Establishing the Historical PerspectiveThe historical perspective allows us to look at observations by Poe and his contemporaries about the nature of his writing. While these evidences of Poe's humorous side have been around for a century and a half or more, most of us are just becoming aware of them in our effort to recover something of the lost Poe.>
The plans for "The Tales of the Folio Club," discussed by Poe as early as 1833 but alluded to him again and again until his September 1836 letter to Harrison Hall, give us the earliest glimpse of the writer as satirist. He lays out the plan for seventeen members of the club to read tales at their monthly meeting. According to Poe, not only were the tales of a "bizarre and generally whimsical character" but the criticisms of the members of each tale were "intended as a burlesque upon criticism generally." (Ostrom 103-04).
One of the tales presumably in the collection was "Berenice" which the Southern Literary Messenger published in its March 1835 number. By the end of April, Poe was giving the owner of that journal some view of both the nature of popular publishing and of the nature of what matter must be included in successful magazines:
The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature ------- to Berenice ------- although, I grant you, far superior in style and execution. I say similar in nature. You ask me in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical. (58-59).The statement is as near an artist's credo about the necessity of humor as we have from Poe.
Others recognized that he practiced what he preached. When "Lionizing" came out in the May 1835 issue of the Messenger, the editor Edward Spearhawk called it "an inimitable piece of wit and satire." (Thomas and Jackson 155). Apparently Poe himself got into the act, noting his own powers of humor for the Baltimore Republican in which he said that "Lionizing" was "a piece of burlesque, which displays much reading, a lively humor, and an ability to afford amusement or instruction...." (157). James Kirke Paulding also noted the high comedy of the piece in a letter to the magazine's publisher (158,59).
When "Hans Phaal, A Tale" graced the magazine's pages, the Charleston, S. C. Daily Courier called it "one of the most exquisite specimens of blended humor and science that we have ever perused" (160,62) at the same time that the Baltimore Republican was calling it "a capital burlesque upon ballooning" (160). Other tales like "Loss of Breath", "Bon-Bon", and even "Politan" get reviews from New York, Washington, Richmond and Charleston which note their natures as burlesques or extravaganzas or their adventuring into graphic humor.
In writing John Pendleton Kennedy on February 11, 1836, Poe explains his intentions in writing such material:
You are nearly, but not altogether right in relation to the satire of some of my Tales. Most of them were intended for half banter, half satire -- although I might not have fully acknowledged this to be their aim even to myself. "Lionizing" and "Loss of Breath" were satires properly speaking -- at least so meant -- the one of the rage for Lions and the facility of becoming one -- the other of the extravagancies of Blackwood. (190-91).
Did the satires have all the difficulties of in-jokes? At least prospective publishers thought so. In a letter to Thomas White, the publisher of the Southern Literary Messenger on March 3, 1836, James Kirke Paulding said the Harpers had decided not to publish Poe's stories in book form. They felt the obscurity of reference would keep readers from "enjoying the fine satire they convey." (193).
Poe expected his audience to be as knowledgeable as he was about literary matters and to catch passing references. The Harpers were afraid that this requirement would keep the works from being popular enough to become profitable in book form.
By 1843, Poe was not only publishing solutions to puzzles and crafting mysteries which excited the imagination, he was showing off that ripping humor which made him both admired and hated. Reviewing a pamphlet containing "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Man That Was Used Up", George Lippard noted that the stories developed "the analytic talent of the gifted author, as well as his powers of cutting and sarcastic humor." (430). The same fall, Poe continued in the comic vein by publishing "Raising the Wind; or, Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences" in the Saturday Courier.
My point is that Poe displayed throughout his career the spirit of satire and derision in his work which would have made Swift proud. His biting humor not only found a place in fiction, but it caused most animosity when he used it in his six-part series on the New York literati in Godey's Ladies' Book in 1846.
The last of Poe's attempts at extravagance and humor did not appear until 1849, the year of his death."Von Kempelen and His Discovery" which was a hoax on the gold rush of 1849 and the humorous sketch "X-ing a Paragrab" both appeared in that final year.
The historical perspective on Poe's humor, then, informs us of its pervasiveness. Poe used that satirical edge consistently from the beginning of his career to the end, never failing to wield it as a weapon as well as a vehicle for entertainment.