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  • The Waterfall, the Whirlpool, and the Stage "Boundaries of Americanness" in Poe's "A Descent into the Maelstrom"
  • Micah K. Donohue

… and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

—Edgar Allan Poe, "A Descent into the Maelström," 1841

Edgar Allan Poe never visited Niagara, but the falls nevertheless held "considerable allure" for the writer (Pollin 497).1 He seems most impressed by the (for Poe, imagined) sound of the "mighty cataract," and he mentions the "roaring of Niagara" in tales and longer works of fiction such as "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" (1835) and "A Descent into the Maelström" (1841). In the latter text, Poe explicitly connects the Canadian-American waterfall to the Scandinavian whirlpool. He was not the first author to do so: if not a standard comparison, neither was it unheard of for nineteenth-century guidebooks and travelogues to contrast Niagara Falls with the Norwegian Rjukanfossen (described as "la plus grande et la plus remarquable" waterfall in the world), or to compare the "tremendous whirlpool" of Niagara with Norway's "celebrated Maelstrom."2 These transatlantic connections provide my point of departure, and in the pages that follow I demonstrate how Niagara and particularly the Maelstrom function within "A Descent" as literary topoi both within and beyond American imaginaries. They are sites of hemispheric and planetary rewriting that trespass the "boundaries of Americanness" that Kirsten Silva Gruesz has described (30). The crosscurrents of the whirlpool and the crashing waterfall provide images of "'American literature' in motion" (Luciano 6). That movement carries "American literature" into the world and vice versa, simultaneously "bring[ing] the circumference of the world to bear on the circumference of the nation," as Wai Chee Dimock envisions American world literature ("Planet and America" 11), and bringing the scope of the nation to bear on the dimensions of world literature.

"Les images seules peuvent remettre les verbes en mouvement" [only images can restore movement to verbs], writes Gaston Bachelard (109), and Dana Luciano's [End Page 237] "American literature in motion" becomes an "unsettled" verbal field—as her own "account" of nineteenth-century earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley dramatically illustrates (1–5). Replacing terrain with water, shifting from the dominant "continental paradigm" to an oceanic model of waves, tides, and eddies (Roberts 129), mobilizes American literature beyond what Luciano's seismic activity allows. Poe combines riverine and vortical metaphors of Niagara and the Maelstrom into a composite image that overflows national limits and plummets into the "whirl"—the world—beyond them. As Robert T. Tally writes in Poe and the Subversion of American Literature (2014), "Poe's writings … exert a countervailing force, opening spaces for exploring an alternative literature no longer tethered to the myths and symbols of a national literature" (2). Even as Poe's unmoored literature flows into the transnational currents and eddies of world literature, however, his texts generate a nationalizing force that, paradoxically, destabilizes the coherence of linguistic and national literary borders. "The great whirlpool of the Maelström," which Poe immortalizes in a nineteenth-century US publication, engulfs literary currents from around the world (CW 2: 581).3 Studying that double movement, which trespasses "boundaries of Americanness" in both directions, reveals the insufficiency of mono-national (or mono-linguistic) approaches to American literature. The Maelstrom, an image of motion, provides an early entry within the archive of spiral imagery used to conceptualize de-bordered, inherently comparative modes of American writing.4

The "great whirlpool" figuratively represents what Poe understood to be authentic literature: writing performative in nature, combinatorial in structure, and unlimited in geotemporal scope. The vortex allegorizes two of Poe's more resounding claims about literature, both made within a year of the maritime tale's initial publication in Graham's Magazine. The first is Poe's insistence in an 1840 review that "novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations;" the second, from 1842, that "the world at large [is] the only proper stage for the literary histrio" (ER 334, 1027). The "whirl" of the Maelstrom, like the "immense concentric circles" of another of Poe's...


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