Text: David H. Hirsch, “Poe as Moralist: ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and the Transvaluation of Values,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1998


­ [title page:]

“The Cask of Amontillado”
and the Transvaluation of Values


Brown University

­ [page 1:]

POSTMODERN (AND POST COLD WAR) critics of American Literature have interpreted F. O. Matthiessen’s decision to cut Poe out of American Renaissance (1941) as a deliberate attempt to erase him from the canon. As Mattieseen explained in an oft-cited footnote, however, he was thinking of a tradition rather than the canon: “I have avoided . . . the temptation to include a full length treatment of Poe [because] . . . his work . . . relates at very few points to the main assumptions about literature that were held by any of my group. Poe was bitterly hostile to democracy, and in that respect could serve as a revelatory contrast.”(1)

As Matthiessen was writing American Renaissance, the bitter and violent struggle between totalitarianism and democracy was already taking place. It is not surprising, therefore, that the main assumptions held by Matthiessen’s group of American writers should have been rooted in the superiority of democratic ideology. Matthiessen was correct in his assertion about Poe. Hawthorne and Melville may have been ambivalent about the efficacy of democratic ideals, but neither of them was as thoroughly inimical to the values of democratic ideology as Poe. The bookends of Matthiessen’s tradition, Emerson and Whitman, expanded human possibilities engendered by the Enlightenment and portrayed the human condition as infinitely progressive. Clearly, Poe did not share their optimistic belief in the progress of civilization and in the inherent goodness of human beings.(2)

At the very moment that the European Enlightenment, with its visions of political progressivism and human perfectibility, was ­[page 2:] coming to political and cultural fruition in the recently founded constitutional republic that was his own country, Poe rejected the foundations of Enlightenment thinking. In the short fiction he published between 1833 and 1849, the year of his death, he mocked the image of the idealized democratic individual engaged in the pursuit of happiness. In a culture that celebrated liberty and equality, exuded optimism, enshrined the idea of progress and enthroned the common man, Poe persisted in asserting human limitations. In his late fiction, he ridiculed the notion of equality and the idea of progress. He did so by creating a cast of characters who exemplified not so much the image of the human form enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (“. . . all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights”), but the image embodied in the words of Genesis 6, verse 5 (“. . . the wickedness of man was great in the earth and . . . every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”).

Charles Baudelaire first recognized this pessimistic view of the human condition, which separated Poe from the British Romantics and their American expositor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mediated by Baudelaire, the force of Poe’s anti-Enlightenment, anti-Christian disposition turned European Romanticism in a new and more unsettling direction. Baudelaire observed that Poe “. . . has clearly seen, has imperturbably affirmed the natural wickedness of man. There is in man, he says, a mysterious force which modern philosophy does not wish to take into consideration; nevertheless, without this nameless force, without this primordial bent, a host of human actions will remain unexplained, inexplicable. These actions are attractive only because they are bad or dangerous; they possess the fascination of the abyss.” Baudelaire delighted in Poe’s scorn for the Enlightenment belief that human beings always act in their own self interest and in his dismissal of the Romantic notion that humanity as a whole is perfectible. Baudelaire admired Poe’s unyielding opposition to “bourgeois mediocrity,” by which Baudelaire understood bourgeois morality. Baudelaire considered Poe’s world-view the antithesis of the “counting house morality” of Benjamin Franklin, which reflected a culture and a “century devoted to materialism.”(3) ­[page 3:]

When T. S. Eliot wrote an essay on Baudelaire in 1930, he concluded that Baudelaire was “. . . concerned . . . with the real problem of good and evil” and also that he “perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption.” He identified Baudelaire as “inevitably the offspring of romanticism, and by his nature the first counter-romantic in poetry. . . .”(4) Eliot did not mention the Baudelaire-Poe connection at all. By Baude-laire’s own account, however, it must have been Poe who was the first counter-romantic, if not specifically in his poetry, then in his work as a whole. Baudelaire attested in an 1860 letter that when reading Poe “. . . I found poems and short stories which I had conceived, but vaguely and in a confused and disorderly way, and which Poe had been able to organize and finish perfectly.”(5) Four years later, in a letter to the art critic Theophile Thore, he wrote, “The first time that I opened one of his [Poe’s] books I was shocked and delighted to see not only subjects which I had dreamed of, but SENTENCES which I had thought and which he had written twenty years before.”(6)

Eighteen years later, writing about Baudelaire in relation to Poe, Eliot took up the connection he had left out of the earlier essay, much to Poe’s disadvantage. After conceding, “Poe had a powerful intellect,” he added that, “it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty.” Eliot stressed “Poe’s carelessness and unscrupulousness in the use of words.” He asserted that for Poe, “the subject is little, the treatment is everything. He did not have to achieve purity by a process of purification, for his material was already tenuous.” “Even in ‘The Haunted Palace,’ where the subject appears to be his own weakness of alcoholism,” Eliot insisted, “the disaster has no moral significance; it is treated impersonally as an isolated phenomenon. . . .”(7)

Eliot did make one concession to Poe’s stature as a literary figure: “But I recognize that within this tradition from Poe to Valéry are some of those modern poems which I most admire and enjoy. . . .” Though he placed Poe at the origins of a tradition he admired, Eliot insisted that the French poets admired Poe only due to “the fact that none of these poets knew the English language very well.” He went on to say that “It is certainly possible, in reading something in a language imperfectly understood, for the reader to find what is not there; and when the reader is himself a man of ­[page 4:] genius, the foreign poem read may, by a happy accident, elicit something important from the depths of his own mind, which he attributes to what he reads.” Eliot suggests that Baudelaire admired Poe unequivocally because he found in Poe “the prototype of le poète maudit, the poet as an outcast of society . . . the type of which Baudelaire saw himself as a distinguished example . . . the rebel against society and against middle-class morality[[.]]”(8)

While Eliot may be correct in concluding that Baudelaire saw Poe as the prototype of le poète maudit, he is mistaken in insisting that Baudelaire saw only a projection of himself, owing to his poor understanding of English. Baudelaire’s command of the language seems to have been quite good enough to enable him to translate Poe brilliantly. Furthermore, Poe was indeed the rebel against society and middle-class morality Baudelaire said he was.

Yet Baudelaire had an even more important insight into Poe’s poetics. He recognized that Poe had a tendency to conflate morality and aesthetics, a conflation that was to become a leading feature of Symbolist and then Modernist poetry. In fact, it is indeed a characteristic of Eliot’s own Modernist poems. In a perceptive interpretation of the aesthetic theories Poe had tried to establish in two of his major theoretical essays, “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle,” Baudelaire noted: “Thus, what especially exasperates the man of taste in the spectacle of vice is its deformity, its disproportion. Vice injures the just and the true, revolts the intellect and the conscience; but, as an outrage to harmony, as dissonance, it will wound more particularly certain poetic minds; and I do not think it scandalous to consider every offense against morality, against moral beauty, as a kind of offense against universal rhythm and prosody.”(9)

Discussing the literary trends reflecting the inner split in the European psyche that led to the unmitigated evil of the German death camps, Erich Kahler characterizes Baudelaire “. . . as an initiator of a new dimension of modern poetry. . . .” Though “Baudelaire is widely regarded as an aesthete, exalting beauty above all other concerns of life, as a dandy, an épateur, a challenger of the bourgeois, . . . he — and some of his followers — pushed the inquiry into reality much farther, much deeper than the pronounced realists. It was the symbolists who, by their extreme and unsparing penetration into ­[page 5:] the foundations of reality, effected the decisive transformation of reality.”(10) No less than Baudelaire, Poe has been labeled an aesthete and a challenger of the bourgeois. If the Symbolists’ transformation of reality was preceded by a transformation of moral consciousness, then Poe was one of those who set the stage for this moral repositioning.

If we compare Eliot’s early essay on Baudelaire with his later delineation of the tradition that runs from Poe, through Baudelaire, to Valéry, we are struck by a glaring anomaly. In the later essay, “From Poe to Valéry,” written after the European continent had been swept up in an orgy of evil, Eliot did not once return to Baudelaire’s interest in “the real problem of good and evil.” He did not even entertain the possibility that Poe might have been as much concerned with moral and religious issues as he once said Baudelaire was. In 1930, Eliot had written of the French poet, “When Baudelaire’s Satanism is dissociated from its less creditable paraphernalia, it amounts to a dim intuition of a part, but a very important part, of Christianity.”(11) Eliot granted no such intuition to Poe, disregarding Baudelaire’s own generous acknowledgment of the affinities he felt between Poe’s most deeply held beliefs and his own. That Eliot, in 1948, should have overlooked the importance of Baudelaire’s Satanism and his fascination with evil is indicative of Eliot’s inveterate tunnel vision, since by that time much was already known of the death camps that had flourished in a Christian society. Writing after the Holocaust, as a Christian and a moralist, Eliot seemed oblivious to the flowering of evil that had taken place in the very heart of Christian Europe. It apparently did not occur to him that the idea of a Christian society had already been disfigured by Christian societies, and that the image of Western man, that is of Christian man, had been irreparably shattered by the events of 1939-1945.

Eliot’s ability to imagine evil did not extend as far as that of Francois Mauriac, a more brooding religious thinker than Eliot. A decade after Eliot’s essay on the symbolist tradition, Mauriac wrote in his “Preface” to a death camp memoir by Micheline Maurel: “Every philosophy based on the inherent goodness of man will forever be shaken to its foundations . . . Once again, Christians are confronted by the mystery of evil, although never before has it reared its head in such organized form as a tested ­[page 6:] method of torturing and vilifying God’s creature by using it to the last drop of sweat before throwing the remains in the crematorium. We know of no other answer than that made by the Son of Man: ‘In agony until the end of the world.’ ”(12)

Twenty years after Eliot’s delineation of a Poe-to-Valéry tradition, and a decade after Mauriac’s thought-provoking preface, PMLA published an essay on Poe’s moral vision titled, “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections Between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision.” The phrase “murder as a fine art” is, or at least should be, ethically troubling, though it apparently troubled neither the author nor the editors of the journal. While the essay provides a useful distillation of some commonly held beliefs about Poe’s moral vision, it also reflects what seem to me misconceptions about Poe’s aesthetic theories. Moldenhauer writes, for example, “as Poe’s rhetorical theory of ‘effect’ demands, the hero’s values and psychology are induced in ourselves. This is what makes Poe’s tales so permanently and authentically horrific, as the line between spectator and perverse actor imaginatively dissolves. Poe’s protagonists are never ethically accountable to mankind for their deeds, being compelled by profound intuitive reserves within themselves to do that which is at once an outrage upon life and a salvation from life.”(13)

Moldenhauer’s interpretation of Poe’s theory of effect is questionable. Poe clearly states that the similarity of “thought or fancy” between the lover and the reader of “The Raven” is not an end in itself, but merely a step toward achieving the final “effect.” This final effect is registered only when the reader has finished reading the poem, and Poe never specifies exactly what he intended that effect to be. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe suggests that we cannot assume that the reader identifies totally with the poem’s speaker. He writes that “the words, ‘from out my heart,’ involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, ‘Nevermore,’ dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematic.” Here, Poe describes a reader who is distanced from the speaker, and who, because of this ability to distance himself, seeks a moral in the poem. It is this thinking reader, Poe asserts, who chooses to “regard the Raven as emblematic.”(14) ­[page 7:]

Neither is it a foregone conclusion, as Moldenhauer would have it, that Poe’s protagonists are not ethically accountable to mankind. Moldenhauer arrives at his conclusion by lumping together, and then dismissing, evidence culled from the texts of separate stories. For Poe, he claims, “Murder, for all the bombast of self-damnation which Poe’s confessional protagonists spout, is a signal virtue, a route to the aesthetic heaven of death. The perversions in Poe’s fiction finally defy any judgment or even comprehension in conventional moral terms.”(15) It would be more appropriate to say that Poe deliberately creates bizarre human interactions and situations in his fiction for the purpose of pushing the serious reader into new moral territory.

Moldenhauer provides no sound reason for discounting the protestations made by some of Poe’s narrators that they are besieged, even compelled to act, by feelings of guilt. Moreover, the fact that not all of Poe’s murderer protagonists wallow in self-damnation should caution us not to dismiss as engaging in mere bombast those who do express pangs of conscience. The narrators of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” do not spout self-damnation. Neither does the speaker of “The Imp of the Perverse,” though eventually he is driven by a compulsion to confess his crime. This compulsion of some of Poe’s murder-narrators to confess indicates that some of Poe’s protagonists do consider themselves ethically accountably for their deeds. But regardless of what the narrators themselves think, Poe expects the reader to distance himself from the narrator. The ethical accountability of the characters is exactly what Poe encourages the reader to think about.

Moldenhauer himself conflates of the aesthetic with the moral and ethical when he asserts, “Ligeia’s husband affords a fascinating illustration in his tasteful extermination of Rowena.” He greatly overstates the case when he claims, “For these artful murderers in Poe’s fiction, even the most perverse and ghastly assassination is a technique for the attainment of that blissful Unity which we have identified with the perfect artistic work.” And again, that “Murder constitutes a radical but fundamentally aesthetic solution to the problem of disunity and separateness in a fragmented universe.”(16) This last assertion might apply to “Ligeia,” but certainly not to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The ­[page 8:] Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat,” among others of Poe’s murder stories.

Working backwards from Eureka, Moldenhauer concludes that in all of his fiction and poetry, Poe sought a return to a lost primal or transcendent Unity. According to Moldenhauer, Poe believed this return could be achieved by the artist in his art, and by sundry other human beings (as represented in Poe’s stories) by various acts of violence, including murder. Moldenhauer attributes to Poe the Heideggerian belief that since the annihilation of worldly time may bring about a return to Being, human ethics, which exist only in time, must remain subservient to aesthetics, which put man in touch with Being. Given what was known of the Nazi death camps by Moldenhauer’s day, his cavalier deployment of such phrases as “tasteful extermination,” “artful murderers,” “assassination as a technique” and “murder [as a] fundamentally aesthetic solution,” reveals an unfortunate indifference to historical perspective.

But Poe turns out to be more prophetic and less the dabbler than his detractors, and some of his advocates, have taken him to be. To the extent that “Poe’s narrators possess a character and consciousness distinct from those of their creator,” and to the extent that “Poe understands them [his characters] far better than they can possibly understand themselves,” we are justified in thinking of them as characters whose behavior raises moral and ethical questions.(17) Furthermore, in a particular set of stories, Poe uses his created characters (narrators and others) to raise questions about, and undermine, some of the prevailing ideologies of his day, such as Transcendentalism and Utilitarianism. Though Poe and Emerson agreed with each other in their disdain for the Utilitarians, they also had little admiration for each other. Nevertheless, there were certain ideas they explored in common, one of which was the notion that man is a god in chains.

In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson expresses the view that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” He maintains further, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.”(18) In “The Divinity School Address,” he announces, “One man [Jesus] was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God ­[page 9:] incarnates himself in man. . . .” And then, to make sure his listeners or readers would not miss the point that man was on an equal footing with his maker, Emerson adds, “. . . the gleams that flash across my mind are not mine, but God’s,” and “Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.”(19) The point of that last statement, of course, is that God is not dead because He lives anew in each individual.

In discussing Emerson’s essay, “Heroism,” Stephen E. Whicher, one of the most penetrating of Emerson scholars, points out that “The Nietzschean Superman is already half-explicit in Emerson’s hero.”(20) In a similar vein, F. O. Matthiessen wrote as follows about the Emersonian strain in Whitman:

This religious assurance, unleashed from all control in dogma or creed, must be called no less than terrifying in the lengths to which it was to go in proclaiming the individual as his own Messiah. For this tendency, so mildly innocent in Emerson, so confused and bombastic in Whitman, was to result in the hardness of Nietzsche, in the violence of those characters of Dostoevsky’s who have been uprooted from all tradition and find no law but themselves, in such demonic nihilism as that of Kirilov in The Possessed. Nietzsche, reading Emerson’s Essays when he was thirty, found him the most fecund in thoughts of any writer of the century, and heartily subscribed to his criticism of the feeble spirit of the times and to his insistence on regeneration. But how overwhelmingly different in their contexts are the implications of “Life is a search after power” and “Leben ist Wille zur Macht”; or “We have never seen a man” and “Niemals noch gab es einen Übermenschen.” When the doctrine of the Superman was again transformed, or rather, brutally distorted, the voice of Hitler’s megalomania was to be heard sounding through it.(21)

Like Emerson, Poe was fascinated by this notion of man as a god, as Allen Tate pointed out in his essay, “The Angelic Imagination.” “Agathos’ doctrine [in the story, ‘The Power of Words’],” Tate writes, “transcends the ideal of mere angelic knowledge: it is superangelism. Man is not only an angel, he is God in his aspect of creativity.” “At the end of Eureka,” according to Tate, Poe says, “not only is every man his own God, every man is God.”(22) Poe’s phrase, written in his own hand for a proposed second edition of Eureka, is “That God may be all in all, each must become God.”(23)

But if Emerson was the innocent prophet of what turned out to be the terrifying doctrine of “the individual as his own Messiah,” it ­[page 10:] was Poe who first perceived the more troubling implications of Emerson’s prophecy and who, in his non-angelic tales, indicated where the doctrine of man-as-god might lead. In “The Angelic Imagination,” Tate expresses the view that Poe lacked “a first-rate philosophical mind,” but endeavors to show, nonetheless, “that Poe, as a critical mind, had . . . [an] impressive insight into the disintegration of the modern personality.” “Poe,” he adds in a most penetrating insight, “is the transitional figure in modern literature because he discovered our great subject, the disintegration of personality.”(24) In his fifties essay, Tate did not make clear exactly where and how this transition took place, or what he had in mind when he wrote about the disintegration of personality. He seems to be suggesting that Poe anticipated the Modernist movement in an exclusively literary sense. Tate seems to have conceived the “disintegration of personality” as purely an intellectual or literary subject, not as an historical phenomenon.

Like most American critics of the time, Tate did not seem to be very mindful of the recent past, the bloody events of 1939-1945 that wiped out not only the dreams of the Enlightenment but undermined the very foundations of the Western image of Man as a humane, progressive, conscientious, morally responsible individual. Again, it is worth citing an illuminating observation by Francois Mauriac. In his 1958 “Foreword” to Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his own experience in a German death camp, the Catholic thinker wrote:

I believe that on that day I touched for the first time upon the mystery of iniquity whose revelation was to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. The dream which Western man conceived in the eighteenth century, whose dawn he thought he saw in 1789, and which, until August 2, 1914, had grown stronger with the progress of enlightenment and the discoveries of science — this dream vanished finally for me before those trainloads of little children. And yet I was still thousands of miles away from thinking that they were to be fuel for the gas chambers and the crematory.(25)

Whatever may have been the case in his angelic tales and Eureka, in a cluster of stories he wrote in the last six years of his life, Poe tested the more sinister implications of the proposition that man is a god in chains. In these tales, Poe anticipated the collapse of the dream to which Mauriac refers. In a six-year span, ­[page 11:] Poe published five stories centering on what may be called the varieties of man-god experience: “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) and “HopFrog” (1849).(26)

Nowhere, perhaps, does Poe test more forcefully the terrifying implications of the proposition that man is a god than he does in the fourth of these stories, “The Cask of Amontillado.” Here we have a story in which a narrator calmly describes a cruel and cold-blooded crime he once committed. “Poe’s ideal poet-creator plays god,” Stuart Levine notes, adding that the narrator, “Montresor, too, plays god, and were the story more overtly concerned with moral issues, one might even be able to say that god-playing is his sin.”(27) But is it not odd to conclude that Poe is not concerned with moral issues after saying that he has written a story told by a narrator who plays god by murdering another human being? Several years earlier, Edward H. Davidson had also noted Montresor’s assumption of god-like powers. “ ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ . . . is the tale of another nameless ‘I’ who has the power of moving downward from his mind or intellectual being and into his brute or physical self and then of returning again to his intellectual being with his total selfhood unimpaired . . . . But this ‘I’ has one power which was denied to Usher, Wilson, and others: he is from the beginning master, even god, of his circumstances: ‘I must not only punish,’ he ruminates, ‘but punish with impunity. . . .’ ”(28)

In his preface to the story in the Collected Works, T. O. Mabbott writes, “ ‘The Cask,’ on its surface completely amoral, is perhaps the most moral of his Tales. The murderer at the end remembers that his victim rests in peace. That is something the criminal had been unable to do for fifty years.” And in a footnote, Mabbott summarizes a critical controversy centering on whether Montresor is a murderer without conscience or whether he has actually been punished by fifty years of guilt and fear of being found out. Mabbott concludes his footnote by saying, “These questions, however, . . . will probably always remain moot.”(29)

The debate to which Mabbott calls attention has been driven by two sequences in the story which seem to go against the grain of the rest of the tale. The first of these anomalous sequences consists of the two opening sentences: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato ­[page 12:] I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat” (M1256). Some readers have taken this last sentence as evidence that the narrator, Montresor, is actually confessing his crime (possibly to a priest) half a century later. They further infer that he has been guilt-ridden these fifty years. The second anomalous sequence occurs in the final paragraph of the story, after Montresor hears for the last time the jingling of the bells on Fortunato’s cap, just before he has made “an end of [his] labor” of walling him up. In that final moment, Montresor offers the information, “My heart grew sick — on account of the dampness of the catacombs” (M1263). Taken together, these two key sentences seem to be incongruous. They suggest a consciousness of guilt and a need to confess that are at odds with the boastful and cold-blooded tone of the rest of the story.

In a more or less biographical reading of the tale, David S. Reynolds recasts the issue by asking, “Is ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ intensely moralistic or frighteningly amoral?” (R107). Reynolds’s version of the question is not very well thought out since these choices are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, if we were to find the story “frighteningly amoral,” we could do so only because we were taking Poe’s tale to be “intensely moralistic.” Reynolds’s paradoxical question reflects a consensus among Poe scholars (including Moldenhauer) that Poe himself was totally oblivious to questions of morality. This consensus was succinctly stated by Vincent Buranelli, who wrote in 1961:

Poe does not touch morality. Although his aesthetic theory admits that goodness may be a by-product of art, he himself does not look for it. Sin and crime are absent from this part of his universe; and the terrible deeds that abound there are matters of psychology, abnormal psychology, not of ethics. Natural laws apply, working through human nature; the moral law does not apply. Remorse is always a compulsion, never an accusation of the moral sense after a responsible act.(30)

But sin is not absent from Poe’s universe; rather, all too often (but not always), characters who have committed foul deeds do not register any sense of guilt or remorse. In “The Black Cat,” however, the narrator declares that he hung the cat “because I knew that in so ­[page 13:] doing I was committing a sin — a deadly sin” (M852). Even if we take into account the possibility of satire or irony, we may still say that sin is not absent from Poe’s universe. As for crime, Poe’s universe is, if anything, overrun by it. An author who creates a universe in which crimes are committed, while those who commit them frequently do not register a consciousness of having sinned, is certainly an author touching morality.(31)

It should be easier to set the question of Poe’s moral universe in a more meaningful perspective if we entertain the possibility that Poe, like Friedrich Nietzsche some three to four decades later, was entering into uncharted territory — neither moral nor amoral in the tradition of conventional Christianity or Western culture, but a new vision of morality, a transvaluation of values. One must be careful, however, to avoid overstating the case by arguing that Poe arrived exactly where Nietzsche did. Rather, it should be said that Poe was moving in a Nietzschean direction. He did not directly formulate a counter-morality discursively, in so many words, as Nietzsche did, but dramatized the conditions that might follow from such a counter-morality. Viewed from a post Holocaust perspective, Poe looks less like a writer of unbelievable grotesque tales and more like a pioneer of the human psyche.(32)

We may try to re-define Poe as a “psychologist of morals” by re-examining the controversy generated by “The Cask of Amontillado” in the light of the Nietzschean transvaluation of values.(33) The critical controversy is conveniently summed up by Reynolds: “One group of critics sees the tale as the death-bed confession of a criminal who has been tortured by guilt for fifty years. According to them, Montresor’s stated goal of punishing his foe with impunity is an ironic comment on the fact that Montresor himself has never been able to escape the punishment of his own conscience. In contrast, another group sees Montresor as an unrepentant, pathological killer whose crime is a source of power for him and a source of vicarious satisfaction for Poe and the reader” (R107).

We should add to Reynolds’s summation of the controversy a question raised by other commentators on the story. Did Montresor actually fulfill the criteria of his revenge formula? This issue arises because Montresor has stated, as part of the formula, that a wrong “is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt ­[page 14:] as such to him who has done the wrong” (M1256). Yet, as has been widely noted, Montresor never actually tells Fortunato that he is being walled up as revenge for the thousand injuries and especially for the unnamed insult that he has allegedly inflicted on Montresor.

Within the perspective of Nietzsche’s revaluation of values, the controversies generated by Poe’s story take on new moral resonance. Philippa Foot has given a convenient and lucid summary of Nietzschean morality in terms of Nietzsche’s hostility to Christianity and Christian ethical values:

Nietzsche wanted to show Christian morality as a “slave morality” rooted not in anything fine or admirable but rather in weakness, fear and malice. . . . When the weak call the strong evil the move is not merely defensive; it is also an expression of that peculiar malice which Nietzsche referred to as ressentiment. Those who cultivate humility and the other propitiatory virtues to cloak their weakness nourish an envious resentment against those stronger than themselves. They want revenge for their inferiority and have a deep desire to humiliate and harm. The wish to punish seems to Nietzsche one of the most evident signs of this hidden malice. . . . Nor is punishment always directed outward; the man of self-sacrificing virtue is resentful and venomous also towards himself.(34)

“The Cask of Amontillado” is a brilliant, and almost perfect, dramatization of Nietzschean ressentiment. It has been widely noted, for example, that the narrator does not detail the injuries or the insult imposed by Fortunato. Reynolds observes, “In the interest of achieving unity, Poe purposely leaves several questions unanswered,” among which is the question of the particular nature of the injuries and insult (R102). But Poe has not left questions unanswered merely for the sake of giving the story structural unity.

Since we are not told the exact nature of the injuries and insult, we do not know whether they merited the extreme cruelty of the punishment meted out by Montresor. In fact, we really have no way of knowing whether any injuries or insult were committed at all. Certainly, we cannot rest assured that Fortunato intended any injury to Montresor in anything he may have said or done. There is nothing in Fortunato’s behavior that gives any indication that he has any sense whatever of having done Montresor some wrong. As far as readers can tell, Fortunato does not suspect that he may have reason to fear retribution from Montresor. If anything, the injuries ­[page 15:] and insult may be purely imagined. Surely an insult, and sometimes an injury too, may often hinge more on perception than actuality. In the absence of any outside confirmation that a specific offense has been committed — or even more doubtfully — intended, Montresor appears to be a perfect embodiment of Nietzschean ressentiment. Urged on by his hidden malice, Montresor is obsessed by the desire to punish and diminish the powerful Fortunato.

As mentioned, there are critics who interpret the second sentence of the story as an indication that Montresor is confessing his fifty-year old crime to some sort of death-bed confessor. These critics, therefore, consider the ultimate irony of the story to be its covert expression of a Christian moral. As one critic puts it, “Montresor, rather than having successfully taken his revenge ‘with impunity,’ as he says, has instead suffered a fifty-years’ ravage of conscience,” while Fortunato has been resting in peace.(35) One problem with such readings is that, as virtually all critics have noted, Montresor does not sound very repentant. He tells, or at the very least seems to tell, the story of the murder with a sense of satisfaction, even of glee. If Montresor is confessing, therefore, it is a not true confession but a parody of confession.(36) Only one sentence, which comes up in the last paragraph of the story, interrupts the tone of complete repose and self-satisfaction, and even that sentence is equivocal.

Before considering that penultimate sentence, I would like to examine again the second sentence of the story, which supposedly introduces the death-bed confessor: “You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat” (M1256). Critics have been so eager to pin down the identity of the “you,” and establish the possible presence of a confessor, that they seem to have paid little attention to the total content of the sentence. True confession is inextricably tied to shame, guilt, remorse and repentance. If Montresor displays or expresses any emotion at all, however, it is the opposite of all these. Precisely what Montresor does here is to reveal his own inferiority and weakness. He admits to absorbing Fortunato’s real or imagined slings and arrows in silence, while at the same time letting his grudge fester in secret. We may infer that he nurtures an implacable and vaguely accounted for resentment that evolves into the kind of ressentiment Nietzsche attributes to what he considered the ­[page 16:] Christian weakling. The injuries and insult Montresor complains of may be nothing more than a figment of his imagination. We should remember, in this regard, that Poe liked to think of himself as a gentleman who lived by an aristocratic code of honor. This code required one to respond to injury or insult with some kind of honorable and open challenge — either verbal or physical. Montresor, to the contrary, is a man who absorbs perceived indignities, brooding over them in silence while he plans some craven and covert diabolical act of revenge.

If he is not confessing, however, why does Montresor break his silence after fifty years? Reynolds mentions that among the significant omissions is detailed information about the injuries and insult. Equally important, the narrator has also left out of the story any information about the social milieu in which the injuries and insult have taken place. Injuries are usually tangible, but insults are socially defined and may often be a matter of perception related to some sort of actual or imagined public humiliation. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato,” Montresor says, “I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge” (M1256). The distinction Montresor makes between injury and insult, and his stressing that it was insult, rather than mere injury, that precipitated him into action, seems to suggest that Montresor has suffered, or imagines he has suffered, some sort of public mortification at the hands of Fortunato.

The second sentence of the story suggests that whatever offenses Fortunato may have committed against Montresor were not intended as such. It further suggests that they were not perceived as such by mutual acquaintances of the two men, for the listener apparently has had no reason to suspect the existence of any enmity between Fortuanto and Montresor. If we venture outside the precise information given the reader by the actual narrative, we are bound to wonder about the aftermath of the murder. Since Fortunato has disappeared into thin air and was a prominent citizen, one may assume there was a search or an investigation. As Reynolds points out, “. . . there is a Lady Fortunato who will miss him” (R103). We may also assume that Montresor was not suspected of foul play, or if he was suspected, was exonerated.

Montresor has been publicly insulted. In stark contrast, his retribution remains a perfectly kept secret. By his own definition of ­[page 17:] revenge, he has fallen short. Montresor had not fulfilled his formula at the time of the killing by making known to his victim why he was being entombed alive. Indeed, apparently, no one knows or suspects that Montresor has avenged himself by murdering Fortunato. Montresor must make the crime public, not to confess his guilt, but to finish what was begun so many years before. What kind of vengeance has he had if neither the victim nor the world know of it? On his death bed he can finally make the deed known with impunity, and in making it known, he finally completes his act of revenge.

From this perspective, we can explain Montresor’s momentary fit of sickness of heart, which he attributes to the “dampness of the catacombs,” either as precisely what he says it is, or as a last paroxysm of conscience. Since this momentary sickness occurs at the time of the murder, and since Montresor has permitted his crime to go undetected and unconfessed until he can no longer be punished for it, we may conclude that it was hardly a shudder of conscience that racked his body. Rather, it may be that the mention of a transient sickness of heart caused by the dampness of the catacombs is actually intended to underline the fact that Montresor is not capable of feeling guilt or shame at all.

In the version of the story first published in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book for November of 1846, this intention seems to emerge more clearly. There, the sentence reads: “My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so” (M1263, variant “y”). The very casualness of the narrator’s explanation in the earliest published version underlines the killer’s lack of compassion and the cold-bloodedness of the act.

It is important to stress the point that Montresor is not driven to confess by what Poe called the imp of the perverse, which is not present in this tale. As Stuart Levine has pointed out, one of the ironies in “The Imp of the Perverse” is that what is described by the narrator as the destructive element is actually what, in a normative context, would be called conscience. “The Imp of which he [the narrator of the story] speaks,” writes Levine, “had nothing to do with the murder; he is talking about the force which impelled him to the moral act of confession.”(37) Montresor feels neither guilt nor shame. Instead, he exults in his crime. As indicated by the season ­[page 18:] in which he has murdered a fellow human being — carnival — he has committed the murder as a deliberately anti-moral, anti-Christian act.

The carnival context has been analyzed as a brilliant structural device, lending the events an air of verisimilitude. Genius that he is, Poe uses the carnival for thematic as well as structural reasons. The murderous act of revenge, an act wholly antithetical to Christian ideology and ethics, is committed during the time of year the narrator refers to as “the supreme madness of the carnival season . . .” (M1257). The carnival season is a pagan residue of the Roman saturnalias, which were “strongly characterized by the transgression of daily conventions and excesses of behavior . . . [by] great licentiousness,” drunken frenzy, and the ascendance of a Lord of Misrule. The “Carnival itself is on the threshold between order and disorder . . . [and] represents confrontation of the antistructure with the structure of society. . . .”(38) Within this carnival context, the two allusions to a Christian world in Poe’s story are clearly disjunctive. First, there is the dialogue: “ ‘For the love of God, Montresor!’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘for the love of God!’ ” (M1263). In this carnival world of drunken inversion, the love of God is no longer operative. Also forgotten are forgiveness and mercy. Finally, the story ends with the epitaph, “In pace requiescat!” The irony is not that Fortunato has rested in peace, while Montresor has been punished by guilt, but that the utterance is meaningless in a world in which the divine order has been suspended or transvalued. Do the words, perhaps, testify to the death of Montresor’s conscience?

In the early 1920s, the Russian thinker, Nicholas Berdyaev, expressed an eerily accurate vision of the consequences of “the death of god” and of the revaluation of values enunciated by Nietzsche. One consequence of man’s obsession with his own deification, Berdyaev wrote:

is that there is an end to compassion, there is no more mercy. Compassion is a ray of the truth by which Christianity enlightened the world, and a renouncement of this truth completely changes one’s attitude towards one’s fellows. In the name of his Magnificence the Superman . . . it is henceforth lawful to torture and to kill a man, or any number of men, to transform all being into a means in the service of some exalted object or grand ideal. Everything is allowable when it is a question of the unbounded freedom of the superman . . .(39) ­[page 19:]

Poe came very close to anticipating this vision. He depicts just such a world without mercy in “The Cask of Amontillado.” It should be added, however, that Poe never worked out a theory of the superman, and that Montresor’s motives are hardly inspired by any grand or ideal purpose. Poe, we may say, was still “mired” in conventional morality. In fact, Montresor is what we would now call an underground man. Yet, this one time in his life he acts much like a superman, arrogating to himself the powers of a god. He does so precisely by devaluing a human life, snuffing it out without a trace of compassion.(40)

In a sentence quoted above, Vincent Buranelli wrote, “the terrible deeds that abound [in Poe’s fiction] are matters of psychology, abnormal psychology, not of ethics.” It is odd that students of Poe should be so quick to cut off Poe’s psychology from his ethics. We would not think of doing such a thing to Hawthorne, whose stories are also psychological. In the case of Hawthorne, we are willing to concede that the psychological condition of the character may represent a point of entry into a moral dilemma because Hawthorne’s characters are obsessed by feelings of guilt. Indeed, they sometimes feel this guilt even for crimes they may not have committed. Perhaps it is because Poe’s characters sometimes seem to feel no guilt for crimes they surely have committed, or actually deny feeling guilt for their crimes, that we mistakenly refuse to give Poe credit for raising moral issues in his fiction.

Poe sets “The Cask of Amontillado,” one of his most disturbing analyses of the failure of normative Christian conscience, in the dionysian setting of the carnival season. Is this a completely random coincidence? Is it mere window dressing? Thomas Mann has commented that Nietzsche’s “Dionysian aestheticism . . . makes . . . the later Nietzsche the greatest critic and psychologist of morals known to the history of the human mind.”(41) Montresor’s pleasure-inducing murder of Fortunato comes within the compass of Dionysian aestheticism. In this story, Poe is speaking of the death of God, even though his character is not yet ready to declare it with the same audacity as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Perhaps we should say of Poe, as Mann says of Nietzsche, that he too was among “the greatest critic[s] and psychologist[s] of morals known to the history of the human mind.”

* * * *

­ [page 20:]


1.  F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, New York: Oxford University Press, 1941, p. xii (footnote 3).

2.  Matthiessen also recognized that Hawthorne and Melville did not make a perfect fit with Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. Hawthorne, like Poe, leaned toward the biblical view of human beings, but in a way characteristic of Christianity, in which human beings are stained by original sin. With greater complexity than any other great work of the American imagination in the nineteenth century, Moby-Dick portrays the tension between the biblical and enlightenment views of man.

3.  Charles Baudelaire, “New Notes on Edgar Poe” (1857), in Eric W. Carlson, ed. The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 46-47 and 51.

4.  T. S. Eliot, “Baudelaire” (1930), in Selected Essays, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1964 (13th printing), p. 376.

5.  Quoted in Lois and Francis Hyslop, Baudelaire on Poe, State College, PA: Bald Eagle Press, 1952, p. 13. ­[page 21:]

6.  Hyslop, p. 30.

7.  T. S. Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry” in Eric W. Carlson, The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, pp. 212, 218 and 213.

8.  Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry,” pp. 219, 213 and 214. Hardly to his credit, Harold Bloom took over Eliot’s evaluation of Poe verbatim in a review of the Library of America edition of Poe’s Essays and Reviews (Harold Bloom, “Inescapeable Poe, ”New York Review of Books, October 11, 1984, p. 23). Another oddity of this accusation that Baudelaire merely projected his own thoughts onto Poe’s work is that it seems to contradict one of Eliot’s most famous literary coinages, the “objective correlative.” In the 1919 essay on Hamlet, Eliot writes, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked” (pp. 124-125).

9.  Baudelaire, “New Notes on Edgar Poe” (1857), Carlson, p. 57.

10.  Erich Kahler, The Tower and the Abyss; An Inquiry Into the Transformation of the Individual, New York: George Braziller, 1957, p. 154 (reprinted, with a new introduction by Joseph Frank, New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers, 1989).

11.  Eliot, “Baudelaire” p. 373.

12.  Francois Mauriac, “Preface,” in Micheline Maurel, An Ordinary Camp, trans., Margaret S. Summers, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958, pp. x-xi.

13.  Joseph P. Moldenhauer, “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections Between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA, (1968), p. 297.

14.  Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition” in G. R. Thompson, ed., Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, New York: The Library of America, 1984, p. 23.

15.  Moldenhauer, p. 297. ­[page 22:]

16.  Moldenhauer, p. 297.

17.  James W. Gargano, “The Question of Poe’s Narrators” [1963], in Robert Regan, ed., Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1967, p. 165 (reprinted from College English, XXV, Dec. 1963, pp. 177-181).

18.  R. W. Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed., Stephen E. Whicher, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957, pp. 149, 150, 105.

19.  R. W. Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed., Stephen E. Whicher, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957, pp. 106-107.

20.  Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953, p. 69 (reprinted by New York: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1961).

21.  Matthiessen, American Renaissance. p. 546. In a sense, of course, it is precisely what we now know of German history from 1933-1945 that makes Nietzsche’s words so much more terrifying than Emerson’s.

22.  Allen Tate, “The Angelic Imagination,” in Carlson, pp. 251 and 252.

23.  Edgar Allan Poe, Eureka, in Patrick F. Quinn, ed., Poetry and Tales, New York: The Library of America, 1984, p. 1359.

24.  Tate, pp. 239 and 241.

25.  Francois Mauriac, “Foreword,” in Elie Wiesel, Night, New York: Avon Books, 1960, pp. 7-8.

26.  Poe was a more subtle analyst of conscience and morals than even his most sympathetic critics seem willing to allow. The stories written between 1843 and 1849, the year of Poe’s death, study variations in human depravity and moral consciousness. This important point is lost when the narrators are all lumped together, as though Poe were dwelling only on the generalized theme of obsessive human behavior. The narrator of “The ­[page 23:] Cask of Amontillado,” for example, is not being prodded by the imp of the perverse, as are the narrators in “The Black Cat” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” He is not mad in the sense that the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is, nor compelled to confess, as are the narrators of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado” resembles Hop-Frog as one who seeks revenge, but in the case of the latter, the reader knows the injury Hop Frog has suffered and the case can be made that the punishment fits the crime. We might add to this list the 1843 story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” In this tale, the narrator finds himself incarcerated and tortured by the “Inquisition,” or let us say by a component of the power structure. We have no way of knowing whether or not the narrator’s own assertions that he has committed no infraction are accurate. In a sense, the story is the inverse of “Hop-Frog.” In the latter story, the “little man” wreaks revenge against the oppressive monarch, while in “The Pit in the Pendulum” he is saved from the power of the state, or from divine authority, by an unexpected intervention.

27.  Stuart Levine, Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman, Deland Florida: Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1972, p. 87.

28.  Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957 (reprinted 1964), p. 201.

29.  Thomas Ollive Mabbott, ed., Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge, MA and London England: Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 111 and 1252.

30.  Vincent Buranelli, Edgar Allan Poe, New Haven, CT: College & University Press, 1961, p. 72. Poe’s theory of effect has blinded critics to the moral issues in his fiction. Consider, for example, Reynolds’s assertion that “An overwhelming effect of terror is produced by this tightly knit tale that reverberates with psychological and moral implications” (R108). Reynolds fails to pursue the “psychological and moral implications” because for him they remain secondary to “the overwhelming effect of terror.”

31.  Although I do not wish to go into detail here, I think it is a mistake for critics to believe that there is a single idea or attitude which will reveal the figure in the carpet in Poe’s stories and in his thinking generally. For example, in “The Black Cat,” which belongs to the same cluster of stories ­[page 24:] as “The Cask of Amontillado,” the narrator is quite different from Montresor. The narator [[narrator]] of “The Black Cat” is intensely conscious of the problem of good and evil. That he is tortured by his conscience is indicated in the following sentences, even if we read them ironically: “And now I was indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity. And a brute beast — whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed — a brute beast to work out for me — for me, a man fashioned in the image of the High God — so much insufferable wo! Alas! Neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of Rest any more!” (M855-856). I do not agree with Moldenhauer that these words are mere bombast and that the speaker does not feel the wretchedness he claims. If we grant the speaker independence in his own story, we see he is to be separated from Montresor, representing another moral perspective.

32.  It is commonly accepted that Nietzsche was influenced by Emerson, but I do not know whether he read Poe. In a recent essay, however, Geoff Waite discusses Baudelaire’s influence on Nietzsche. Waite writes that at one point “. . . Baudelaire is for Nietzsche privately just one clinical footnote or sign . . . in the global ‘swamp of modernist self-hatred:’ the case of Baudelaire in France, the case of Edgar Allan Poe in America, the case of Wagner in Germany. . . .” Later, Waite writes, “. . . Nietzsche was claiming a rare glimpse, through Baudelaire, into something normally not seen . . .” “Nietzsche’s Baudelaire, or the Sublime Prophetic Spin of His Politico-Economic Thought” (Representations, L, 1995, p. 23).

33.  The phrase, “psychologist of morals” is taken from Thomas Mann, “Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events,” in Robert C. Solomon, ed., Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays, Anchor Books: Garden City, NY, 1973, p. 363.

34.  Philippa Foot, “Nietzsche: The Revaluation of Values,” in Solomon, p. 158.

35.  G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales, Madison, WI, and London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, p.14.

36.  Thompson allows that “In the surface story, Montresor seems to be chuckling over his flawlessly executed revenge upon unfortunate Fortunato fifty years before” p. 13. ­[page 25:]

37.  Levine, Seer and Craftsman, p. 207.

38.  Mircea Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1987; vol. 3, pp. 98 and 103.

39.  From Berdyaev’s book on Dostoyevsky, as reprinted in The Norton Critical Edition of Crime and Punishment, George Gibian, ed., New York: Norton & Co., Inc., 1964, pp. 621-622.

40.  Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov is also an underground man who murders to see whether he measures up to the ideal of a superman. Dostoevsky, as is known, published and wrote an introduction in 1861 to three of Poe’s tales, including “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in Vremya. Three years later, Dostoevsky published Notes From the Underground, with the opening sentence, “I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man” (The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky, translated with an introduction by David Margashack, New York: Random House, 1955, p. 107). This opening sentence echoes two of Poe’s opening sentences: “I was sick — sick unto death” (“The Pit and the Pendulum”) and “True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”(“The Tell-Tale Heart”). It also takes up the motif of the imp of the perverse, which appears in Dostoevsky as “spite,” a variant of Nietzschean ressentiment. For Dostoevsky’s introduction to Poe’s tales, see Vladimir Astrov, “Dostoevsky on Edgar Allan Poe,” American Literature, XIV (March, 1942), 70-74 (reprinted in Carlson, Recognition, pp. 60-62). On Dostoevsky and Poe, see also L. Burnett, “Dostoevsky, Poe and the Discovery of Fantastic Realism,” Leon Burnett, ed., F. M. Dostoevsky (1821-1881): A Centenary Collection, Colchester: University of Essex, 1981, pp. 58-86; and Louis Harap, “Poe and Dostoevsky: A Case of Affinity,” in Norman Rudich, ed., Weapons of Criticism: Marxism in America and the Literary Tradition, Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts, 1976, pp. 271-285. See, especially, Harap: “What Poe was groping toward in his concept of the perverse, Dostoevsky realized in all its implications. The impersonal rationalization and mechanization of life that industry and social relations enforced were draining man of his humanity and making of him a fragmented, disintegrated personality. Neither writer saw any possibility that man’s condition could be meliorated by social change” (p. 278). Harap is almost right, but, as is so often the case, he underestimates Poe’s awareness. It must be granted that Poe was unable to see the implications of advances in technology as clearly as Dostoevsky, since ­[page 26:] they had not yet got as far; nevertheless, his insight into “the impersonal rationalization and mechanization of life” was quite remarkable. D. H. Lawrence understood this when he commented that Poe’s tales “. . . are ghastly stories of the human soul in its disruptive throes” (Studies in Classic American Literature, New York: The Viking Press, 1966, p. 66, first published in 1923). Lawrence blamed the messenger for the message, commenting disparagingly, “All Poe’s style . . . has this mechanical quality . . .” (p. 69). In such early comic stories as “Loss of Breath” (1832, 1835) and “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839), the element of the grotesque enters precisely in Poe’s portrayal of human beings as absurd mechanical contrivances, bizarre creations of technological progress.

41.  Thomas Mann, “Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events,” in Solomon, p. 363.

Works referred to frequently in the text are noted parenthetically, prefixed by a letter code as follows:

M = Thomas Ollive Mabbott, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vols II-III - Tales and Sketches (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1978).

R = David Reynolds, “Poe’s Art of Transformation: ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ In It’s Cultural Context,” in Kenneth Silverman, ed., New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales (Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 93-112).



This lecture was delivered at the Seventy-third Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 1, 1995.

© 1998 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - PAM, 1994] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe as Moralist (D. H. Hirsch, 1994)