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SATIRE OF IRVING'S A HISTORY OF NEW YORK IN POE'S "THE DEVIL IN THE BELFRY" Christopher J. Forbes Washington State University "The Devil in the Belfry" is one of five comic tales which, James W. Gargano argues, reveals Edgar Allen Poe's "considerable gifts as an ironist commenting ... on serious aspects of the human condition."1 Gargano's position resembles that of Stephan L. Mooney, who insists that many of Poe's lesser-known comedies should be read as vital burlesques on "the pretensions of society."2 Both Gargano and Mooney supply a healthy corrective to what has been a general critical dismissal of Poe's farces. In Gargano's terms, such tales as "The Spectacles," "The Angel of the Odd," "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether," and "The Devil in the Belfry" ridicule "mechanistic concepts" that, in an "inelastic framework of human law or intellectualized experiment ," attempt to "expel grandeur, mystery, and incalculability from the universe and to replace them with the predictable and lulling tick-tock of a human formula."3 The tales dramatize this point through narrative structure; Poe's narrators, dulled by a characteristically limited means of perception, ironically come to grief by failing to assess their worlds accurately. Mooney shows how Poe often uses his narrator in an elaborate "treatment of the comic," while Gargano stresses the thematic seriousness of tales wherein a "deluded narrator," experiencing some "disciplinary hard knocks," is offered "emancipation from narrow notions caused by defective but correctible vision."4 The range of satire in Poe's farces should not be limited, however, to the boundaries mapped out by these two critics. This is particularly true of "The Devil in the Belfry," which Gargano perceptively analyzes as an attack on "the ways in which man gulls and misleads himself." But this interpretation is partial since it ignores an underlying design of the tale that depends on a recognition of Poe's indebtedness to Washington Irving's A History of New York. "The Devil in the Belfry" is primarily a parody of the Communipaw landscape, the people, and the sentimental nostalgia of Irving's History, a parody that extends to the idealized Dutch worlds of Irving's tales generally. That there are "interesting Irvingesque" touches in "The Devil" is a commonplace among Poe critics, who point out the presence of "Knickerbocker humor" and "Irvingesque Dutchmen" in "The 94Notes Unparalled Adventures of One Hans Phall," "Mellonta Taunta," and "The Devil in the Belfry."5 This tale in particular features a village, the "Dutch borough of Vontervoteimittiss," similar to the characteristic Dutch townships in Irving's early fiction.6 Like the villages in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "Rip Van Winkle," and the History, Vontervoteimittiss is located in a secluded valley walled off from the world by mountains. Poe's inhabitants dress, eat, and smoke in the same fashion as Irving's Dutch. The people in Poe's little world maintain the order of their dreamily apathetic society by living in uniform houses and regulating their lives through common social routines based on the orderly chimes from "the great clock of the borough"; Irving's burghers (though without a dominating clock) conduct their predictable lifestyles with similarly conservative resistance to change. Poe's paradise for "lovers of correct time and fine kraut" is disrupted by a devil in much the same way Ichabod Crane disrupts life in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and an "oily little" messenger interrupts a drowsy town meeting with ill tidings in the History.1 But where in Irving's fiction this outside threat to order is often eliminated, at least in the short run, in Poe's tale the disruptive entry of the devil causes a "most abominable din and confusion" which forces a disgruntled narrator to leave a now "miserably situated borough."8 While these general similarities between the Dutch worlds of Irving and "The Devil in the Belfry" are clear enough, Poe evidently expected readers to recognize his tale as a mannered exaggeration of key elements borrowed specifically from the History. It seems no accident that the cabbages strewn throughout Irving's History (II, 85; III, 135; VI, 283) are numerically surpassed in Vontervoteimittiss...


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pp. 93-100
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