Saturday, January 11, 2020

William Wilson

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Selected Tales, with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

“A masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke di Broglio.” Frontispiece illustration by British artist Byam Shaw (1872–1919) for Selected Tales of Mystery by Edgar Allan Poe (London, 1909). Click on image to see full painting. Via the Internet Archive.

In October 1839 thirty-year-old Edgar Allan Poe sent Washington Irving a copy of the latest issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a literary periodical published in Philadelphia. William Burton had hired Poe as his assistant editor only a few months earlier and the October number included Poe’s latest tale, “William Wilson.” Poe enclosed a cover letter with the issue, ostensibly to disclose that the story was based on Irving’s “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron” (1836). But he also had an ulterior motive: Poe wanted a blurb.
[If] I could be permitted to add even a word or two from yourself, in relation to the tale of “William Wilson” (which I consider my best effort) my fortune would be made. I do not say this unadvisedly—for I am deliberately convinced that your good opinion, thus permitted to be expressed, would ensure me that public attention which would carry me on to fortune hereafter, by ensuring me fame at once.
Since returning from Europe in 1832, Irving had done much to help younger American writers, and he responded without hesitation as soon as the letter reached him at his home in Tarrytown. “I have read your little tale of ‘William Wilson’ with much pleasure,” Irving wrote. “It is managed in a highly picturesque style, and the singular and mysterious interest is well sustained throughout. . . . I cannot but think a series of articles of like style and merit would be extremely well received by the public.” Irving added that he much preferred this new work over Poe’s previous story in the magazine, which suffered from “too much coloring.” (That tale, incidentally, was “The Fall of the House of Usher.”) While the endorsement might seem somewhat equivocal, Poe boasted to one editor that Irving’s support represented “a complete triumph over those little critics who would endeavor to put me down by raising hue and cry of exaggeration in style, of Germanism & such twaddle.” The quote from Irving was featured prominently in publicity for Poe’s new book, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.

Three years later, Poe published a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, which appeared in two volumes in 1837 and 1842, and he was effusive in his praise: “Mr. Hawthorne’s distinctive trait is invention, creation, imagination, originality—a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest.” Yet, in spite of the acknowledgment of Hawthorne’s originality, Poe found echoes of his own work in one of the selections in the second volume. “In ‘Howe’s Masquerade’ we observe something which resembles a plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought.” The ghostly doppelgänger, the climactic scene at a masquerade, the quarrel, the revealing items dropped on the floor—Poe notes that all these elements in Hawthorne’s story also appear near the end of “William Wilson.” "We have not only the same idea, but the same idea similarly presented in several respects.”

The half-hearted suggestion of “plagiarism” is nonsense, particularly because “Howe’s Masquerade” originally appeared in a magazine more than a year before the publication of Poe’s story. In the 1930s the poet Horace Thorner examined the evidence and determined that Hawthorne, too, had almost certainly based his story on Irving’s “Unwritten Drama,” and the common elements in all three tales can be found in literary works and legends dating back to the seventeenth century. In a recent scholarly essay Meghan A. Freeman suggests a likely motive for Poe’s pointing out the similarities between his and Hawthorne’s tales. “By drawing attention to their stories about doppelgängers, Poe is encouraging the reader to see the two authors as doppelgängers, notwithstanding surface distinctions, styles, and interests.”

“William Wilson” is unique among Poe’s short stories for its semi-autobiographical depiction of boyhood and the setting of its first half at an English boarding school—an institution very much like the Manor House School north of London, which young Poe attended for three years. Poe even uses the name of the head of the real school, Rev. John Bransby, for his fictional schoolmaster. Poe’s self-identification as the “original” of the young William Wilson is cemented by the fact that the story’s protagonist shares Poe’s birthday, “the nineteen of January.” Furthermore, in subsequent printings of the story Poe changed Wilson’s year of birth from 1809 to 1811 to 1813, exactly as Poe advanced the year of his own birth by two, then four years—or two years after his mother’s death. As Poe (or Burton, or both of them working together) noted in an unsigned section of miscellaneous items in Burton’s magazine, “The infirmity of falsifying our age is at least as old as the time of Cicero, who, hearing one of his contemporaries attempting to make out that he was ten years younger than he really was, very drily remarked, ‘Then, at the time you and I were at school together, you were not born.’”

Notes: The story’s epigraph is supposedly from William Chamberlayne’s verse romance Pharonnida (published in 1659; Poe misspells both title and author), but the lines are not to be found in the poem. Scholars cite vaguely similar lines (“Conscience waits on me, like the frightening shades / Of ghosts when ghastly messengers of death”) in Chamberlayne’s play Love’s Victory (1658) and speculate that Poe, writing from memory, had misremembered both quote and source. Elah-Gabalus (Elagabalus, or Heliogabalus), named after the sun god Elah-Gabal, was a third-century Roman emperor with a reputation for decadence and lasciviousness during a tumultuous four-year reign that concluded with his assassination at the age of eighteen by his own guards. Peine fort et dure (mentioned on page 77) was a form of torture, used as late as 1692, during the “Salem witchcraft” episode, in which the victim was slowly pressed to death. “Oh, le bon temps, que ce siècle de fer!” (page 78) translates as “That age of iron—how good it really was!” Born to a notably wealthy Greek family at the beginning of the second century, Herodes Atticus (page 87) became a Roman senator and consul. Known as a patron of the arts and of buildings (including the Herodion in Athens), he oversaw the education of future emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

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Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.