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Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu.

Professor Fisher's Poe and His Times is intended as a companion volume to his 1986 collection of essays, Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, also published by the Poe Society. This earlier collection focused on the impact of Poe's fiction - its humor, its metaphysics, its formalist strategies, and its sensational subject matters - on writers as disparate as Stephen King, T. S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ishmael Reed. By contrast, the twenty-two essays that comprise Poe and His Times address both the poetry and the prose, this time in their nineteenth-century social, cultural, and intellectual context.

Together, the essays offer a little something - and sometimes a great deal more - for almost everyone. Included are affinity studies (Poe and Washington Allston; Poe's raven and Keats's nightingale; Poe/Emerson/Thoreau); influence studies ("Ligeia" and Poe's debt to Emerson and Irving; Poe and German Idealist philosophy; Poe and the Scottish Common Sense philosophers); source studies (medicine in "The Fall of the House of Usher"; Poe and natural magic; Samuel Warren's "The Bracelets" as a source for "The Raven"); comparative textual studies (Poe's revisions of "Eleonora"); translation studies (Baudelaire's Poe), and reception/reputation studies (Henry Clay Preuss and the Poe debate; Elizabeth Oakes Smith on Poe; Henry James on Poe; Edmund Clarence Stedman and the posthumous struggle for Poe's "life").

While not all of the essays succeed in what they set out to do, as a collection they offer a rich variety of approach and insight. Adding to the success of the collection is editor Fisher's shrewd sequencing of the essays; as arranged, they invite us to re-engage some of the continuing Poe debates and controversies in light of new evidence and critical commentary. For example, in his introductory essay on the visionary kinship of Poe and Allston, Glen A. Omans concludes that the two artists "were the first to introduce the principle of German Idealist philosophy into the mainstream of American art." By contrast, Bruce I. Weiner, in the third essay of the collection, finds in his study of Poe and the Blackwood's tale of sensation that Poe more frequently falls back on the rational and conservative influence of the Scottish Common Sense realists. Sandwiched between these two essays is Joan Dayan's study of Poe's fiction as discourses on method in which Poe uses - or "uses up" - language to satirize both Transcendentalist cant and the suffocating rationalism of Locke.

The three "Raven" essays near the end of the collection invite similar comparison, especially those by David H. Hirsch and Dennis V. Eddings. Hirsch examines "The Raven" in light of its "dynamics of contraction," a dynamic which runs purposely counter to typical Romantic metaphors of flight or "opening out," as with Emerson's widening circles. "The Raven" is Keats's expansive "Ode to a Nightingale" in reverse, and as such, becomes a conscious parody of the typical Romantic meditative poem filled with the language of overflow and energized by the motif of visionary flight-and-return. Poe, Hirsch insists, "moved beyond this poetics of alternating vision and failure to an uncannily twentieth-century poetics of immediate failure," and by so doing, replaced the Romantic sublime with the Existentialist absurd. Dennis W. Eddings also examines the parodic impulse in "The Raven." Addressing the poem's numerous "absurdities of situation and poetics" noted previously by critics Jesse Bier, Howard Mumford Jones, and others, Eddings argues that they are purposive discordances shrewdly orchestrated by Poe to expose sterile, ego-centered Romanticism (the narrator is a self-indulgent Romantic poseur wallowing deliciously in his own angst) as well as the bad poetry that results. "The Raven," then, has a serious theme which is reinforced by its parodic poetics; the poem, that is, both tells us and shows us "the dead end of the Romantic imagination."

There are other dynamic pairings or groupings of essays in the collection: Steven E. Kagle and Jerry A. Herndon on "Ligeia"; Roberta Sharp and Richard Kopley on Pym; and finally, the interdisciplinary "frame" given the collection by the first essay, on Poe's connection to Washington Allston, a visionary painter of the early nineteenth century, and the last essay, by Robert J. Scholnick, which examines Beardsley's illustrations for the Stedman-Woodberry edition of Poe published in 1894-95 (four illustrations are included).

Not all of the essays enjoy the success of those cited above. In "Poe and the Will," for example, April Selley offers an interesting thematic grouping of tales which address the issue of free will versus democratic responsibility. But to argue that Montresor, Roderick and Madeline Usher et al. are "American citizens," and further, that their lives are ruined because of their failure to reconcile overweening self-will with the democratic imperative "to tolerate the rights and the operation of the will of others" - this gives one pause, as well as a desire for a passport check. Other essays linger too long on ground made familiar by Bloom, Wilbur, Thompson, and company. And finally, one might object that the collection lacks essays which engage feminist critical theory, deconstruction, reception theory, or any of the contemporary critical schools. On the subject of this omission, however, one person's outrage is another's mercy.

On the whole, the shortcomings of this volume are of the lighter dye. Poe and His Times is a useful and welcome addition to Poe scholarship and criticism.
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Author:Carlson, Thomas C.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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