Text: Various, “Marginalia
Source: Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, June 1987, Vol. XX, No. 1, 20:22-24


[page 22, column 2:]


This column is devoted to brief notes, comments, queries. We wish to provide here an outlet for such items as source notes which do not require the extended argument and proof that customarily attends them, and for items of very special or peculiar interest which otherwise might not appear. Contributions to this column should generally be one paragraph in form and less than a page and a half of typescript, though notes of three pages with as many paragraphs are acceptable.

The Serpent and the Heel

Critics Of “The Cask of Amontillado” have elucidated irony in the Montresor family motto and coat of arms, pointing to its biblical source in Genesis 3:15, and to a generally accepted theory of the role reversal between avenger and victim: Montresor finally is the serpent who feels a crushing blow of guilt “on the heels” of Fortunato’s death, as it were. [The role reversal is part of their doppelganger relationship, as in their mimicking of each other’s language. See James Gargano, a‘The Cask of Amontillado’: A Masquerade of Motive and Identity,” Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1967), 119-126; and Walter Stepp, “The Ironic Double in Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,‘” Studies in Short Fiction, 13 (1976), 447-453.] Moreover, Jay Jacoby has suggested briefly that the narrator unwittingly reinforces an inversion of roles in the image of serpent and heel by stating, “I followed immediately at his [Fortunato’s] heels” ( Works, III, 1261) [“Fortunato’s Premature Demise in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,‘” Poe Studies, 12 (1979), 30-31]. In fact, this note will argue, there is a pattern of such references; in the descent through the catacombs, Montresor loses his mastery of the situation and becomes a follower rather than a leader, a circumstance that can be precisely tracked in his language alluding to the imagery in the coat of arms.

When the two enter the archway to the vaults, Montresor “led . . . down a long and winding staircase, requesting him [Fortunato] to be cautious as he followed.” From “the foot of the descent” (III, 1258), Montresor stays in the lead and offers his arm three times; finally, Fortunato “leaned upon it heavily,” as Montresor guides him to the deepest part of the crypt (III, 1260). There, however, Fortunato takes the lead to enter the coffin-niche first. Here, it is necessary that Fortunato go ahead for Montresor to secure him with the [page 23:] chain; thus, Montresor now “followed immediately at [the] heels” of his victim (the adverb indicates both time and position). At this very point, the deceit ends, Fortunato’s conduct is no longer predictable, and Montresor begins to re-act to him. Coincidentally, Fortunato’s cough disappears, and Montresor instead agrew sick,” supposedly from “the dampness of the catacombs” (III, 1263). The physical reversal of their positions is also symbolic: Montresor has trapped himself too and must follow the murder plot to its conclusion. [On the theme of Montresor’s self-victimization, see Stepp and also David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological Vicu’ (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 263.] In terms of the imagery of the family arms, Montresor has become the serpent at Fortunato’s heels, ready to strike but unaware, perhaps, of the returning ablow.” Thus, when Fortunato screams, Montresor is “thrust . . . violently back” (III, 1262), as though struck. Fortunato cannot be said to have intended his revenge, as Montresor has his own; nor does Montresor comprehend fully his own victimization, although it is revealed in the symbolic pattern of his narrative. The murderer has an Achilles heel, in a sense — a vulnerable spot in his memory of the perfect murder.

Thomas Pribek, Univ. of Wisconsin — La Crosse


Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” and John Montresor

Although the French origin and biographical source of the name of the narrator Of “The Cask of Amontillado” have been examined, no one has suggested how Poe might have encountered the name itself. It seems probable that he learned of Captain John Montresor, a British military engineer, either at West Point or, later, while living in Fordham, New York, in the 1840’s. [See Works, III, 1252-1256 for a review of the tale’s sources, and 1255n for the link to the British engineer.] Captain John Montresor (1736-1799) was the son of Colonel James Montresor — an army officer, “second engineer in England,” and later, after serving in America in the late 1850’s, “Chief Engineer in the Provinces.” John followed his father into a career in the British army and military engineering, also serving in America during the 1750’s. In 1770 [column 2:] he supervised the repairs of Fort Castle William in Boston, the following year he fortified Mud Island below Philadelphia, and from 1772 to 1774 he was employed in and around Boston and New York. During the Revolution, he was “the principal engineer during the occupation of Boston and New York by the British troops”; on 18 December 1775, he was made, like his father before him, “Chief Engineer in American by George III.

The large island in New York City east of the Bronx where the East and Harlem Rivers join, now known as Randall’s island, was purchased by Montresor in 1772 and became known as Montresor’s Island. There he built a house in which he and his family lived until it was destroyed by fire on 13 January 1777. He sailed for England in the fall of 1778 and upon his arrival was promoted to colonel [G. D. Scull, “Family of Montresor,” The Montresor Journals, ed. G. D. Scull, Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1881 (New York: New York Historical Society, 1881), pp. 3-8]. The Tory historian Thomas Jones accuses Montresor of cheating the government out of more than 100,000 pounds with which he bought houses in Portland Place, London, and Belmont, Kent, aset up his carriages [and] a house full of servants in rich livery, and lived in all the splendour of an eastern prince” [History of New York during the Revolutionary War, ed. Edward Floyd de Lancey (New York: New York Historical Society, 1879), p. 347]. Famous in his early career, he became infamous in his later years.

Poe had two obvious opportunities in his lifetime to encounter the name “Montresor.” As a cadet at West Point from September 1830 to February 1831, he probably would have heard the name of the most famous military engineer of the Revolutionary era. When Poe moved with his family to New York in 1844, he lived in Fordham, where he almost certainly would have learned the name of the large island just off the east shore of the Bronx and might well have been told the tale of the fabulously wealthy, possibly corrupt British engineering officer. What better name could Poe have found for the amason” who walls up Fortunato with such military precision than that of this infamous “Chief Engineer,” a figure T. O. Mabbott notes was regarded in the New York City area aas a villain, said to be the original of Montraville, the fictional seducer of Charlotte Temple in Susannah Haswell Rowson’s famous novel” [Works, III, 1225n]? Poe may even have known that Rowson was Montresor’s cousin.

E. Bruce Kirkham, Ball State University [page 24:]


An Early Imitative Ape: A Possible Source for “The Murders In the Rue Morgue”

Thomas Ollive Mabbott’s survey of materials on imitating apes suggests Poe’s reliance on traditional sources in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” specifically for the episode in which the Ourang-Outang attempts to shave first itself and then Madame L‘Espanaye with its master’s razor [Works, II, 565-566]. Complementing Mabbott, both Charles C. Doyle in “The Imitating Monkey: A Folktale in Poe” [North Carolina Folklore Journal, 23 (1975), 89-91] and Benjamin F. Fisher in “Poe, Blackwood’s, and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue‘” [American Notes and Queries, 12 (1974), 109-110] attest to the widespread appeal of the story. Mabbott calls specific attention to two anecdotes that parallel the events in Poe’s tale — one featuring a pet monkey who cuts his own throat when he imitates his master’s shaving, the other a barber’s ape who shaves a customer [Works, II, 523]. The latter story features the low, slapstick humor characteristic of Renaissance jestbooks, Poe’s use of which merits further examination. My purpose here is to call attention to another possible source for the shaving episode in a late sixteenth-century English jestbook.

A Mirror of Mirth (1583), translated most likely by Thomas Deloney from the French composition by Bonaventure Des Periers, contains the saga of Blondeau, a usually happy cobbler whom an ape briefly terrorizes. The primate observes the cobbler as he cuts leather for shoes. When Blondeau leaves, the ape enters the shop, duplicates the works, and destroys vast quantities of leather. Realizing that the ape will mimic any of his actions, Blondeau hones a knife razor-sharp; as the animal watches him, he passes the knife over his throat several times. Quickly the ape copies the cobbler and cuts his own throat [P. M. Zall, ed., A Hundred Merry Tales and Other English Jestbooks of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), pp. 376-378].

The episode from Mirror of Mirth could easily find its way into “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for Poe was clearly conversant with jestbook material. Mabbott suggests that stage comedians, both English and American, often relied on such fare. A devotee of the theater, Poe may have seen a performance of a sketch about imitating apes. Furthermore, records of Boston bookseller John Usher indicate the popularity of the more ribald sixteenth-century jestbooks [Scoggin’s Jests, published in the late 1560’s, even found favor with the Puritans — see James D. Hart, The [column 2:] Popular Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950), pp. 15-17]. One may surmise, therefore, that the direct source might have been accessible to Poe, or, more likely, he ran across such an episode in a modern compilation like the one he reviewed in the Southern Literary Messenger (December 1835). In the review [Complete Works, VII, 90-91] he comments favorably on the jestbook Nuts to Cracks: Or Quips, Quirks, Anecdotes and Facts of Oxford and Cambridge Scholars, and alludes to Jests of Joe Miller (1739). Poe could well have turned to jestbook material for his imitating ape in “Murders.” Furthermore in light of his own comment in Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine that awe recognize his [Burton’s] critical pen in the critical account of ’Shakespeare’s Jest Book’ . . . ” [Clarence S. Brigham, ed., Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (Worcester, Mass: American Antiquarian Society, 1942), p. 28], scholars might do well to examine more carefully the role of jestbooks among Poe’s sources.

E. Kate Stewart, Worcester Polytechnic Institute


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