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  • The Poet Edgar Allen Poe: Alien Angel by Jerome McGann
  • Adam Bradford
Jerome McGann. 2014. The Poet Edgar Allen Poe: Alien Angel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. $24.95 hc. 256 pp.

Beginning with Stephen Rachman and Shawn Rosenheim's 1995 collection The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, a significant scholarly effort has been made to "restore [Poe's] writings to the cultural milieu from which they appear to have been wrenched" (xi)—a critical intervention made necessary by a long history of interpreting Poe through the lens offered by predominantly French writers, critics, and theorists such as Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarme, Paul Valery, Marie Bonaparte, Jacques Lacan, and even Jacques Derrida. Most of these people favored approaches to Poe's work that marginalized his "Americanness." Jerome McGann, however, has played an important recent role in restoring Poe to his American context, having edited, along with J. Gerald Kennedy, a compelling and groundbreaking collection, Poe and the Remapping of the Antebellum Print Culture (2012). It is this background that makes McGann's newest intervention in the study of American literature both startling and intriguing. Not unlike the French interpretive paradigm, McGann's Alien Angel traces Poe's aesthetic genealogy through roots that run far beyond the borders of the republic—to Dante Alighieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord (George Gordon) Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to name a few. In penning such a critical narrative, McGann shies away from offering any thick descriptions of how Poe's work reflects or reflects on specific cultural, social, and political movements of the period (one thinks of "El Dorado" and the gold rush, or "The Raven" and mourning culture). As such, it will surprise many familiar with McGann's larger oeuvre. Instead, he offers a deeply engaged and at times thorny close reading of the fundamentals of Poe's aesthetic philosophy and creative process, ultimately arguing that Poe's rejection of America's enlightenment principles emerges in the psychological effects of reading his artfully constructed literature. It is a critical exposition that, by design, offers up a Poe that will seem "alien" to most contemporary scholars. [End Page 302]

McGann's most intriguing critical intervention occurs in his first two chapters, where he mines Poe's Marginalia to come to grips with Poe's aesthetic philosophy. This philosophy, which focuses on the "effects" of Beauty, is read as a call to abandon the belief that Beauty is found in the representation of pleasing objects or ideas, and to see it as something we experience when we encounter "novel combinations" within a poem "committed to musical 'harmony, [and] proportion'" (42). Thus, the goal of all poetry is to lead the reader to an experience of beauty—making the poem less something to be understood than something to be experienced. In McGann's estimation, the locus of meaning is not principally found in the "semantic value" of the words, but rather in their combined sonic texture—what he calls the "felt presence of … fleet phonetic and morphemic forms and their unfolding, expansive relations" (79). The grammatically mediated construction of sound becomes meaningful in and of itself, and while the lines of poetry that contain these sounds certainly possess "semantic" value, this lower order of meaning is not the register that McGann argues Poe would have us key into. Indeed, locating the poems' meanings in the sematic registers of the words used would make a poet (and presumably a reader) guilty of engaging in the "heresy of the didactic" (2)—a sin which Poe railed against when he saw it in the works of other writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In McGann's formulation, this "heresy" occurs whenever poetry is "approached as a repository of ideas or an expression of feelings [rather than] an event of language" (2). As an "event of language," the balance of significant poetic meaning apparently arises from the effect that the aural registers of words have on those who encounter them when these words are artfully and consciously combined. Any substantive attention paid to lexical meaning blinds a reader to the "higher registers" of meaning found in the aural combinations that McGann feels are Poe's real...


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