And How Does That Make You Feel?
Will readers ever let Edgar Allan Poe off the couch? Scholars, critics, fans, psychoanalysts—getting inside Poe's head has become a cottage industry. It hardly matters that the actual patient is absent. Let's base the analysis on the work. After all, the work is the man, right?
they said …
“We always predicted that Mr. Poe would reach a high grade in American literature, but we also thought and still think, that he is too much attached to the gloomy German mysticism, to be a useful and effective writer, without a total divorce from that somber school.”—James Heath, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger and an early reviewer of Poe's Tales
Starting in 1847, after Virginia died, nurse and neighbor Loui Shew consulted a doctor friend about Poe's terribly sad case. From whatever she described, in those days before CT scans and MRIs, this doctor offered up the possibility of a brain lesion, which might explain those periods of feverish activity (mania) balanced by periods of deep melancholy (depressions). A curbside diagnosis may have provided Loui Shew with some understanding of Poe's behavior during this mourning period, but it didn't seem to help Poe. Then came the over-compensated inferiority complex supporters who accounted for Poe's prickliness (in person and in print) by seeing it as a result of being the son of stage performers no matter how many Moldavias and Russell Squares he got to go home to while the Allans had him, coupled with a bitterness provoked by the acclaim he felt went to other—lesser—writers. Back to the old standards of excellence in Poe—did they get stricter, higher, more unattainable for others the more his “inferiority complex” got pinched?
Other, quicker takes on Poe's psyche came along. Oedipus complex. Morbidity due to complete sexlessness. Pre-adolescent mentality. And, say, while you're in there, check out those latent dream-thoughts. A Cambridge professor makes the point that in psychoanalytic criticism a dream and a work of art both serve the purpose in an artist—the gratification of a forbidden, unconscious wish. But that approach doesn't really take into account the contribution of consciousness.
Is a great story really no more than the working out of material dredged up from the unconscious, material you can neither totally recognize or account for or even manage in a deliberate way? Can the black cat in Poe's gruesome story “The Black Cat” really signify displacement of his mother-hatred? Between those two extremes—cat as symbol of displacement of mother-hatred, and cat as cat—there is what the cat means to the narrator, and not to Poe himself, and what can be made of the story about the narrator's cruelty to the cat. This is what Poe the artist consciously does with his material. This is what takes “The Black Cat” out of the realm of mere newspaper report or subject for a psychoanalytic society's session on mother fixation and turns it into art.
they said …
“I care not a straw what a man says, if I see that he has his grounds for it, & knows thoroughly what he is talking about. You might cut me up as much as you pleased & I should read what you said with respect, & with a great deal more of satisfaction, than most of the praise I get, affords me.”—James Russell Lowell to Poe, 1844
Couch time is just another limited way of understanding what makes Poe tick. But you miss a lot in missing the patient himself. All you're left with is your ability to make inferences and draw conclusions. In an early version of his poem “Romance,” which he wrote first when he was twenty and published in 1831, Poe writes, “being young and dipt in folly / I fell in love with melancholy, / … I could not love except where Death / Was mingling his with Beauty's breath—” Poe, it turns out, suppressed this poem—maybe it exposed too much. Poe on the couch can tell you some things. So can Poe in the woods. Or Poe in the parlor. Or Poe on the page.