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  • Edgar Allan Poe's Tarred and Feathered Bodies:Imagining Race, Questioning Bondage, and Marking Humanity
  • Marina Trninic (bio)

"The keepers, … having been suddenly overpowered, were first well tarred, then—carefully feathered, and then shut up in underground cells."—Edgar Allan Poe, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether"

Tarring and feathering, on American soil, was a mode of punishment and a trope of literature since pre-Revolutionary agitations. The late 1830's and 1840's saw the most concentrated resurgence of tarring and feathering since that time, making the practice part of a larger process of discursive and visual racializing that underlies the historical formation of U.S. citizenship as white. Dramatizations of the ritual in antebellum literature reveal the deep political and psychological anxieties about the use of violent social coercion to establish the always shifting class and racial boundaries of U.S. nationalism.

Acutely aware of both longstanding literary conventions and emerging discourses in print culture, Edgar Allan Poe incorporated the ritual into two tales of social inversion: "The System of Tarr and Fether and Professor Fether" (1845) and "Hop-Frog; Or Eight Chained, Ourang-Outangs" (1849).1 With Poe's tales, the notion of race is embedded in tar and feathers and gains a psychological connection to violent slave uprisings. The image of the tarred and feathered body as ape, for Poe, is the embodiment of white terror associated with the chaos of rioting and insurrection. Seemingly separate arenas which culturally produced the ideas of blackness in the nineteenth century—including emerging racist pseudosciences, theories of insanity, performances of blackface minstrelsy, and preoccupations with cultivating good taste—merged in Poe's fiction not only to appeal to his audiences, but also to reveal that tarring and feathering signifies a crisis in citizenship, one that always asks, "what is human?" [End Page 26]

I. Tarring and Feathering: Pre-Revolutionary Prologue

On the eve of the American Revolution, colonists brought out feathers and tar buckets to publicly darken, defile, and animalize the bodies of boycott violators, loyalists, and low-ranking British officials. Although the peculiar practice was an adaptation of a longstanding maritime punishment, the Sons of Liberty first appropriated it on American soil to intimidate customs agents and to discipline traitorous townsmen as a means of resisting the series of revenue acts imposed by the Crown.2 As historian Gary Nash indicates, "Anyone involved in ferreting out violators, fastening on them the opprobrium of the community, and coercing them to mend their ways could think of himself or herself as a civic actor."3 Continuing a decade after 1766, tarring and feathering facilitated colonists in processing their conflicted sense of citizenship. Individual participants took part for a variety of motives, of course, but the consolidation of these motivations into the act of tarring and feathering nevertheless produced a relatively coherent public statement. Through this violent ritual, colonists disavowed their British identities and affirmed their patriotism and allegiance to each other.4 However unifying, the practice's inherent contradiction—arguing on behalf of liberty while taking it away—was problematic for some colonists and many British alike.

The specific meaning-making of tarring and feathering varied according to localized enactments; the practice was multifarious and highly adaptable to the moment, and merged with other forms of public shaming or misrule rituals.5 Participants' senses irrevocably involved them in the ritual; they ran, shouted, banged pots and pans, gestured with their faces and arms, and smelled the tar in the air. As such the ritual served a cultural and visceral function by manifesting public sentiment collectively, moving the abstract to the material and highlighting a supposed corruption of the private interior on the public exterior of the body. More humiliating and injurious than deadly, the violence of tarring and feathering rarely escalated into an outright summary execution.

The continuities of tarring and feathering can be understood via Mary Douglas' ideas in her now classic Purity and Danger, in which she explains that public rituals "work upon the body politic through the symbolic medium of the physical body."6 The materials used, tar and feathers, were "matter out of place,"7 and therefore...


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