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J GeraldKennedy Unwinnable Wars, Unspeakable Wounds: Locating “TheMan That Was Used Up” When EdgarAllan Poe composed“TheMan That Was Used Up” for Burton’s Gentleman’sMagazine in August 1839,he ignored his predilection for archaicOldWorldsettingsand what he called“the foreignsubject”to devise-for the firsttime in his career-a magazinetale explicitlyconcernedwith contemporaryAmerican culture.’ Written amid public disillusionmentwith the seeminglyendless SecondSeminoleWar (1835-42), the piecetraces thenarrator’sfarcicalquestfortherenownedIndian fighter,GeneralJohn A. B. C. Smith,tounravelthe hero’spersonal secret,a conditionwithheldfrom the narrator in a series of interrupted interviews with acquaintances.Thisironic nationalnarrative culminates in the revelation that the legendary Smith-who has survivedbloodyencounterswith Kickapoo and “Bugaboo”Indians in that “late tremendousswampfightawaydownSouth”-must be reassembled daily, one prosthetic device after another, by his black servant,Pompey. The tale’s grotesque premise,that Smithhas been “usedup” by the “savage”foe and reduced to a squeaking bundle of mutilatedflesh,haslongresisted critical demystification(Works,2:380432,389,383). In hisintroductionto the definitiveeditionof Poe’s tales, T. 0.Mabbott conceded the baffling, repellent aspect of “The Man That Was Used Up” and unconvincingly explained the “place of honor” Poe gave it in both Phantasy-Pieces and Prose Romances, remarking that the tale raised a lofty question (“What is Man?”) by posing the “problemof identity.”WhileacknowledgingPoe’s topical allusions, Mabbott denied altogether the possibility of national critique by recalling William Burton’spolicy of avoiding“politicalcontroversy ”-as ifPoe never defiedthe editorshe served (Woh,2:376-77).Yet when we place the story in its original historical context, noting its relation to the muchdebated project of Indian removal, to political maneuvering in advance of the 1840 presidential election, to contemporary writing about the North American Indian wars, and to the vexed project of literary nation-building, we seethat Poe’sunprecedented plunge intocultural criticismassumesa newcoherenceand pertinence. The ideological content that Mabbott was unable or unwilling to recognize has revealed, in a later epoch of interminable military engagement, its unmistakablesalience. Recent discussions of “The Man That Was Used Up”have infactexploredseveralkey aspects of Poe’s parodic treatment of the Indian fighter. Robert Beuka’s 2002 essay marks the most penetratingstudyto date of connectionsbetween the taleand the problemof nationalmanhood embedded inJacksonian Indianpolicy. Beukashowshow in literal, corporeal terms Poe deconstructs the illusion of heroic prowess to suggest that Indian removalenabledwhite men to flaunttheir masculinity even as they helped to “shoreup a nascent sense of national unity figured through unified racialidentity.”The subjugationof native tribesat onceassertedAmericanmanhoodand established a racial title to the soil,“conferring‘native’status on white Americans by erasing the actual native population from the landscape altogether.”*Explainingthe emphasison Americantechnological progress, Klaus Benesch has similarly connected the “mechanicalinvention”embodiedby General Smith with Indian removal and the ideology of ManifestDestiny,whileJamesBerkley, buildingon Benesch’scharacterizationof Smithasa “cyborg,” has positioned Poe as a prophet of “post-human s~bjectivity.”~ VanessaWarne hassimilarlyfocused on the general’s prosthetics and the troubling politicalimplicationsof his disability,probingthe 78 Poe StudiedDark Romanticism commodification of the body in an emerging consumer culture, while Clayton Marsh has portrayed Smith as a consummate “confidence man who concealsthe nation’sgenocidal and racistpractices behind the marvel of industrial te~hnology.”~ Suggestiveas these discussionshave been, no one hasyet explained why,in the first tale he wrote expressly for Burton’s, Poe abandoned his strict preference for Old World subjects and settings to compose an extravagant national satire. The narrative in fact represented for Poe a new relationship to writing, a sardonic concession to the demand for “American themes” in an era of literary nationalism. He would later opine that for the seriousauthor “‘distancelends enchantment to the view”’ and that, all things being equal, “a foreign theme is,in a strictlyliterarysense,to be preferred” (El?, 1076).But he reached thatjudgment in the mid-l840s,after “TheGold-Bug’’and his reluctant, ironic shift to preponderantly American settings and situation^.^ All things were moreover not equal in 1839when “TheMan ThatWasUsed Up” marked the prankish debut of the domestic Poe, a self-consciousstunt signaled by his sly genderbending parody,in the tale’sopening paragraphs, of his own recently-publshed “Ligeia,”a bizarre, reflexivegesture that G.R. Thompson was the first to recognize.6 What strange exigencies goaded Poe in 1839 to indulge in national caricature? We cannot, obviously, reconstruct the intricate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 77-89
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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