Text: Richard P. Benton, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” Poe Newsletter , April 1968, , vol. I, No. 1, 1:7-9


[page 7, column 1:]

Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”: Dickens or Willis?

Trinity College

William Whipple has argued that Poe’s humorous satire, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” has more than one cutting edge. He believes it is directed not only at the “soothing system” used in treating mental patients but also at the visitor to the asylum who is duped by its deranged inmates. He identifies this visitor with Charles Dickens (1). In addition, Ada B. Nisbet, agreeing with Whipple, has attempted to support his argument by asserting that Poe was the author, or partially the author, of the review of Dickens ’ American Notes that appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger for January, 1843 (2). Whipple contends that the American Notes was the original source of Poe’s story. Edward Wagenknecht, however, thinks that Whipple’s argument that Poe “intended to present Dickens himself as the visitor is far from proved” (3). I share Professor Wagenknecht’s belief. In this essay I propose that the original source of Poe’s tale was Nathaniel Parker Willis ’ story “The Madhouse of Palermo” rather than Dickens ’ American Notes, and that if Poe intended to satirize a living person in his character of the visitor that person was Willis rather than Dickens, at least insofar as his original intention was concerned.

It is true that when Dickens visited the State Hospital for the Insane at South Boston, he approved heartily of the new system of treating mental patients in effect there, which was called the “Moral Treatment.” This new system was opposed to the old one of “mechanical confinement,” which involved keeping the insane chained and locked up. The system of “Moral Treatment” was operated on the principle that freedom and kindness was the humane and proper method of dealing with insanity. Introduced into America from Europe in the early 1800’s, the new system had by the 1840’s replaced the old in several asylums, including the asylum at South Boston, the Insane Retreat at Hartford, and the asylums at Frankford, Pennsylvania, and Bloomingdale, New York. Poe had a special familiarity with the new “soothing system,” as he called it, through his personal acquaintance with Dr. Pliny Earle, who served as resident physician at both the Frankford and the Bloomingdale asylums. Whipple [p. 126] rejects Dr. Earle as the possible victim of Poe’s satire on the ground the physician was too obvious a choice. I can find, furthermore, no reference in the text of Poe’s story to tie Dr. Earle to it.

In presenting his case for the influence of Dickens ’ American Notes on Poe’s tale and for the identification of the visitor with the English author, Whipple offers three kinds of evidence: 1) Poe had a personal motive for satirizing Dickens; 2) there are significant parallels between Poe’s narrative and Dickens ’ account of his visit to the South Boston asylum; and 3) there is an allusion in Poe’s story to Dickens himself. [column 2:]

At the time Whipple assumes Poe composed his story, the American author had reason to be piqued at Dickens. Poe had asked the Englishman to help him get his Tales published abroad, but Dickens, though friendly, had given him no encouragement. Furthermore, Poe believed Dickens had made unfavorable remarks about him in a review of American poetry that had appeared in the London Foreign Quarterly for January, 1844 (4). Therefore, according to Whipple, Poe had a personal motive for attacking Dickens in addition to having been annoyed at Dickens ’ views in American Notes.

Whipple sums up his case for parallel resemblance between Poe’s story and Dickens ’ account in the following terms:

. . . the comparison of American Notes and Poe’s tale is so close as to remove doubts. Besides the elements in common . . . the visitor, the music, and the use of the ’soothing system ’ — there is the discussion of the banquet or meal, the presiding officer’s attempt to humor the deranged as the doctor humored the would-be queen in Dickens’s account, and there is the ridicule of Dickens’s belief that each insane person was tolerant of the fancies of all but his own. [p. 132]

Finally, according to Whipple, there is an allusion to Dickens himself in Poe’s tale. This occurs “in Monsieur Maillard’s remark, ‘There is scarcely an insane asylum in France which cannot supply a human tea-pot. Our gentleman was a Britannia-ware tea-pot, and was careful to polish himself every morning, with buckskin and whiting ’.” Whipple believes this remark refers to Dickens and to his dandyism [p. 132].

Although Ada B. Nisbet has attempted to strengthen Whipple’s argument by alleging that Poe reviewed American Notes in the Southern Literary Messenger for January, 1843, I remain skeptical of her claim. To me there is not anything in the style of this review that sounds like Poe, a rebuttal on intuitive ground, which I hope is not too cavalier.

Regardless of the validity of Miss Nisbet’s support of Whipple’s claim, however, his case would be persuasive if it was not for the intimate connection of Nathaniel Parker Willis with the new “Moral Treatment” in the 1830’s and Poe’s attitude toward his contemporary magazinist at that time. Willis visited a lunatic asylum at Palermo, Sicily, immediately prior to 1834. The system of treatment at this institution, run by “a whimsical Sicilian baron,” was that of usefully employing the inmates, humoring their delusions, and altogether handling them with kindness and consideration. Willis described his visit in a letter to the New York Mirror. This letter later became Letter LXIX in his Pencillings by the Way of 1835 (5). Willis used his actual experience as the basis of the tale “The Madhouse of Palermo.” His fiction is much more affective than the description in his letter. The story first appeared in Capt. Marryat’s Metropolitan Magazine for May to August, 1834. It was reprinted two years later in Willis ’ Inklings of Adventure, which Poe reviewed in the Southern Literary Messenger for August, 1836 (6). In spite of the fact that Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” was nor published until November, 1845, when it appeared in Graham’s Magazine, I believe Willis ’ story was Poe’s original inspiration. Willis ’ fiction contains several features important to Poe’s tale which are absent from his letter. [page 8:] Furthermore, I believe there is significant evidence in Poe’s tale that suggests Willis may have been the butt of his satire. There is also external evidence to suggest this.

When one compares Dickens ’ account of his visit to the insane asylum at South Boston with that of the narrator of Willis ’ “The Madhouse of Palermo,” the elements in each which could have contributed to Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” are of almost equal importance. Although there are two elements in Dickens ’ account which are not in Willis ’, there are four elements in Willis ’ tale which are not to be found in Dickens ’ Notes. Furthermore, the allusion in Poe’s tale which Whipple believes points to Dickens actually contravenes the identification of the English author with the narrator of Poe’s story. It alludes to another visitor, who is not present, and leaves Poe’s narrator free to be identified with Willis. Willis is the butt of Poe’s satire in at least two other stories — “The Duc de L ’Omelette,” first published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier for March 3, 1832 (7), and “Lionizing,” which first appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger for May, 1835 (8). Poe had had a personal reason to satirize Willis because of the pique he must have felt when the dandified editor of the American Monthly Magazine had revealed in its columns in 1829 how he had rejected Poe’s poem “Fairy-land” and joyously confined the MS. to the flames (9).

Let us examine those elements in Poe’s story which he could have gotten from Willis as well as from Dickens. In both authors there are visitors to insane asylums who narrate their experiences. The asylums are described as having adopted the system of treating mental patients as ordinary persons who are allowed almost complete freedom of action, who are humored and coddled by the people in charge, and who are entertained with banquets, music, and dancing. Moral influence alone is used to restrain their behavior. Finally, the visitors in both accounts highly approve and commend this new departure in psychiatry. Dickens asserts that the new system of treatment is “admirably conducted on those enlightened principles of conciliation and kindness, which twenty years ago would have been worse than heretical,” every effort now being made “ ‘to show some confidence, and repose some trust, even in mad people ’ “ (10). Willis ’ narrator tells how on his visit he saw “no chains, no whips, no harsh keepers, no cells of stone or straw.” He commends the old count for being “the first to try the system, now, thank God, generally approved, of winning back reason to those most wretched of human sufferers by kindness and gentle treatment” [Works, p. 458].

The two elements in Poe’s story which are found in Dickens but not in Willis are the observation that the mentally deranged see into the real character of the hallucinations of others but not into their own and the description of the physician attempting to treat the delusions of the insane by appealing to their sense of the incongruous and ridiculous. In “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” Poe carries this latter point to a logical reductio ad absurdum. His Monsieur Maillard relates that a patient who fancied himself a donkey was cured by requiring him to live on thistles until he saw the error of his ways. I hope I am not begging the question by observing that these two [column 2:] elements to be found in both Poe and Dickens, though not in Willis, are sufficiently general not to oblige me to maintain that Poe necessarily owed them to Dickens. Poe had a comprehensive mind and may have picked up these ideas from another source.

At the same time, there are four elements in Poe’s story which are sufficiently specific to balance the scale in favor of the Willis influence. They are: 1) Willis ’ asylum, like Poe’s, is a private and not a public institution as Dickens ’ is; 2) his asylum, like Poe’s, is a converted château, and not originally intended to be a hospital like the one Dickens visited at South Boston; 3) his asylum, like Poe’s, is located in a Southern and not a Northern clime as Dickens ’ is; and 4) his asylum goes by the Italian name Casa dei Pazzi, which is equivalent in form to Poe’s French name Maison de Santé, a coincidence which while not conclusive is suggestive enough.

The location of Poe’s asylum in a Southern clime also appears to contribute some significant satire of a political nature to his story. He makes two ironical allusions which strongly suggest he intended to play the American South off against the North. Poe’s visitor, growing a little apprehensive at the odd behavior of the people in the dining room, at length dismisses his apprehension with the remark, “I remembered having been informed, in Paris, that the southern provincialists were peculiarly eccentric people, with a vast number of antiquated notions” [Works, VI, 60]. Also, later, when the bizarre behavior of the women at the table begins to astonish him, the visitor remarks to Monsieur Maillard, “ ‘They behave a little odd, eh? — they are a little queer, eh? — don ’t you think so? ’ “ But his host feigns surprise and replies, “ ‘Odd! — queer! — why, do you really think so? We are not very prudish, to be sure, here in the South — do pretty much as we please — enjoy life, and all that sort of thing, you know — ’ “ [VI, 70]. Partial to the South as he was, and biased against Boston and the Yankees as he was, Poe here, it seems clear, twitches the noses of those Northerners who think Southerners odd and queer — in short, insane. He flaunts Southern folkways as being less prudish and more pleasurable than those of the North with its Puritan heritage. The Yankees may think Southerners irrational if they wish, but life in the South is more enjoyable than Northern life. Paris, the hub of Northern French culture, is no doubt here equivalent to Boston, the hub of Northern American culture, where Poe was born, a birthplace of which he declared himself thoroughly ashamed.

My interpretation here fits quite well the unusual interpretation which Richard Wilbur has given to “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” Wilbur believes that in this story Poe makes use of the same kind of architectural symbolism to be found in a number of his works, the madhouse being symbolic of the human mind, the deranged inmates standing for its irrational part and their keepers for its rational aspect. For a time the irrational part triumphs over the rational part and their positions are reversed, the keepers of the mind being confined to the basement while the madmen occupy the upper story. At the height of the irrational festivities, however, the rational overseers of the mind escape from their cells below, break into the upper story, and restore order. To [page 9:] Wilbur:

The uprising of the inmates, and the suppression of the keepers, symbolizes the beginning of a dream, and the mad banquet which follows is perhaps Poe’s least spiritual portrayal of the dream-state: this dream far from being an escape from the physical, consists exclusively of the release of animal appetites — as dreams sometimes do. When the keepers break in the windows, and subdue the revellers, they bring with them reason and the light of day, and the wild dream is over (11).

Without contradicting Wilbur, I believe Poe here intended a political construction to be put on the matter, seeing the situation in the madhouse as the way contemporary Yankees viewed Southerners and their behavior. In this way, Poe’s story is indeed a “wild dream,” the South gaining but a temporary victory over the dominance of the North, but a riotous victory while it lasted. It is to be noted especially that when the real administrative staff break out of their confinement, the demented members of the orchestra immediately break into the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” apparently to placate the anger of their overseers. This ridiculing of the North by Poe suggests strongly that he had the Yankee Willis in mind as his satirical butt rather than the British Dickens, at least originally.

Finally, I believe that it may have been only a coincidence that “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” was first published three years after the appearance of Dickens ’ American Notes. The evidence for the Willis influence on the story is so emphatic that it indicates the composition of it may have been of a much earlier date, perhaps sometime between 1834-1836, which would be about the time that “Lionizing” was composed, thus at a period when Willis was uppermost in Poe’s mind as a subject for satire. It may be that the hue and cry in America that followed the appearance of the Notes in 1842 prompted Poe to dust off his old MS. and submit it for publication. He no doubt thought that his American readers would associate Dickens with his story now that the Willis association might not be triggered in their minds.



(1)  “ ‘Poe’s Two-edged Satiric Tale,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, IX (1954), 121-123.

(2)  “Poe and Dickens,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, IX (1955), 313. See also Nisbet’s previous article, “New Light on the Dickens-Poe Relationship,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, V (1951), 295-302.

(3) Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend (New York, 1963), p. 244.

(4)  Whipple, p. 130. In this belief it appears Poe was mistaken, the review having been written, according to Lowell, by John Forster instead of by Dickens. See The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), I, 258n.

(5)  The Complete Works of N. P. Willis (New York, 1846), pp. 103-105.

(6)  II, 597-600. This review is not included in Poe’s Works, ed. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York, 1902). It is not signed, but Poe confesses to its authorship in a letter to Hiram Haines [August 19, 1836]. See Ostrom, I, 99.

(7)  See Kenneth L. Daughrity’s convincing case in his article “Poe’s ‘Quiz on Willis ’,” American Literature, V (1933), 55-62.

(8)  Killis Campbell has suggested that in depicting his hero Poe had Willis in mind. See his The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (Cambridge, Mass., 1933), p. 165. [column 2:]

(9)  The American Monthly Magazine, I (1829), 586-587.

(10)  American Notes and Pictures from Italy (London/New York, 1907), p. 44.

(11)  “The House of Poe,” in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1966), p. 275.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]