- Always Rhetoricize!The Figure of Poe as "Good Rhetorician"
Gero Guttzeit's ambitious, well-informed, and well-referenced The Figures of Edgar Allan Poe is an attempt at "rhetoricizing Poe," as the author puts it, in dialogue with important studies that have in recent decades restored Poe as a writer central to antebellum literary studies. For Guttzeit, "rhetoricizing" and "historisizing" should go hand in hand, not only because Poe's discourses were shaped by "rhetorical theories and practices of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries," but also because the antebellum print culture he belonged to was a "culture of rhetoric" in its own terms [9, 11]. Guttzeit claims that rhetoric was a more vital force in the United States than it was in Europe at the same period, where "the emergence of literature and the rise of the author coincided . . . with what is often called the fall, death or disappearance of rhetoric" . He also argues that American print culture was responsible for spreading and mediating the "culture of rhetoric"; therefore, it should not surprise us that Poe the magazinist was also Poe the rhetorician.
While scholars have long acknowledged Poe's debt to the "Scottish school" and to eighteenth-century rhetorical culture in general, Guttzeit's book suggests looking at it in a new light. In Poe's attention to rhetoric, Guttzeit sees a key to the problem that has troubled the author's readers and critics for years—namely, which aesthetic and cultural traditions does Poe "really" belong to? What I find fascinating about this book is the question it poses but never quite answers: why Poe, who often sounds anachronistic compared to his fellow romantics in Europe, is often numbered among those transatlantic authors who invented what we call modernity. While European romantics were pioneering and championing the idea of spontaneous genius, Poe was elaborating on the classical rhetorical patterns of authorship in both his criticism and his literary texts. Yet he became an acknowledged precursor not only of modern but also of postmodern sensibility, bridging the gap between the eighteenth-century New Rhetoric and the twentieth-century literary theory [End Page E18] that reaffirmed the value of rhetoric dismissed by the romantic cult of spontaneity. Such a train of thought may bring us to a more general theoretical level. Indeed, how "modern" is modernity, and what role did anachronistic or traditional elements play in its development? The equally fascinating case would be that of Poe's French admirer and literary "double" Charles Baudelaire, who, as is well known, was largely rooted in the classicist tradition and discourse.
Guttzeit's book contributes to the debunking of the "European Poe" following the critical tradition of the last two decades; furthermore, it radically inverts this concept by claiming that Poe went against the European, not the American, grain, being "at odds with the (late-)romantic age" . Guttzeit builds his argument on the "opposition between Poe's uses of a rhetorical rule-based craft of the author and an emphatic concept of genius based on romantic aesthetics, which Poe consciously rejects" [16–17]. As a result, we find novel combinations that, on the one hand, remain faithful to the rhetorical tradition of the previous century yet on the other, purloin, appropriate, and revise the emergent romantic models of authorship. For Guttzeit, Poe performs as a "damned good rhetorician," playing against the "damned bad rhetorician" tag infamously given to Poe by Ezra Pound [174–75]. The book demonstrates that Poe masterfully used rhetoric to his own ends in his critical essays and "Marginalia," as well as in his short fiction, poetry, and public performances.
The Figures of Edgar Allan Poe consists of two parts: "Authorship, Antebellum Literature, and Transatlantic Rhetoric" and "The Figures of Edgar Allan Poe." Guttzeit suggests that readers interested primarily in Poe should skip the first chapter of part 1, which discusses twentieth-century critical debates concerning the "death" and the "return" of the author . Since the book springs from a PhD dissertation, such...