JILL LEPORE: WHAT A BORE

Lepore: not a Poe expert.

Jill Lepore, the “hip history professor” currently employed by Harvard and the New Yorker, has a niche, as most scholars these days do: Early American History. Her “important book,” published back in 2005, was about racial strife in mid-18th century Manhattan.  Yes, there was slave-trouble in “old New York” way back in the 1700s, and Lepore knows better than you how there never was a golden age in American history: it sucked right from the start.  This revisionism has been going on for quite some time, of course, at least since the early 20th century work of Charles Beard: the founding fathers were greedy, the North was no better than the Confederacy, and now in these heady, post-modern, multi-cultural days, historians like Lepore are a dime-a-dozen, riding the anti-hero gravy train of sneering, cynical pluralism.

Lepore was given the assignment of filling out 16 columns in The New Yorker’s ‘A Critic At Large’ feature to mark Edgar Poe’s 200th birthday a couple of years back, and this dime-a-dozen professor used what she knows about early American paper money and financial crises to do what all good magazine writers these days do: take a ‘point of view’ and don’t let anyone or anything get in the way of it.  It’s Lepore’s tin against Poe’s gold.  She looks at Poe’s tale “The Gold-Bug” and entitles her piece “Humbug,” accompanied by one of those tasteless mannerist cartoons of Poe with a lot of black around his eyes to make him look sufficiently “macabre” and gloomy.  Lepore nakedly embraces the Harold Bloom school of Poe-hating.  But unfortunately for Lepore, her poe-lemic makes her seem just plain dense.

Poe (1809-49) was “poor,” the Harvard professor tells us over and over again. The Panic of 1819 (when Poe was ten-years old) and the Panic of 1837—the U.S., without a central bank, printed too much paper money, and the economy went bust—determines, in Lepore’s mind, Poe’s whole aesthetics.  Ah, the “Panics!”  Why didn’t we think of that before?

The tale, he believed, affords “the best prose opportunity for display of the highest talent.” Maybe. But writing a book was exactly the kind of long-term investment Poe could not afford to make, especially with so little prospect of return.

She second-guesses everything Poe did as a writer in terms of his working-class poverty. Poe’s great variety of output was due to the fact that he wasn’t wealthy; succeeding at so many genres was done out of “desperation.”  In addition, Poe was wrong to reach so many readers—and do it well; yes, this was even worse.  Here’s the elegant way she puts it:

The problem with Poe comes to this: he needed to turn his pen to profit, but he also wanted to signal, as with “Pym,” that he was lowering himself. Look! See! I’m brilliant! Even at writing dreck!

Professor Lepore just isn’t able to handle the device of ‘damning with faint praise.’ Lepore, like every Poe detractor, concedes “brilliance” (or “genius”) while using a descriptive such as “dreck,” (or “fudge”) but unlike the cleverer Poe-haters, she fails to deliver on her smear-agenda, because she’s tone-deaf to Poe’s satire, which she makes the mistake of quoting:

In the story “How To Write A Blackwood Article” (1838), he tells of an aspiring writer of gothic tales who visits the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, seeking instruction. “Your writer of intensities must have very black ink, and a very big pen, with a very blunt nib,” the editor advises, then offers some examples of recent successes:

She then quotes from “How To Write A Blackwood Article:”

Let me see. There was ‘The Dead Alive,’ a capital thing! — the record of a gentleman’s sensations when entombed before the breath was out of his body — full of tact, taste, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and erudition. You would have sworn that the writer had been born and brought up in a coffin. Then we had the ‘Confessions of an Opium-eater‘ — fine, very fine! — glorious imagination — deep philosophy — acute speculation — plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible. That was a nice bit of flummery, and went down the throats of the people delightfully. They would have it that Coleridge wrote the paper — but not so. It was composed by my pet baboon, Juniper, over a rummer of Hollands and water, hot, without sugar. [This I could scarcely have believed had it been any body but Mr. Blackwood, who assured me of it.]

And she responds to the excerpt of Poe’s tale this way:

Poe calibrated and recalibrated. Just how many ways can a writer insult his readers and get away with it? If you take Poe’s best horror stories at face value, they are wonderfully, flawlessly terrifying; they are also dripping with contempt. “Half-banter, half-satire” is how he once described them. “The Tell-Tale Heart” reads more like three-quarters burlesque, especially when you think about the literary output of Juniper the baboon.

“Dripping with contempt?” Lepore doesn’t seem to realize first, the editor of “How To Write A Blackwood Article” is not Poe, second, “How To Write A Blackwood Article” is satire, third, the nature of satire is to insult the reader (Lepore?) who doesn’t get it, fourth, one of the features of Poe’s genius consists is his ability to find the common element in burlesque and horror (the ludicrousness of horror, the horror of the ludicrous) which critics have long noted, and fifth, Poe’s mingling of high and low taste is another astute, not flawed, aspect of his genius as a modern writer.  Lepore’s naive tantrum: “Look! See? I’m brilliant! Even at writing dreck” misses so many points that one can see why she, as a reader, feels “insulted” by Poe.

She reveals her utter tone-deafness here, too:

Invited to Boston to read a new poem, he read, instead, a poem that he later said he had written as a child (and subsequently, in The Broadway Journal, confessed, without apology, that he had been drunk.)

Lepore doesn’t quote it, but let’s look at what Poe actually wrote.  Professor Lepore would have us believe that Poe has made a “confession” that he was “drunk.”  Look:

Repelled at these points, the Frogpondian faction hire a thing they call the “Washingtonian Reformer” (or something of that kind) to insinuate that we must have been “intoxicated” to have become possessed of sufficient audacity to “deliver” such a poem to the Frogpondians.

In the first place, why cannot these miserable hypocrites say “drunk” at once and be done with it? In the second place we are perfectly willing to admit that we were drunk—in the face of a least eleven or twelve hundred Frogpondians who will be willing to take oath that we were not. We are willing to admit either that we were drunk, or that we set fire to the Frog-pond, or that once upon a time we cut the throat of our grandmother.

In recounting the orphaned Poe’s youthful battle with his guardian John Allan, Lepore paints the cranky, adulterous, slave-holder as a wise patriarch, patiently dealing with a wayward buffoon. Lepore revels in the stern John Allan’s success among the sensitive:

In 1823, Poe fell in love with Jane Stannard, the unhinged mother of a school friend. A year later, Stannard died, insane.  Poe spent much time at her graveside. “No more” became his favorite phrase. In 1825, Allan inherited a fortune from an uncle. He did not name Poe as his heir. Allan rose; Poe kept falling.

Is it just me, or is it Lepore who sounds “unhinged beneath her curt, slap-dash writing style?  Allan rose: Poe kept falling.

She neglects to say that Allan did not furnish Poe with the necessary funds to attend the University of Virginia.  Lepore, wearing the mask of John Allan, grows impatient with Poe’s antics. Poe “drank, gambled,” and asked Allan for money. “Allan,” Lepore says with all the orgasmic authority she can muster, “was unmoved.”  Lepore is one tough chick—when she leaves out every other fact in the story she relates.  John Allan was a well-placed man who also happened to be a philandering cretin—whom Poe chose not to flatter; the drunken, amoral Allan was enraged by Poe’s lofty, moral, poetic tone, and the fact that it came from a boy was even more enraging; so Poe, losing out on the fortune of a proud misfit, was cast out, like Edgar in Lear.  Lepore, from her cozy armchair, regally takes Allan’s part:

And he added, lying, “Mr.A. is not very often sober.”

“I have an inveterate habit of speaking the truth,” Poe once wrote. That, too, was a lie. (That Poe lied compulsively about his own life has proved the undoing of many a biographer.) In 1830, he finally made it to West Point, where he pulled pranks. “I cannot believe a word he writes,” Allan wrote on the back of yet another letter from his wayward charge.

You lie! Lepore tells Poe, and the mask of John Allan never slips from her face.  It is interesting to see what Poe does to biographers and Harvard professors. It’s endlessly amusing.

Lepore dutifully repeats the most tried-and-true Poe ‘smears’ used by tweedy gentlemen biographers through the years, (though she neglects my favorite: the “French Poe’ one—Poe’s critical fame is an accident: Poe’s bombast happens to sound better in French than English).

She puts forth the ‘cooping theory’ as the best explanation of Poe’s demise, even though Poe scholar John Walsh showed the utter bankrupt nature of that theory years ago, and Walsh even traced it back to the man who first advanced it—Theodore White, Southern Literary Messenger editor, and one of Poe’s enemies.

She follows the common ‘Poe Biographer Practice’ of quoting unnamed sources who ‘saw Poe drunk, etc’ even though objective studies reveal those who quarreled with Poe routinely made such accusations—and were denied and countered by a great deal of testimony from Poe’s friends.  The least even an amateur historian should do in throwing around charges of drunkeness is to identify the witness.

Quoting a scrap from one of his letters, she says Poe was “insane” at the end of his life—during which time he wrote Eureka, the scientific essay which contemporary physicists admire as ground-breaking, not only for its time, but for all time.

Lepore, working up the occasional writing style of not only curt, but curt and cute, uses “The Raven” to tell Poe’s story: “Poe was buried in Baltimore  in October, 1849. ‘Nothing further then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered.'”

One can’t help but admire the historian’s perky wit:

Poe’s life was tragic, but he was about as unworldly as a bale of cotton.

He did not live out of time.

Wait for it…

He lived in hard times, dark times, up-and-down times. Indigence cast as shadow over everything he attempted. Poverty was his raven, tapping at the door, and it was Poe, not the bird, who uttered, helplessly, another rhyme for “Nevermore.” “I send you an original tale,” Poe once began a letter, and, at its end, added one line more: “P.S. I am poor.”

Lepore presents one new fact about Poe in her 200th birthday celebration article in the New Yorker, an important “discovery” by someone named Terrence:

Poe held the job at the Messenger for only sixteen months. He boasted that, under his editorship, the magazine’s circulation grew from seven hundred to fifty-five hundred, but, as the Poe scholar Terence Whalen has discovered, this was another lie. The magazine had thirteen hundred subscribers when Poe started, and eighteen hundred when he left.

Lepore is certain Poe was “deeply racist”—because Poe depicts with under-educated speech the morally upright, fictional slave-character, Jupiter, in his fiction, “The Gold-Bug.”  Poe—despite living in a time when even some abolitionists were frank in their belief that whites were superior to blacks—is actually free of racism in his works.

Poe’s work in cryptography helped the Allies win World War Two.  But Lepore has a different take: “Poe liked ciphers because he liked to send messages that readers lacking his particular genius could not decode.”  Thanks, professor!

She acknowledges the “breathtakingly belligerent” Griswold obituary, as well as Griswold’s influential “distortions, slanders and forgeries:”

Days after Poe’s death, Rufus Griswold wrote a breathtakingly belligerent obituary: Poe’s passing “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” Maria  Clemm, in a singularly unfortunate act of ignorance or avarice, gave Griswold power of attorney and sold him Poe’s papers. Griswold became his literary executor. A year later, he wrote a biography of Poe in which he distorted the historical record, publishing slanders and forgeries, to make Poe seem a fiend.

Between Poe’s lies and Griswold’s forgeries, it can be difficult to take the measure of Edgar A. Poe. Was the man an utter genius or a complete fraud?

Oh my gosh, professor!  You tell us.

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10 Comments

  1. marcusbales said,

    September 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    I think they write these things just to provoke you, Tom.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm

      M,

      Can you think of any well-known writer who is routinely abused the way Poe is? I can’t think of any. It’s become an American tradition. Griswold was only the beginning. And it takes so many forms: poor, racist, liar, too aesthetic, overly popular, etc

      I wish it were only aimed at me.

      T.

      • marcusbales said,

        September 13, 2011 at 12:42 am

        Hmm — another writer as deep in reputation recession as Poe. That’s a good question. Ah — got it: Swinburne.

        • thomasbrady said,

          September 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm

          But who bothers to pick on Swinburne? And Swinburne is known for verses only; Poe’s reach is infinitely greater. In addition, Swinburne’s ear was tin compared to Poe’s. Swinburne was kind of a Poe stand-in for those like Pound who couldn’t face the idea of Poe’s successful shadow.

          • Ashu अशु said,

            February 12, 2015 at 4:47 am

            [In addition, Swinburne’s ear was tin compared to Poe’s.]

            Somebody’s ear is, for sure. This is completely disgusting, beneath contempt. Swinburne was a master musician.

            • thomasbrady said,

              February 12, 2015 at 12:23 pm

              But was Swinburne a successful shadow?

              Ashu, the comparison was made as a compliment to Swinburne in order to elevate Poe. Look, the real issue here is Jill Lepore, a nasty nobody, thinking she can kick the most exquisite versifier in the universe—and get away with it.

  2. Bill said,

    September 13, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Good to hear you on one of your favorite subjects, Tom. People also rag on Milton ad infinitum.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm

      Quite right, Bill!

      Good call. The dazzling genius that was Milton, a tremendous influence on Blake and the Romantics, author of a powerful tract against censorship, chucking rhyme and expanding the language long, long before the ‘revolutionary’ moderns, gee, I wonder who…? ah, yes, it was our Modernist friends…Eliot and Pound who really got the ball rolling against Milton..

      Tom

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 10, 2015 at 7:05 pm

      As long as she doesn’t write on Poe, everything should be okay…


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