Are Edgar Allan Poe's pathological characters to be identified with the authors own “tortured psyche”?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. “Love and Death in the American Novel” - Fiedler's Poe

3. Poe's Narrators – or Narrating Poe?

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

„[...] the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”[1]

Who else, it seems, could be more fitting to shed light on the mysterious liaison of love and death in literature than this man? Whose work could look more promising for a study on this topic than the creator of these lines? And yet, one of America's most acclaimed and influential critics did apparently not share this conviction.

The author in question is obviously Edgar Allan Poe, from whose canonical theoretical essay “The Philosophy of Composition” the foregoing quotation is taken. Although it is an essay specifically elucidating the composition of his most famous poem “The Raven”, although Poe is explicitly calling it a “poetical topic”, the maxim evidently still applies to a large part of his prose work as well. Stories such as “Ligeia”, “Berenice” or the famous “The Fall of the House of Usher” clearly substantiate this claim. It seems as none other than Poe deserved to be the center of attention concerning the topic of Eros and Thanatos. However, said critic did not think so.

In 1960, Leslie A. Fiedler published his most influential and controversial book “Love and Death in the American Novel”. Elaborating on a theory he had developed as early as 1948[2], Fiedler proclaimed his thesis of an “innocent interracial homosexuality”and the generally dysfunctional treatment of American authors of the love between man and woman.[3]

In contrast to the New Criticism-school that had been prevailing until the 1940s, and saw the text alone as the sole basis for literary criticism, Fiedler tries to incorporate biographical information on the author and insights in his sociocultural environment into his analysis.

Surprisingly, his examination of Edgar Allan Poe's oeuvre turns out as curtly as it is simplifying. He stylizes Poe as the dark side of the American dream, a depressed and depressing madman, incarnating his fantasies into stories of dubious merit. Being an ardent opponent of the New Criticism-school, Fiedler cannot help but relate the choice of Poe's themes and characters solely to the author himself, stating that “in Poe the incest theme belongs to the private world of his own tortured psyche […].”[4] For Fiedler, “The odd syndrome of child -love, necrophilia, and incest in Poe is too personal and pathological to shed much light on the general meaning of the latter theme in American literature and life.” [5] Instead of treating Poe as a singularity worth further analysis, he dismisses the author's work as the questionable fancies of a mentally deranged.

But the indisputable recurrence of the above-mentioned themes in Poe's work begs the question: Is Leslie Fiedler right? Are Poe's pathological characters to be identified with the author and his own “tortured psyche”?

To answer that question, and possibly to rebut Fiedler's theory will be the aim of this paper. The first part of my thesis will be concerned with reconstructing Fiedler's argument, examining the chapter on Poe in “Love and Death in the American Novel”,then taking into specific deliberation his theory on archetype and signature. Throughout this part, I will hint at possible contradictions in Fiedler's argumentation and comment on these.

In the second part, I will use these findings as the foundation of a possible counterargument. With the help of an essay by James W. Gargano on “The Question of Poe's Narrators”, which follows an utterly different, more conservative approach, I will try to disprove Fiedler and further substantiate my claims.

2. “Love and Death in the American Novel” - Fiedler's Poe

Fiedler dedicates a whole chapter in “Love and Death in the American Novel” to Poe. Or so it seems, as he quickly turns back to Twain and Melville for comparison. What he discusses at some length is Poe's “The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym”, his single attempt at the genre of the novel.

Fiedler criticizes the novel for being

“[...] an involved attempt on Poe's part to convince himself that his primary purpose in publishing the tale was to perpetrate a hoax on the reader. But this is an almost compulsive aspect of Poe's art in general, arising from a dark necessity, which dogged not only him among American writers, of remaining in ignorance about his own deepest aims and drives.”[6]

Already in the form of his tale, Fiedler insinuates, Poe expresses certain repressed feelings and motives, and his need to repress those. It is important for Poe to be able to pretend that everything he writes is just a hoax, a joke, so as not to have to give away his true intentions, his true self.

Yet Fiedler gives Poe credit for having created “[...] the archetypal American story, which would be recast in Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn.”[7] Against the backdrop of this statement, the lack of commercial and in the long run literary success of the novel is astonishing. In Fiedler's opinion, its failure is connected to its tone. Poe has created “[...] an anti-Western, disguised as the form it travesties […].” [8] And part of this travesty is that “[...] every current sentimental platitude, every cliché of the fable of the holy marriage of males is being ironically exposed.” [9] This circumstance, as Fiedler says, led to its rejection by the public and literary critics alike.

The “archetypal American story”, according to Fiedler, is the Western: “[...] the rejection of the family and of the world of women, the secret evasion from home and the turning to the open sea.” [10] And all these components are present in “Pym” as well as in the other examples he mentions. Yet Poe's case is different. “Moby Dick” or “Huckleberry Finn” have an eventually positive ending, although the protagonists have to endure various hardships, whereas the close of “Pym” promises only death and destruction.[11] The reason for this, Fiedler believes, is that “Poe's realm of refuge and escape seems finally a place of death rather than one of love: the idyllic American dream turned nightmare as it is dreamed in its author's uneasy sleep.” [12] Poe's conception of the American dream then is, in Fiedler's opinion, the reason “Pym” does have an enigmatic, unhappy ending. Poe's lack of faith in the American dream, Poe's disappointment of the American dream are the causes for the failure of his novel. And Poe's novel failed because of his mocking attitude, his inability to produce a genuine Western that has the Western's genuine spark of hope in the end. Fiedler's assumptions at this point could almost be, apart from from being over-simplistic and generalizing, misread as an appeal to faith in the American dream, in the American spirit.

Fiedler goes on to compare Pym's voyage to the south pole to Poe's first voyage to the American south in the arms of his mother. The analysis of the enigmatic ending of “Pym” is one of the rare times in his book, when Fiedler feels the need to assure himself of the support and authority of other critics:

“It was (as Marie Bonaparte and other analytical critics have made clear) his mother whom Poe was pursuing in his disguise as Pym: that lost, pale mother, white with the whiteness of milk and the pallor of disease; and the imaginary voyage is a long regression to childhood. But hostilely guarding the last access to the White Goddess, stands the black killer, Too-Wit. In the ultimate reaches of his boyhood, where he had confidently looked for some image of maternal comfort and security, Poe-Pym finds both the white chasm and the black womb sealed off by black warriors.”[13]

Fiedler's speculations on Poe's relationship to black people as a southerner sound plausible, as there surely is to be detected a certain reservation, not to say hostility in the depiction of the black characters. As Fielder aptly remarks, even his half-breed companion Dirk Peters harbors a menacing side. But to construct a “repressed-childhood-memory” theory around the entirety of events of “Pym” seems too much a of an attempt at armchair psychology.

Fiedler's point becomes more evident when he addresses Poe's short stories, naturally confining himself to those thematizing his research topic, love and death. He even praises Poe for these stories, yet makes an observation that confirms, in his opinion, the claims he has made earlier:

Over and over, the writer, who married his scarcely nubile cousin and called her Sis, returns to the [incest] theme, particularly in that series of tales involving dark and terrible ladies, which is his most convincing achievement.”[14]

It is true that Poe repeatedly utilizes this theme. But it is equally true that Poe makes use of the theme of guilt on several occasions, as in “The Black Cat” or The Tell-Tale Heart”, or the technique he calls “ratocination”, as in the Auguste Dupin stories. To deduce on this evidence that Poe was a thoroughly guilt-ridden part-time private investigator seems rather far-fetched.

Moreover, Fiedler admits that the incest theme was as a matter of fact a common ingredient in Gothic fiction, but once again, Poe's case is apparently different:


[1] E.A. Poe, The Philosophy of Composition, 165.

[2] Leslie Fiedler, „ Come Back to the Raft Ag'in Huck Honey!“, Partisan Review (June 1948).

[3] cf. Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, Champaign/ London/ Dublin: Dalkey Archive, 2008: 24.

[4] Fiedler 2008: 415.

[5] Fiedler 2008: 416.

[6] Fiedler 2008: 392.

[7] Fiedler 2008: 393.

[8] Fiedler 2008: 394.

[9] Fiedler 2008: 394.

[10] Fiedler 2008: 393.

[11] cf. Fiedler 2008: 394.

[12] Fiedler 2008: 393.

[13] Fiedler 2008: 400.

[14] Fiedler 2008: 415.

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Are Edgar Allan Poe's pathological characters to be identified with the authors own “tortured psyche”?
University of Constance
American Literary and Cultural Theory – Leslie Fiedler
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Poe, Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, New Criticism
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Sebastian Langner (Author), 2011, Are Edgar Allan Poe's pathological characters to be identified with the authors own “tortured psyche”?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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