Poe’s Horrifying Life & Career
Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) was born in Boston to a pair of poor actors who were dead before Poe was three. John Allan, a wealthy tobacco and dry-goods merchant from Scotland, and Frances Allan, who had herself been an orphan, adopted Poe as a wealthy but childless couple, as Poe’s older brother and younger sister went to live with other families. Poe grew up in a life of luxury in the antebellum South playing games with enslaved black children on his family’s lands. When Poe was six the Allans took him to live in London for five years, where Poe got fine marks in fancy schools before returning to Richmond, Virginia.
When Poe was 16 John Allan’s uncle died and Poe’s adoptive father became far more wealthy, inheriting three large plantations and many slaves worth many millions today. Poe began acting out, taking long midnight adventures, wandering with friends, getting into trouble and annoying Allan with pranks, such as dressing up as a ghost to frighten guests at dinner parties. Oddly, the Klu Klux Klan would dress up as ghosts to frighten poor black freed slaves, not wealthy white socialites, decades after the American Civil War, which Poe didn’t live to see. Poe’s older brother Henry visited, who grew up in Boston and worked as a sailor, a drunken sailor as the Irish sea shanty of Poe’s day goes, carousing dangerously about town with stories of the sea.
At 18, Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 and still under construction in 1826, and there was quiet sadness there when Jefferson himself died later that year, freeing seven slaves but selling hundreds more off as part of his estate. Poe racked up drunken gambling debts, and when Poe came home after his first year in college Allan told him he would no longer support the education Poe was wasting. Poe learned that his love had become engaged, but not to him, as her father had intercepted all of his letters and married her off to someone else. Poe denounced Allan and set sail with his friend up the East Coast, visiting his brother on their way to Boston. Poe told his creditors he had crossed the Atlantic to fight for Christian Greek independence from the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the name of Western Civilization to dodge his debts. Poe published a book of poetry and enlisted in the army, and was almost shipwrecked off Cape Cod in a storm.
Poe felt he had to leave the army to become a great writer, but he was accepted to West Point, the first and foremost American military academy, where he got high marks in math and French. Realizing that he could not rise in the ranks without wealth, as upper officers all had much and Allan still refused to share his with his wayward adopted son, Poe left. His fellow cadets gave him money to publish a book of his poetry, which he did and dedicated to them. Poe moved to Baltimore to live with his grandmother, aunt and brother, who now, like Poe, was a poet as well as a drunk, and also dying.
As Poe sought a career in the 1830s, new forms of printing, production, transportation, finance and education created a boom in mass-print, including books, newspapers and magazines, and Poe became an aspiring writer, poet, editor and critic as American audiences grew along with factories, trains and cities. Poe worked in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia and New York, all the major American publishing centers. Between 1820 and 1840 the population of New York City doubled, and immigration increased six-fold. Andrew Jackson’s presidency of 1828 meant a new era of party machine politics, mass media, and the Trail of Tears for Cherokees and other natives killed or forced from their lands, with debates in print about genocide, slavery, savages and civilization.
In British common law, retreat until one’s back is against the wall is typically required before killing in self defense, but American law is far more permissive with proactive violence in defense of life and livelihood, like the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, called stand your ground by some still today. Many Europeans, including Hitler himself, grew up reading and watching violent adventure stories about cowboys and “Indians”. In an age of lynching and anti-immigration, Poe knew anti-black racists were also anti-Irish, so he claimed his family was German. City folks, afraid of many in their own cities, wanted to read sensational stories about theft, murder and rape, imagining details beyond what newspapers were rabidly printing, the sorts of crimes at the center of each of Poe’s three detective stories.
Poe is one of the inventors of the short story, the thrilling tale that hooks audiences in a few short, digestible pages, and he is said by some to have invented the murder-mystery, the horror story, and is one of the first to write science fiction. In the 1830s geologists publicly rejected the Biblical account of the earth’s creation, religion was giving way to science and popular culture, and Poe confronted the modern loss of cosmic meaning and afterlife, as found in the beak of Poe’s famous raven, who squawks that the narrator will hold Lenore nevermore as he morns her loss in his luxurious library. Poe entered a newspaper contest for best story with a prize of $100 in 1831 and didn’t win, but the paper published his submission anyway just before Poe’s 23rd birthday. Poe was good at parodying newspaper and magazine stories, using found material and giving it interesting twists.
Poe wanted his stories to be popular, but also the best, to satisfy commercial and critical tastes. Poe wanted to please both the masses and intellectuals with different parts of the same text, and felt sorry for the “demagogue-ridden public,” with publishers thrusting what they want the public to want at everyone. Poe said the magazine was a sign of the times, a digest of condensed information for a public that consumed more, faster, and had more to think about, with many more texts, methods and examples than mere decades ago, so Poe put the greatest amount of thought into the smallest device that worked for the most people. Poe hoped information would soon be even cheaper to get and give, such that new classes of works could be brought to the public, with the independent artist free from depending on others with money, and the humblest given as much attention as the exalted. In some ways Poe would admire the internet, though like most things in life he would probably also find it horrifying.
Poe contributed his Man of the Crowd (1840) to the first issue of Graham’s Magazine, the first magazine to succeed at mass circulation, and the year after his Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), what many say is the first modern detective story. During the next several years, as Poe wrote his second and third detective stories, The Murder of Marie Roget (1842-3) and The Purloined Letter (1844-5), sequels to his Rue Morgue, he also wrote some of his most treasured stories, including The Masque of the Red Death (1842), The Pit and the Pendulum (1842-3) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843).
As Poe was publishing his final detective story, with the first two and other tales, only a few years before his death, he complained that magazine writers are often poor and the poor are despised in America more than anywhere else, and that his political views were not represented by any of the present parties. Poe wrote to a friend after the success of his detective tales that they are ingenious, but people think they are more ingenious than they are, and for the author, there is not much genius in the detective “unraveling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unraveling.”
After only a few creative but troubled years, depressed and tormented “by a demon,” Poe overdosed on laudanum, a tincture of powdered opium that was legal and common for headaches, and became very sick. After a bit of recovery, just as Poe was ready to launch his own magazine and wed his first love, he fell into the hands of thugs who plied him with drink, took him to voting precincts to stack ballots, also common at the time, though not legal, and left him in the street. Poe died after a few days in a hospital, unable to recover.
Poe’s Philosophy of Furniture
It is difficult to know what philosophy Poe knew, as he uses the term philosophy often but not the names of philosophers. His Philosophy of Furniture, which he wrote for Burton’s Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine the year before his Rue Morgue, a magazine which hopefully has its own mustache, opens with a fake quote from Hegel, so it isn’t really from Hegel, as Poe uses fake quotations in several stories:
“Philosophy,” says Hegel, “is utterly useless and fruitless, and for this very reason, is the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving of our attention, and the most worthy of our zeal” – a somewhat Coleridegy assertion, with a rivulet of deep meaning in a meadow of words. It would be wasting time to disentangle the paradox – and the more so as no one would deny that Philosophy has its merits, and is applicable to an infinity of purposes. There is reason, it is said, in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture – a philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.
It is unclear what Hegel Poe may or may not have read, but without checking every page of Hegel, and Poe offers us no source to help, this is likely a fake quote, because Hegel would not say philosophy is useless, but would say it is the sublimest and involves all purposes. Perhaps Poe read some Hegel, and found a river of deep meaning in a meadow of words. Hegel is an impenetrable forest of language for many, with meaning that is far more difficult to extract than roasting eggs, or noticing common things, like American taste. Coleridge, a poet, is compared to a river running within Hegel’s philosophical wording. Poe pays attention to details in decor much as his detective Dupin pays attention to details in clues and the words of witnesses, but also to the feelings he reads, feels and imagines in others. The motives we read and feel in others, behind the words and clues, are much like deep meaning hidden in a meadow of words, and the emotional point an author is making with a piece.
There are several things in this piece, which isn’t actually about furniture much at all, that find their way into Poe’s first detective story, including a hidden motive. Poe values philosophy, science, logic and the mind, but he finds Hegel full of words even if he has meaning, as common things do, which are easier than reading or understanding Hegel. The Daodejing of China says A kingdom should be ruled the way one fries a small fish, with patient attention to detail, which is very similar to roasting eggs philosophically, with consideration. The first English translation of the Daodejing was published in 1868, almost twenty years after Poe’s death, but the first French translation was published in 1820, so Poe could have read the Dao in French, and there was enough interest in France at the time for a second translation in 1842, the year Poe published his second detective story, so French intellectuals were talking about the Dao which cannot be talked about a bit.
Poe continues bashing Americans, the Yankees, who alone are preposterous, but Italians know little beyond marble, the French have taste but little common sense, the Chinese and East are warm but inappropriate, whatever that means, the Scotch are poor all around, the Dutch have a vague idea that a curtain isn’t a cabbage, the Spanish are all curtains entirely, a nation of hangmen, recalling the Inquisition of The Pit and the Pendulum, the Russians simply don’t furnish, but the South African Khoikhoi tribe, whom Poe and the British referred to as Hottentots, and the Midwest American Kickapoo tribe are very well in their way. The only two cultures Poe praises without criticism are the African and American tribes, which tells us what the Gothic author of horror, burial and decay thought of advancing civilization.
Poe claims Americans had no aristocrats, so they had to create “an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth,” not just money, but image, inauthentic display, which unfortunately causes continuous rivalry and turnover, with wealth changing hands faster than blood passes down, so Americans don’t develop sophisticated tastes, just the next out-acting the last. Poe complains, “There could be scarcely anything more directly offensive to the eye of an artist than the interior of what is termed, in the United States, a well furnished apartment.” Poe says there are too many straight lines, and when they are broken, too many right angles, and curves are too rare and too similar. Poe claims, “A carpet is the soul of the apartment,” not the high ceiling, but the base, and that, “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” The carpet sets the mood of the room by its color, and it must be Arabesque, a pattern of lines that set each object of furniture in the room.
Poe says light should be mild and cool, with “warm shadows,” such that the warm, bright light is also dim, and the dark, cool shadows are also lit, a mixture of opposites, just like the straight and curved lines, dialectically, as Hegel would say. The Daoists of China, the Pythagoreans and Platonists of Greece and many others identify the straight with male and curved with female for hopefully obvious reasons. Poe says most use gaudy lamps and chandeliers that are unequal and glaring, and “Female loveliness in especial is more than one half disenchanted beneath its evil eye,” but a cool oil lamp, with plain but ground glass, an even, unbroken mixture of transparent and opaque, hidden and revealed, is perfect. Poe says too many mirrors is too uniform, and that a bumpkin with a brain, not an idiot but uneducated, would feel something was wrong in a room with too many mirrors. Poe wants a mixture of curved and straight, dark and light, asymmetry and symmetry, obvious and hidden, reflected and obscure.
Poe oddly says he can imagine in his mind’s eye a room of good taste, whose owner lies asleep on the sofa, the time near midnight, and Poe will make a sketch of the room before he, his friend, awakes, a room with one door and two windows, dominated by crimson, tinged with gold and silver, with a small antique oil lamp, with highly perfumed oil, near the head of his sleeping friend, and it throws a “subdued but magical radiance over all.”
While his friend is called he, the fake Hegel, which suggests back and forth dialectic, the straight and curved lines complimenting each other, and the fact that Poe goes out of his way to say that it is female beauty that is half what it is without mixed light, the sleeping he could secretly be a she, and the specific she would likely read the piece and know it was her, and possibly recall the room, but of course, that would be scandalous if the female is merely a friend and Poe is watching over her sleeping in a crimson room after midnight, what both may want but improper conduct on the face of it, in tune with the spirit of humanity, but violates the letter of the law. Perhaps Poe is recalling a certain evening a certain friend would recall as well, if it wasn’t spent simply asleep.
Poe’s detective stories all hide unspoken secrets surrounding women, and as a critic Poe praised female writers as among the best, feeling for them beneath their words. His piece is supposed to be about furniture, but he talks about taste, and carpet, and lighting, and his friend, and even seems to paraphrase passages of the Daodejing after paraphrasing his version of Hegel, but doesn’t say anything about types of tables, or chairs, or any furniture other than the specific pieces he sees in what he says is an imaginary room. The piece could be about the underlying crimson carpet, the emotion Poe is conveying beneath his words instead, and Poe is duping us, just as Dupin, his detective, dupes others in each of Poe’s detective stories.
The Hidden Murder in the Rue Morgue
Dupin, pronounced “Doo-puh”, like duper without an n or r on the end in a French or Southern accent, is Poe’s ingenious detective, a name Poe found in a book he reviewed the same month his first detective story was published. Dupin was a minor French statesman known as a walking library, a living encyclopedia who read and remembered everything, from the Bible, to Homer, to the Koran, to Rousseau. The name Dupin, which sounds like duping or dupin’ when mispronounced by Americans, and Dupin’s full name, C. Auguste Dupin, makes his initials C.A.D. and suggest Dupin is a cad, scoundrel or rogue who behaves deceptively, dishonorably, and unconventionally, like a Daoist sage, who lies low like water and fools most folks.
Poe could have easily known the English word dupe comes from the old French de huppe, of the hoopoe bird, with feathers that stand up on the top of the male’s head, a golden crown for intimidating others, such as predators and rivals for mates. If Poe is famous for his raven, why not also the hoopoe? The bird’s name contains Poe’s own, as if Dupin conceals Poe himself, and an even dumber pun, quite foolish, like a dupe, a pun that Poe would use if he thought Dupin’s name could dupe anyone is: Who is the hoo-poe? Dupin, the hoopoe trickster bird, is who? Poe himself, of course, who thought quite highly of his own analytical abilities, challenging anyone in one publication to send him a cryptographic puzzle he could not solve. Dupin is an unrivaled genius in all three tales.
Mark Twain wrote a half-century after Poe’s death that Murders in the Rue Morgue is the only detective story that authors shouldn’t be ashamed of. The original story began with a paragraph about phrenology that Poe took out in the final collected tales after doubts about the pseudo-science, which many used to argue for racial superiority of Europeans over African and American tribes. Poe’s nameless narrator, the foil Doyle followed when he invented Watson who watches Holmes’ great genius at work, tells us in the lost paragraph that the organ of analysis in the brain can be described but not defined as the capacity to resolve things into their elements, and if philosophers, possibly the idealists Kant and Hegel, are wrong that this organ is ideal, it is likely primitive. Poe’s narrator doesn’t mention African or American tribes, but he argues as if most phrenologists are completely wrong about race, logic and reason. If analysis is primitive, all of us have it.
Poe knew the English word analysis, like many fancy words with several syllables, comes from French, from Latin, from the Greek analusis, to loosen, untangle, or take apart, much as we divide fruit into groups by type. Kant and Hegel tell us synthesis gathers things together, much as Dupin gathers clues, testimony and motives in his imagination to see and feel more possibilities than anyone, and then analyzes what he has synthesized, breaks things down and weighs what is more or less likely, without eliminating the strangest of possibilities, unlike the cops, which is why he is the superior genius, and capable of paring down the motives and detecting the particular criminal out of the group of suspects, supreme in his analytical abilities, which is what his friend, the narrator, is trying to tell us in his long lecture at the beginning of the story after witnessing Dupin’s unsurpassed genius solve their first case together.
The narrator says many think calculation and discrimination, gathering conclusions and dividing possibilities, are at odds with the imagination, but they are wrong. Dupin later explains, after showing his genius, that imagination is both poetry and science, in other words, both Coleridge and Hegel, emotion and reason, and this is why he can read others and solve cases others can’t. The imagination is not at odds with reason, but rather verbal and emotional reasoning support each other in the imagination. Dupin deduces what the cops and others can’t because they don’t look, listen or feel as much as he does for criminals and the victims, which he uses to re-imagine the crime and determine the motive.
Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, modeled in part on Dupin, is fantastic at seeing clues and making analytic deductions, but unlike Dupin, Holmes infamously can’t read emotions in others, which is not ideal for determining motives. Doyle sacrifices emotion for pure reason with Holmes, much like Kant in his first Critique. Dupin shows off to the narrator how good he is at reading others, while Holmes can make little sense of them, but both detectives are dysfunctional and antisocial, incapable of interacting with most as most do, Holmes because he can’t read others, and Dupin because he can’t help it. Hegel, like Kant, argues reason is superior to emotion, and was no romantic like Rousseau or Poe.
The narrator says great minds are as solid as any method but they also use intuition. A great mind is more than a mere calculator. Math can make us think, but thought is more than calculation, and many misunderstand what chess truly teaches us. Games like chess, checkers, cards, and detective stories don’t just teach us to calculate the moves of pieces, but understand motives, not moves in straight lines, but arcs and curves found in fiction, the feelings that move the players that move the pieces, the greater game. Chess and cards don’t merely teach us to understand the game, but to understand people such as ourselves. We love tales with hidden twists because they show us ourselves beneath the words and characters, beneath the pieces of the game Poe is staging for us.
The narrator tells us chess is not the best game for brilliance, a game of checkers is better, and oddly states that a checkers game with four kings would be excellent, as only a brilliant move can win. We think that chess, a complicated game with complex rules, pieces, observation and detail beyond most people’s abilities is the better game for revealing ingenious critical thinking, but this is wrong, because concentration and complexity can be mistaken for profound genius, but a brilliant move in checkers that anyone could make can show us something profound, something simple that isn’t just useful or meaningful in the game, but in much of life.
Poe tells us through his narrator that profound, great minds don’t focus on the complexity of the object but the simplicity of the subject, not on the intelligence of objectivity but the stupidity of subjectivity. A great player throws themselves into their opponent’s position, feels for them, and often sees in a glance a clue that brings a flash of brilliant intuition. A complex, intricate plan is overthinking things. The brilliant player sees the moves they can use to tempt or scare their opponent into losing, which are often quite simple and stupid, like all of us.
Great chess players have attention, memory and knowledge of the game, but the skill of the brilliant analyst is beyond the limits of rules in a silent host of observations and inferences. It is not the validity of inference but the quality of observation, of knowing what to observe. The analyst does not confine their attention to the visible pieces on the board, but rather to their partners and opponents, how they arrange and observe their cards with their fingers and eyes, the ways their faces change as the game is good and bad, certain and uncertain, the ways they pick up cards from the table in victory or throw them down in defeat, subjects moved, moving objects. The greater analyst can play as if their opponents have their cards turned outwards towards them. This is what the narrator tells us before he mentions meeting Dupin.
The narrator starts his story after struggling with its meaning, telling us he was from a great family fallen on hard times and to gets by with books and little else. He meets Dupin in a library searching for the same rare book, Dupin kindles the spirit of the narrator, and the narrator rents a large abandoned mansion for them both to live in, fitting their gloomy mood. This makes Dupin the mind and the narrator the body, much like Holmes is the mind and Doctor Watson the body. The two withdraw from the world and live like madmen, existing within themselves alone. They don’t know Paris, and Paris doesn’t know them. They live in darkness inside during the day and go out at night, walking and talking together, as Poe did with his teenage friends. Dupin has weak eyes but a powerful imagination that is sensitive, so he avoids daylight and crowds and stays in the dark, which helps him think and imagine.
One night while they are out walking, Dupin amazes his friend by reading his mind, showing how he can watch someone’s eyes and see what they are seeing, listens to the sounds they make, and watch their expression to feel what they are feeling, and can follow their train of thought. Dupin tells his friend most people have a window over their hearts he can see right through, much as the narrator says that a great card player plays as if others have their cards turned outward. The Daodejing says most people parade their foolish judgements in front of others, but the wise few don’t and can read others easily.
Soon after this, the nocturnal duo read in an evening paper that at three that morning shrieks were heard from the house of Madame and Mademoiselle L’Espanaye, the Spanish as a fake French name. This makes the mother and daughter Spanish ladies, and unfortunately will have to say farewell to them very soon, as another sea chantey popular in Poe’s day goes that his brother may have sang, like drunken Captain Quint sings in Spielberg’s Jaws.
A crowd breaks in the front door and enters with two armed officers. They hear voices upstairs, one speaking French and another shrieking something none of the mixed crowd understand, so they run upstairs past three abandoned floors to a locked door which they force open, finding a fourth floor room holding a horrifying scene. All the furniture is smashed, a bloody mattress sits in the middle of the room, a bloody razor on a chair, clumps of hair by the fireplace, and two bags of 4,000 gold franks and loose silver coins, spoons and jewelry on the floor. A small open safe under the mattress with a key in the door is empty other than a few old letters and papers.
The corpse of the daughter is found stuffed, head downwards, up the chimney, with scratches on her face and bruises on her neck, as if she had been throttled to death. After searching the rest of the house they find the mother’s mutilated corpse in the backyard, with her throat cut so deeply that her head falls off when they take hold of her. A doctor later says the daughter’s tongue is partly bitten through, possibly by her, and the body of the mother was smashed as if a strong man with a large blunt object could have done it. The paper says there isn’t the slightest clue to solve the mystery yet.
The laundry lady says mother and daughter were happy and paid her well, and she never saw any strangers or servants in the house, nor furniture outside the upper room. This pairs women again with furniture, and both are destroyed. Like Dupin and the narrator, mother and daughter live by themselves, mind over body, adult over child. Their tobacconist said that they both lived in the upper room for years without tenants below, the mother was childish, the two were rarely seen, the daughter rarer still, and everyone thought they must have money stashed away.
Their banker says that three days before her death the mother withdrew 4000 francs in gold, sent to the house with a clerk. The clerk says he took the money with the mother to the house in the two bags, and that when they got there the mother took one of the bags from him, the daughter the other, and he bowed and left. He saw no one in the street at the time. The police continue to search and interview, but with no further results or clues. The clerk who carried the money to the house is arrested, but the paper says nothing incriminated him. If only four people know about the money, and two are dead, and one is a banker, the cops arrest the clerk.
Dupin seems interested in the case and nothing else, as he says nothing about it to his friend, deep in his own imagination, but after the clerk is arrested he asks the narrator for his opinion, who says the case is unsolvable. Dupin says that the Parisian police are smart but no more, making a vast parade of measures frequently ill-adapted to the objects at hand, and their successes are due to diligence, much like the narrator has told us chess moves require great attention, but may be two complicated to be ingenious or profound. Dupin says the famed police agent Vidocq, a model for Dupin, had good instincts and perseverance, but investigated objects too close, losing sight of the matter as a whole. Dupin says:
Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial. To look at things indirectly is the more refined comprehension. By undue complexity we perplex and enfeeble thought, and can make even Venus herself vanish from the heavens.
Why is truth superficial? Because motives like love, hate, sex and violence are stupid and obvious but move the players, the real pieces in the game. When we ignore the feelings that frame the game, we make Venus, goddess of love and passion, vanish from our thinking. The clerk Le Bon, whose name means the Good, did a favor once for Dupin, so Dupin returns the favor and solves the case to free the clerk from jail. Dupin feels for Le Bon, who felt for him, and we can too. It parallels the gold coins in bags and the loose, varied silver, with emotion, the lower, like a carpet, loose and varied, and the rational, the higher, like the law and finance, contained and uniform, which parallels the curved and straight lines of the furniture piece.
What Poe doesn’t say, but we can imagine if we feel for the clerk, is he saw the daughter, and perhaps she smiled at him, or perhaps she ignored him, but either way the chief locks up the clerk because the chief thinks the clerk wanted sex or money, like the mattress and empty safe left unexplained in the middle of the room, but the clerk couldn’t have escaped without being seen by the crowd, and the money is still there, so the chief and cops can’t solve the case, but can unjustly imprison someone to make the community feel better and feel secure their own positions. Dupin feels for the clerk, and feels that the cops are not fully feeling for him, but rather serving their own motives at the expense of the clerk’s.
Dupin knows the police chief, and gets permission to inquire into the case. They go to the house, Dupin examines everything, and on their way home he stops at a newspaper office. We learn later he has felt out the possibilities, imagined what is most likely, and is setting a trap to see if he is right. Unlike Holmes, who is certain of what he judges is elementary, Dupin says that genius always involves probability, which is whittled down by analysis but not closed out. Dupin says coincidences are stumbling blocks to the uneducated in probability, and the cops think the case is unsolvable simply because there are no suspects who could have escaped and no motives that make sense, but this actually eliminates most possibilities, leaving us to conclude it could only be something bizarre, a possibility that most wouldn’t consider.
Dupin says he will or has solved the case with as much ease as the cops have difficulties, and he is waiting for someone who is hopefully innocent, but has pistols to detain him just in case. Dupin says the women weren’t killed by spirits, but the assassin doesn’t seem human. He asks his friend to open his mind and imagine the second voice, shrieking no language the crowd understands. Dupin says he thought, a posteriori, borrowing a term from Kant, that the murderer couldn’t escape, but he found a window that locks when it shuts, and an incredible acrobat could have climbed up the lightning rod on the side of the house, climbed through the open window, and the widow locked after he left. The mother and daughter are frightened of the outside world, reclusive like Dupin and his friend, but they failed to consider the absurd possibility of an acrobatic assassin, and left their fourth floor window open.
Dupin says to keep these points steadily in mind, the shrill, undecipherable voice, the acrobatics, and the lack of a reasonable motive. The daughter was strangled by hand, not killed with the razor, and then thrust up a chimney, which isn’t where an assassin would hide a body. Dupin says this isn’t simply odd, but excessively odd, like the EXTRAORDINARY MURDERS the evening paper announced. Dupin says the strength to thrust the daughter’s body up a chimney that required several men to get her out, tear hair out by the roots and cut a head almost entirely off a body with a razor is quite extra-ordinary itself.
Dupin asks the narrator what he is thinking, and the narrator feels his flesh crawl, as if he can think of something, but not quite, and says it must be a madman, some raving maniac escaped from an asylum. Dupin says that madmen do talk in words, however incoherent, that he found hair that is not human in the mother’s clenched fingers, and can show the daughter was not strangled by human hands. Dupin has the narrator read a passage from Cuvier describing the orangutan of the islands of Southeast Asia, and the narrator suddenly sees that the murderer could not have been anyone except an orangutan, but who was the other French voice? Dupin, who has put himself in the place of a madman, and then in the place of an ape, also found a piece of ribbon outside that sailors use to tie back their hair. A sailor could capture an ape, bring it home, and lose it, so Dupin has already taken out an add in the paper asking if anyone has lost an orangutan, which is why they are waiting with pistols.
At that moment, they hear someone climb the front stairs, hesitate, turn and start to leave, turn back, step up to the door, and knock with determination. Anyone should be able to read the feelings in these sounds, and we haven’t even seen the sailor yet. Dupin says “Come in!” in a cheerful and hearty tone, luring him in. A tall, stocky sailor with a sunburned face hidden by a beard and a wooden club enters the room cautiously. He resembles an orangutan, orange, hairy and possibly violent, and he is armed with a club that could have crushed the mother’s body according to the doctor.
Dupin asks the sailor to sit, and says that he envies him, as he has caught a valuable beast. The sailor sighs, relieved, and Dupin says he can pick up his ape at a stable in the morning. The sailor says he will pay a reasonable reward, and Dupin says he would like the sailor to tell him everything he knows about the murders the other night as he quietly locks the door, puts the key in his pocket, pulls out a pistol and sets it on the table. The sailor’s sunburned face flushes, he rises to his feet with his club, then falls back trembling, the converse of turning to go but then knocking confidently. The narrator pities him from the bottom of his heart, sympathizing with this dual-natured sailor, both man and beast, violent and victim.
Dupin tells the sailor they mean him no harm, says he knows the sailor is innocent, and asks the sailor to confess, and the sailor says he will, but he doesn’t believe they will believe him. The sailor says he sailed to the island of Borneo and captured the orangutan with a friend who died, leaving him with a furious ape on the journey home. He kept the ape in Paris while it recovered from a splinter in its foot, hoping to sell it. Then, after a night of drinking, the sailor returned home to find the ape had broken out of his closet and was sitting in front of the mirror trying to shave with the sailor’s razor, which it had seen through the keyhole.
The sailor pulls out his whip, and the ape flees through an open window. The ape runs ahead, waits for the sailor to catch up, and then runs ahead again, clearly conflicted about loving and hating the sailor. Unlike Dupin and the narrator, the sailor and ape don’t walk arm in arm at night, with sailor’s mind and ape’s body out of tune. The ape sees something shiny in the mother and daughter’s window, which the narrator doesn’t mention is likely the loose silver, the emotions and motives, not the gold coins in bags, the words and logical reasoning, that catches the light, as the ladies are up at odd hours counting their money for their own private purposes. The sailor, who climbs the lightning rod after his ape, peeks in the window.
The ape tries to shave the mother to help her, but doesn’t know neither women nor apes shave. The mother screams and struggles, angers the ape, and with one sweep of its arm it severs her neck. The frenzied ape drops the razor on the chair, strangles the daughter, sees the sailor in the window, breaks the furniture, shoves the daughter up the chimney and the mother out the window to conceal its crimes in simple ways. The ape hurls the mother headlong through the window, which is barely possible as she barely has a head. The sailor slides down the lightning rod and goes home, abandoning the ape completely. The voices the crowd heard on the stairs were the sailor outside and the ape inside.
The narrator says he has scarcely anything to add, and that the ape was eventually caught and sold by the sailor to the botanical garden for a good sum. The clerk is released, the angry chief says people should mind their own business, bested, and Dupin says let him talk, as he beat the chief in his own castle. The chief is all flower with no stem, all head with no body, all brain with no heart, like Laverna, the Roman goddess of thieves and the underworld, or a codfish, according to Dupin.
Opening quotes are sometimes meaningless addendums and window-dressing, as they were in Poe’s day, but in the opening quote to the story we are told that the name of the song that the Sirens sang and the name that Achilles took when he hid among women are puzzling, but not beyond all conjecture. The Sirens sing an emotional song that leads to death, but it isn’t named with a word. Achilles is a strong warrior, but he hides under a false name among sentimental women. Words and names are hard to figure out in such emotional matters, but they are not completely impossible to figure out.
The narrator oddly says at the start that a checkers game with four kings could show us brilliant moves. In the story sailor catches ape, mother keeps daughter, chief locks up clerk, and detective captivates narrator, four pairs of pieces with one over the other. Adventure leads to disaster and injustice leads to justice as the first pair kills the second and the third is redeemed by the fourth. The sailor’s ape kills the mother and daughter, and the chief jailing the clerk leads the detective to solve the case. No one is punished as it seems there is no crime, but there is one unexplained end at the start of the sailor’s story: the second sailor.
The opening quote tells us Achilles hid unnamed among women, a sailor with a fatal flaw, like an ape with a splinter in its foot, and the name Achilles took is not beyond all conjecture. According to the final quote from Dupin, there is a master-stroke of brilliance in saying what isn’t and explaining what hasn’t been. The second sailor isn’t, and we should explain why he hasn’t been since. Dupin says the best solutions involve probability, and we can say with reasonable probability that the first sailor cut the throat of the second to keep the ape for himself.
The first sailor’s face is half-hidden by beard but he keeps a razor and says the ape watched him shave. Poe borrowed a bit from the Voyage of the Potomac, a ship that took half a year to sail from New York to Indonesia. If the sailor’s beard is longer than his voyage he lied and the ape didn’t watch him shave, but watched someone shave and someone cut a throat, which is how the ape learned to use the razor to shave and as a weapon. Poe also borrowed a bit from a folktale about a man who teaches an ape to shave and then tricks the ape into cutting its own throat. The first sailor cut the throat of the second while the second was shaving, giving the first the opportunity, weapon and motive.
Dupin tells us he has a window into others’ hearts, but doesn’t get a chance to watch tells to solve the case. He reads clues and feels for the ape, mother and daughter, but never meets any of them. He feels for the clerk in prison but doesn’t visit him. Dupin feels that he hurt the chief’s pride, but after the case is closed. The sailor is the only piece that shows us tells, and he is easy to read twice. He pauses on the stairs before ringing the doorbell and rises from the chair but remembers the gun, showing he is capable but also confused. Dupin tells the sailor he is innocent which calms him, but the sailor hesitates a third and final time, the moment he thinks of his partner. Just as four pairs make the moves of the plot, four words make the most brilliant move of the story. The sailor starts his story “after a brief pause,” and after that the narrator summarizes the sailor’s story, stripping it of all further tells from the sailor.
The first death in the story is like the first killing, with the throat cut and body left outside, and the final injustice is like the second killing, with youth strangled and stuck in a space. Why doesn’t Dupin solve this hidden crime? Poe hoped we would, by following his words, feeling out the sailor and imagining what happened. To help us even more, in his second detective story we discover a sailor has killed someone he loves. Poe has duped us all with Dupin since, taking the secret to his grave after he invented the whodunnit. Emotions may be the weakness of words, the Achilles’ heel hiding at the base of all arguments, but feelings are the strength of meaning itself, and we can hardly think without them.
The Hidden Accomplice in the Murder of Marie Roget
Poe’s sequel to the Rue Morgue, The Murder of Marie Roget is based on the unsolved murder of Mary Rogers, a young woman who worked at a cigar store in New York City who may or may not have known Poe and sold him cigars. A particular gentlemen, the news noted after her death, had paid Mary much attention at the store three years earlier and then left town, causing Mary to wander off and consider suicide. One paper noted that, just like a cigar, the romance had gone up in smoke. These are Poe’s competitors at rhetoric. An opinion piece argued girls shouldn’t work at cigar or candy stores, where they interact with men. Another paper insisted that a naval officer, a sailor, had seduced Mary and kept her in Hoboken for two weeks, until abandoning her rather than marrying her as promised. Another paper said that the stories about Mary running off with anyone were phony, and a reporter fond of Mary had been severely beaten by other admirers after visiting her store.
On June 25th, 1841, Mary told Daniel Payne, a boarder at Mary’s house who happened to be shaving at the time, that she was going to her aunt’s house to take her aunt’s children to Sunday Church. Daniel agreed to meet her later, but after a thunderstorm Mary didn’t show and he returned home, as she had stayed with her aunt before in similar weather, but after Mary was not back yet after Daniel returned home from his job at the cork factory, he took a coach to her aunt’s and was horrified to hear that Mary never got there. Daniel had been courting Mary, as many were apparently, including Alfred Crommeline, who four days later while searching for Mary saw a crowd down by the river. A body of a young woman was dragged out of the water, and Alfred recognized the clothing, called the cops, who called the coroner, who pronounced her dead by violent means, strangled after sexual abuse. The coroner reported she had been bound with “sailor’s knots, not ladies’ knots,” gagged, and assaulted by several assailants.
The papers gave the case full coverage for six weeks, but the case was never solved. Many used the event to lecture on morality, and others to sensationalize theories that went nowhere. While the theory that a gang had attacked Mary continued to hold sway, some questioned whether or not the doctor could tell if Mary had been attacked or had an abortion instead that may or may not have gone wrong. The doctor continued to insist that Mary had been a woman of virtue. A five hundred dollar reward for information leading to solving the case was offered by citizens and the police, but even when it was raised several times over it didn’t bring results.
Then, strangely, some of Mary’s clothes and a monogrammed handkerchief were found by Mrs. Frederica Loss in a thicket near her roadhouse by the river where Mary was found. Loss says Mary arrived with a dark male stranger about 4 in the afternoon on the day she disappeared, drank some lemonade and left on the stranger’s arm smiling. Loss, who had sent one of her sons to deliver a bull down the road, heard screaming just after dark at 9, which her other son down in the cellar heard as well. She said she feared her son had been gored by the bull and rushed down the road after him. She heard something like a struggle nearby, and then silence. There had been gangs roughhousing in the afternoon along the bank that day, and her boys found the clothes in the thicket a month afterwards while playing, which is when she realized that the young woman had been Mary.
The papers continued to debate whether Mary’s lover or a gang had strangled her or mistreated her. Poe’s story, which closely follows the exact events of the case and sets them in Paris with Marie Roget, which would have fooled no one at all in New York who read any of the papers. Much of Poe’s story takes place in newspaper accounts that the narrator and Dupin read, just as Poe would have followed the case of Mary in the papers himself. Dupin concludes that the scene of the crime makes no sense if a gang committed the crime, but does if a single sailor, Mary’s dark stranger, had brought her to the thicket, and then strangled her before or after passion or Mary pleading for marriage. Dupin says the sailor dumped Mary’s body after leaving everything behind in the thicket, and in Poe’s story the sailor turns himself in and confesses. Poe wrote to an editor that his story had disproved the gang theory, and “indicated the assassin.” Unfortunately Loss confessed on her deathbed several months after Poe first published parts of his story that Mary had been the victim of a botched abortion, which was criminal at the time, which is likely why one of her sons in the cellar had heard the screams, and the other had been sent down the road.
Poe changed several details in the story in the final version in the collected tales to suggest that Marie had already had one abortion, disappearing for awhile years ago, much as Mary wandered off suicidal, and suggests that Loss, Madame Deluc in his retelling, was an accomplice, another fancy word with several syllables from French. Dupin points out that children would play in the thicket and find the clothes much sooner than a month later, and that clothes do not take a month to mildew when left outside, which suggests Deluc in the story holds on to the clothes, whether or not she was concealing an abortion or a place for lovers’ trysts, and then she left the clothes out for a bit and brought them to the cops when she feared she would be revealed or was threatened by the sailor to help him conceal his crime. Poe had already committed himself to the idea that the sailor had strangled Marie, but either way Deluc, Loss in real life, had to have a hand in the crime or concealment.
In 1891, 42 years after Poe’s death, John Anderson, the owner of the cigar shop where the original Mary Rogers worked before her tragic death, left a will that was contested in court, and it was alleged that Poe was paid five thousand dollars to write the story to divert suspicion from Anderson himself. The character in the story is Le Blanc, the white, like Le Bon of the first story, the good, but the claim is far-fetched. Poe almost came to blows at a party in 1844 when someone suggested that Anderson, Poe’s friend, was using the death to help his business. Perhaps it was suggested that Poe was profiting himself from it as well.
The Hidden Lover of the Purloined Letter
Different critics have praised each of the three stories as the best, but Poe himself said that the last, The Purloined Letter, was his best, and it is both brilliant and half the length of the other two tales, which may make it more profound according to Dupin. Like the Rue Morgue, Poe returned to a fantastic, imaginary case after worrying about his reputation in misjudging the case of Mary Rogers a bit. Dupin and the narrator are smoking pipes by the fire discussing the two previous cases, “meditation and meerschaum,” as the narrator says, when the police chief, who pleaded with Dupin to take the case of Marie Roget, returns to ask him to take another case that he is charged to solve personally and can’t. The narrator says it is quite a coincidence, but not if Dupin knows the chief is coming.
The chief says the case isn’t a killing like the last two, but something simple that the cops can handle but Dupin might find interesting, as the case is odd, like Dupin himself. Dupin says maybe the case is too simple for them, as he said about the case and cops in the first story, and the chief laughs at this impossible suggestion, and says it is quite complicated, as someone in a high quarter had a document stollen from the royal apartments. Much as the word rape was absent from the second story, with many suggestive words with more syllables, such as “manhandle” or “maltreat” in its place, the chief tells us in so many indirect words that Minister D, what we are told of his name, entered the royal apartments and saw the queen reading a letter she tried to hide but couldn’t, so she left it on a table in plain sight. When the king arrives, the minister, recognizing the handwriting of the letter and seeing his chance to blackmail the queen, puts another letter down by the first, then picks up the queen’s letter and leaves, all while the king is there so the queen can’t say anything.
Clearly, like Mary and Marie, the queen is up to something, or someone. Poe’s audience would likely know from the papers that Caroline Princess of Wales wrote a letter to her husband King George IV over marital difficulties that got into the wrong hands, and it became a political scandal. Without saying it, we can imagine the queen has a lover other than the king, which is not only infidelity, but treason. The queen is mixing her interests improperly, but the minister is mixing business with his own power, so they are both committing crimes they can’t let the king figure out. Luckily, the king remains entirely clueless. The sinister minister, like Dupin, can read people, reading the queen correctly, first her anxiety and then her position. The queen has charged the chief with finding her lost letter, but we never learn anything else about its contents, its word or overall emotional point, but we suspect. Dupin notes the minister can’t use the letter openly, but as long as he holds on to it and doesn’t use it, he has the queen under his thumb.
The minister, like Dupin and the narrator, is out all night every night, and the chief had the entire police force, all the king’s men, turn over every inch of the minister’s apartments several times for hours without finding anything, and search every building two buildings over, using every technique to the fullest extent, checking all hiding places, testing the floor and the furniture, and the chief also says, without saying it directly, that he personally has dressed up with other cops as robbers, detained the minister twice, searched him, and didn’t find the letter. Apparently robbing people can count as time served on the force for her majesty’s honor. In the movie Duck Soup, Groucho Marx turns to his men protecting the matriarch at their final stand against the enemy, and says, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did.”
Dupin says the minister is not a complete fool, but the chief says the minister is a poet, so he is nearly a fool. Dupin says true, “after a long drag,” with the narrator using a similar set of words for the sailor’s pause in the first story, showing us without telling us Dupin is offended and disagrees, but feels that he and others are various sorts of fools, some more self-aware than the chief of police. Dupin says he is guilty of a bit of poetry himself, and the narrator takes over questioning the chief much like Dupin, showing his time with Dupin has done his mind good, and that he can feel his friend’s frustration, but after suggesting several things the cops have tried, the narrator concludes the letter isn’t in the minister’s apartments, but Dupin says it is, and the cops should search again, even though they have gone over everything over-systematically with microscopes.
Months later the chief comes back, sadly sits in the same chair, the narrator asks him about the case, and Dupin asks about the reward. The chief won’t say what the reward is, but offers 50,000 Francs from his own checkbook, which suggests the reward is far larger, as if Dupin wouldn’t be able to read this in his response. Dupin takes another slow drag of his pipe, and tells the chief to cut him the check, and he’ll hand him the letter. The narrator, Dupin’s friend, is astonished, and had no idea the letter was there with them. The chief takes several minutes to respond, staring at Dupin silently, pulls out his checkbook, writes the check, and Dupin gets up and produces the letter from his writing desk.
The chief leaves with the letter immediately, without asking a word about how Dupin found it, which we can read in his haste, a likely indicator of how valuable it is for his pocket and position with the queen. Dupin again says the cops are often alright, but the letter wasn’t hidden, which is why they didn’t find it. The cops were looking for a hiding place, not for something hiding in plain sight. Dupin says many schoolboys are smarter, and he met an extraordinary boy who could best anyone at a simple guessing game of even and odd marbles held in the hand by clearing his mind and feeling what his opponent is feeling, just as the narrator suggests in the beginning of the Rue Morgue.
Dupin says the police methods were perfect, but they can’t step back and see the big picture, much as the words on large signs can be missed when nearby. The narrator asks if the minister is the poet, as there are two brothers, one a poet, the other a mathematician. Dupin says the minister is both a poet and a mathematician, and knows him well, and if he were merely a mathematician and not a poet, the cops would have caught him. The narrator says most of the world thinks mathematics the supreme form of reason, and Dupin says mathematicians and the French have tried to spread this error in the public as best as they can, and that mere math can’t reason at all. Dupin may be referring to Comte’s positivism, which is a major basis of modern analytic philosophy. Dupin says analysis conveys algebra about as much as ambitus, seeking office, implies ambition, as much as religio, what binds us, religion, and homines honesti, the upstanding citizens, are honorable men. Cicero used the term for men of his own political party. Thus, analysis is more than algebra, as thought is more than symbol and title.
Dupin quotes the French aphorist Chamfort, a favorite quote often quoted by Poe in person: You can bet on the fact that any idea or convention widely accepted is wrong, for it is simply convenient to the greatest number. Poe chooses a poet to show us the greater truth, while suggesting mere mathematics is for common dupes, who understand what generally. Abstract algebra does not lead to general truth, because in morality and chemistry the whole is more than the simple sum of its parts. It is not finite truths, atomic and complete in themselves, but truths of relation, of relationships between the elements of the situation. He accuses the mathematicians of Pagan mythology, polytheism, and says if you tell a mathematician truth is not simply equations, you should take care to step back, as they will try to knock you out, unaware of the overall emotions involved.
Dupin says he knew the minister left his apartment so the cops could thoroughly search it, so he visited the minister the other day with his green eyeglasses so he could use his weak eyes as an excuse to search the room while talking to the minister. He looked over the minister’s writing desk with no luck, but in a glance he saw a tattered letter pinned above the mantle, in plain sight, and knew. Oddly, Dupin does not look over the mantle first, but at the minister’s desk. Dupin says that the daring, dashing, brilliant minister is beyond the chief and the cops, and has fooled everyone but him, so he leaves a gold snuff box on the minister’s table, returns the next day to fetch it, pays a man in the street to fire a gun in the air as if it misfired, and when the minister rushes to the window, nervous about violence, Dupin switches the letter on the mantle for a copy he created from his own desk at home.
Dupin says the minister would have killed him if he knew he had the letter, so he left quickly, but he left the minister a clue, as leaving it blank would simply be insulting, a verse that should let the minister know just how he was fooled when he next looks at the letter. Apparently Dupin wants to be complexly insulting, not simply insulting. The minister has stepped on a lot of people to gain more and more power, Dupin says, a monster of a man, and a genius, both poet and mathematician, so the worst of monsters. Dupin says the minister did him an evil once in Vienna, much as the bank clerk did him a favor once in the first story, which is again why Dupin solves the case, and so he leaves the minister a final quote, in his own handwriting, which the minister will recognize: A scheme so hateful, if it is not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.
In the ancient Greek myth, Thyestes sleeps with his twin brother Atreus’ wife, Atreus gets revenge by serving Thyestes his own children in a stew, and then Thyestes takes revenge on Atreus for killing his children. Dupin and Minister D of The Purloined Letter are twins, as the critic Milner argued, which many missed before him, both of them poets and mathematicians, the two brothers, both handsome, both brilliant, which leaves one more thing unsolved, like the sailor’s second in the Rue Morgue: Who is the queen’s lover?
It could be the chief, or the narrator, but there is only one possible candidate, who is handsome and brilliant, poet and mathematician, who seems to have little energy but dupes others and gets around, like his twin, but unlike his twin, not a monster, but someone who loves and cares for others. Because we are literally told Dupin, “produced the note from his desk” for the chief, Dupin is the lover, and he produced the note from his desk twice, the first time when he wrote it to the queen, as her lover, and the second time when he retrieved it for the chief. That is why his twin recognized the handwriting while the letter was in the queen’s hand from the beginning.
There is no assignment for this week. Work on the last two assignments on truth tables, and email me or meet me at office hours if you need help or have questions.
The Annotated Poe, ed. by Kevin J. Hayes, Belknap 2015
The Creative & the Resolvent by Paul Hurh, 19th Century Literature, v.66 n.4 2012 p.466-93
Poe & the Cogito by Jeffrey Folks, The Southern Literary Journal, 42.1 2009 pp 57-72
Edgar Allan Poe & The Dupin Mysteries by Richard Kopley, Palgrave 2008
The Cambridge Companion To Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Hayes, Kevin J., 2002
A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. By J. Gerald Kennedy, Oxford 2001
A Companion to Poe Studies, by Eric W. Carlson, Greenwood 1996
The Purloined Poe, ed. by Muller & Richardson, Johns Hopkins 1988
Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by Eric W. Carlson, Cambridge 1987
Poe the Detective: The Curious Circumstances Behind The Mystery of Marie Roget,
by John Walsh, Rutgers 1968