Monday, 21 October 2013

Foreshadowings - Texts and Contexts for Poe and Dickens

Our first session last week was a great success, with lots of interesting discussion following a screening of The Evil Dead. There'll be a blog follow-up in the next few days, but, in the meantime, we've the second session of this year's Gothic Reading Group to look forward to next week. This time we are actually readingsomething. Two things, in fact. By way of an introduction to the material, here's Mark linking comedy cartoons and telling you to go read entire volumes of a nineteenth-century American magazine. . .


How not to start a blog post introducing two authors, take one:

(Ahem) For this session we'll be looking at two widely-anthologised short-stories whose authors really don't need much introduction. 

. . .but. . . the tales we're looking at aren't necessarily their most famous and perhaps they do deserve a little preamble (phew, saved it).

Both of these tales are early works, predating their authors' most famous novels and stories. Each also benefits from some understanding of their original publication context: Poe's was published during his very short-lived assistant-editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger at a time when the author was struggling to place his stories and make a name for himself in the American press. Dickens's tale was originally inset within his first 'novel' The Pickwick Papers: a serial that offered Dickens's first sustained narrative, but still owed much to his experience in writing short fictional sketches.


Edgar Allan Poe is probably one of the best known authors of short fiction in the Gothic tradition: tales such as "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" have all become classics of the genre, with a healthy afterlife in adaptation and imitation, ranging from classic Universal Horror Movies to witty memes cross-referencing other famous literary characters:


Poe is also pretty important as a bridge between earlier traditions of Gothic fiction and new readerships in the mid-nineteenth-century. Most of his stories were originally published in literary magazines and Poe was an expert commentator on this particular way of producing and consuming Gothic narrative - as several of his critical essays reveal. One particularly famous outlet for this kind of fiction in the early nineteenth-century was the Edinburgh based Blackwood's Magazine: a periodical review and miscellany which regularly featured short horror fiction. Some of Poe's earliest tales explicitly referenced Blackwoods and offered parodies of a horror formula focusing on heavily condensed accounts of the embodied experiences of narrators in horrifying predicaments. One of his first published stories was "Loss of Breath: A Tale A La Blackwood" (1832) to be followed later by the two-part "How to Write a Blackwood Article" and "A Predicament" (1838). The latter pair features an eager author responding to an editor's advice by placing herself (surprisingly enough) in a predicament and proceeding to minutely document her sensations. Of course Poe went on to produce several 'predicament' tales of his own, including, perhaps most famously, "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1843) and "The Premature Burial" (1844). 

"Berenice" isn't a predicament tale as such, yet we might still be interested in Poe's representation of the (vividly) embodied sensations and affective responses of his narrator. As those who've already read it will agree, Poe's tale is replete with more general features of the Gothic, both past and future. The setting and character archetypes seem to invoke associations with Romantic period Gothic, whilst other elements seem to foreshadow a much more contemporary brand of horror. Between these two poles there seems to be a medical context for the narrator's experiences that perhaps speaks to the tale's immediate context.   

"Berenice" is widely anthologised in collected editions of Poe and, let's be honest, everyone should have at least one collected edition of Poe. Most presses publish a selection or two, though you'll want to check that "Berenice" is definitely included alongside more famous tales. You should also be able to find the text online in the usual places. Project Gutenberg has it, as do several other websites. For the ultimate in nineteenth-century credibility, however, you'll want to read the tale as originally published in the Southern Literary Messenger and, thanks to my tireless hounding of the internet, you can! The March 1835 issue is available in an online fascimile at the University of Michigan's excellent Making of America archive. If the fancy takes you, you can also have a look at some of the other material published in that issue: nineteenth-century periodicals are a goldmine of fascinating literary material, the vast majority of which sits completely forgotten and unknown. Just don't blame me when you lose an entire afternoon reading weird and wonderful poetry, essays and stories by writers noone's ever heard of. Some studies (such as Deborah Wynne's excellent look at The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine) have begun to unearth connections between famous works and their accompanying contents; perhaps there's some interesting synergy to be found around "Berenice"? - after all, Poe himself was helping to edit the Southern Literary Messenger at this point. . .

A Madman's Manuscript

Charles Dickens was another reader of earlier Gothic and horror-fiction, including that published in Blackwoods Magazine and this perhaps explains the presence of short pieces like the "Madman's Manuscript" within The Pickwick Papers. This cheerful picaresque serial was far from being a work of sustained Gothic horror, yet the "Madman's Manuscript" is one of several bleaker tales encountered by the main characters amidst their more comic adventures. These inset-tales often present interesting counterpoints to the circumstances of their discovery or telling. The story of The Convict's Return, for example, tells a tale of exile and isolation that quietly offsets the fireside celebration of communal stability and rosy-cheeked fellowship in the picturesque village of Dingley Dell. One of the interesting questions to ask of "A Madman's Manuscript" therefore seems to be its relationship to the world of the novel's foreground, in which we read about the bumbling misadventures of Mr Pickwick and his companions.  The tale's immediate framing seems to beg this question as Mr Pickwick carries the manuscript with him before perusing it in his room at an Inn: the 'Madman,' in a metaphorical and perhaps literal sense, is also a fellow traveler in the world of our Pickwickians. . .

Mr Pickwick addresses his club: no madmen here. . .?

Taken as a tale in its own right, the "Manuscript" seems to pick up several Gothic conventions in a way that might compare well with Poe. Coming, as it does, from a "medical man" engaged in a "county lunatic asylum" the tale also seems concerned with medical diagnosis and definitions of madness - something that might be more implicit in "Berenice."

Like "Berenice," Dickens's "Madman's Manuscript" is available in some anthologies. One particularly good and inexpensive anthology containing both the Poe and Dickens stories is the collection of Gothic Short Stories published by Wordsworth Classics. This is actually a great resource in its own right, reprinting several more obscure eighteenth and early nineteenth century stories along with a scholarly essay on the role of the short story within the history of the Gothic tradition. Its editor, David Blair, actually taught me as an undergraduate and did much to develop my initial interest in things Gothic. You should all buy his anthology as a convoluted thank-you from me. Of course you can also look at "A Madman's Manuscript" in its original context as part of The Pickwick Papers, which is also available online and in inexpensive reprints. This may take you slightly longer than flicking through a volume of Poe's Southern Literary Messenger, but in the process you'll have read one of the finest comic novels of the nineteenth century. You can thank me later.

Poe and Dickens

Poe (left) and Dickens (right) 

Together these two short-stories offer plenty for us to discuss in comparative terms. I've suggested that their publication context is interesting, as both tales might be said to look over their shoulder at an existing tradition of Gothic short-fiction whilst aiming to establish the reputations of new authors very early in their careers. The theme of madness is obvious enough to be a loose theme for the session, but I personally find it interesting that madness has to arrive with us, the reader, in this particular form: as a fragmentary account, occurring briefly within longer texts (magazines or serialised novels) that we may be assumed to have picked up for other purposes. There's also the question of the tales' place in different literary traditions as the work of American and British authors. No international copywright law existed between Britain and America and this point and this impacted upon both writers. One of the difficulties Poe faced in getting his work published was the unlicensed reproduction of British novels and stories in American magazines - a far cheaper source of content than the work of American authors who would expect to be paid. Dickens, meanwhile, eventually went to court in an effort to prevent his works being pirated. These different positions might also shape these authors' use of and attitude towards existing models and contentions. 

It's also worth remembering (or being aware) that Dickens and Poe did have some limited correspondence and one very brief acquaintance. Poe was impressed by Dickens's early fiction and actually reviewed The Pickwick Papers in The Southern Literary Messenger a year after it had published his own "Berenice." There he praised "A Madman's Manuscript" in particular and quoted at length from its denouement. When Dickens subsequently toured America in 1842, Poe requested and was granted a meeting with the famous international author. 

Finally, it strikes me that one less-obvious point of comparison between Poe and Dickens is as masters of the speaking voice. It's a testament to Poe's work (or so it seems to me) that James Earl Jones's reading of "The Raven" in a Simpson's "Treehouse of Horror" episode remains just a little ominous in spite of Homer's hapless re-enactment and Bart's disappointed interjections (reproduced here in gloriously low quality):

Dickens, of course, was renowned in his own lifetime as a reader of his own works at public events and on various highly lucrative tours. So, given that our session will take place a mere day before Halloween, attendees are, of course, welcome to prepare some dramatic readings for the group. . .


Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English, working on the relationship between eighteenth-century Gothic and travel-writing. He'll do a dramatic reading if you do.

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