From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales
|“Mentally ill patients in the garden of an asylum” (c. 1829–34). Engraving by K. H. Merz, based on the painting Irrenhaus [Madhouse] by German artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.|
Like the latest movie adaptation, Poe’s story is set in a mental hospital turned upside down. A number of Poe experts have argued that the asylum imagined by Poe is American democracy gone mad (several of the inhabitants seem to share characteristics of certain nineteenth-century politicians), or that the story is—in the words Italian writer Alessandro Portelli—“a satire of the revolutionary utopia of popular self-government.” Other scholars have contended that the story, with its references to the South and its tuneless orchestra playing “Yankee Doodle,” satirically depicts a slave rebellion and reflects Poe’s hostility to Northern abolitionist rhetoric.
Still other critics have asserted that Poe might have been inspired by Charles Dickens. The two writers met in Philadelphia in 1842 and shared correspondence about literary concerns. That same year Dickens visited the newly opened Boston Lunatic Asylum, where the resident physician announced the facility’s guiding principle: “Evince a desire to show some confidence, and repose some trust, even in mad people.” Soon thereafter, Dickens published the travelogue American Notes for General Circulation and included comments about the “conciliation and kindness” he witnessed during his visit to the hospital: “Every patient in this asylum sits down to dinner every day with a knife and fork. . . . Once a week, they have a ball, in which the Doctor and his family, with all the nurses and attendants, take an active part.” Yet still another commentator insists that the inspiration for the story came not from Dickens, but from Nathaniel Parker Willis’s story “The Madhouse of Palermo,” which is based on a visit to an asylum in Sicily.
Modern readers can easily enjoy “Tarr and Fether” for its own unique merits, regardless of whether Poe meant it as a satire on democracy, an invective against abolitionism, or a parody of writing by Dickens and Willis—or, as seems quite possible, all of these. As the esteemed Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott wrote over half a century ago, “This story seems to me one of Poe’s best humorous pieces. . . . There is obviously (as in most of Poe’s stories) an undercurrent of serious thought, but it is not clinical.”
Notes: On page 703, Poe uses the phrase vielle cour (correctly, vieille cour) to mean “the old court.” Most of the other French phrases concern types of food and wine, or they should be clear from context. Nil admirari (p. 705) is a Latin expression referring to the state of being unsurprised, or equanimity. “Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum” (p. 706) is Virgil’s description in The Aeneid of the blinded Cyclops: “a monster horrendous, misshapen, and vast, whose eye is removed.”
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