Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Masque of the Red Death

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

"The dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet." Illustration (cropped) by Irish artist Harry Clarke (1889–1931) for an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London, 1919). Click on image to see entire illustration.
“I am sure you will pardon me for my seeming neglect in not replying to your last when you learn what has been the cause of the delay,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe wrote to his close friend Frederick W. Thomas on February 3, 1842. “My dear little wife has been dangerously ill. About a fortnight since, in singing, she ruptured a blood-vessel, and it was only on yesterday that the physicians gave me any hope of her recovery.”

That hope, however, was soon dashed when it became apparent that nineteen-year-old Virginia Poe was suffering from “consumption,” or—to give it the name coined just three years earlier—tuberculosis. “The renewed and hopeless illness of my wife, ill health on my own part, and pecuniary embarrassments have nearly driven me to distraction,” he wrote to another friend later in the year. “Mrs Poe is again dangerously ill with hemorrhage from the lungs. It is folly to hope.” She would be dead within five years.

In April Poe resigned from his editorship at Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine; “the namby-pamby character of the Magazine” frustrated him (he despised the fashion articles and illustrations) and the “salary, moreover, did not pay me for the labor which I was forced to bestow.” Before he left, however, he completed one of his shortest tales, “The Mask of the Red Death,” for the May issue—the last he edited. (When Poe reprinted the story three years later, he changed “Mask” to “Masque,” which is both an archaic spelling of mask and a type of drama performed by masked actors.) Virginia’s illness was obviously on his mind when he wrote the story, but he drew inspiration from other sources and experiences, including the cholera epidemic he had lived through in Baltimore in 1831. Poe scholar Robert Benton has identified a probable source that inspired the costume described in the story. A decade earlier Nathaniel Parker Willis (who would later publish Poe’s “The Raven”) had written for The New York Mirror a series of travel pieces from Europe that would make him one of the most famous journalists in America, and in 1835 the columns were collected in a volume, Pencillings by the Way, which went through several printings and editions. In one letter sent from Paris in 1832, Willis described a masquerade he attended during a cholera epidemic:
There were some two thousand people, I should think, in fancy dresses; most of them grotesque and satirical; and the ball was kept up till seven in the morning, with all the extravagant gaiety, noise and fun with which the French people manage such matters. There was a cholera-waltz and a cholera-galopade; and one man, immensely tall, dressed as a personification of the Cholera, with skeleton armour and blood-shot eyes, and other horrible appurtenances of a walking pestilence. It was the burden of all the jokes, and all the cries of the hawkers, and all the conversation. And yet, probably, nineteen out of twenty of those present lived in the quarters most ravaged by the disease, and most of them had seen it face to face, and knew perfectly its deadly character.
Another scholar, Robert Regan, has pointed to a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales by Poe, who coyly noted similarities between the story “Howe’s Masquerade” (one of Hawthorne’s four “Legends of the Province House”) and his own story “William Wilson.” As it happens, Poe’s story first appeared in print more than one year later than Hawthorne’s—which makes his suggestion of plagiarism ridiculous. Yet, Regan argues, the story that resembles “Howe’s Masquerade” even more closely is “The Mask of the Red Death,” which appeared alongside the review in that last issue of Graham’s edited by Poe. Both stories “tell of noblemen who immure themselves and their followers in palaces in order to seek safety from a threatening adversary.” In Hawthorne’s version, General William Howe hosts a masquerade for his officers while Boston is under siege by George Washington’s army; Poe’s story features a prince hosting a masquerade in a castle under siege by a plague.

Other striking similarities between Poe’s tale and Hawthorne’s other “Legends of the Province House,” such as an outbreak of the “red flag of pestilence” (smallpox) in “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” have convinced a number of scholars that Poe had cleverly borrowed from Hawthorne to create a new story to appear alongside his review of Hawthorne. “More than any other American writer, Poe has left us puzzles to unravel, mysteries to solve,” write Regan, who sees the pairing of the story and review as a conglomerate of “hoax and banter and satire,” or yet another of Poe’s many parodies and cryptographic fictions. “He invites the reader—the very careful reader—to see ‘The Mask of the Red Death’ as a critical exercise which out-Hawthornes Hawthorne.”

Poe’s six-page story has inspired easily more than six hundred pages of discussion among puzzle-solvers who, like Benton and Regan, look for clues in the “coded treasure maps” he left for readers. “This masterpiece is unsurpassed, perhaps unequaled, among Poe’s very short stories,” Thomas Mabbott wrote a half century ago in his scholarly edition before cutting to the chase about what he thinks was Poe’s primary message. “Critics have differed widely in interpreting the tale, but I see in it a clear moral that one cannot run away from responsibility.”

Note: Poe compares the spectacle of the masquerade to French author Victor Hugo’s popular drama, Hernani, which was first staged in 1830.

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The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. . . . 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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