- Poe’s Alien Poetics
Edgar Allan Poe has always been a great outsider in American literature, a status that has conferred upon him an almost cult-like following in twentieth-and twenty-first-century popular culture. The characteristics of this mythic Poe, so beloved by his fans, are well known: he is a dreamer, a half-mad, alcoholic lost soul, “out of space, out of time,” a poète maudit who is haunted by ghosts of his lost loves, spinning eerie tales of the supernatural and crafting lyrical poetry of hopeless melancholy, the formal beauty of which works barely masks the deeply autobiographical content that must lie at their heart. Several generations of Poe scholars have now largely disabused us of this mythic image, not that the pop culture purveyors of Poe’s legacy notice or care, and the Poe who has emerged from recent biographical investigations appears to be an earnest, hard-working professional writer, a “magazinist” whose marketing savvy and commercial skills, along with his own writerly talents, increased the circulation of every periodical he was associated with. Poe did not linger upon the margins of nineteenth-century American society, but operated at the decentered centers of its intellectual and artistic life, as his notoriously nomadic movements from place to place—he lived for a time in each of Richmond, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, among other cities—were less matters of transcendental homelessness than rather worldly attempts to find better, more stable, or more lucrative employment. Indeed, considering the mercantile hustle and bustle of life in the antebellum United States, Poe might be better viewed, not as an outsider, but at the representative American writer of the era.
But, as I have suggested in Poe and the Subversion of American Literature, Poe’s almost universally recognized outsider status in American literature has far more to do with the development of American Studies as a disciplinary field in the twentieth-century than with the historical condition of his life and work in the nineteenth-century. The image of “America” produced by that field was not particularly inclusive of a writer like Poe, whose critique of a certain national ideology (and of nationalism itself) was so virulent. Indeed, Poe and the Remapping of Antebellum Print Culture, a recent collection of essays [End Page 519] edited by J. Gerald Kennedy and Jerome McGann, demonstrates the degree to which American studies as a whole could be transformed by placing Poe in a central position, or perhaps more accurately, at the nexus of conflicting forces in U.S. social and literary history. As Kennedy points out in the introduction to that book, the newly formed field of American Studies managed to create a distinctively “national” literature by tethering major works produced in the United States to regional developments like “the New England mind” or “the war of words and wits” in New York City (to cite the titles of two books by Perry Miller). The goal of Kennedy and McGann’s project was to “[t]o remap literary America not by focusing on a cluster of luminaries in the Northeast but rather by reconstructing the network of relationships, authorial and institutional, within a decentralized system of distribution.”2 Although it is not his main point, or even an acknowledged one, I believe that Jerome McGann’s recent study, The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel (which is dedicated to Kennedy, “the angel of Poe and American Studies”), participates in this revisionary project by revealing a poetics wholly at odds with the Americanist cultural program, and therefore suggesting alternative directions for future enquiry.
McGann is not an Americanist by training, and he has come to examine American literature more closely in recent years partly through his interest in Poe. Thus, McGann also has a sort of outsider status, which perhaps enables a productively alternative perspective on some of these matters. He is less interested than many other Poe scholars in defending Poe’s own place in American Studies, and it is possible that McGann recognizes the degree to which Poe’s ill fit...