Poe in Hard Times: Terror of the Soul at The Morgan Library & Museum

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Edgar Allan Poe




Poe in Hard Times: Terror of the Soul at The Morgan Library & Museum by Caleb Smith

November 26th, 2013 reset - +

ONE OF THE DOCUMENTS on view in Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul is a handwritten letter, dated February 8, 1849, from Edgar Allan Poe to Nancy Locke Richmond of Lowell, Massachusetts. The wife of a wealthy industrialist, Mrs. Richmond was one of several women with whom Poe had become involved, more or less intimately, since the death of his beloved Virginia. She was “Annie” to him. He was “Eddy” to her. His letter was playful and coy. “The 5 pages I finished yesterday are called — what do you think? — I am sure you will never guess — ‘Hop-Frog’! Only think of your Eddy writing a story with such a name as ‘Hop-Frog’! You would never guess the subject (which is a terrible one) from the title, I am sure.” Poe had revealed the secret of his title, but he was not going to give away the mystery of his subject. The rest of his letter was not about the tale but about where he planned to send it. The Boston paper called The Flag of Our Union, he explained, was “not a very respectable journal, perhaps, in a literary point of view,” but the editors were willing to pay him five dollars for the piece. Hard up for cash, as usual, Poe would take the money. “Hop-Frog” was published on March 17.

As for the subject, it was terrible enough. Captured in “some barbarous region” and “forcibly carried off” to a “civilized” kingdom, Hop-Frog becomes a jester at the court of a tyrant. The dwarf takes his name from the distortion of his body; his walk is a crippled, struggling “interjectional gait.” The king and his seven ministers are a bunch of “large, corpulent, oily men” who love a rowdy joke but don’t care much for the “refinements” of wit. “We want characters — characters, man — something novel — out of the way.” Hop-Frog tells stories and performs tricks, enduring all kinds of mortification when he fails to amuse. He looks on, helpless, as the king abuses his fellow-captive, the beautiful Tripetta. He is forced to guzzle wine, which doesn’t agree with his delicate constitution. Drinking makes him crazy, and he stumbles and slurs. “Hop-Frog,” it seems, is a parable of the artist’s enslavement by a gross, idiotic power.

It is also a revenge fantasy. The jester suffers all he can, and then he hatches a scheme. He plots his “last jest”; he plays the game of the “Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs.” On the occasion of a masquerade, the trickster dwarf persuades the king and his cronies to disguise themselves as apes. The costumes are crafted from tar and flax, and the oligarchs are chained together. (Hop-Frog, Poe implies, is the kind of servant who knows a thing or two about chains.) The king and his ministers enter the party at midnight, looking like a gang of escaped monsters. There is a commotion in the hall. The crowd makes for the exits; the women swoon. Now Hop-Frog makes his move. He fastens his enemies to the chandelier-chain, sets a torch to the flax, and hoists their bodies toward the ceiling. The king and his ministers are burned alive. “The eight corpses hung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass.” The multitude looks on in horror, and Hop-Frog and Tripetta make their escape. You can imagine them laughing, their terrible joy.

It is a commonplace among scholars that “Hop-Frog” is a story about Poe’s bad relationship with his critics, perhaps even with the public itself. The author’s wars against his uncomprehending readers are part of his legend. Poe had been mocked in print for his ugliness and his awkwardness. He had been called a lunatic, a charlatan, and a drunk. In “Hop-Frog,” he projected his own miseries and resentments onto the hobbled dwarf, suggesting that even a gifted and innocent artist would become, in the end, the deformed creature that his stupid, cruel audience wanted him to be. Poe had made the jester’s drunkenness a symptom of his powerlessness. He had pictured himself as a kind of slave, and he had dreamed up a rebellion that would turn the disfiguring violence of the chain and the flame against his masters. Who knows if Annie Richmond guessed the subject of the tale? But it was written between the lines of Poe’s letter, in his confession that five dollars was worth more to him, in those hard times, than a place in a literary journal that he could respect. Poe would be dead by the end of the year.

There is some strangeness, then, in seeing Poe’s life and afterlives on display here, in what used to be Pierpont Morgan’s private library. The manuscripts that the author was so desperate to sell have become treasures, amassed under a banker’s roof. Terror of the Soul occupies a large room on the ground floor of the library. Before you enter, in the vestibule just outside, you come to a glass case containing three relics. The first is a promissory note, dated February 3, 1849 (five days before the letter to Annie Richmond), in the amount of $67 — a testament to Poe’s deepening debt. The second is the ghostly “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype portrait, taken by the photographer Edwin Manchester on November 9, 1848, just a day after Poe had attempted to kill himself with an overdose of laudanum. In the picture his face is still half-collapsed, his eyes weird with drugs and demons. The third relic is a piece of Poe’s coffin, apparently broken off when his remains were unearthed and relocated in 1875. By that time, a quarter century after his death, the author had come to be remembered as a saint, at least by some romantics.

By a perverse trick of fate, Poe’s misery has become a kind of currency. To Poe, scarcity meant not being able to pay his bills. To the collectors and archives that hold his works today, scarcity means precious value. The original print run of Poe’s first volume, Tamerlane and Other Poems, produced in Boston in 1827, was just 50 copies. Twelve are known to survive. This is the rarest and most valuable of all American books, and Terror of the Soul features three copies. The display of riches in the Morgan’s exhibit extends well beyond the author’s career, too. The final phase of Terror of the Soul, nominally devoted to Poe’s reception and influence, includes manuscripts by Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. You can read Vladimir Nabokov’s handwritten notes for a lecture on The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. You can see Irving Penn’s portrait of W.H. Auden, gorgeously dressed and looking like a suave vampire. It’s a lovely rogues’ gallery, but in some of these cases the connections to Poe are tenuous, just an occasion to take the Morgan’s prizes out of the vaults.

Between Tamerlane and Terry Southern, though, is the heart of the exhibit: a fantastic collection of Poe’s manuscripts and letters and some of the earliest editions of his printed work. What emerges from this archive is a picture of what Poe’s precarious life was like before it was absorbed into the legend of his misunderstood genius (a legend which, no doubt, Poe himself tried to cultivate). Some of the letters offer glimpses into Poe’s negotiations with editors over the stanzas of his poetry or the terms of his payment. Others are exchanges with the eminent writers of his time — Washington Irving, Charles Dickens. All are composed in a studied, elegant hand. This is the kind of writing that, in the 20th century, would come to be called “cursive,” but it is perfectly clear. The author signs off succinctly: “Truly yours, Poe.”

Even more revealing than the letters are the manuscripts themselves. You can see some of Poe’s last-minute modifications, which give you a feeling for the quality of his ear. (In the late poem The Bells, for instance, the phrase “the clamor of the bells” was revised to “the anger of the bells,” creating an internal eye-rhyme with the previous line, “How the danger sinks and swells.”) You can also discover the unconventional things that Poe did with his materials, with paper and pen. He used sealing wax to paste small sheets of paper into long “scrolls,” and he wrote tales on them, from top to bottom. You wouldn’t read these things by turning the pages. You would unroll them, like archaic documents. These were modern tales, made to look like holy texts or proclamations from the king. The 22-foot scroll of “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” made in 1844, is exhibited in Terror of the Soul for the first time in its original form.

The scrolls show Poe pushing the practice of writing backward in history, refashioning modern paper as ancient parchment. But Poe could work in the opposite direction, too. Some of the most intriguing documents in Terror of the Soul are his experiments in hand printing — that is, adapting his handwriting to resemble printed text. In preparing his manuscript of an 1835 tale entitled Hans Phaal, he crafted a dropped, centered title in all capitals. Below, the body of the tale is scrupulously designed to imitate a published version. The neat lines of print are right-justified. The margins are measured and balanced. Behind this document are not only the hours of imaginative and editorial labor that went into writing the story but also many more hours, bent over the page, pen in hand, approximating the actions of a machine. And behind this discipline of precision is the sensibility of a poet who is excruciatingly aware of how literary institutions — editors, printers, reviewers — convey authority and prestige. Poe wanted those gifts almost as desperately as he needed money. He was capable of composing a near-perfect text, even as he was making a mess of his career.

The space devoted to 20th-century writers might have been used, instead, to show some aspects of the literary world of Poe’s own time. We might understand more about the sacrifice involved in publishing with the not-quite-reputable Flag of Our Union, for instance, if we could compare an issue of that paper to one of the journals edited by Poe himself. We might see the strangeness of Poe’s manuscripts more vividly if they were displayed alongside works by better-established contemporaries like James Fennimore Cooper and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Still, you don’t have to be an expert to perceive the unusual qualities of these documents, the mixed traces of virtuosity and doubt, the contending forces of grand ambition and grinding debt. Somehow, it’s the desire to come closer to Poe, in all his precariousness, that brings us to the banker’s house, to inspect these precious things.

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As part of Terror of the Soul, The Morgan has booked a spectacular program of events that run through January 26, 2014. It includes screenings of Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and House of Usher (1960), several gallery talks and guided tours, a performance by Elevator Repair Service, a reading by Robert Pinsky, and a discussion with Paul Auster. One of the events in the program won’t happen, after all. Lou Reed was scheduled to appear on November 5. He died too soon. Reed’s 2003 album The Raven adopted several of Poe’s tales and poems. His voice on these tracks has a dark jitteriness that seems just right. I can’t say why, exactly, but when I was standing in the library, looking at the Poe relics and thinking about Lou Reed, I kept hearing an earlier lyric, again and again: “It’s hard to live in the city.”

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Caleb Smith is professor of English at Yale University.

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