- Purchase/rental options available:
American Literature 75.4 (2003) 751-781
[Access article in PDF]
His System of Transcendental Racism
Maurice S. Lee
Ahaunting image appears on the cover of the 1995 essay collection The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. From a perspective slightly above the subject, we see a grainy, black-and-white figure with vaguely familiar features: disheveled hair, broad forehead, thin mustache, deep-set eyes. The picture is not unlike a still frame taken from a surveillance video, as if Poe had come back from the grave and was captured leaving a convenience store. The hazy image simultaneously suggests Poe's modern presence and historical alterity, a fitting introduction to an essay collection that signaled a shift in Poe studies from abstract, ahistorical universals toward "Poe's syncopated relation to American culture." Subsequent scholarship in this vein has rendered rich interpretation. 1 The problem is that Poe is becoming something of a divided figure, embedded in his era's material discourse but divorced from the metaphysics of his day. It may be possible, however, to bring into focus a more stubbornly historical Poe who not only participates in his era's political, economic, and mass cultural life but also uses historically available ideas to theorize his American world.
This world, as critics have increasingly found, was torn by slavery and race. Through varying degrees of interpretive will, blackness and bondage become powerfully political in a wide array of Poe's poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews. What is striking in these analyses is how often Poe's social proclivities appear to be beyond his control as ideology and unconscious desire determine textual meanings. 2 But what if Poe is a more self-conscious observer of slavery and race whose political vision is mediated by his philosophical beliefs? This is not to suggest that Poe achieves a coherent or commendable understanding [End Page 751] of slavery. Far from it. The terror, disruption, and chaos that mark Poe's treatment of the institution originate from the tensions between his metaphysics and racism. On one hand, Poe maintains distinctions between black and white, slave and master, brutish object and reasoning subject. On the other, he indulges what Eureka (1848) calls "the appetite for Unity," the transcendental urge to synthesize dualities in an "absolute oneness." 3
This essay traces Poe's divergent urges for metaphysical unity and racial difference. It begins with "Metzengerstein" (1832), an exemplary story that offers an early and surprisingly cogent position on the American slavery debate. However, the racist anti-abolitionism evident in "Metzengerstein" and beyond conflicts with transcendentalist concepts Poe borrows from Schelling and Coleridge. Here Enlightenment dualisms threaten to collapse into romantic absolutism as blackness and bondage are figured as dangers immanent in the unwitting white mind. For Poe, the slavery crisis is a crisis of the unconscious, which he dramatizes with a repetition more compelling than compulsive. Poe, that is, seems less an author bedeviled by buried racial fears than one who prejudicially enacts a strategic metaphysics of race.
The facts of Poe's politics are open to argument but can look something like this: Poe himself never owned a slave and was ambivalent about Southern plantation culture. In New York City, he was loosely affiliated with the literary wing of the Democratic Party, even as he resisted conscription by the nationalists of Young America. But while Poe learned to resent the aristocratic mores he enjoyed as a youth in Virginia, he also expressed reactionary ire against progressive causes in general and abolitionism in particular. Poe lambasted the antislavery movement in critiques of Lowell and Longfellow; his correspondence with proslavery thinkers can imply his concurring beliefs; and he may have condoned as writer or editor the disputed Paulding-Drayton review, a text that celebrates chattel bondage as a positive good. For the most part, Poe's literary practice and criticism support the racist stereotypes of plantation fiction. At the same time, Terence Whalen offers an important caveat. Aspiring to a national reputation and attuned to market forces, Whalen's Poe generally manages to avoid the slavery controversy, displaying instead an "average racism"...