- Excerpts from "A Raving Socrates:Poe and the Grotesque Truth of Humor"
I am honored by the invitation to speak, in a country I always wanted to visit, at this international conference celebrating the birth of Poe. I am accompanied by my wife, Elizabeth Boyd Fosbrink Thompson. This is her second visit to this part of Brazil—having many years ago, as a young girl, been here with her father, Raleigh Harmon Fosbrink, Assistant Dean of Agriculture at Purdue University, who was instrumental in setting up the program in agriculture at Universidade Federale de Viçosa. Julio Jeha, Sandra Almeida, and others on the Conference Committee have made it possible for us to visit Viçosa, where we were able to see a plaque honoring the work of Elizabeth's father. For that opportunity we are most grateful.
Professor Jeha has suggested that I might address Poe's humor—writing that "very few people notice the humorous side of Poe's oeuvre, so we'd suggest that you focus on that." This has been my experience also; most readers see him only as the poet of otherworldly beauty or the archpriest of terror and horror. It is true that Poe was addicted to Gothic themes and grotesque modes and fascinated by destructive aspects of the Romantic life/death paradox. But he also considered himself one of America's premier humorists. Indeed, he was quite annoyed when in the 1840s he was left out of a popular anthology of U.S. humor.
My principal contention is that at the center of Poe's worldview—coordinating the unusual combination of otherworldly beauty, Gothic horror, and satiric humor—is a pervasive "ironic" vision. In particular, the nineteenth-century [End Page 126] European concept of "Romantic irony" offers a key to Poe's seemingly fragmented total oeuvre. Within this framework, I shall comment on a few of Poe's comic, satiric, and parodic works that I have not previously dealt with in much detail. I will deal with a few of the obscure social and political satires, placing them with literary parodies in the overall scheme of his literary satire, and conclude with some issues of aesthetic and philosophical theories in terms of the comic and the absurd.
Along with the great humorist and satirist Mark Twain, Poe is probably the best-known outside of the United States of our "classic" American writers. Enormously popular and widely admired—as well as roundly condemned and even dismissed—Poe occupies an extraordinary place in literary history. With a relatively small body of work, he managed to exert significant impact on later writers—representing the radical change from Romantic literary tradition to quasi-realism and proto-modernism. He seems to have been the most important influence from the English-speaking world on the development of three related literary movements in Continental Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. In death, he became the contested icon of the art for art's sake, symbolist, and surrealist movements, especially among those contradictory aesthetic extremists and sociopolitical dissenters associated with France. Charles Baudelaire celebrated Poe as the poète maudit: the misunderstood martyr disaffected from the crass materialism of his culture—the doomed artist obsessed by beauty and the "twin mysteries" of the living spirit and the fact of death.
Although Poe professed to be the poet of Romantic beauty, his was an alternative Romanticism. It was not the Romanticism of the spiritual beauty of the natural world celebrated by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists—but of another, nonmaterial world that represented an escape from the natural. Yet Poe's spiritual otherworld was also divided. He saw the poet-seer as tormented by transitory glimpses of the Supernal—visions that are ever threatened by obliteration—a threat abetted, in Poe's mythos, by the Romantic poet-seer's very act of creation. In both prose and poetry, Poe explored the problematic aspects of the Romantic life/death paradox through the modes of the Gothic and the grotesque. As the otherworldly devotee of Beauty, the romantic poet sought ultimate Truth. But the Truth that Poe found...