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Text: Henry Austin, “Preface,” The Gold Bug and The Black Cat, R. F. Fenno & Co., 1899, pp. 5-27





[page 5:]



Preface

    IF a wide vote could be taken as to which of Poe's tales is the most fascinating, it is likely that “The Gold-Bug” would be elected. Here, as in few others, his genius reveals itself in a vein of genuine gayety and the characters of the hermit naturalist, Legrand, and his colored body-servant, Jupiter, stand out far more distinctly as personalities than do other creations of Poe. That is to say, they are more objective and not, like most of his dramatis personae, mere echoes and adumbrations of himself.

    Indeed, the domineering old darkey is realized with not a little of quiet and penetrant humor and affords proof of what Poe might have done in this way, had he chosen to develop human nature in his tales, instead of cultivating, perhaps to the detriment of this novelistic faculty, his peculiar powers in plot and [page 6:] in the presentment of idiosyncrasies, moral, mental or nervous, of a general nature. Moreover, the bright and facile sketching of character in “The Gold-Bug” makes very felicitous artistic contrast, if you look at it one way, with the melodramatically marvelous incidents of the story; or, if you study it another way, lends an air of human plausibility to the startling conception of the pirate's buried treasure and the device of the cryptogram. Though told with unflagging vigor, “The Gold-Bug” has an air of playfulness. You feel that the conjurer is enjoying his own feats, as he performs them, and thus he communicates his enjoyment intensified.

    It is by no means improbable that the germ of “The Gold-Bug” rose in Poe's mind, when still a youth, though it was one of the products of his prime; for Sullivan's Island, where the scene opens, on its western end is crowned by Fort Moultrie and Poe, in the fall of 1827, being then a private, under the name of Edgar A. Perry, in the United States army [page 7:] and attached to Battery H of the First Artillery, was transferred to Fort Moultrie and stationed there for about a year. He was then nineteen, though he figured on the army roll as twenty-two when he enlisted at Boston, May 26, 1827. At any rate, undoubtedly he and we are indebted to that sojourn as a soldier at Fort Moultrie for the delightful description of that island and of the near mainland which helps to give “The Gold-Bug” its glamour of sober similitude to actuality.

    Poe had a naturalist's intimacy with Nature as well as a poet's passion for it, and his pictures of scenery, his reproductions of atmospheres, are quite as remarkable as his representations of interiors. In an admirably restrained fashion he is thus one of the most rich of descriptive writers; but, where others would become pictorial, he simply is pictural. True, he occasionally “humanizes” nature, as many great modern painters do, but most often his tendency is to present her in her aloofness from human [page 8:] interpretation or interpenetration; and he never gushes about her like some poets and prose writers who seem to aim chiefly at producing glorified guide-books to her most intimate recesses of charm, solemn, serene, solitudinous.

    “The Gold-Bug” is rife with pictures. The lonely but hidden in a coppice of sweet myrtle; the pleasantly roaring fire on the hearth in the cool October evening; Legrand, the naturalist and gold-seeker, twirling the beetle on the end of a string as he leads the way to the forest; the huge boulders, lying so loosely on the soil that only the trees against which they lean seem to stop them from rolling into the valleys; the gigantic tulip-tree, towering above its attendant oaks; the beetle on the string, as the negro lowers it from the seventh branch, glistening, just before he drops it “like a globe of burnished gold in the last rays of the setting sun”; the digging for the treasure by the uncanny light of the lanterns; the excited dog, tearing up the mold with his claws; the superstitious negro, burying [page 9:] his naked arms up to the elbows in the gold, as if bathing himself in its weird splendor; the demonstration of the cypher in the old tin pan over the charcoal fire — what a rare variety of pictures and with what exquisite ease they succeed, each expanding or else relieving the other! It is, in verity, quite a little miracle of melodrama, with so many bits of naturalness and of nature deftly introduced in its mysterious mass that one almost becomes a “true believer” in Captain Kidd's buried treasure and feels that, if ever it shall be found, it ought to be found where Poe put it and found in his fashion.

    This wholesome, though weird, story which fascinated me in boyhood, still fascinates me now-and still more thoroughly. I can re-read it every year with fresh delight. I cannot say the same for a full half of Poe's tales. The magician turned some cheap tricks. Yes, he wrote some pretty poor pot-boilers — things almost as trivial and irritating as the vast majority of magazine stories and syndicated [page 10:] stuff of which the inoffensive public is to-day getting a surfeit. But “The Gold-Bug” is one of his most artistic felicities and in it the microscope of criticism detects but one slight flaw. That, oddly enough, is in the closing paragraph, where Legrand in explaining the presence of the skeletons close to the treasure-trove says: “and yet it is dreadful to believe in such atrocity as my suggestion would imply.” This is clearly an error, since a mind as acute as Legrand's would see that, once having proved it a pirate's hoard, he could hardly get with reason any extra sensation of atrocity from the supposition that a pirate, who had been making men and women “walk the plank” during a long business career, must have mattocked for private purposes the companions in crime who helped him to entomb his ill-gotten gold. Such minute criticism may seem trivial, but it is a kind wherein Poe himself set a shining example and he would not shrink at the appliance of his own microscopic methods. Nor is this [page 11:] kind of criticism really trivial. It is right and it makes ever for more careful and vigilant artistry.

    There are several interesting points concerning “The Gold-Bug” in the way of literary history. Like “The MS. Found in a Bottle” which brought Poe his first breath of fame and gained a prize of $100 in a literary competition, “The Gold-Bug,” published by “The Dollar Newspaper” in the summer of 1843, won a prize of same amount and added greatly to his growing reputation in this country as a writer, with original ideas and a peculiarly original style. It likewise famed him to a considerable extent in England where it was reprinted; the publishing pirate, however, changing the title from Gold-Bug to Gold-Beetle, because, forsooth, bug is a word unmentionable to English ears polite. In this reference I am indebted to my friend Charles Frederick Stansbury for the jocose anecdote that in the English high society of his day, that nasty insect, the cimex lectularius, which even [page 12:] will at times infest aristocratic beds and dare to bite crowned heads, was never mentioned in conversation by his plain plebeian name, but was humorously called a Norfolk-Howard, for the reason that the original name of this most haughty family was nothing but Bugg.

    “The Gold-Bug” is notable, too, for being the prolific parent of cryptogram and buried treasure stories in more than one tongue; but none of Poe's many imitators in this vein has equaled or even nearly approached the master. His most famous imitator and cleverest is the French dramatist, Victorien Sardou, who, in a play which was translated and produced at Wallack's theatre, in New York, about twenty years ago, under the title “A Scrap of Paper,” took the character of Legrand and of the beetle from this tale and also worked into the play some of the method detected by C. Auguste Dupin in Poe's “Purloined Letter.” There were other points, too, which indicate that Sardou had studied Poe's works to some purpose; but — [page 13:] singular proof, either of critical ignorance or, worse, indifference! — not a professional writer on things theatrical at that time called attention to Sardou's brilliant borrowing from the treasury of Poe. Nor did the literary critics of that period, with one exceptional voice “crying in the wilderness,” make note of this highly important and pregnant fact.

    Since then the taking of Poe's ideas, plots, methods of treatment, situations and styles has gone on with increasing volume; and with an audacity well-nigh wonderful; and with a monkey impudence of overt imitation in some cases that has hardly a parallel in literary annals. Analysis and comparison of several of the most amazing of these modern plagiarisms will be made to some slight degree in the volumes of the detective stories to follow this; but it may be soothly said, while touching this topic, that, if imitation be the sincerest form of flattery, Poe has been, since his death, the most flattered author of the century.

    “The Black Cat” I have chosen to put [page 14:] as a companion-piece to “The Gold-Bug” in this volume partly because its gruesome theme and intensity of tone make such a fine artistic foil to the golden ingenuity, pleasant mystery and atmosphere of easy gayety which pervades the former and partly because it is equally one of Poe's masterpieces.

    There can be found few tales, even in his museum of wonders, to match this for sombre power in sounding psychological depths. Frightful, horrible as it is, its fascination for the thoughtful, for those who have tried to plumb in themselves as well as partially in other lives the abysses of personality, is just as potent, its hold just as firm, as on the average reader who seeks but sensation, the curdling of the blood, the sudden rising of goose-flesh.

    Were I editing these immortal stories for the mob of inchoate intellect who read for thrills chiefly, instead of that happily large American public which keenly appreciates the beauties of real literature in spite of certain persistent [page 15:] efforts to distort popular taste by the exaltation of a bogus realism at the expense of idealism, imagination and art, I might be tempted to dilate on the ghastliness of such a tale as “The Black Cat” and to treat it as an appeal to morbidity or the vulgar appetite for the merely monstrous. So to do, however, would be injustice to the spirit of Poe who was never even in his most horrible imaginings and achievements a traitor to the Beautiful, or, to say it still more truly, was never God-abandoned.

    I shall, therefore, consider “The Black Cat” as a study in psychology and as a specimen of literary art. What Poe calls “the unfathomable longing of the soul to violate its own nature, to do wrong for the sake of wrong,” was with him a favorite subject of speculation, as it has been with nearly all the most learned schoolmen of the Christian ages. Even among Pagan philosophers traces of a tendency to similar speculation can be discovered. Christianity did not bring into the world of thought the ideas of [page 16:] Evil and of Sin as active Forces and Fascinations, although Christianity immensely enlarged and extended the cult of such ideas. In Poe's works they occur with singular frequency for one who as artist expressly repudiated the role of moralist and who reiterated dislike of aught that savored of didacticism in art-works.

    Not that Poe was ever so madly enamored with the theory of “Art for Art's sake” as to maintain that the incidental introduction of anything in the semblance of a moral would vitiate a work of the highest art, for he has recorded himself to the contrary; but that in his rebellion against the dogmatism of the didactic school in poetry and poetic prose he generally sought in his creations to deal rather with the unmoral. This must not be confused with the immoral, as has been done by some egregious blockheads or malicious critics who have attempted to spread an impression that Poe is not a “safe” or “respectable” author to be put into the hands of youth or girlhood. [page 17:]

    The contrary is the case. Poe is one of the purest-minded and purest voiced of modern writers. I can recall but two unnecessary allusions of slight impudicity in the whole range of his work and my animadversion of these doubtless would seem to most minds rather a straining to find fault. Unquestionably taste was in Poe almost a conscience. The sense of Beauty was a passion, keen to the point of pain. And yet this taste was only a secondary conscience in the man. His moral nature, against which he had often sinned, clearly made him suffer for sin far more poignantly and persistently than do most men who violate their better selves, who deflower the attendant angel.

    Read sensibly, and not by the false light of prejudice thrown malignantly upon them by critical ghouls of the Griswold or Gilfillan type, Poe's works are more essentially sermonic and provocative to right and beautiful living than those of many writers whom the world has been bullied into accepting as preeminent moralists and formers of character [page 18:] Poe would have shrunk from any such pose. Bitterly conscious of his own infirmities, he would have deemed it an impudence to set up for a teacher of morals like Emerson and he had an over-leaning to ridicule the professed moralists and reformers of his era. Burningly sincere himself, he could not help antagonizing insincerity in others and he was not always broad enough to recognize the substance of sincerity under the uncouth or somewhat affected modes of utterance assumed by some of his cotemporaries. On the other hand Emerson, for instance, was even narrower in his intellectual attitude toward “that jingle-man,” as he resentfully styled Poe; and Lowell, in his latest years a clearer-visioned critic, wrote himself down at that time as yet more strait and provincial of mind, when he referred to Poe thus in his ill-natured “Fable for Critics”:

“Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge
  Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge.”
[page 19:]

Poe, far more just and generous, left on record his opinion of Lowell as “about the noblest poet of the time.”

    The author of “The Raven,” which is probably the most popular short poem ever composed, for it is current in every European tongue and has even been translated into Persian, but which is, by no means, the finest of Poe's productions, was, it is clear, curiously unappreciated, say misappreciated rather, by most of the men of his time. This is the usual and expectable fate for a man of unique genius. Mohammed spent fourteen years before even the wife who adored him was convinced of his mission. And Poe, like Mohammed, came with his book of poesy and of art in one hand and a sword in the other. He smote right and left as a critic and the real wonder is that he gained what he did of standing and of influence with his day and generation. The most curious part of the misappreciation he incurred was that he was considered as lacking in the very thing wherein he is conspicuously rich to the [page 20:] enlightened vision of an unbiased critic writing in the calm of posterity; namely, in this moral attribute, Conscience. Poe had no heart, no conscience, was declared by the Griswolds and the Gilfillans till others who should have known better parroted the silly charge.

    Were this true, it would not necessarily interfere with one's enjoyment of his artworks; but how any one could sincerely hold this opinion in face of the stories “William Wilson,” “The Imp of The Perverse,” “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” to cite no more, is, a mystery. To say that only a man with a terribly active conscience could have conceived and written such things would be a more sensible statement. Of equal fatuousness with those who promulgated the no-conscience theory are those who seriously maintained that in these and “The Raven,” etc., could be found Poe's confessions of having tortured- and murdered by slow degrees his beloved wife. Because an artist may utilize partially his own inner as well as outer experiences, [page 21:] because he may take certain tendencies, passions or vague impulses observed in his own nature and carry them through new situations in his works, heightened or accentuated to suit his artistic purpose, not a few precious commentators — very common ‘taters one might say — must infer that he has committed a variety of crimes. One is reminded of Sterne's apt witticism in this reference. Describing a troop of asses he encountered on a precipice in his travels who suddenly stood at gaze, he remarks: “How they viewed — and re-viewed us.” Poe sufered [[sic]], and still suffers, from a mountainous asininity on the part of reviewers, commentators and biographers.

    To resume particular consideration of “The Black Cat,” it is worthy of note with what restraint, with what almost tame simplicity, this pictured duel of the dualism in human nature begins.

    “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad, indeed, would I be to expect it in a case where my very senses reject their own [page 22:] evidence. Yet, mad I am not — and very surely I do not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly and — without comment, a series of mere household events.”

    Presently, but incidentally as it were, ;a deep note comes, not struck, but merely touched, into sound — a note of that cynicism which is pathetically common, arising as it must in many hearts who have had a jarring experience of the treasons of man to man and who have watched the life and studied the character of that sole animal to whom man is God.

    “To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute ,which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and ,gossamer fidelity of mere man.”

    This is no vain, dull echo of Byron's :hyperbole of sentiment in the famous epitaph on his dog. Nor is it meant as [page 23:] Poe's personal deliberate totality of conviction concerning human nature. It is merely put, by a stroke of consummate art, to lead up contrastively to the deed of hideous cruelty which the perverted hero of this soul-drama is about to commit on the pet cat which was almost a dog in its affectionate attachment to its fatal master.

    “Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?

    The gouging-out of the cat's eye by the man diseased with alcohol — “for what disease is like Alcohol!” is logically followed in a subsequent frenzy by his hanging the cat on the limb of a tree near a window of his house. Then happens, because it had to happen, the burning of the house with the weird spectral portraiture of the hanged cat made by accident on the only wall that remained standing amid the black ruins. Then for months the phantasm of the cat haunting the drink-maddened man and [page 24:] his remorseful tendency to look about him in the vile haunts he frequented for another pet of the same species “with which to supply its place “— what a profound knowledge is here forthshadowed of the operations of Conscience, the penalties that she exacts!

    Unfairness it would be to the reader who has not read before this living tale of Sin and its Logical Sequences to give a detail of the incidents, the steps of this ladder leading gallows-ward. And yet many a critical reader will find his intellectual satisfaction deepening, when he re-reads this tale, with full cognizance of what is coming. This in the case of well-trained minds constitutes a reasonably sure touchstone of what is true art. The things that please, excite or exalt, as much, or more, on re-reading, re-seeing, re-hearing — the things that stay — are the standards. In this high sort Poe's tales, even more than his poems, continue to hold and to widen their empire; and among these tales “The Black Cat” ranks not far from the top for the reasons [page 25:] already adduced. It cannot, however, like some, be accounted flawless in technique. There are a few small spaces in it which Poe might have bettered. That phrase “The reader will remember” referring to the peculiar white splotch on the second cat, is a blur, for it tends to make the reader self-conscious and thus checks for an instant that fulness and spontaneity in flow which is one of the just artistic effects to be sought especially by a writer of short stories. Poe was not always perfect in the minor morals of technique. Indeed, in one of his tales, “The Premature Burial,” he did not stop at his true climax which was a semi-humorous one, but spoiled it with a burst of solemn and gloomy eloquence.

    I shall point out occasionally in these prefaces the blurs and blemishes of this master-writer, not in any pettiness of a carping “word-catcher who dwells on syllables “— and who ought to live on syllabubs — but in the interests of that art whereof Poe is the most excellent exponent in our language, perhaps in any [page 26:]  language — the art of short-story writing. Nor shall I refrain from noting, now and then, certain dissonances in the juxtaposition of words, where other words could have been employed just as effectively for sense and with gain for euphony. Nor shall I hesitate to dilate on his glorious achievements of imagination and his multitudinous beauties of style with that enthusiasm which, as Charles Leonard Moore said to me in a recent letter on the subject of Poe, “great work and only great work ought to enkindle.”

    Poe has been brilliantly edited in France by Charles Baudelaire; warmly and not poorly in England by John H. Ingram; coldly, but with more thoroughness in many respects by George E. Woodberry, a Columbian professor of literature, with some ornamental assistance in the shape of two richly worded yet far from adequate essays by that charming critic and poet, Edmund Clarence Stedman. But justly and roundly edited Poe never has been; or so it seems to me. It has been one of my cherished hopes for years to [page 27:] attempt this task and apart from these insufficient prefaces I am preparing to put forth a study of his works, his life, his character. This, because just and thorough — candid, uncompromising and yet sympathetic — will be, I am fain to believe, something in the nature of a finality, a reality of genuine criticism.

HENRY AUSTIN.     










Notes:

Henry Austin wrote a brief preface to five of Poe's tales, arranged in 3 volumes, but never edited the collection he wished would be published.



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