Printer Friendly

The ourang-outang situation.

The crime at the heart of Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is the slave insurrection, but the real mystery of this story concerns why this reading is not more obvious. A discussion of the classroom challenges of this interpretation reveals some shortcomings of "structuralist" pedagogies while highlighting the advantages of Sartre's "situational" approach to historical context. ********** The interpretive premise of this essay is a simple one: the first American detective story, Edgar Allen Poe's 1841 "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," is a response to American slave rebellions. But my primary concern in what follows will be with the instructional challenges this interpretation poses, for having become convinced of the pedagogical value of this reading while teaching Poe, I have struggled since with the difficulties of presenting it convincingly in the classroom. (1) I should stress from the start that these challenges do not strike me as idiosyncratic (to me, my students, Poe, or his story), but in fact illuminate a series of common questions about how we address "historical context" in the teaching of literature. And I want to go so far as to hypothesize that such pedagogical challenges as I describe here emerge from the contemporary academy's dominant theoretical tendencies, above all from what might loosely be called "Cultural Studies" approaches, in interpreting literature. In what follows, then, I will offer a brief and incomplete interpretation of Poe's story, contrasting it with what I take to be a sophisticated and representative contemporary interpretation. My goal will be to contrast two critical positions on the relationship between "Literature" and "History." I will then briefly outline a methodological framework that many readers may, at first glance, find hopelessly anachronistic--that of the Sartrean "situation." If readers can bear with this account of a by-gone philosophy of freedom, I hope to persuade them that a situational reading of Poe's story in fact takes us substantially beyond the old-fashioned conventions of today's "discourse analysis" I will conclude with some specific suggestions for teaching Poe, and some more general pedagogical ideas for teaching literature historically--and for teaching history literarily.

The Testing Ground

I begin with a nuanced and insightful analysis of Poe's story, that offered by Nancy A. Harrowitz, in her essay "Criminality and Poe's Orangutan: The Question of Race in Detection." Harrowitz begins her analysis citing Nietzsche's essay "Homer's Contest," which argued that cultural products fundamentally amount to an agon or contest "between savage impulses ... and civilization": building on this premise, her account of the story Hill similarly focus on how Poe's story reveals "the agonistics of detective fiction as a budding genre," one that "invokes some specific historical tensions of America in the early 1840s" For starters, detective fiction emerges out of "the new phenomenon of larger urban areas that were undergoing a process of refinement and topographical categorization" (1997, 182). The development of "large uncontrolled urban areas" created "increasing anxiety" to which "the culture of criminology" and its fictional corollary--detective fiction--were responses (182-83). And specifically, responses of control, as classification attempts not only to categorize the criminal but to make clear the boundaries between the criminal and the citizen. Thus the story's odd construction of the orangutan, whose anthropomorphization gives him enough human qualities not only to commit the crime, but also, obversely, to draw certain qualities of cultural difference away from the normative populace. Thus linguistic foreignness, violent hypersexualization, and ultimately racial difference cohere around the figure of the orangutan, exemplifying "the conflict between our view of different civilizations and our desire to identify scapegoats" (188). In "transferring a cultural anxiety regarding the perceived murderous, monstrous capacities of 'foreigners'" onto the orangutan, Harrowitz proceeds to argue, Poe's text further demonstrates a corresponding displacement of racial anxiety and crisis onto the orangutan (190-91).

Such are the main claims of Harrowitz's essay, which concludes with the programmatic summation that "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a "par adigmatic" agonistic text on two basic counts (1997, 193). First, "it introduces some chilling concerns about difference and its perceived perniciousness that become a subtext in the genre of detection because of this genre's close affiliation with the development of criminology" (193). Secondly, "[b]y setting up duplicitous structures of understanding for the detective, which cover up the racial tensions ..., the story unsettles the same epistemology of detection that it establishes as reliable and which has been adopted ever since as indispensable to the detective genre" (194). Given these two dynamics, she concludes, the story thus "can function as a testing ground for theories regarding race, sexuality, and the interactions of these two categories through a displacement of 'reason' onto xenophobia" (194; my emphasis).

Now the three points of this summation are revealing of a contemporary approach to historical criticism, and might be read initially as a precis of three related and influential theoretical projects:
 1. First is what might be called the structural or Foucauldian
 point: that the text manifests certain dominant thought-systems
 operative at the moment of its composition. These discourses,
 concerned primarily with the ordering and therefore construction of
 knowledge, ground the text's "concerns about difference." And the
 agon of the literary text is conflict between discourses (e.g., as
 in the Nietzschean clash "between savage impulses ... and

 2. Second is what might be called the deconstructive or Derridean
 point: that the text works to suppress its epistemological traces or
 conditions. The text "unsettles" the very norms of knowledge (here
 the methodological norms of detection) even as it constructs them.
 And through this process, the story "cover[s] up the racial
 tensions" even as it draws on them.

 3. Third, drawing on and following from these two related critical
 projects, the text becomes a site of intersection and clashing, the
 "testing ground," within which we might trace the "interactions"
 (or negotiations, or articulations) of its constituent dements, This
 might be called the Cultural Studies point, drawing on Fredric
 Jameson's assessment that "[a]rticulation thus stands as the name of
 [its] central theoretical problem or conceptual core" (1995, 270).

We can imagine how these three theoretical moorings might then be translated into pedagogical points for the historical study of Poe's story:
 1. To situate "Murders" we must map out the dominant discourses of
 the context in question (here, "America in the early 1840s"). These
 would be the related discourses of urbanization and criminology
 (including constructions of deviant sexuality, biological and racial
 difference, as well as emerging theories of scientific detection and
 criminology), most readily accessible in more "abstract" texts like
 Francis Galtons's "Eugenics" or Finger Prints.

 2. We would then insist, as a transhistorical point, that cultures
 typically hide the conditions of their existence, by suppressing
 contradictions and tensions that cannot be admitted or acknowledged.
 This would bring us back to a close reading of the text to
 illustrate not only the "anxieties" of "Murders" or detective
 fiction in general, but American society as a whole.

 3. From these two predicates, we would teach "Murders" as a kind of
 cultural laboratory in which we can track how competing,
 contradictory, and/or complementary discourses clash and combine.
 We have here illustrations of what happens when antebellum theories
 of sexuality come together with theories of race, and so forth.

Such a program will appear unobjectionable enough, even salutary, given its ambitious attempts to make the apparently secondary concerns of race, sexuality, and urban development central to the teaching of the story. Contrasted with a "traditional" focus (e.g., on Dionysian vs. Apollonian forms of thought, or on the formal conventions of the detective story), this would certainly seem a positive attempt to locate "Murders" historically, to capture some of the broad social and intellectual movements and tendencies of the period. But I would like to stress three historical elements missing from such an account, the absence of which, I hope to show, seriously limits the power of this kind of historical criticism.
 1. Consistent with the contemporary critical repudiation of "hot
 history" or originary causes, specific historical events seem
 irrelevant to Harrowitz's account. She can speak in the passive
 voice or intransitively of the general emergence of broad epistemes,
 e.g., "the culture of criminology developing at the time"
 (1997, 183), but particular forms of praxis, even intellectual,
 are largely dismissed as manifestations of broader thought systems
 and anxieties. It is for this reason that Harrowitz writes of white
 discourses of racialization, but never speaks of the slave
 insurrection per se: the orangutan will be a figure around which
 coheres the discourses of sexualization, bestiality, and the like,
 but not an agent who, in Poe's society, might escape and kill
 white people.

 2. Relatedly absent is the notion that Poe, the author, is doing
 something with this story. Telling here are Harrowitz's repeated
 references to the attitudes of Dupin: "Dupin entertains the
 possibility ..." (1997180); "In the mind of Dupin, who is influenced
 by cultural attitudes and stereotypes ..." (184); "... the creation
 of a subtext over which Dupin lacks vision or control" (189). These
 are not undergraduate instances of mistaking the character for the
 author, but are rather in the realm of the explicit rejection, a la
 Foucault, of the Author as a constructive agent: since Poe must be
 every bit as much a placeholder for the discourses of his time as
 Dupin is, there is no meaningful distinction to be made between
 them. This leads us to conclude that Poe's story manifests
 tendencies of the period, ruling out the possibility that Poe was
 working with the discourses of the moment intentionally to craft a
 specific insight.

 3. Finally--and this too follows from the preceding silences--there
 is no sense that readers might be doing something in this story. In
 describing the story's nineteenth-century context, the implication
 is that antebellum readers would be attuned to the same anxieties
 and discourses that the story manifests; and in writing about
 readers today, the implication is that they must receive--passively
 --information about relevant thought systems of the past, and then
 be led--by the teacher-critic--through the intricacies of the
 story's contradictions and suppressions. True, it is assumed that
 readers are, at some level, culturally processing these discourses:
 or, more accurately, that discourses are circulating through their
 subjectivities. But it is never considered that many readers
 (particularly American ones, black or white) will understand the
 story and take away a lesson intended by Poe.

The Situation

Harrowitz's "testing ground" approach is surely a common--and perhaps the dominant--approach to the problem of historical context: such and such discourses (or concerns, or beliefs, or issues) circulate at such and such a time, and our text in question is a conjunction (or articulation, or instantiation, or enactment). It may seem that we often teach this way as a kind of shorthand, because we don't have time to talk about context in detail. But Harrowitz's analysis, which is rich in detail and nuance, belies that excuse, and I think many teachers of literature will supplement a literary text with several texts illustrating a discursive context. The problem thus seems more fundamentally a theoretical one of how we approach context, and of how we have dismissed certain older problematics. For in stressing the agency of historical actors, author, and readers, many will automatically assume that I suffer from "agency panic," and am offering a regressive model for the reading of Poe's story, one that takes us back to hot history, celebration of the artist, and the like. Nor will it help my argument that the three elements I've outlined above are those most undergraduates find interesting and important (What was going on at the time? What did Poe mean? My reaction to the story was...). So let me quickly reiterate that I find Harrowitz's analysis compelling, if incomplete, in the links she carefully traces between the racial, sexual, and xenophobic elements of the stow, and her carefully argued skepticism toward the story's ostensible project of illumination. I do not at all want to rule out the "discursive" influences upon the story, nor do I mean to suggest complete aesthetic mastery on Poe's part, nor complete and sufficient understanding on the part of readers. But I do want to insist that the critical and pedagogical model Harrowitz's reading implies is incomplete and needs to be extended to account for the praxis of the work of art.

A model that moves in the right direction, the one I would like to outline here, is that offered in Jean-Paul Sartre's account of the situation. It is difficult to pin down Sartre's account of the situation, which was constantly being transformed from its extremely individualistic and voluntaristic rendering in Being and Nothingness to its later, more "materialist" formulations, explicit and implicit, in works like Anti-Semite and Jew (1948) and Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). (2) For the purposes of this essay, however, I want to focus on the argument presented in What is Literature? (1948), written during that fruitful period in Sartre's career when he began to bring existentialism into dialogue with historical materialism. Sartre's goal in describing "being situated" was to provide a model for thinking about the interplay between determinants and agency; moving beyond the more naive emphases on near-total freedom in his earlier writings, he now sought to explain specifically literary freedom in terms of the limitations on freedom. The first component of the writer's situation, then, would be the restrictions placed on the author (the authorial role, certain forms, possible content, material resources, etc.). These are not brute facts, things objectively "out there" in some simple sense: rather the author, in her writings, must "simultaneously enclose, specify, and surpass this situation, even explain it and set it up" (1988, 132-33). (3) Thus, to take the example of Racine, the "Jansenist ideology, the law of the three unities, and the rules of French prosody" do not construct seventeenth-century drama, save insofar as Racine must perceive them, take these into account, adapt and rework them. This is not an argument for the artist-as-genius creating literature from the whole cloth of her imagination, nor is it an argument for the total determination of the work by historical forces. Rather, it becomes an attempt to think "the limits of the demands" on the writer (133). In this respect, the model is both annoyingly and suggestively vague, providing little help in thinking about the specific play between givens and takens. Some of this uncertainty reflects the fact that the Sartrean situation is at once a descriptive and an evaluative or prescriptive model, in which the artist who resists the reification of her context as an inescapable absolute--that is, the artist more capable of seeing the context as something upon which she can work--is a better artist.

"What is Literature?" was and remains one of the most famous accounts of committed literature, and it is in this normative framing of the situation that the commitment of the artist is tested. But equally important for the essay is the more neglected and equally normative account of the reader's response to the author, which Sartre describes as "a pact of generosity," "a dialectical going-and-coming; when I read, I make demands; if my demands are met, what I am then reading provokes me to demand more of the author, which means to demand of the author that he demand more of me" (1988, 61-62). Such is Sartre's reworking of the idea of aesthetic pleasure (he calls it "aesthetic joy" instead): the artistic project undermines the "given" quality of the "horizon of our situation," becoming instead "a demand addressed to our freedom" (64). The reader, drawn into the situation of givens and takens, comes to see herself "as essential to the totality of being"--that is, comes to see herself as a creator of the situation in her collaborative creation with the author (65). "[B]oth of us bear the responsibility" for the situation, as "the author's whole art is bent on obliging me to create what he [sic] discloses" (66-67). In this sense, the historical situation of the writer becomes part of the reader's literary-critical situation, in which our challenge is not simply to describe the writer's text or context, but rather to further construct it and, in doing so, to discern the limits she faced, misrecognized, and might have overcome.

Now in many respects the Sartrean situation is a far from original model for literary analysis, offering as it does another in a long series of attempts to account for the interplay between structure and agency. Besides simply reminding us of that interplay, however, the value of the situation seems to me to be twofold: first, in its emphasis that context is not some purely external series of determinants acting on the text, but involves the phenomenological construction and reworking of those determinants; and second, in its evaluative and interactive concern with the readerly (and thus critical) participation in the situation. So while Sartrean criticism has long been coded as old-fashioned and modern, inappropriate for our postmodern times, the situational model strikes me as well suited for taking us beyond poststructuralist accounts of discursive constructs. For Sartre's account of the situation not only accommodates an approach such as Harrowitz's, it in fact demands it in stressing the authorial construction of the situation from the cultural materials at hand. Where it surpasses this approach, however, is in insisting that the work of art is praxis akin to the slave insurrection, rather than a discursive instance or symptom. This model thus seems particularly important, as I have obviously been trying to suggest and as I hope to demonstrate, for thinking about historicist pedagogy. For it not only suggests a move beyond contextual framing, or some enumeration of historical factors acting on the text, toward some more dialectical approach in which writers assess themselves as historical products and try to respond accordingly; but in making reception part of context, it also demands participation, self-reflection, and evaluation from critical readers (like students) in making the text work historically.

An Invisible Agency

Poe's story arguably has three distinct narrative segments: the initial third, which introduces Dupin and the narrator and discusses "analysis"; the middle third, which describes the murders and the failed attempts to solve the crime; and the final third, in which the narrator is given the solution in the form of the orangutan. It is this last section which most obviously draws upon the charged nineteenth-century language of race, and in which the problem of slave violence, despite the story's Parisian displacement, enters most forcefully into the text. For here we have a humanoid captured in a distant land by sailors; brought to a metropolitan center for sale, but sequestered until healed of an injury in transit; holed up in a "closet" from which it spies upon the master shaving, thus learning the use of a razor; frightened by the master's whip into fleeing into the streets, where it finds two white women who are killed with brutal ferocity; ineptly hiding the bodies before fleeing again; and upon recapture, being sold once again. Given the loaded connotations of key terms of the narrative--"escaped," "master," "dreaded whip," "fugitive," "razor," and of course the "Ourang-Outang" itself--it would be nearly impossible to ignore the strong suggestions that the story is about slavery, and specifically about slave resistance. But asserting this simply begs a series of questions at the heart of my inquiry. If this reading is so obvious, why is an account of slave insurrections not more widely encountered in Poe criticism? What makes the connection at once clear and nearly inaccessible? And how might one convincingly teach this argument to students? I broach these questions in the classroom by writing the aforementioned words on the board and asking my students what they suggest. "Escaped," "master," "whip," "fugitive," "razor"--they always answer "slavery." I then ask them why, if these associations are so clear, (4) no one in our initial discussion of the story suggested that it was about slavery. What does it mean to them that the connection is obvious yet elusive?

I approach this problem by talking first about slave rebellions. Since I teach in Louisiana, I spend some time talking about the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history, the Deslondes Rebellion (c. 1811) and, closer to the moment of Poe's story, the spate of attempted actions that occurred in Louisiana in 1840 (in Avoyelles, Rapides, St. Landry, Lafayette, Iberville, Vermillion, and St. Martin parishes). To give some examples more proximate to Poe and his story, we discuss Nat Turner's Rebellion of 1831 (Poe was living in nearby Baltimore part of that year) and some of the reports of insurrections in Washington, D.C. in 1840. These are all discussed in Herbert Aptheker's celebrated American Negro Slave Revolts (1983). (5) But these actions are not the "key" to the story in the simple or naive sense of providing relevant empirical data that consequently makes the story clear and understand able. In fact, such an approach would be downright detrimental, in suggesting that "events" are separate from "culture," or that Black slave actions are only significant as straightforward objects of allusion, or that there is a history of oppression and resistance out in the "real world" that might explain "what is going on at the time."

In fact, slave rebellions must be treated as cultural events of tremendous complexity--and specifically of a complexity illuminating for the literary production of the time. The greatest achievement of Aptheker's study is not his unprecedented cataloguing of slave resistance, but rather his insight into the cultural significance of these actions. In a two-fold thesis, he insists that the antebellum period was one of "widespread fear of servile rebellion" (1983, 18), and that our understanding of these rebellions is fundamentally shaped by "exaggeration, distortion, and censorship" (150). And while Aptheker does talk about some fabricated or magnified reports of slave actions (fostered for political or other motives), such cases are the exception to the rule of censorship: "it was a practice of the rulers of the South to censor news of slave unrest" (155). This is an important pedagogical point for explaining--in part--the contemporary neglect of slave rebellions. But more importantly, it explains a truly remarkable cultural milieu, the import of which remains unappreciated by cultural historians: slave-holding societies were at once cultures of (white) fear and censorship of the action feared. Newspapers, journals, and government bodies fairly consistently restricted information about slave resistance, for the obvious reason that the more you talk about it, the more likely it is to occur.

How might one illustrate this phenomenon in the classroom? One can discuss the sources found in Aptheker's study, which are typically nonpublic governmental documents, personal correspondence, or unusually terse journalistic reports. More illuminating, perhaps, is Thomas Gray's "Confessions of Nat Turner," which illustrates a remarkable fixation and celebration of Turner even in the act of demonizing and minimizing the action as an aberration. But I find particularly valuable the thematics of secret communication and racial codes found in Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Douglass's discussion of slave secrecy, the coded meaning of spirituals, Northern naivete in expecting straightforward communication with slaves, the covert practices of overseers like Covey, and the misguided openness of the abolitionists running the underground railroad--all of these lead to a complex sense of the racial code, and an insistence on a similar code to fight slavery. Thus Douglass's early condemnation of Covey as a man whose "forte consisted in his power to deceive" is not parried by a summons for open and straightforward communication as much as a call to terrorize the slaveholder and slavehunter.
 I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the
 means of flight adopted by the slave ... [and ] leave him to imagine
 himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to
 snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey.... let him feel
 that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is
 running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an
 invisible agency. (Douglass 1994, 85)

"Invisible agency" powerfully conveys many of the dimensions of secrecy here--surveillance and management, covering up, playing dumb, covert planning, terrorizing and so forth.

A slave rebellion, then, is not a discrete event of so many slaves acting at this time and this place. Culturally, the slave rebellion includes the feigned ignorance, the defiance, and the planning of slaves, the suspicion, terror, and ignorance of whites, the rumors and secrets in circulation during and after the event, and the struggle to control the aftermath of information. Saying that "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is about slave rebellions means that it is about the orangutan's violence, yes, but also about the secrecy, the racial code, the overall hermeneutics surrounding slave insurrections. This should be apparent in a story that is so obviously about slave violence, yet which also never "gives away" its secret in any easy way. We might read Poe's story, then, as a white answer to the Douglass program: yes, we know about your invisible agency, but we have secrets of our own. "Murders" is about keeping the secret.

The Chantilly Method

What this means is that the parallels between orangutan and insurrectionary slave are important, but only part of the story. And we needn't gloss over the confusions this point raises for students, who will ask why a story about slave violence doesn't make its point more explicit. This is not a bad question--in fact, it's the best question to ask--and struggling with the pedagogical demands of an answer (once students are as equipped to answer as professors) can lead students (including teachers) to a more complex appreciation of the literary situation.

In my experience, the three most common ways in which students approach this problem are:

1. to assume we readers are simply not supposed to get it, because it's an inside "joke" for Poe;

2. to assume that the message is only for a select few readers, the "smart" ones who can make the connections; or

3. to assume that readers do get the message, but not necessarily in ways that they even understand (though they might).

I always insist on the latter position, in teaching Poe, and not out of some pedagogical commitment to equality. (T. S. Eliot's allusions aren't meant for everyone, for instance.) Rather, I argue that the association of "fugitive," "escaped," "whip," and "master" with slavery is not only possible for virtually anyone in the nineteenth century (not to mention the twentieth and twenty-first) but practically unavoidable. This point can be further made with reference to another Dupin tale, the famous "Purloined Letter." Almost everyone remembers the crucial lesson that the best place to hide something is out in the open, or, put differently, we often cannot find something right in front of us. Equally important to that story, though, is Dupin's mission--to get the letter so that it may remain hidden. Put another way, the story is about control of the use of the secret.

"Murders" itself makes a similar point, in the famous "Chantilly" passage. Strolling along, Dupin suddenly tells the narrator, "He is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes." The narrator quickly agrees, noting that he "replied unwittingly, and not at first observing (so much had I been absorbed in reflection) the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations" (Poe 1984, 402). The stunned narrator demands an explanation, and Dupin proceeds to reconstruct the narrator's "meditations" for the past fifteen minutes. A fruiterer bumps against the narrator, pushing him into a pile of paving-stones; the narrator slightly sprains his ankle and keeps his eyes to the ground, noticing overlapping and riveted blocks at a later point in the walk; this invites reflection upon "stereotomy" which in turn suggests "atomies, and thus ... the theories of Epicurus;" this in turn calls to mind a discussion about cosmogony, which in turn prompts a look at the constellation Orion; Orion recalls a theater review in which an actor named Chantilly is panned; the narrator thinks about "the diminutive figure of Chantilly" and his critical "immolation," at which point Dupin finally utters his remark (403-04).

This passage at first seems a clever demonstration of Dupin's amazing analytical powers, akin to those thrilling moments when Sherlock Holmes figures out what Dr. Watson had for dinner three nights ago. But the passage takes on a different sense once the question of secret slave rebellions has been raised. For what is most striking about the Chantilly sequence is the way it parallels the pedagogical problem I've raised. The basic point of the Chantilly sequence concerns not Dupin's intelligence but the narrator's ignorance: he does not even understand his own thought processes, the associations made in his imagination. The passage could be unpacked further, for it surely seems fitting that a physical brush with a laborer might make one watch where one steps and to reflect upon the appropriate milieu for a "diminutive figure" The setting is likewise suggestive: the chain of associations unfolds during a walk "down a long dirty street, in the vicinity of the Palais Royal" (402), suggesting a contrast between the architecture of authority and our "long dirty" thought processes. But it is also worth examining the odd situation of this passage in the text, for as soon as Dupin gives his explanation, a new paragraph begins: "Not long after this, we were looking over an evening edition of the 'Gazette des Tribunaux' ..." (404-05). Why this abrupt transition? Having considered the Chantilly passage, my students generally believe that the abrupt transition is analogous to that silent fifteen-minute walk: that there is a transition, a connection, but one that is not spoken. And this makes them pause and reflect on a truly disturbing revelation: like the narrator, they may not understand their own reading processes, and the associations they make in their imaginations.

The detective's subject, then, is not simply or even primarily the crime; it's the process of thinking about the crime. And this explication of the reading/thinking process may seem a departure from the question of historical context. Isn't the slave rebellion, according to my reading, the true "context"? And aren't we now talking about something else, i.e., the properly literary process of reading? Not at all. Because the slave rebellion, in the expanded sense outlined above, is a hermeneutic phenomenon (of secrecy and revelation, denial and insistence), the Chantilly passage must be read as Poe's methodological commentary on how we think about context. The invisible agency of the slave is matched by the invisible interpretation of the detective. This is how Poe has constructed his and our situation (slave violence) as we walk the long dirty streets. The context here is thus not an inside joke known only to Poe, just as the narrator's thought process is not at all reducible to Dupin's "charlatanerie" (1984, 403). Nor is the context for intellectual elites alone (Dupin, but not the narrator); we (like the narrator) can reconstruct it ourselves, if we think about how we constructed it the first time. The third interpretive option opens up, then, into two possibilities, in both of which we understand (to varying degrees) the context of the story. We either (a) understand the context implicitly, but without reflection, or (b) piece together our associations, as we've been instructed in the Chantilly passage.

I would not disagree with Harrowitz's philosophical and deconstructive point that knowledge typically effaces its traces or conditions of existence. But to assume that "Murders" is only concealing the conditions of detection is to jump the gun, to deny Poe's critical reflections on the phenomena of concealment. Not only is the Chantilly passage calling attention to, and inviting reflection upon, the ways in which whites suppress their understanding of slave resistance, but this point is made repeatedly throughout the introductory pages. For instance, like the Chantilly passage, the opening comparison of chess and cards--a potentially liberating passage for students who view literary analysis to be chess-like--invites a critical examination on the part of readers. Chess is the mathematical assessment of prescribed moves, and the greatest chess player "may be little more than the best player of chess" (Poe 1984, 398). Card games, on the other hand, require much more than knowledge of the rules of the game--namely, "a comprehension of all the sources whence legitimate advantage may be derived" (398). Poe's narrator goes on to stress that "[t]he necessary knowledge is that of what to observe," and the good card player does not "reject deductions from things external to the game," including the false clues constituted by "feint[s]" (399). Once again, the transition from these reflections to a more conventional plot-here, the introduction of the characters--is revealing: "The narrative which follows will appear to the reader somewhat in the light of a commentary upon the propositions just advanced" (400). The commentary on analysis is not simply a slight component of the story; rather, the story is an illustration of (racial) analysis, one in which the reader might test for herself the "necessary knowledge" of "what to observe"

Achilles and the Sirens

Poe announces this challenge again and again in his text, but initially in his opening epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne: "What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture" (1984, 397). And a similar reminder comes in the very last line of the story, in which Dupin mocks the Police Prefect for "the way he has 'de nier ce qui est, et d'expliquer ce qui n'est pas"--of denying what is, and of explaining that which isn't (431). In the middle of the story, too, we hear Dupin's critique of the celebrated Vidocq, who "impaired his vision by holding the object too close," thus "los[ing] sight of the matter as a whole" (412). Following the lesson of "The Philosophy of Composition," Dupin insists that, "as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial," adding that we need to seek truth in the valleys, not in the "heavenly bodies" (412). Taken together, these tips suggest some guidelines for finding the "truth": we must be clear about the illusions that make perception difficult (figuring out the Sirens' song); we must seek out Achilles' disguise and see through it; we must explain what is (the slave action) and deny that which is not (the lies, silences, and feints of the story); we must achieve some distance and not hold our object too close; we must look "down" and not "up," focusing on the quotidian valleys and not the exceptional celestial bodies. We are invited, in other words, to make sense of the story, and, with the Chantilly passage, we're given numerous methodological pointers.

These methodological pointers apply to what we've determined so far: in connecting the orangutan with the resistant slave, we have party found out the disguise of Achilles and identified the misleading song of the (police) Sirens; we have not denied that which is, nor tried to explain that which is not; and we have not held our object too close, nor focused on the celestial. Like the narrator in the midst of Dupin's explanation, "a vague and half-formed conception of the meaning of Dupin [has] flitted over [our] mind[s]," and we seem "upon the brink of remembrance" (Poe 1984, 421). But only on the brink: we have yet to determine why Poe has gone to all this trouble to hide the slave rebel, why he constructed this particular situation--a detective story set in Paris--to explain slave resistance. This problem is not beyond all conjecture, and while, in concluding, I do not aim to provide comprehensive "answers" to Poe's story, I do want to outline some of the connections my students and I have made along the way to a better understanding of "Murders." I should stress that understanding this story is, for me, an on-going process: making some claims about historical context does not bring interpretation to a screeching halt, nor does it leave us with the less interesting, "purely literary" problems. Rather, determining the context as a problem posed by Poe actually opens up the process of interpretation, linking the historical with the more literary dimensions of the story. My classroom approach has been to throw out questions about the story's details: Why are the murder victims two women living alone? Why is one thrown into a courtyard, the other jammed up a chimney? Why is the setting a sealed room? Why is the story set in Paris? Why is the broken nail important for the solution? Why are we given information about Dupin's lifestyle? And so forth. I do not assume there are interpretive "solutions" to all of these questions, but I do invite my students to think about approaching the story with the Chantilly method--the method of examining and foregrounding associational, connotative, and sometimes not-quite-conscious responses. I offer here some of their hypotheses to illustrate the way in which we've approached "context" in the classroom.

Dupin and the Narrator.

We are told that they "live together ... in a retired and desolate portion" of the city, where their "seclusion was perfect" and "no visitors" were admitted. "We existed within ourselves alone," declares the narrator, who also stresses how the two are "enamored of the Night for her own sake." The two "closed all the massy shutters of our old building" until they could venture out in the night. Within the relationship, the narrator gives himself "up to [Dupin's] wild whims with a perfect abandon"--imitating Dupin and his lifestyle. Dupin further declares that he can see into the "windows" of most men's bosoms (Poe 1984, 401).

Does the Chantilly method offer us any insights here? My students have noted numerous narrative and descriptive parallels between Dupin/Narrator and the two L'Espanaye women. These women "lived an exceedingly retired life"--with no servants and almost no visitors--in the upper stories of a large house in the Rue Morgue; their bodies are found in "a large back chamber" in which all the windows are sealed. Madame L'Espanaye reportedly "told fortunes for a living" (Poe 1984, 406-07). It is hard not to see some implicit parallels being established here: the predictive detective and the fortuneteller (6); the reclusive lifestyle of the two pairs, right down to the closed windows, and nighttime lifestyle; the clear subordination within the couples. There may, too, be parallels with another character pair, the sailor and the orangutan, who likewise lodge in an upper-story apartment so as "not to attract ... the unpleasant curiosity of ... neighbors" (428). They too are night prowlers, they too display a relationship of subordination and imitation; they too live in a dwelling of locked rooms (428-29).

The parallels are not perfect, but they do seem significant, suggestive enough to trigger some tacit associations for readers. Why are they in the story? One answer suggested by my students is that Poe explicitly seeks to show the identity of the perpetrators, victims, and preventers of slave violence, meaning specifically the careless slave-abusers, the targets of slave violence, and those seeking to prevent the violence. It's as if Dupin and the narrator are trying to solve their own potential murders, since the crime they encounter is in a setting much like that in which they live. And in confronting the sailor about his brutal killing subordinate, there may be a further commentary on the naivete of the narrator, whose blindness and ignorance are (from Poe's perspective) the enabling white corollaries of slave violence. In terms of the constructed situation, then, the parallels implicitly play on the nature and ubiquity of white fear of slave violence (it could happen to me) via associations stressing parallels between victims, negligent slaveholders, and observers (each could be the other). The horrifying logical conclusion (to whites) suggested by these parallels, then, is that they might be responsible for their own deaths. And this observation in turn offers an approach to the puzzle of the sealed room, suggesting that white southerners seal themselves up with their dangers, or that seclusion does not provide security, or that windows (of houses or of bosoms) are less barriers than passageways to be entered even when they appear closed.

Setting and Motive.

Why is the story set in Paris? Does the Paris setting become significant at any point in the story? It does, arguably in a negative way, when Dupin considers the language of the "criminal" after hearing earwitness testimonies. The Spaniard hears an Englishman, the Italian hears a Russian, and so on, in a series of testimony ruling our "the five great divisions of Europe" (Poe 1984, 416). In other words, the Parisian setting gives us a cosmopolitan crowd that, together, rules out the possibility that the criminal is white. One of the most interesting moments of the story follows this conclusion, when Dupin notes, "You will say that it might have been the voice of an Asiatic--of an African. Neither Asiatics nor Africans abound in Paris; but, without denying the inference, I will now merely call your attention to three points ..." (416). He goes on to talk about qualities of the orangutan's voice, but it is this dismissal of the African that is notable, and that needs to be compared with Dupin's earlier critique of the police, who "have fallen into the gross but common error of confounding the unusual with the abstruse" (414). "In investigations such as we are now pursuing," he insists, "it should not be so much asked 'what has occurred,' as 'what has occurred that has never occurred before'" (414). In other words, the good detective, the truly analytical thinker, does not confine herself to probabilities, but must consider the improbable as necessary. It is this kind of reasoning which leads Dupin to assume that the window nail must be broken (419), that the criminal must be a non-human (421-23).

Yet when we juxtapose these comments about Dupin's ostensible method with the manner in which he rules out the possibility of an African or Asiatic criminal, we find a tremendous inconsistency in a story that devotes so much attention to the proper analytical method. For now Dupin, "without denying the inference," does deny the inference in practice! What allows him to skip over the African possibility? In his explanation to the narrator, the insistence that the criminal is an orangutan hinges on the "excessively outre" nature of the crime (Poe 1984, 422), which combines "an agility astounding, a strength superhuman, a ferocity brutal, a butchery without motive, a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity, and a voice foreign in tone to the ears of men of many nations, and devoid of all distinct or intelligible syllabification" (423). (Note that, again, Dupin does not rule out all humans when he speaks of "men of many nations.") The narrator consequently concludes that the criminal must be a "madman," at which point Dupin produces the animal-like hair of the orangutan.

What we witness, in Dupin's analysis of the crime, is a clash between two lines of explanation, a linguistic one (raised by Dupin, and then dismissed without an explicit denial) suggesting that the criminal must be an African/Asiatic, the other insisting that the criminal must be an animal because no human could be motivated to commit such a ghastly crime. These two lines of reasoning clash because the former explanation (of a non-white criminal) is never laid to rest. For consistency's sake, Dupin should argue as follows: the linguistic misperception means that the criminal must be African, Asiatic, or animal; but then, the inhuman motivation of the crime rules out any African/Asiatic criminal, leaving only the animal as a possibility. In short, the missing step in Dupin's reasoning is this: an African or Asiatic could never be motivated to kill so outrageously. And this is exactly the analytical step that Poe will not articulate because he knows the contrary--that yes, there are motives for outrageous killing on the part of Africans. A close reading of the text, of Dupin's method of reasoning and then its actual practice, thus reveals this significant gap surrounding motive, a gap with which he calls attention (albeit indirectly) to the truth an apologist for slavery can never mention: one rational and predictable response to the brutality of slavery is a correspondingly outrageous violence. In Dupin's own terms, the motive for slave violence might be the story's purloined letter (sitting out in the open, yet hidden; and something to be retrieved in order to keep it hidden) or, to keep to the expressions of "Murders in the Rue Morgue," the motive to kill whites might be the big picture, that which is, while the distraction from this motive might constitute the Sirens' song, or that which is not.

To return to the question of setting, then, Paris is important not because it is a simple feint (i.e., Poe puts the story in a non-slave setting to hide slavery), but because it is a feint which calls attention to the feint: when juxtaposed with Dupin's reasoning, it foregrounds the Great White Secret about slave violence, that it makes sense! In other words, "Paris," as a cosmopolitan setting of world peoples, calls attention to the specific denial about "Africans" and thus invites readers to be complicit in the secret of the story. Were the setting, say, "Richmond" or "Charleston," the associations might be so obvious as to prevent, paradoxically, an honest admission about slavery and slave violence. And here we have another important lesson about historical context, for Poe's construction of the situation of slave violence need not rely upon a correlational verisimilitude (e.g., setting the first detective story in Richmond or Charleston), but may instead proceed via a contrasting process (e.g., using a setting in which one may speak openly about Africans and then hide the secret). Reflecting on Poe's construction of the Parisian locale--a setting remarkably consistent with the hermeneutics of secrecy surrounding slave rebellions--allows us to find connections between, in this case, setting and motive.


My students have formulated other insightful interpretations about the story (about why one woman is thrown out the window while the other is put up the chimney, about the reasoning behind the sailor's response to Dupin's ad, about windows and shutters, about the narrator's fantasy of two Dupins, etc.) too numerous to summarize here. They all elaborate a basic hypothesis about Poe's story and his project, namely that the first American detective story is about Black resistance to slavery and the white racial code that aims to deny and combat it. But my point in this essay has been to stress how such an interpretation is possible only through a situational approach to historical context that allows for some consideration of creative historical agency. In the hopes that some readers have found these interpretive speculations suggestive and illuminating, opening up new dimensions to Poe's story, I would like to conclude by reiterating some general conclusions about the situational approach to historical context.

Historical Agency

The shift in emphasis from a "hot history" of events to a discursive history aims, among other things, to challenge the naive voluntarism of great deeds and great actors of the past. By contrast, discursive history stresses the cultural parameters within which history unfolds, and this is a salutary emphasis. What is needed, however, is some mediation between these two views of history, some sense of the conflicts and options that remain within these cultural constraints. For contexts are not fixed realities, but involve antagonisms, problems, and choices. This is an important reminder for teachers of literature who, in attempting to offer context, may inadvertently present history as an iron cage, and texts as reflections or instances of the times. Harrowitz very usefully stresses white discourses of racialization, criminalization, urbanization, and so forth, but her approach, when carried over to the classroom, makes "Murders in the Rue Morgue" little more than a manifestation of cultural tendencies of the time. In this respect, literary historians need to think more about slave agency, praxis undertaken in conditions of extreme constraints. Texts, as projects of cultural praxis, are likewise attempts to transform the world (even if that means transforming our understanding), often in response to the more materialized but equally "cultural" actions around them. Slaves planned, studied, and organized, responding to the restrictions and limits in which they lived in an attempt to overcome them; and Poe's story, similarly, was an attempt to respond to the antagonisms and problems these slave actions posed. Teaching historical context, then, means identifying the praxis of the moment to which the text is likewise responding.

Authorial Agency

The "death of the author" announced a repudiation of the belief in the brilliant creative genius who constructed whole worlds from her imagination. By contrast, the reconstructed author has become more of a site or place-holder through which discourses circulate, and it matters little if we speak of "Poe," "Dupin," or "Murders in the Rue Morgue," for these sites largely overlap. Again, we need a mediating position from which to think about authors engaged in the praxis of their literary work. We needn't elevate the author to some special status to grant her the same (qualified) agency that we observe outside literature. How then does the author act? Here we need to think about the cultural patterns the author encounters. There are no historical contexts or events removed from culture: contexts always imply patterns of interpreting, modes of perceiving, the conflicts, problems, and choices. While the author cannot, through words, engage in direct acts (such as hunting down slaves or killing slaveholders), she may attempt to transform our ways of understanding these acts. In other words, writers engage historical context not as supplemental data but as the horizon in which to address (to play with, challenge, reinforce, subvert, etc.) our perceptions of context. Context is not the background, or the secret, of "Murders in the Rue Morgue," it's the problem of the story itself: in the antagonistic context of slavery and slave resistance, people tend to respond in certain ways that create further problems.... Poe is creating something of a "testing ground," but it is not the accidental testing ground in which discourses clash agonistically, unbeknownst to Poe or his less informed readers. It is a testing ground for our perceptions, considering ways in which they might be changed to detect and suppress, more effectively, the slave violence threatening whites. We needn't declare the author's praxis a success, nor are we obliged to agree with it, but we should recognize it as the intervention it is.

Classroom Agency

With a more dynamic and constructive account of context and authorial agency, we can invite students to participate in the literary project. This means breaking away from the view that students are passive observers who need us to clarify context, although it does not mean that we have to abandon the project of teaching students better--meaning, more fruitful--ways to read. What we must attempt is a pedagogical method that acknowledges readers' participation--and therefore readers' abilities--in the agency of the text. The pedagogical pattern outlined above is one in which my students and I think about the cultural patterns and conflicts of a historical context, and then the method for perceiving context implicit in the text, before finally taking up the project of the text together. When we talk about Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," for instance, we talk about the context of revivalism not as a fact but as an antagonistic context. We then try to think about Edwards' project in his sermon, but we can only do this by considering their reactions to this sermon, and how their participation is supposed to make the text work. Stressing the necessary participation of readers in historical context thus means promoting more self-aware readers and, hopefully, historical agents.


(1) I would like to thank my students in English 270 at Cornell University, English 150 at Connecticut College, and English 3070 at Louisiana State University. I have also benefited from discussing this story with many, many colleagues, among whom I would particularly like to thank Rick Moreland, Michael Drexler, Judi Kemerait, Gerry Kennedy, and Jim Holstun.

(2) Flynn carefully tracks the development of the "situation" concept (1984, 1997). I draw heavily on his explications in what follows. Flynn is particularly appreciative of the ways in which the ambiguities of Sartre's writings are as much strengths as weaknesses.

For those interested in theoretical genealogies, it is worth noting that Sartre's understanding of the situation comes from early Heidegger (Being and Time's treatment of situatedness) whereas the "discursive" approach outlined above is more closely tied to the later Heidegger, and his growing (postwar) emphasis upon the "destinal."

(3) Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious, as some readers will recognize, offers one expansion and refinement of the Sartrean situation in his outline of the three horizons for literary analysis, similarly insisting that the situation must be understood as constituting its context: "The symbolic act therefore begins by generating and producing its own context in the same moment of emergence in which it steps back from it, taking its measure with a view toward its own project of transformation" (1981, 81).

(4) And taking for granted, of course, that these are significant terms in the story's solution.

(5) See Aptheker, (1983, 32-36, 98, 333,293-324). Aptheker insists that 1840 was an important year for actions, rumors, and fears, while the "remainder of the forties were relatively quiet years" (336)

(6) There are possible parallels implicit in the names here as well. Dupin's name suggests duperie or trickery of some kind, while L'Espanaye may suggest spying (espionner); the narrator, of course, has no name, while the younger woman is in name the junior version of her mother.

Works Cited

Aptheker, Herbert. 1983. American Negro Slave Revolts. 5th ed. New York: International Publishers.

Douglass, Frederick. 1994. Autobiographies. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Library of America.

Flynn, Thomas R. 1984. Sartre and Marxist Existentialism: The Test Case of Collective Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

--. 1997. Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason. 2 vols. Vol. 1: Toward an Existentialist Theory of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harrowitz, Nancy A. 1997. "Criminality and Poe's Orangutan: The Question of Race in Detection." In Agonistics: Arenas of Creative Contest, ed. Janet Lungstrum and Elizabeth Sauer. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1995. "On Cultural Studies." In The Identity in Question, ed. John Rajchman. New York: Routledge.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 1984. Poetry and Tales. Ed. Patrick F. Quinn. New York: America.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1988. "What Is Literature?" and Other Essays. Trans. Frechtman, Jeffrey Mehlman, and john MacCombie. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ed White is assistant professor of English at Louisiana State University. He is currently at work on The Backcountry and the City, a study of eighteenth-century backcountry culture and its influence on early American literature.
COPYRIGHT 2003 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Edgar Allen Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Author:White, Edward Higgins
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Previous Article:Cultivating critical self-reflection in an international context: the development of an American studies curriculum in Turkey.
Next Article:Cyborg or goddess: postmodernism and its others in John Fowles's Mantissa.

Related Articles
On This Day.
REVIEW: The Detective and The Investor: Uncovering Investment Techniques from the Legendary Sleuths.
WEEKEND: BOOKS: Poe explores dark world of the mind; GREAT FAMILY READS.
'The Bela Lugosi Collection'.
SOLVING THE POE PUZZLE; BOOKS MATTHEW PEARL The Poe Shadow (Harvill Secker, pounds 12.99).
The Poe Shadow.
The Origins of the American Detective Story.
Animals and agency; an interdisciplinary exploration.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters