|English 357: Southern Literature
September 2, 2010
From Antebellum Slavery and Modern Criticism:
Edgar Allan Poe’s Pym and “The Purloined Letter”
By John Carlos Rowe
In his article, John Carlos Rowe argues that Edgar Allan Poe was a “proslavery Southerner” and should be “reassessed as such in whatever approach we take to his life and writings” (904). Rowe goes on to say that “Poe’s proslavery sentiments are fundamental to his literary production” (905). He also claims that the recent efforts of twentieth-century canonization have proven problematic; Poe’s proslavery background has become confused and even eradicated from literary criticism. Rowe’s ultimate goal is to force critics to go back and reinterpret Poe as a “proslavery Southerner.” Rowe attempts to show that “the critical neglect of the historical circumstances surrounding Poe’s literary production has been the work both of traditional literary historians and critical theorists” (905). He also claims that “Poe’s racism is inextricably entangled with his attitudes toward women and his conception of the author as the new aristocrat” (905-6). More specifically, Rowe argues that “racism, sexism, and aristocratic pretensions, of course, often go hand-in-hand, but in the case of Poe these prejudices are finely woven into the fabric of his art” (906). Poe’s writings, which usually model a rejection of transcendental thought, and more specifically Emersonian thought, actually act as “the unconscious of transcendentalist idealism” because Poe “shows how the arch-rationalist can engender the most amazing fanaticism, how the facts of matter can be turned into suppositions of mind” (907). This makes Poe “liable to a philosophical ‘imperialism’ isomorphic with nineteenth-century social and economic hierarchies” (907). Rowe later addresses this philosophical imperialism when assessing Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Overall, Poe’s writings have been depoliticized by several critical traditions which have attempted to canonize Poe (911). Rowe quotes Nelson, who said, “a depoliticized and dehistoricized reading of the Poe oeuvre concomitantly ‘saves’ Poe for a canon increasingly skeptical of texts that support human oppression” (910).
This idea finishes Rowe’s introductory remarks that the historical context of Poe shouldn’t be taken out of Poe’s literary production. This is where Rowe’s argument begins to really garner strength. His assertion of the importance of historical context emanates Hegelian historicism. Hegel argues that all human activity is defined by their history. In turn, human activity can only be understood by observing that history that specific time is defined by. So as Rowe seemingly argues, you can only understand Poe by understanding the historical context in which he is writing. Rowe formulates a surprisingly strong argument supporting these ideas by looking at Pym. Rowe gives us historical by supplying us with information from the time in which Poe is writing this. During the time Poe is writing, white paranoia is at an all time high because of slave revolts, such as the one led by Nat Turner in August 1831 (912). Rowe argues that “Southern cultural anxiety is complemented by wider nineteenth-century Anglo-European defenses of ‘Anglo racial superiorty,’ arguments that helped various imperialist projects as well as the more specific ideology of Southern slavery” (912-3). The most important and striking argument Rowe makes about Pym is that it’s not just an allegory of proslavery values:
Poe’s own repressed fears regarding slave rebellions in the South and the deeper fear that Southern aristocratic life itself might be passing are the psychic contents that provoke the poetic narrative. The defense of the poetic narrative against just these fears is its argument that language, the essence of reason, is the basis of all reality and thus the only proper “property.” As the “enlightened ruler” of language, its rational governor, the poet works to recontain savagery – the mob, the black, the lunatic – within poetic form (913).
Rowe continues to use this idea to establish the idea of Poe’s racism by presenting the character Pym as the white destroyer of the black world. By recording his journey into the unknown, Pym takes the experiences of this unknown, black world, and makes them his own. Rowe correctly references Frederick Douglass’ knowledge that “those with access to language, both in terms of their educations and the availability to them of actual media, control the political economy” (920). Supporting this argument is Marx’s idea that the dominant ideas of the ruling class at a certain period in time are the dominant ideas of that society. The whites, who are in control of the material forces of society, are also in control of the intellectual forces. In the same vein, because they are in control of material production, they are also in control of mental production. Because the whites have all the control, and more specifically in the South, slave-owning whites, blacks and anyone else deemed as “other” are not protected by the time period’s dominant ideas, since those ideas are ones of subjugation, prejudice, and ignorance.
The biggest problem I found in reading this article is that Rowe seems to ignore the fact that Poe is a satirical writer. In Pym, Poe parodies the sensationalist literature of the time and yet Rowe seems to take it seriously. Another problem with this article is that Rowe is so supremely limited in his scope of observing Poe as a potential proslavery Southerner. Rowe only critiques Pym, whereas right in front of me I have a collection of writings that spans over 500 pages of writing. If Rowe wanted a more convincing argument, he should have looked at other works. On the other side, I will say that it would have been easier to see what Rowe was arguing if maybe we had read Pym before this article. Without having read Pym and formulating our own opinions on it, it’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on in the story through Rowe’s summary, since he’s probably summarizing in a way that will support his argument.