Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mr. Poe Takes the Stage (Part One of Two)

“[T]he most exquisite of sublunary pleasures…[is] the making of a fuss, or, in the classical words of a western friend, the ‘kicking up a bobbery.’”
-Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the “Broadway Journal,” November 22, 1845
One of the most notable incidents that led to the destruction of Poe's reputation was his appearance at the Boston Lyceum on October 16, 1845. The uproar surrounding his recital of "Al Aaraaf"--a performance that seems to have largely confounded his audience--and his subsequent public war of words with "Boston Transcript" editor Cornelia Walter served, perhaps more than any other event during his lifetime, to cement Poe's image as a drunken, erratic lunatic. While at least some of Poe's biographers realize that the disastrous nature of his actual appearance before the Lyceum was greatly exaggerated afterwards--in no small part due to the efforts of Poe himself--there has been no consensus about Poe's motives and intentions regarding the notorious recital. Did his failure to produce an “original” address for the occasion lead him to recycle an old poem out of desperation, or, as he asserted, did he deliberately mean to "quiz the Bostonians?" Or was it a sign he was simply going mad?

It is possible that Poe did find himself unable to produce a new poem “on order” for the occasion—like most men of genius, he was unable to “commercialize” himself—and so resorted to this obscure early work. However, I suspect that Poe's own explanation was closest to the truth. His disdain for the Bostonians was certainly quite genuine. It is easy to picture him presenting them with "Al Aaraaf"--a mystical exploration of Heaven, Hell and the grey area that lies between--as a deliberate challenge to their well-known intellectual and spiritual pretensions. He likely assumed the poem, a cousin of "Ulalume," "Israfel," "Dream-Land," "The Conqueror Worm," and others, would be completely over their heads, and he undoubtedly saw their confusion as further proof of their inferiority.

When Poe accepted the invitation to appear in Boston, he knew perfectly well that he was entering enemy territory. His very public mockery of the New England intelligentsia, as well as his recent campaign to prove that Longfellow, the darling of the Bostonians, was a plagiarist, ensured that his appearance would be controversial. The Boston newspapers even predicted that if Poe dared to show his face in their city, the audience "would poh at him, at once." It is usually assumed that Poe's motives in taking on such an obviously hazardous assignment were purely financial. Pressed for money, he agreed to appear in front of the Lyceum, despite the potential for disaster. However, just the opposite may be true--that he welcomed the invitation precisely because of the potential for disaster. Poe was never happier than when in the thick of literary battle--the noisier and more violent it was, the better he liked it. When he cheerfully asserted in the "Broadway Journal" that he accepted the chance to appear before a Boston audience because he was curious to see what it would be like to be hissed at in public, he may not have been entirely facetious.Edgar Allan Poe and BostonCertainly, his performance seemed designed to confuse and irritate his audience as much as possible. After delivering a brief, self-deprecating address that was clearly dripping with sarcasm, he proceeded to recite “Al Aaraaf"—lengthy, complicated verses that are probably the most abstruse he--or just about anyone else, for that matter--ever wrote. Although he followed up his performance by fulfilling audience requests to hear "The Raven"--a recitation that, by most accounts, went over well--the damage had been done. Some attendees, already stupefied by a three-hour speech by Massachusetts politician Caleb Cushing, found Poe's obscurities too much to handle, and walked out on him with the vague feeling that they had been insulted.

That feeling was entirely justified. At a private gathering that was held after the recital, Poe asserted that "Al Aaraaf" was intended to spoof the audience. It had, he claimed, been written before he was twelve years old, and that such a juvenile work was quite sufficient for the likes of the Bostonians. His expressions of contempt for his audience were, of course, widely circulated, and, of course, the local papers responded in kind. Cornelia Walter, who already had it in for Poe because of his "Longfellow War," immediately published an editorial describing Poe's performance as a humiliating failure. From then on, she used the "Boston Transcript" as a forum to regularly mock him, often in the crudest terms possible. Although at least one other Boston paper, as well as several members of the audience, described Poe's recital as beautiful, if somewhat baffling to most listeners, they were drowned out by the catcalls of his enemies, who made full use of the means Poe had provided to attack him.

Say what you will about Poe, but he was always ready to give his opponents as good, or better, than he received. As his contemporary John Du Solle once remarked, "If Mr. P. had not been gifted with considerable gall, he would have been devoured long ago by the host of enemies his genius has created." Two weeks after his Lyceum appearance, Poe wrote a lengthy editorial in the "Broadway Journal" giving his side of the story. He showed no remorse for his actions. Indeed, he countered that “that most beguiling of all beguiling little divinities" Miss Walter "has been telling a parcel of fibs about us, by way of revenge for something we did to Mr. Longfellow (who admires her very much) and for calling her ‘a pretty little witch’ into the bargain." According to Poe, his recital was a smashing success. The approbation he received “was considerably more (the more the pity too) than that bestowed upon Mr. Cushing.” He asserted that all the claims his appearance had been a failure were entirely due to “that amiable little enemy of ours,” at the “Boston Transcript.” (He added that “We shall never call a woman ‘a pretty little witch’ again, as long as we live.”)

Having finished with his defense, Poe gleefully went on the offense. He acknowledged that he himself had been born in Boston, “and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact.” Bostonians “have always evinced towards us individually, the basest ingratitude for the services we rendered them in enlightening them about the originality of Mr. Longfellow.” This prejudice against him, Poe explained, made it scarcely possible that he would put himself to the trouble of composing an original poem for such an audience, so he favored them with one that was “quite as good as new—one, at all events, that we considered would answer sufficiently well for an audience of Transcendentalists.” This poem, he blandly assured his readers, was one which he had written, printed, and published in book form “before we had fairly completed our tenth year.” He sardonically commented that “We do not, ourselves, think the poem a remarkably good one:--it is not sufficiently transcendental.” However, his listeners “evinced characteristic discrimination in understanding, and especially applauding, all those knotty passages which we ourselves have not yet been able to understand.” Unfortunately, he sighed, he could not resist “letting some of our cat out of the bag a few hours sooner than we had intended,” when he told his dinner companions of the success of his hoax. His conclusion: “We should have waited a couple of days.”

Next post: The power of words.