Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ho Ho Poe

Last week my best beloved and I took in a lecture at the Boston Public Library. The subject was Edgar A. Poe and humor. A natural enough subject, Poe being so well known as America's literary funnyman. No? Come on, wasn't “Masque of the Red Death” a million laughs? “The Pit and the Pendulum,” surely that was worth a giggle? “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “Berenice;” what's funnier than the death of a beautiful young woman right? Who's with me?

Okay, I know, Poe isn't seen as the most cheerful of our great writers. But his tales of the grotesque were only a small fraction of his work. He certainly had his funny side.

The lecture, held in the library's beautiful Abbey Room, was called “What's So Funny About Edgar Allan Poe.” It was presented by two gentlemen: Professor Paul Lewis of Boston College, who is the curator of the library's current Poe exhibit, and Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker. Prof. Lewis began with props, including an Edgar Poe finger puppet, bobble-head doll, and everyone's favorite, the Edgar A. Poe action figure (I have two, one for home, one for work). He noted that on the back of the blister card that the doll comes in it lists Poe's weapon of choice as “morbid rumination.” The professor dramatized a confrontation that might occur between Poe and The Incredible Hulk, using action figures. Hulk, of course, seethed with rage, and was on the verge of smashing, while Poe ruminated morbidly. Hulk never stood a chance.

After that the talk settled down a bit. Most people think of Poe as being a writer of the macabre but in his own day he was far better known as a brilliant if vicious literary critic. Poe used humor when attacking, as in his frequent shots at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or when counter-punching, at which he was a master. He used humor to great effect in his tales as well, notably in “The Cask of Amontillado,” when Fortunato asks Montresor if he is a Mason. Montresor replies in the affirmative and produces a trowel from under his cloak. Now that's funny stuff right there. It was quite a good talk, interesting and very amusing.

Mr. Mankoff spoke on humor in general. As a cartoonist and cartoon editor he has obviously given the subject a great deal of thought. He spoke about the science of the subject, of what humor means in primate and human relations, and how it has changed through history. He touched on how humor is related to fear but also on how humor requires distance, a temporary stilling of compassion. Humor is funny when it is about the other guy. He reminded us of the fad of “dead baby” jokes (PDF) back in the late 70s. The kids who laughed then would not even be thinking of such humor now, years later, while they wait in the maternity ward. An interesting point. His talk was illustrated, of course, with cartoons, pictures, short film clips, and even the occasional graph. It was a howl while being thoughtful and stimulating.

During the question time most people were asking about humor in general or about contemporary humor. I wanted to know about what Prof. Lewis, who had earlier stated that he liked political humor best if he agreed with the humorist's point of view, thought of “Some Words with a Mummy,” one of Poe's attempts at an outright funny story. The reanimated mummy title, Count Allamistakeo (funny name, huh?), reflects Poe's disdain for democracy. The professor explained to the crowd that it was one of Poe's more obscure stories and that it wasn't one of his favorites. As a Poe geek he can't help but like it a bit, but he felt that the piece was more typical of its time then of the writer. That was a point I hadn't thought of, but it makes sense when viewing it in context with Poe's other work. He also said that it showed that when Poe was trying to use humor to advocate for his beliefs he was less successful. That is certainly true. Mr. Mankoff pointed out that humor that is didactic in purpose often fails.

Later I though of another question that I would have liked to have asked. I wonder what the professor thinks of Poe's inability to take a joke directed at himself. I recall the offense he took at James Russell Lowell's little jibe about him, a spot of doggerel – “Here comes Poe with his raven like Barnaby Rudge, / Three fifths of him genius, two fifths sheer fudge.” I really don't see why Poe was upset. Edgar was a well known hoaxer and proud of it (another example of humor the professor discussed). He was two fifths fudge. I'd be happy to have someone like Lowell call me three fifths genius. Poe could dish it out, but he didn't like to take it.

I think that most of Poe's humor is either badly dated or terribly heavy-handed, but there are some lovely exceptions. In “A Predicament” he satirizes the sort of story that he has become best known for:
But now a new horror presented itself, and one indeed sufficient to startle the strongest nerves. My eyes, from the cruel pressure of the machine, were absolutely starting from their sockets. While I was thinking how I should possibly manage without them, one actually tumbled out of my head, and, rolling down the steep side of the steeple, lodged in the rain gutter which ran along the eaves of the main building. The loss of the eye was not so much as the insolent air of independence and contempt with which it regarded me after it was out. There it lay in the gutter just under my nose, and the airs it gave itself would have been ridiculous had they not been disgusting. Such a winking and blinking were never before seen. This behavior on the part of my eye in the gutter was not only irritating on account of its manifest insolence and shameful ingratitude, but was also exceedingly inconvenient on account of the sympathy which always exists between two eyes of the same head, however far apart. I was forced, in a manner, to wink and to blink, whether I would or not, in exact concert with the scoundrelly thing that lay just under my nose. I was presently relieved, however, by the dropping out of the other eye. In falling it took the same direction (possibly a concerted plot) as its fellow. Both rolled out of the gutter together, and in truth I was very glad to get rid of them.
How an eye can wink and blink after it has fled the body is something that should not be contemplated for too long.

“Never Bet the Devil Your Head” is good for a laugh, even if the title does give away the eventual fate of poor Mr. Toby Dammit. “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather” is pretty funny, in a twisted way of course. And I've always been fond of “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.” which tells of the glittering career of the eponymous Bob, who wrote a celebrated ode to a tonsorial preparation called “Oil-of-Bob.”

Yes, a million laughs is our dear Eddie. You can have your Mark Twain, your Ambrose Bierce, or even your Abraham Lincoln. I'll stick with that old rib tickler, Mr. Poe.


Rob Velella said...

I agree - it was a well done lecture (I believe I was sitting in front of you). I was surprised they didn't focus more on Poe's intentionally funny works, like "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," and instead focused on the humor in his criticism and horror works. I'd like to add "X-ing a Paragrab" to the recommended reading list if you haven't already. In my portion of the exhibit, I use it as a final stab, parodying all the literary quarrels Poe undertakes.

I've often wondered about the Fable for Critics jab. Do you see any direct evidence that Poe was offended, or do we just assume as much? He had already broken his friendship with Lowell by then.

Glenn Whidden said...

Hi Rob. I guess the only direct evidence I can find is Poe's review of the piece in the Southern Literary Messenger. It was pretty rough. On the other hand that was his style, and since, as you point out, he already had it in for Lowell, he probably wasn't disposed to seeing the lighter side of the matter in any case. Perhaps his heart was “all squeezed out by his mind.”

An almost infinity interesting fellow is our darling Eddie.