Text: Claude Richard, “Arrant Bubbles: Poe’s ‘The Angel of the Odd’,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1969, Vol. II, No. 3, 2:46-48


[page 46, column 1:]

Arrant Bubbles:
Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd”

Université de Montpellier, France

Oddly enough, Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd,” while having been almost totally neglected by American scholars, has achieved a degree of popularity in France, mostly because André Breton included it in his famous Anthologie de l ’Humour Noir (1). Breton’s brief introduction to the tale is widely known among specialists, and it reveals the extent to which Baudelaire’s brotherly vision of Poe infected the most independent critical mind of the twentieth century. Relying heavily on Baudelaire’s and Mallarmé’s portraits of Poe as the arch-romanticist, Breton sees Poe as “a barbarian” and a rebel (2), and he reaches the conclusion that “The Angel of the Odd” is an exercise in automatic writing revealing Poe’s impatience with the rational workings of the mind: “Poe est l ’amant du Hasard et l ’on s ’étonnerait qu ’il n ’ait aimé compter avec les hasards du langage.” “The Angel of the Odd” is thus presented as an apology for chance, written by one whose philosophy of literary creation scorns conscious art. Among those who know it in France, the story is usually considered a minor classic of surrealistic art.

Can we accept this interpretation of “The Angel of the Odd” and consider the piece a tribute to chance, disorder, and coincidence? More precisely, can we view it as an exercise in unchecked automatic writing revealing “le fonctionnement réel de l ’esprit”?

This, briefly, is the story: A young gentleman is half dozing in his armchair on a chilly November afternoon. He has drunk a few glasses of wine and read some tedious books. He feels drowsy but is aroused by a paragraph in a newspaper relating the extraordinary accident that had happened to a man who was playing “puffing the dart” and who, because he had placed the needle at the wrong end of the tube and had drawn it into his lungs, was killed (3). Our hero damns all journalists and their unbelievable creations, whereupon he is interrupted by an odd character with a strong German (or Dutch?) accent who delivers a long abstruse speech on the reality of oddness and the existence of coincidence. The Angel plays a number of tricks on the hero, whose schemes are thwarted by hapless coincidences and whose life becomes a jumble of improbable misfortunes. Thus, the story may appear to be no more than the tale of a rationalistic skeptic who is taught that life is not a slick construction of the mind and that chance and accident provide the prevailing motifs in the pattern of a man’s life.

This interpretation of “The Angel of the Odd” more or less jibes with what are believed to be the story’s surrealistic qualities. But we may wonder whether this is Poe’s main purpose, and whether there are really traces of automatic writing to be found in this story supposedly relying on the “serendipities of language.”

The story seems to me to be another episode in the many wars that were among the favorite pastimes of the New York literati in the 1840s. The clue lies in the list of the works read by the story’s hero before the intrusion [column 2:] of the Angel and in some puns; puns are, of course, the trademark of Poe’s burlesque pieces. During the morning of that memorable day, the hero had been reading Glover’s Leonidas, Wilkie’s Epigoniad, Lamartine’s Pilgrimage, Barlow’s Columbiad, Tuckerman’s Sicily, and Griswold’s Curiosities (4). This could have been a list of particularly tedious books hastily drawn up by Poe almost at random; the only feature the books have in common seems, at first, to be their learned and boring character (cf. Gerber, p. 90). Closer attention reveals, however, another common feature, which may ultimately give us a better clue to Poe’s intentions. The list includes three epic poems (the Leonidas, the Epigoniad, and the Columbiad) , an American romance (Sicily) , a travel book (Lamartine’s Voyage en Orient) , and a collection of literary gossip made up of bits and pieces (Curiosities) . We should notice that, after reading that indigestible mass, the hero feels not bored, but “stupid.” He means that he found the books incomprehensible, just as, reading the unconnected newspaper items (”houses to let,” “dogs lost” “wives and apprentices run away,” and the editorial matter) with which he followed the books, he could not understand a syllable. This ill-chosen selection of newspaper fare constitutes a comment on the books, as perhaps so does the “dyspeptic truffle “ on which he had dined. His reading fare, because of its lack of artistic unity, produced a case of intellectual indigestion.

Then, we are told, he “makes effort to arouse himself by aid of frequent Lafitte.” Baudelaire’s translation (which sent me on the track) reads: “je m ’enfforçai de me réveiller avec force verres de laffitte” (many glasses) (5). There are two inaccuracies here. First, Baudelaire’s “se réveiller” (”to wake up”) is not as suggestive as Poe’s “to arouse,” a word which Poe often used for the response of a “somewhat ideal reader” to the presence of the “poetic sentiment” in a work of art. Second, though Poe used the phrase “glasses of Lafitte” later in the story, he used “Lafitte” alone at this point. Now, the name of the wine was and still is “Chateau Lafite.” Taking my clue from Zenobia, I observed carefully the motions of my Diana; she had manifestly smelled a rat: Lafitte happens to be also the title of an extraordinarily popular novel of the 1840s by the most prolific of all American novelists, “Professor” Ingraham (6). Not only had Poe reviewed the romance twice, but he had devoted many pages to a close analysis of its plot. In November 1841, he had written that Ingraham was “obnoxious to [that is, liable to] the charge of a certain cut-and-thrust, blue fire melodramaticism” (7). In the glorious early days of the Southern Literary Messenger when Poe was more trenchant, he had used the plain word “absurdities” (Works, IX, 112) for the jumbled heap of unconnected incidents in this novel plagued by “the chronological mannerism” (Works, IX, 112-113). Most scathingly he condemned the “artificialities of construction,” the excessive minuteness of the descriptions, and the “many odd words” (IX, 114). For Poe, the plague of long works lay in the multiplicity of incidents with no achievement of unity, and an overly intricate narrative method — the well known method of “bringing up” the narrative (see Works, IX, 123). Lafitte, like the other books mentioned at the beginning of the tale, is desperately long and involved.

Poe did not select those books at random. Some of them had already been the subjects of reviews by Poe — [page 47:] reviews which seem to indicate, moreover, that neither had Poe selected the books merely as examples of ponderous tedium. Rather, he must have chosen them all — the three epics, the travel book, the romance, and the miscellany of gossip — as examples of perverted or slipshod narrative techniques. They all violate Poe’s dictum on the unity of effect.

Consider the epic poems: never did Poe condemn the epic because of tediousness, but always because of what he considered its fundamental error, the misuse of poetry for a long narrative. The nature of the epic precludes its achieving either unity of conception or unity of effect, for to Poe it could only be a succession of separate poems unrelated in both inspiration and theme. He always reproached the epic with its “uncertainty of purpose” or its conventional patchwork of unconnected short lyrical poems (see Works, XIV, 267). Then consider the Pilgrimage: Lamartine, except in La Chute d ’un Ange, is for Poe typical of the writer who often falls into the sins of “ranting and raving” (Works, X, 136). Whoever has been patient enough to go through that incredible congeries of anecdotes, descriptions, hymns, and fillers swept together under the one title, Le Voyage en Orient, must agree. Interestingly enough, many a reference by Poe to Lamartine is accompanied by a reference to Barlow’s Columbiad, which was for Poe the ultimate example of monstrous and overwhelming disorder (Works, XIV, 268).

Next on our hero’s indigestible bill of fare came Henry T. Tuckerman’s Sicily, a romance set in the exotic landscapes indicated by its title. Tuckerman should be remembered for sharing with few others the honor of being alluded to in one of Poe’s poems; in “An Enigma” we may read these graceful lines:

The general Tuckermanities are arrant Bubbles — ephemeral and so transparent (8).

In a little known article, a review of Isabel; Or, Sicily, published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine for July 1839 (V, 60), Poe had somewhat qualified the meaning of the word “Tuckermanities.” But nowhere do I find a hint that he deemed the work boring; the tone is amicable but for one unfavorable remark: Sicily is a travel book on which an incongruous romantic story has been clumsily superimposed so that the scenes belonging to the romance and those belonging to the notebook are artificially welded together into one single narrative, the main trend of which is lost under the “grossly inartistical” coincidences. Tuckerman should also be remembered as the editor of a literary journal who rejected “The Tell-Tale Heart” with the following commentary: “If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles, he would be a most desirable correspondent.” Poe’s response was, “If Mr. Tuckerman persists in his quietude, he will put a quietus on the magazine of which Messrs. Bradbury and Soden have been so stupid as to give him control” (9).

It is not, I think, too farfetched to surmise that “The Angel of the Odd” was written in ironic response to the writers associated with the works mentioned at the very outset of the tale. First, the members of what we might call the “school of quietude”: the word “quiet” often crops up in Poe’s reviews, invariably attributed to a certain group of Boston poets and critics. Tuckerman, of course, was a Bostonian and had been the editor of a very quiet review, [column 2:] The Boston Miscellany, with which Poe was very familiar. In contrast, The Columbian Magazine, in which “The Angel of the Odd” was first published was a very un quiet New York review edited by a true-blue New Yorker, John Inman. At that time, October 1844, Inman was one of the most rabid of the “Young Americans,” a democratic set whose main literary foes were the Boston poets of the school of quietude and the “raving, ranting” Bostonians. Poe took an active part in the squabble between the “Young Americans,” who were the proponents of a muscular and popular literature, and the Boston poets, who were attached to a more genteel, more traditional, more quiet conception of literature (10). The leading critics of the Boston school in 1844 were Rufus W. Griswold and Henry T. Tuckerman, the authors of the two most conspicuously placed books in the list presented at the beginning of the story. If the satire on Tuckerman and his like seems too sly to be easily grasped and the conclusions too farfetched, it should be remembered that Charles Frederick Briggs, in his hilarious satire on New York, The Trippings of Tom Pepper, introduced Tuckerman under the name of Mr. Wooly, “the quiet critic from Boston, author of ‘A Few Calm Thoughts on Literary Creation ’ “ and that these two adjectives, quiet and calm, were felt to be quite sufficient to enable the reader to recognize him immediately (11). Thus, “The Angel of the Odd,” whatever else it may be, seems to be one of the skirmishes in the literary war between two cliques distinguished by two different conceptions of literature and culture.

I even wonder if Poe did not, with characteristic generalization, write the story as a satire on all New Englanders, the “crazyite” inhabitants of Concord as well as the “quiet” Bostonians. For another way to be incomprehensible, by Poe’s lights, was to be a New England Transcendentalist. This may explain why the Angel was given a Germanic accent. It is well known that Poe had a rather superficial knowledge of German culture but that he kept deriding the mystical trend of German philosophy even in his favorite critic, A. W. Schlegel (Works, XII, 131). In Poe’s words, the Germans are “ranting and raving” just like Carlyle. We should remember that in Poe’s peculiar vocabulary Carlyleism means “rumbling obscurity” — that is to say, a kind of redundant style (in imitation of the Germans) concealing intellectual vacuity which he describes in one of the Marginalia in words that closely parallel the description of the voice of the Angel: “The Carlyleists should adopt as their motto the inscription on the old bell from whose metal was cast the great Tom, of Oxford: ‘In Thomae laude resono. Bim! Bom! ’ and in such case ‘Bim! Bom! ’ would be a marvelous ‘echo of sound to sense ’ “ (Works, XVI, 167). The voice of our German angel is described as “that which proceeds from an empty barrel beaten with a big stick; and in fact this I should have concluded it to be, but for the articulation of the syllables and words” (Works, VI, 105). These extravagant obscurities proffered with “owlish airs” remind me of the style of “certain members of the Fabian family — people who live (upon beans) about Boston” (Works, XVI, 166). These people have specialized in “Schwärmerei,” that is to say “sky rocketing criticism.” Most evidently these are the Transcendentalists and their Boston critics “who have a notion that poets are porpoises” for they are always talking about their running in “schools” [page 48:] (Works, XI, 177). Poe once described them as the critics of the Bobby Button school. Bobby Button himself is described in a way that reminds one of our Germanic Angel of the Odd: “Bobby Button is a gentleman with whom, for a long time, we have had the honor of an intimate personal acquaintance. His personal appearance is striking. He has a big head. His eyes protrude and have all the air of saucers . . . .” (Works, XI, 177-178).

This portrait, written a few months before “The Angel of the Odd,” is to be found in a review of William Ellery Channing’s poetry. (William Ellery Channing the Younger was another “ranting Bostonian.”) The review is a very funny spoof of the literary “school” about Boston, as opposed to the school in Boston, and the portrait of Bobby Button seems to be an earlier description written with a similar touch and in the same humor as the portrait of the Angel.

It now appears that Poe’s satire operates on two levels: the Angel may appear as a Transcendental critic using an abstruse, unintelligible German cant to justify the extravagant works of Boston writers whose romances are crowded with coincidence and unlikely events. On this second level, in fact, the tale appears to be a parody of the genres honored in and about Boston by the critics of the Bobby Button school.

The bare succession of unconnected or artificially connected events is, in itself, an ironical comment on the narrative technique of writers and critics who judge a work of art “by the time it took to impress [its] effect or by the amount of ’sustained effort ’ which has been found necessary in effecting the impression” (Works, XIV, 268). More precisely, however, many incidents in “The Angel of the Odd” seem to parody the genres represented by the works referred to at the beginning of the tale.

The original misfortune of the hero is caused by an intricate series of circumstances that are strongly redolent of the artificial postulates of melodramatic romances: he falls asleep, his house burns down, and because he has failed to renew his insurance, he is soon endowed with the essential attributes of the romantic hero: poverty and bad luck. One detail only is amiss: his hair has been burnt to ashes and the parodical romance topples over into the grotesque when the romantic hero is found to be bald. The following scene, but for the incident of the wig, could be transferred to any novel by Morris Matson or Henry Tuckerman without jarring:

There was a rich widow disconsolate for the loss of her seventh spouse, and to her wounded spirit I offered the balm of my vows. She yielded a reluctant consent to my prayers. I knelt at her feet in gratitude and adoration. She blushed and bowed her luxuriant tresses into close contact with those supplied me, temporarily, by Grandjean. I do not know how the entanglement took place, but so it was. I arose with a shining pate, wigless; she in disdain and wrath, half buried in alien hair. (Works, VI, 111)

Having failed twice in his amorous schemes, the hero naturally sees only one solution: suicide. While trying to drown himself in a river, he sees a solitary, drunken crow steal his pants. With this incident the romance parody comes to an end. The hero, with his legs in the sleeves of his coat, runs after the crow and winds up hanging onto the “guide-rope” of a balloon which happened to be drifting by. At this point there may begin the suggestion of a [column 2:] travel book. Although little of the tale is spent in recounting our hero’s travels, he was apparently gone long enough to permit the rebuilding of his house “during [his] peregrinations.”

If we can agree that the piece is mainly an ironical commentary, with touches of parody, on drab matter combined with extravagant composition and also on the kind of criticism that bestowed praise on such “inartisticalities,” then it is one more accidental irony of literary history that what has been supposed a “surrealistic” tale should make a plea for verisimilitude and strict narrative technique in prose fiction.



(1)  Gerald E. Gerber in his recent article “Poe’s Odd Angel,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, XXX (June 1968), 88-93, states that “the story has either defied or discouraged explication beyond Marie Bonaparte’s psychoanalytical treatment” (pp. 88-89) and proceeds to interpret the tale as a burlesque of “the spirit of reform.” Although the sources quoted by Gerber seem to have been used by Poe, I remain unconvinced by the tenuous parallels Gerber draws between isolated incidents in the story and Priessnitz’s water-cure system, Cornelius Webbe’s kicking German Transcendentalist, or Channing’s and Greeley’s temperance tracts. Though Poe may have sprinkled the tale with sarcastic allusions to these reformers, I believe that they were not the real butts of his satire. Gerber ignores the list of books read by the narrator at the beginning of the tale and thus shifts the aim of the tale.

(2)  See Breton’s “Introduction,” pp. 151-152. Breton quotes Baudelaire who had borrowed from Daniel’s article in the March 1850 Southern Literary Messenger.

(3)  Poe did not invent the anecdote; the short paragraph had appeared in the Philadelphia Public Ledger for 3 June 1844, see T. O. Mabbott, “Origins of ‘The Angel of the Odd ’,” Notes & Queries, CLX (January 1931), 8.

(4)  A puzzling reference (perhaps punningly to Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature) since “The Angel of the Odd” appeared in 1844, and, to my knowledge, Griswold’s first edition of The Curiosities of American Literature appeared in 1847. The Epigoniad, A Poem in Nine Books appeared in 1757, Leonidas in 1734, The Columbiad in 1807, and Isabel; Or, Sicsly in 1839. Evidently the Pélerinage is Le Voyage en Orient, though Jacques Crépet surmises it could be The Last Canto of Child Harold’s Pilgrimage, translated from M. de Lamartine by J. W. Lake (Paris: imprimerie de A. Boucher, s. d.), see Histoires Grotesques et Sériesues, ed. Jacques Crépet (Paris: Conard, 1966), p. 277.

(5)  Both André Breton and Marie Bonaparte quote Baudelaire’s final translation (Histoires Grotesques, ed. Crépet, p. 123). Baudelaire first spelled the word “Laffitte” (La Presse, 17 February 1860), then “laffitte” and thus erased the pun he had missed — as he missed all the puns and allusions that required knowledge of Poe’s literary milieu to be understood — though his change from the capital “L” to the lower case “1” may indicate that he felt there was something in the word.

(6)  Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf was reprinted three times between 1836 and 1842; see Lyle H. Wright, American Fiction (San Marino, California, 1948). The spelling is exactly the one used by Poe, whereas the correct spelling of the name of the French wine is “Lafite.”

(7)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), XV, 188; hereafter cited as Works.

(8)  Poems, ed. Floyd Stovall (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1965), p. 107.

(9)  Poe to Lowell, 25 December 1842; The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), I, 220.

(10)  See Claude Richard, “Poe and Young America,” Studies in Bibliography, XXI (1968), 25-58.

(11) The Trippings of Tom Pepper; or, The Results of Romancing. An Autobiography by Harry Franco (New York: Burgess, Stringer & Co., 1847-50), II, 64. Also see Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale (New York, 1956), p. 180.  


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]