Friday, January 13, 2017

The Angel of the Odd

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

Detail of drawing by Jean-Édouard Dargent (better known as Yan' Dargent) to illustrate a section about Edgar Allan Poe's The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall in Jules Verne's Edgar Poe et ses œuvres (1864). A hot-air balloon figures prominently in “The Angel of the Odd,” published months after Poe’s infamous Balloon Hoax.
Soon after Edgar Allan Poe moved to New York City in 1844, he submitted a report to The New York Sun, which rushed out an “Extra” edition with the front-page headline, “ASTOUNDING NEWS! BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK! — THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS!” Poe’s article described the first manned balloon flight from Europe by Monck Mason, who had landed safely in Charleston, and the story was picked up the next day by the Sunday New York Times. By Tuesday, however, the editors of The Sun realized that they had been had; although Thomas Monck Mason was certainly the name of a famed European balloonist, the entire work was a piece of fiction written to resemble a work of journalism.

It’s not surprising, then, that Poe’s very next story, “The Angel of the Odd,” poked fun at “the extravagant gullibility of the age” and readers’ (and editors’) eagerness to believe “improbable possibilities.” He also took the opportunity, as he frequently did, to mock works by other authors and literary taste in general. It is the “oddest of odd stories,” concedes Poe scholar Eric W. Carlson, “but it is characteristic Poe even in its oddness.” This amusing tale is also “akin to material that has been successful in media other than literature: comparable surreal compoundings of comic catastrophes occur in silent film comedies.” In a book detailing Poe’s influence on the movies, David Huckvale concurs: “This truly bizarre comedy, with its succession of unlikely perils, near-misses and slapstick stunts, has the mood of a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton film.”

Although the Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe acknowledges that it was one of Poe’s more popular pieces when it first appeared, the story has not received much scholarly attention. It was resurrected a century ago in the 1920 collection The Best American Humorous Short Stories and in the last half century has become better known in France, thanks to its inclusion in André Breton’s celebrated 1966 publication, Anthologie de l'humour noir.

In the late 1960s the French scholar Claude Richard highlighted the importance of the story’s list of books, which—along with a vast amount of wine—makes the narrator “a little stupid.” The works include the epic poems Leonidas (Richard Glover), Epigoniad (William Wilkie), and The Columbiad (Joel Barlow); the travel book A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Alphonse de Lamartine); and the romance Isabel, or Sicily: A Pilgrimage (Henry Theodore Tuckerman). In his discussion of these titles, Richard writes, “Poe did not select those books at random. Some of them had already been the subjects of reviews by Poe—reviews which seem to indicate, moreover, that neither had Poe selected the books merely as examples of ponderous tedium. Rather, he must have chosen them all as examples of perverted or slipshod narrative techniques.”

But Richard admitted to puzzlement by the addition of Curiosities of American Literature, by Poe’s frequent nemesis Rufus Wilmot Griswold, since that book was not published until 1847—three years after Poe wrote his story. As it happens, Griswold’s work, which is not a “narrative” in any sense of the word, did in fact first appear in 1844, as an appendix to a Philadelphia edition of Isaac Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature—a work Poe often cited in letters and reviews. Poe likely included Griswold’s latest publication in this list of tedious and “slipshod” works merely to goad his rival. The relationship between the two authors was, at best, frosty; in a letter sent not long after the story appeared, Griswold referred to their past contretemps: “Although I have some cause of personal quarrel with you, which you will easily enough remember, I do not under any circumstances permit, as you have repeatedly charged, my private griefs to influence my judgment as a critic, or its expression.”

Yet familiarity with these long-forgotten books and literary squabbles is not essential to understanding Poe’s story, which turns rather quickly to pure, uproarious farce. Like a number of other tales, such as “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” (a previous Story of the Week selection), “The Angel of the Odd” shows a less-familiar side of Poe: his sense of humor.

Notes: Lafitte (or Chateau Lafite) is a French wine. “This folio of four pages, happy work / Which not even critics criticize” is from William Cowper's “The Winter Evening,” Book IV of his blank verse masterwork The Task (1785). In medieval mythology Cocaigne is a land of plenty, and by the early 1800s was a common, somewhat playful, nickname for London. Kirschenwasser is a cherry brandy from the Black Forest in Germany. Gil-Blas is an eighteenth-century picaresque novel by Alain-René Lesage, and "beaucoup de bonheur et un peu plus de bon sens" translates as “much happiness and a bit more common sense.”

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It was a chilly November afternoon. I had just consummated an unusually hearty dinner, of which the dyspeptic truffe formed not the least important item, and was sitting alone in the dining-room, with my feet upon the fender, and at my elbow a small table which I had rolled up to the fire, and upon which were some apologies for dessert, with some miscellaneous bottles of wine, spirit and liqueur. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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