- Popular Culture in the Houses of Poe and Cortázar
"[…]at the age of nine I read Edgar Allan Poe for the first time. That book I stole to read because my mother didn't want me to read it, she thought I was too young and she was right. The book scared me and I was ill for three months, because I believed in it."…—Julio Cortázar1
In interviews and essays, Julio Cortázar, the famous Argentine author, often expressed a lifelong fascination with Edgar Allan Poe (Berg 227–32). Moreover, as a young man Cortázar spent two years translating the American author's prose into Spanish, making irresistible the search for traces of Poe in his own work. His description of Poe as a youthful and guilty pleasure reflects a common reaction to the American author that has led some critics to rue Poe's influence. Jonathan Elmer points out that "Poe's connection with juvenile tastes, and hence with a time when reading and acquiring 'culture' were actually enjoyable […] has been insistently and disapprovingly stressed by the Anglo-American literary-historical tradition" (3). Although Poe himself often liked to "advertise [his work] as ethereal and otherworldly, or avowedly timeless," critics who found elements of the vulgarly popular in his writing regarded the author as a true "stumbling block" in the American literary landscape (Rosenheim and Rachman xii; Eliot 205). In a similar vein, Elmer observes,
It has puzzled many critics, sometimes to the point of vituperation, that Poe stands simultaneously as the germinal figure of a central modernist trajectory (leading via Baudelaire to French Symbolism and thence to the high modernism of Eliot and others) and as the much-acknowledged pioneer of several durable mass-cultural genres: detective fiction and science fiction, as well as certain modes of sensational or gothic horror, which are today, to use one of Poe's coinages, "omniprevalent."(2)
In the past, such critics tended to dismiss Poe to the fringes of the American canon for what they saw as his highbrow pretensions and lowbrow taste. More recently, critics like Elmer and others have argued that Poe's ability to straddle the high/low cultural divide is precisely what makes him such a perennially fascinating writer and one of the most revealing about American culture in general.
Considering Poe's high standing in Latin America, one might assume that the question of his low or popular status was not as much of a stumbling block there.2 Cortázar himself blamed American discomfort with Poe on his use of "baroque" language, an issue that Cortázar's own background as a native Spanish speaker allowed him to ignore: [End Page 1] "since I'm neither English nor American, I see it with another perspective. I know there are aspects which have aged a lot, that are exaggerated, but that hasn't the slightest importance next to his genius" (Weiss 73). The idea that an author's "genius" could rise above the demands of his countrymen was important to Cortázar. Questions about his own cultural status also significantly affected the reception of Cortázar's work, though in many ways he suffered from just the opposite charges made against Poe. The style and themes of his work, and the political context in Argentina during the early part of his career (characterized most conspicuously by the rise of Perónism), led some in the literary establishment of his own country to accuse Cortázar of being too European or elitist.3 Looking at Poe and Cortázar together, this essay compares how both authors negotiated such cultural issues in their writing and the way that Cortázar reworks some of Poe's particular strategies in a modern Argentine setting. Focusing on two of these authors' most well-known stories, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (published in 1839) and "Casa tomada" ("House Taken Over") (published in 1946), I argue that they both reflect some of the ways that Poe and Cortázar grappled with the rise and attraction of a popular culture that threatened to reconfigure their particular literary landscapes.
In Keywords, Raymond Williams traces the...