Friday, December 19, 2014

Poe on the Couch

"The Strange Case of Poe."
By Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970).
First appearance: The American Mercury , November 1925.
Online HERE.
In the management of his own life he was moved almost always by prejudice, passion or perversity, and almost never by reason.
Like a good many other litterateurs, Joseph Wood Krutch just couldn't refrain from psychoanalyzing Edgar Allan Poe, who possessed, he says, a "ferocious and reckless egotism" which developed into a "mania for rationality" in an attempt to compensate for feelings of inferiority, thus culminating in Poe's Dupin stories about an intellectual superman. The article, needless to say, is suffused with boilerplate Freudianism.
Prejudiced, passionate, and perverse?
Only excerpts relating to Poe's detective fiction follow:
. . . The reputation which he [Poe] early gained as a daringly caustic critic was the first step in the growth of a legend which rapidly developed new features, the most important of which was the attribution to its hero of great and mysterious learning and an inhuman capacity for abstract reasoning.  . . .
. . . puzzles of all sorts had a great fascination for him, and that he seems in fact to have been extremely good at them. This may at first sight appear somewhat strange in a man of such unbalanced intellect, but the conflict is paralleled by the fact that his best fiction falls definitely into two classes, the one consisting of tales so fantastic and so utterly irrational as to be mere nightmares, and the other consisting of tales depending upon a logic which might seem to be the product of a mind completely devoid of imagination in the ordinary sense.  . . .
. . . [Poe's 1836 article "Maelzel's Chess-Player"] furnishes the first extended example of his skill in what he called ratiocination and which is marked by the most elaborately methodical exposition.  . . .  the essay is a remarkable achievement for a man whose fancy was as heated as Poe's, and it may well be considered as the first of his detective stories, since it the first of his writings which bases itself not upon dreams nor upon pseudo-science but upon the logical faculty alone.  . . .
. . . But it was not until five years later that there appeared in Graham's Magazine "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which he drew for the first time the dehumanized thinking-machine who appears under different names in his later stories and constitutes the second of the only two types of hero he ever created, the first being the learned madman most completely described under the name of Roderic Usher. Shortly afterward he made another effort to realize in his own person his ideal of a logical superman, and greatly contributed to the growth of the legend which pictured him as a man at once below and above human nature by his experiments in cryptography.  . . . There is reason to believe, however, that the subject [cryptography] got a good deal of his attention, and that he had at least a considerable proficiency in dealing with riddles of this class.  . . .
. . . Beginning as a specific attempt to solve a certain problem in "Maelzel's Chess-Player," it later generated the rational detective, and then, after this character was developed in fiction, there came the identification of it with Poe himself, who attempted to prove in a literary essay that he was merely Dupin turned author. His readers might suspect that such grotesque fantasies as his were the product of a somewhat disordered mind, but he could prove that they were born, not of fancy but of logic.  . . .
. . . Poe, as if frightened by his habitual impulse to portray madness, makes Dupin a man in whom no faculties but the logical remain . . .
. . . He [Poe] abandoned his experiments in cryptography because he was thus able, through the force of his imagination, to obtain from fancy, less laboriously and more completely, all the satisfaction which the actual practice of the powers of deduction could give him. Inventing problems for his super-detective to solve and inventing elaborate ex post facto explanations of the process by which his own works were written, he played at being a logical genius in exactly the same way that he had played at being a scientist.  . . .
. . . There is, however, good reason for believing that Poe succeeded in convincing himself, at times at least, that he was the mere logical engine which he liked to imagine, and one may find both the roots of his delusion and the origin of the need which generated it at a time before Dupin had been created . . . .
The bottom line:
. . . First reasoning in order to escape feeling and seizing upon the idea of reason as an explanation of the mystery of his own character, Poe invented the detective story in order that he might not go mad.
- Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) (reprinted HERE) comes under fire from Joseph Wood Krutch.
- Other ONTOS articles about Poe are HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism (psychoanalytical division)


  1. Good evening, Mike. I'm a great admirer of your Ontos blog and an intermittent lurker at the GA Detection forum. May I ask your advice?

    In my dotage, I'd like to make a serious study of the crime/detective novels of the late 19thc - early 20thc era. I've downloaded, read and annotated some 300 works in all. But I would prefer to put some system into my research. Can you recommend a comprehensive guide to the genre in this period? I'm particularly interested in the lesser known authors, H C Baillie, Percy Brebner, William Hodgson Hope, and the like.

    Does any guide come to mind? Thank you for your patience with this request.

    Kind regards
    Dr John Yeoman:

  2. Dr. Yeoman - A "comprehensive guide to the genre in this period"? Don't quote me on this, but I don't think there is such a thing. The only book I can think of offhand that even comes close is Howard Haycraft's MURDER FOR PLEASURE, reviewed here:

    The GAD Wiki has plenty of information, of course, but like so many other sources out there it covers many different eras unsystematically.

    The best source I can think of is Doug Greene, whom you can get in touch with through the GAD group. If he doesn't know it, then no one does. But if he does know of such a guide, would you please inform me through a comment on this posting? I'd be interested in getting a copy for my library.

    I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help. Thanks for visiting ONTOS, and if you have any suggestions for improving it feel free to pass them along.

    Best regards,
    Mike Gray

  3. Many thanks, Mike. I appreciate your fast response. Hm... you've put me in a mind to write such a guide myself! (After several years of delightful research, of course...)

    My thanks again.

    1. If you do write such a guide, I'll be your first customer. - Mike