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AZZanEmery Evading the Pit and the Pendulum: Poe on the Process of Transcendence EdgarAllan Poe’s preoccupation with death is an unmistakablefeature of his writing. In work after work-including suchwell-known poems as “The City in the Sea,“ “The Raven,” and “Ulalume” and such popular tales as “Ligeia,”“The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Masque of the Red Death”-Doe treats (more doggedlyperhaps than any other American author except Emily Dickinson) the topics of death, decay,burial, and mourning. What was Poe’s purpose in treating these topics so frequently?In Poe, Deuth, and th.e Lije o f W r i t i n g ,Gerald Kennedy suggeststhat the author sought throughout his literary career to expose and express his readers’ fear of death, a fear that was increasing in the nineteenth century and that the sentimental literature of Poe’s day attempted to repress. Kennedy notes that “withlongerlifeexpectancies,closeraffective relationships, secularized funeral practices, and declining belief in an afterlife, death assumed a terrible significance”;it “came to seem a cruel, inexplicable deprivation.” In response to this development, “a pious consolation literature sprang into being; as if to offset doubts about the Christian promise of eternal life, authors concocted detailed descriptionsof the amenities of heaven.” The same authors also “sponsored an ethereal image of mortality, purged of gross physical detail,”making death a “subjectof quiet fascination, even . . . a source of contemplative pleasure.”In Kennedy’sview,Poe bravely rejected the various strategies adopted by consolation literature,honorablyrefusedto “softenoridealize” death, “kept its essential horror in view,” and worked diligently,in both hispoetryandhisfiction, to reveal the anxieties about death that both he and his readerswere feeling.’ Meanwhile, in his comprehensivebiography of Poe, Kenneth Silverman likewise recalls that antebellumAmerica gave rise to “ahuge popular literatureof consolationthat included ...innumerablelachrymosemagazineversesdevotedtodead or dying spouses and children, reunions with departed loved onesin heaven, [and] orphans longingto followtheir parentsinto eternity.”However, Silverman departs widely from Kennedy by suggestingthat , rather than beinga powerfulcriticof such literature, Poe was a regular producer of it. SilvermanattributesPoe’sfamouspreoccupation with “the question of whether the dead remain dead,” for instance, as well as his invention of fictional human “colloquies”set in the afterlife, to the bereavements that Poe suffered throughout his life-especially the death of his mother, Eliza Poe, when he was two years old; the death of FannyAllan, the wife of his foster father,when he was twenty;and the lingeringdeath of hiswife, Virginia,from tuberculosis,in thelastdecadeof his life.Accordingto Silverman,Poe’s inabilityto face the devastatingrealityof theselossesledtoboth his literaryinterestin reanimation and hiscreationof angelic dialogues,which highlight,for Silverman, Poe’s “underlyingdenial of death”-that very denial in which his culturewas participating.* Kennedyseems quite right to argue that the powerof suchworks as“TheCityin the Sea,”“The Raven,”and “TheMasque of theRed Death”liesin Poe’s awareness of the death anxietiespresent in hisaudience,hisdeftexploitationof these asaway of enhancingliteraryeffect,and hisunforgettable emphasison death’sgrim realities.Yet Silverman seems equally right to note that certain of Poe’s works appear designed to endorse the “sentimental ”viewthat death canbe transcended.Indeed,it seemsto me that one can begin to appreciate the complexityof Poe’s view of death, as well as the 30 Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism orignality of his literary treatment of this topic, only when one recognizesthat the seeminglycontradictory arguments of Kennedy and Silverman are both valid:Poewas clearlyaware of the physical horrors and spiritual uncertainties of death, and he did attempt in certain of his works to exploit and expose nineteenthcentury death anxieties; he also endeavored, however, to alleviate these anxieties (in himself and in others),not simplyby flirtingwith the possibilityof resurrection in stories like “Ligeia”but by presenting in other works a coherent and plausible explanation of howhuman beings might attain the afterlife after undergoing the horrors of death. This explanation was not, as Silverman implies, a feeble attempt to deny the hard truths that Poe’s tragic life experiences confirmed; nor was it a sign of his disappointing subscription to the tenets of consolationliterature. Although Poe did not reject the entire idea of the afterlife,neither did he succumb,asSilvermansuggests ,to piousillusion.Rejectingthe prevalentview of death asproviding (forthe saved)a quicktrip to heaven, Poe sought a way...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 29-42
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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