- Poe and the American Affiliation with Freemasonry
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” (1846), over 150 years old and much commented on, still has some fresh insights to offer about American culture. I am thinking particularly of this story’s treatment of American Freemasonry—not just overt references to Freemasonry that readers often focus on, but the larger cultural picture involving American culture’s affiliation with an old, secret society. In effect, it has taken us a long time to understand that this tale not only draws heavily on issues prominent in 1846 concerning American Freemasonry, but the tale itself actually enacts a Masonic ritual in a way that would not be evident to anyone except Masons and Masonic scholars. Without this historical context, this tale is simply another example of Poe’s skillful manipulation of gothic effects—the praise usually given in commentary on the tale. 1 Read in its proper historical context, this tale is participating in Freemasonry’s discussion of an emergent national character and the [End Page 119] distinct notion of a “sacred” dimension in national culture in the early nineteenth century in America.
Critics in the twentieth century have consistently misread the Masonic dimension of this tale primarily because cultural literacy has changed drastically since 1846, and Freemasonry, no longer a power in politics and popular culture, is not now something many people know about. Nineteenth-century readers would have understood most or all of Poe’s Masonic references. We will understand them here only by looking for connections between Masonic texts and art and Poe’s use of ideas and motifs from those sources. Bear with me—I am not arguing that Poe was a Mason, or knew an especially lot about Freemasonry, but, rather, that in 1846 everyone knew about Freemasonry in America and, whether they wished it or not, had an inadvertent affiliation or tie with Freemasonry, if only through the popular media.
I am also arguing that the misreading of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” is not just an instance of critics overlooking something that Poe’s readers would have readily seen (although this is true). If we take affiliation in its usual definition as establishing a tie, or a commitment, even in the extreme sense of determining a blood tie as in the paternity of an illegitimate child, then the failure to see Poe’s affiliation with Freemasonry in this tale is symptomatic of a larger cultural failure to see the American affiliation with Freemasonry as a major channel to eighteenth century values and ideals, and to the generational affiliation of ideas across eras. Freemasonry was a great force in early America, sometimes an overwhelming one, and failing to recognize the impact of this cultural force has been a lapse in American Studies, at least as it is practiced by literary scholars. Freemasonry still has a presence in American culture, a presence acknowledged by history scholars to a very limited degree, but it is an affiliation not generally credited for its tremendous impact on the country’s ideas and values. In what follows, I am discussing two texts, “The Cask of Amontillado” as it reflects ideas of Masonic art and also a piece of Masonic temple art as it embodies a cultural narrative about democratic values. I view this story and this painting as occasions for glimpsing that larger, neglected picture concerning how Freemasonry has tried to interpret, and is still trying to interpret, the nature of the “sacred” in American culture and the role of the working class as the champion of these ideas.
As is quite common in Poe’s tales, the narrative direction of this story moves toward a confinement of living space for a protagonist. The result is to provide the gothic and confining environment within which crimes seem naturally to happen. But whereas the common scenario of Poe’s stories is spatial disorientation, “The Cask of Amontillado” creates that scenario within a gothic setting almost [End Page 120] entirely out of the influential (but little understood) frame of Masonic culture in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America. I am thinking particularly of the idea of the “lodge” as...