Sketches by Boz in June of 1836.  Poe had never heard of Dickens (or Boz) prior to his review (Sketches was Dickens’s first collection, so few readers knew of him), and Poe wrote of Dickens: “we know nothing more than that he is a far more pungent, more witty, and better disciplined writer of sly articles, than nine-tenths of the Magazine writers in Great Britain.”[3]

Watkins Tottle  In the Saturday Evening Post, Poe went on to attempt to solve the mystery of the murder in Barnaby Rudge after having read only the first three available chapters, which he did for the most part. Through his reading and critique of Barnaby Rudge, Poe crafted the framework necessary for a finely tuned detective story which would come into his work with his character Dupin later that year.  Dickens and Poe met briefly in Philadelphia on Dickens’s 1842 American tour, and there is no concrete evidence of what the two discussed (partly due to Poe’s tendency towards fabrication and Dickens’s later burning of his personal letters), but from most accounts, it is understood that the two got on very well.  Poe felt the most important aspect of Barnaby was the relationship between Barnaby and Grip.  In Poe’s first review of the available chapters of Barnaby he wrote of Barnaby and Grip that:

[Grip’s] croakings are to be frequently, appropriately, and prophetically heard in the coarse of the narrative, and whose whole character will perform, in regard to that of the idiot [Barnaby], much the same part as does, in music, the accompaniment in respect to the air. Each is distinct. Each differs remarkably from the other…This is clearly the design of Mr. Dickens¾although he himself may not at present perceive it.[4]

This relationship between Barnaby and Grip is revisited in “The Raven” and Poe picks up where he felt Dickens left off; Poe’s raven is the answer to the questions that the narrator of the poem poses and the echo of his deeper self.

Master Humphrey 1Before he had “The Tell-Tale Heart” published in The Pioneer in 1843, he was taken with Dickens’s Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840) and reviewed the collection favourably in 1841.  He specified that of all the tales held within Humphrey, “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second” was the most “power[ful].”  He wrote, “The other stories are brief…The narrative of ‘The Bowyer,’ as well as of ‘John Podgers,’ is not altogether worthy of Mr. Dickens.  They were probably sent to press to supply a demand for copy…But the ‘Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second’ is a paper of remarkable power, truly original in conception, and worked out with great ability.”[5]

 

Master Humphrey 2Many are not aware of this lesser known Dickens piece, as the way in which we currently read The Old Curiosity Shop is not in its original serialised form within Humphrey, therefore, the short stories which come between the larger texts (Curiosity Shop and Barnaby) are lost for most modern readers. To summarise the story, a retired soldier finds himself the adoptive father of his nephew, whose eyes and gaze he fears for an inexplicable reason.  Ultimately, the narrator becomes so overwhelmed with this little boy’s gaze that he is driven to murder him and bury his body in the garden.  Friends of the narrator come to call, and he entertains them with food and drink upon the very spot the boy is buried.  The denouement is that a neighbour’s errant bloodhounds enter the party having sniffed out the boy’s remains, and dig up the body in front of the narrator and his guests, thus exposing his evil deed.  The narrator ends his piece by stating he is writing this account while sitting in jail awaiting his execution.

Modern-day readers will be more aware of the plot of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which he explores the mind of a killer who becomes obsessed with “the evil eye” of a perceived oppressor.  After killing the old man with which he lives, the also unnamed narrator buries him under the floorboards of their shared house, invites investigating police officers in and offers them refreshments on the very spot the old man is buried. His undoing is that the narrator continues to hear the beating of the old man’s heart and also believes the police officers hear the beating as well, and are ignoring it in order to make “a mockery of [his] horror.”[6]

“The Tell-Tale Heart” was extremely well received by both its American and British readers; it was a “sensation.”[7]  Reviewing it for the New York Tribune in July 1843, Horace Greeley (the founder and editor of the Tribune) noted it “a strong and skilful, but to our minds overstrained and repulsive, analysis of the feelings and promptings of an insane homicide.”[8]  The success of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is due in part to the extent to which Poe utilized the then undefined Freudian term “uncanny,” but also to the powers of Poe’s editorial skills: his talents at seeing how to best manipulate a plot into a “tale.” As well, it is due to a seed planted by Dickens in his early work with Master Humphrey’s Clock, which we can trace back through Poe’s thoroughly written reviews of Dickens’s works.  Poe “tomahawked” most every writer in his reviews, but he never once had a negative word to say about any of Dickens’s pieces. Re-reading “Confession” through the eyes of Poe, we can see how deeply Dickens was interested in the psyche of a madman at this early point in his career, and that he sought to explain the motives of a killer.  Poe was undoubtedly paying tribute to Dickens with “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but he does so in a way that gives a rebirth to Dickens’s work and allows for a new interpretation to emerge, chiefly that Dickens’s “Confession” is one of the first pieces in which an author sought to explain the “why-done-it” as opposed to the “who-done-it” of horror stories.

Poe House Baltimore

 

[1] Hutchisson, James M. Poe. University of Mississippi Press, 2005, p. 62.

[2] ibid., p. 57.

[3] Poe, Edgar Allan. “Critical Notices.” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 5, June 1836, p. 447.

[4] Poe, Edgar Allan. “Original Review.” Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1841.

[5] ¾. “Review of New Books.” Graham’s Magazine, May 1841, p. 249.

[6] Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Annotated Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015, p. 265.

[7] Hayes, Kevin J. Annotations of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allan Poe, The Annotated Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015, p. 259.

[8] ibid.

 

Images:

Image 1:

“Critical Notices” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 5, June 1836, pp. 445-460. Made available through Making of America Journal Articles, www.quod.lib.umich.edu

Images 2 and 3:

“Master Humphrey’s Clock By Charles Dickens. Part I. Containing The Old Curiosity Shop, and other Tales, with Numerous Illustrations, &c. &c.” Graham’s Magazine, May 1841, pp. 248-251. Original image held by Indiana University, made available through the Hathi Trust, Digital Library, www.catalog.hathitrust.org.

Image 4:

Image of Poe from the Edgar Allan Poe House, Baltimore, Maryland.  Photograph by the author. www.poeinbaltimore.org

 

Works Cited:

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Annotated Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015. 259-265.

“Critical Notices.” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 5, June 1836, pp. 445-460.

“Original Review.” Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1841.

“Review of New Books.” Graham’s Magazine, May 1841, May 1841, pp. 248-251.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. University of Mississippi Press, 2005.


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