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  • “Shudder”: A Signature Crypt-ogram in “The Fall of the House of Usher”
  • David Ketterer

Similar to other authors of gothic fiction and horror, Edgar Allan Poe often relies on the incremental repetition of totemic words for their heightening outré effect. Of the many such words that are repeated at least once in “The Fall of the House of Usher”—including, in order of appearance, melancholy, house, Usher, gloom, heart, shudder, gray, singular, character, superstition, leaden, inconsistency, phantasmagoric, hypochondriac, and silver—it was the word shudder (and its variants shuddered and shudderingly) that most affected one critic.

Arden Reed presented a short, insightful paper titled “Usher’s Shudders” at the Second International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts held in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1981. 1 Only in the last paragraph of this little more than two-page paper does Reed come around to the word shudder and his observation that Usher’s “most characteristic gesture is his ‘shudder,’ a word found on nearly every page of the text.” He concludes as follows:

If we take the word “shudder” and make it shudder, sooner or later (and the family is “very ancient,” has existed from “time out of mind”) the “d’s” will drop out, and the remaining letters will rearrange themselves into the word “Usher.” This [is] precisely what happens in [the] title: the “d’s” have fallen from “Usher” into the first sentence, which begins with that letter and insists on its presence there by alliteration (“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day . . .”). In a sense, everything that follows is simply a repetition or amplification of such shuddering.

And there Reed’s 1981 paper ends. But he only broached the first stage of what can be deduced from “Usher’s Shudders.” I shall argue that those dropped ds—a duplicated alphabetical character—serve to signify both Poe’s characteristic self-referentiality (and his identification with the character of Usher) and the overall theme and technique of reflexivity and mirror symmetry. [End Page 192]

My argument goes some way toward corroborating the work of Louis A. Renza regarding what he calls “Poe’s Secret Autobiography” in a 1985 article of that title. In that article, he construes “Poe’s tales as autobiographical cryptograms” (63). Renza claims that Poe’s texts disclose “a prematurely buried autobiographical subtext whose self-referential significance becomes discernible only through a purely speculative, self-alienating act of reading” (65). Such a reading is necessary because the aesthetic effect “of a Poe tale distracts its reader from recognizing the act of authorial self-inscription. . . . But . . . a reader . . . is led to adopt a reflective or anesthetic relation to the text-at-hand, a reflexivity that now inversely produces the possibility of Poe’s own secret relation to his initial aesthetic composition of it, and ‘nevermore’ allows the reader access to this relation” (67).

This approach was first broached in Renza’s 1984 book “A White Heron” and the Question of Minor Literature. There Renza briefly points to Poe “decomposing his proper name [Edgar Allan Poe] through initials in the anagrammatic ‘ape’ of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’” (36). Renza repeats this example in “Poe’s Secret Autobiography” and adds the fact that the first word of the original title of “Silence—A Fable,” namely, “Siope [Greek for “calm” or “silence”]: In the manner of the Psychological Autobiographists” (1835), can be read as an anagram of “is Poe” (62–63). 2 Renza does not mention further examples, but one also thinks of the name “Edgar Allan Poe” in reading the name “Arthur Gordon Pym” of “Edgarton,” and of the chasm shapes near the end of Pym which perhaps spell out the mirrored reversal of “Poe” or “e. a. p.,” both written in longhand (Wells 14, 15, n. 8). Most recently, in “’Ut Pictura Poe’: Poetic Politics in ‘The Island of the Fay’ and ‘Morning on the Wissahiccon,’” Renza argues that the pictures Poe paints in two landscape pieces are ultimately postpolitical; they are about Poe’s subjectivity and about Poe himself as the ideal reader, the signature-sanctioned reader, of his own work.

Shudder and its variants appear six times in...