Friday, January 8, 2016

Never Bet the Devil Your Head

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

Detail from “A Bargain with the Devil,” 1907, watercolor, pen, and ink on paper by British book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), in the holdings of the Royal Watercolour Society, London.
In a curious review published by the New York weekly The Independent in October 1898, the now-forgotten writer Maurice Thompson presents a reconsideration of Major Jones’s Courtship, a now-forgotten epistolary novel published fifty years earlier by William Tappan Thompson. Both Thompsons (they were not related) spent their adult lives in Georgia; any claim to enduring renown by the latter is for his design of the second flag of the Confederacy. In any case, the younger Thompson offers up Major Jones as an example of a lost strain of Southern humor: although the novel “reads like a practical joke upon even the crudest literary art,” he still finds it to be “the coarse concrete foundation upon which a very beautiful angle of American literary art securely rests.” He points out that Major Jones appeared only shortly after the “best work” of Edgar Allan Poe. After all, taste in comedy changes rapidly; Thompson reminds his readers that “some people thought such stories as ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’ and ‘The Spectacles’ humorous.” Thompson doesn’t care for the “graveyard atmosphere” of Poe’s wit, but he grudgingly admits that “his stories are literature, and so they will live.”

“‘Fun’ is apparently not a word most people associate with Poe,” admits the critic Stephen Peithman. “But the truth is that there is a great deal of humor in Poe, for here is a man who sees both the tragedy and the absurdity of life and who can write of either—or both at the same time.” His story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” is a good example: its grisly (if predictable) ending is offset by the farcical portrait of the unrelentingly vulgar Toby Dammit. Poe also pokes fun at the writers published in the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, although in a letter sent shortly after the story appeared Poe denied any personal animosity. “I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me. I am not aware that it ever mentioned my name, or alluded to me either directly or indirectly. My slaps at it were only in ‘a general way.’ The tale in question is a mere Extravaganza levelled at no one in particular, hitting right & left at things in general.”

As is the case with any of Poe’s stories, there are literary allusions hidden throughout, but most are not essential to one’s enjoyment of the tale. The opening paragraph might require some explanation, however. After quoting the contemporary Spanish author Tomás Hermenegildo de las Torres (and mercilessly mocking his poetry), Poe points out—as a complaint—that literary critics can and will find a “moral” in just about anything. His example is what writers have done with the Batrachomyomachia (The Battle of Frogs and Mice), a parody of the Iliad that was probably written in the fourth century BCE. Poe cites wildly divergent and outrageous interpretations of the epic poem, and points out that he continues to come across equally ludicrous analyses of works ranging from James McHenry’s ten-book narrative poem The Antediluvians to the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?”

And so Poe claims to be perplexed that certain readers accuse him of writing tales without morals. Just give it time, he says; the critics will find plenty of morals for his stories, without any guidance from him. “In the meantime,” he presents us with a tale whose moral can be found right in the title.

Notes: On page 459, Poe quotes as Roman law Defuncti injuriâ ne afficiantur (“Let the dead suffer no injury”), although the saying seems to have originated with Poe. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is Latin for the more familiar expression, “Speak only good of the dead.” On page 461, Poe mentions Coleridge, Kant, Carlyle, and Emerson; Poe scholar Thomas Mabbott points out that Poe often pokes fun at these four writers for “vagueness, obscurity, or confusion of style.” Musselmen (p. 462) is Poe’s misspelling of Mussulmen, an archaic word for Muslims. Merry-Andrew (p. 463) was once a common term for a buffoon. A Paixhan bomb is an explosive shell from a field artillery piece invented by French general Henri-Joseph Paixhans. Mr. Lord (p. 466) is William W. Lord, whose book of poems, one of which parodied Poe, was harshly reviewed by him: “We are . . . thoroughly disgusted with the impudence of the parties who have been aiding and abetting in thrusting it before the public. To the poet himself we have only to say—from any farther specimens of your stupidity, good Lord deliver us!” The bar sinister mentioned in the last paragraph refers to a heraldic sign of illegitimacy; it is also meant as a pun on the sinister bar that proves to cause Toby’s downfall.

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“Con tal que las costumbres de un autor,” says Don Thomas De Las Torres, in the preface to his “Amatory Poems” “sean puras y castas, importó muy poco que no sean igualmente severas sus obras”—meaning, in plain English, that, provided the morals of an author are pure, personally, it signifies nothing what are the morals of his books. . . . 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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