Blog in the Manger: History Lesson

Hello again, dear readers! Literary Director/Dramaturge/Blog Slave Keith Hock here. I am delighted to tell you we began our rehearsals for Dog in the Manger on Monday! I got to attend rehearsals for the last two nights to do some table work and exchange my Writing Chains for the Dramaturgy Hat for a little while. This is going to be a hell of a show that the rest of the team and I are very excited to share it with you. We are especially excited to bring it to you because it is comparatively little-known and so we have an opportunity (rare in a classical theatre company) to likely be your first experience with this play! Because we don’t want you to go in COMPLETELY blind, though, I wanted to take this opportunity to give you a little bit of context on Spanish theatre, our author Lope de Vega, and why I believe you don’t recognize his name or his plays despite him being utterly fascinating.

First some baseline information. Our play, Dog in the Manger, comes out of the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre, approximately 1580s-1670s. You may recognize this as contemporaneous with Shakespeare and his fellows, and shortly after the rise of the commedia dell’arte in Italy, the two styles to which it hews most closely artistically. You may also notice that you are familiar with Elizabethan theatre, and commedia, but have never seen anything purporting to have come out of the siglo de oro, much less seen theatre companies that are dedicated to exploring the style and aesthetic, like countless Shakespeare companies and our colleagues over at Faction of Fools. Until the past 40 or so years there has been little market penetration by Golden Age Spanish theatre in non-Spanish-speaking environments, I believe in large part due to the Black Legend.

The what? What is the Black Legend? I’m glad you asked, rhetorical framing device. The Black Legend was a historiographical tool that viewed Renaissance Spain through the lens of atrocities such as the Reconquista, Inquisition, subjugation of the Low Countries, and colonization of the Americas and concluded that Spain was a nation of cruel and intolerant monsters whose culture, beliefs, and ideologies have been rightfully forgotten by history. A culture such as this, which expelled or forced conversion on Muslims and Jews after confiscating their wealth, which profited off the exploitation and slaughter of native peoples in Mexico and the Caribbean, which fought an 80 Years’ War rather than tolerate Protestant faith in a portion of its holdings, could not understand or create any art that was subtle, sophisticated, or worth consuming. Surely no society run by those inbred bigots the Habsburgs could produce anything beautiful. Or so the argument went.

Charles II

Charles II, Last of the Spanish Habsburgs. Please note the profound busted-ness of his grill, otherwise known as the Habsburg Jaw

I will not deny that all of these horrific things, and many more, happened in Renaissance Spain. But I (and other, much better, theatre and regular historians) do not believe that these atrocities disqualify the art and culture created there, nor do we believe that Spain was somehow unique in its commitment of atrocities in the time period. Modern historians now regard the Black Legend as propaganda, more of a slam piece by contemporary-through-Enlightenment European rivals such as England and what is now the Netherlands to discredit and damage Spanish and Catholic prestige on the global stage. While the Black Legend itself has been discredited, it did its job pretty good for a while there, and the international community has largely ignored or at the least undervalued Spain’s greatest theatrical achievements for close to 400 years.

That is the only reason I can think of that we wouldn’t all learn about this era, and especially its greatest playwright, Lope de Vega, in the same high school literature class where we learned about Shakespeare and Cervantes. Which is too bad, because de Vega is well worth learning about. He claimed to have written over 2000 plays, which you might recognize as an utterly ludicrous number. He is known for certain to have written between 600 and 800, a somehow equally insane number, which would amount to writing more than one play a month, every month, for 50 years. If that were his sole claim to fame he would still be worth discussing just for that. But he was also a genius, a generational talent. His best plays, Dog in the Manger included, rank with the plays of Shakespeare, Racine, and Aeschylus.

De Vega

Felix Lope de Vega y Carpio, 1562-1635.

Even setting aside his prodigious output and preternatural talents, however, his life was NUTS. Born to a middle-class family, he was educated to be a priest but elected instead to marry twice, have several additional love affairs, and father at least 16 children, both legitimate and bastards. After the first of those affairs (with a prominent actress named Elena) went south he…didn’t take it well, and wrote a series of libelous poems about the woman and her family. The authorities quickly deduced it was him and he was exiled from Castile for two years, and the city of Madrid for eight. When he went into exile, he took his 16-year-old lover Isabel with him. They married in 1588, the same year that he sailed with the Armada. Fortunately for the art of theatre he escaped that fiasco with his life and settled in Valencia to live out the duration of his exile. For the next several years he served in the household of the Duke of Alba, until his wife Isabel died in childbirth in 1594. This coincided with the end of his exile and he returned to Madrid, where he lived and worked as an author until his death. He remarried to a woman named Juana in in 1598 (while continuing his numerous affairs) and supplemented his writing income by becoming secretary to the Duke of Sessa in 1607. Juana also died in childbirth in 1612 and in 1614 de Vega did at long last enter the priesthood, though without curtailing or even attempting to limit his affairs. In this time he was also a theatrical censor and informant for the Inquisition, and more than once attempted to ascend to the role of Royal Chronicler, though his ambitions were foiled by his common heritage. In 1616 he met his final love Marta, who would stay with him through the loss of her sight and reason until her death in 1632. De Vega himself would die in 1635 after the death of his favored son and the abduction of his youngest daughter, and his funeral allegedly took a full nine days and featured 150 speakers.

Hopefully this has given you a vague sense of the cultural geopolitics of 17th century Europe and how they could impact the popularity of plays in the modern day, as well as a small taste of the eccentricities of our playwright. I look forward to sharing much more with you as the creative team and I explore this play and see what beauty from the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre we’ve been missing all our lives. Won’t you come join us?

 

But wait! Don’t go yet! Unfortunately these Dog in the Manger rehearsals have kept me from writing about our other currently running performance, Dracula! [A situation I hope to rectify next week, so keep your eyes peeled -KH] Our space-specific four-person adaptation of Dracula is returning this weekend, to the Otis Street Arts Project! Follow THIS LINK for details, and join us there on October 14th!

Advertisements

The Gallic Temper

Welcome back, everybody! I hope you all had a good summer vacation. But breaktime is over, and it’s time for us to head back into the proverbial classroom with our upcoming staged reading of that High School Literature standby, Cyrano de Bergerac, this Friday. But what could I have to say about that notoriously hot-blooded French musketeer?

Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the real man the play was based on. From a painting by Zacharie Hience.

Well, the thing is (and PLEASE don’t tell him I said this), there is nothing really exceptional about Cyrano. He is merely the largest-nosed in a long line of arrogant and impetuous Frenchmen. He may be easier to offend than other men, because he has an obvious and difficult-to-avoid potential sore spot and a willing, nay EAGERNESS to assume any comment, no matter how apologetic or innocuous, is a slight on it. And he is, of a certainty, more dangerous than other men. But he is not the only prideful Frenchman with a black and deadly temper; far from it. Rostand did not invent the choleric French warrior, he simply followed in the path of nearly a thousand years of archetypes.

Perhaps the easiest place to start is with the musketeer, a storied archetype which thrived in the literature of the 19th century and which Rostand was clearly capitalizing on with Cyrano. Alexandre Dumas has given the world perhaps the best-known musketeers in his book The Three Musketeers. Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, the titular musketeers, have an array of different character types, heavyset life of the party   wronged noble/tortured father figure and ambitious ladies’ man, but they are also all musketeers and that means two things: dangerous, and easily offended. [I have personal issues with ‘fat’ being a character type but that’s a matter for another time -KH] The three of them meet the protagonist, D’Artagnan, when he has managed to schedule a duel against all three of them at the same time in the same place, and the foursome become allies after they cut their way out of an attempted arrest. D’Artagnan, you will not be surprised to learn, by the end of the series earns a reputation as the most hot-blooded and renowned musketeer in France. Oh, and fun fact: D’Artagnan is from Gascony, just like Cyrano.

Three Musketeers

I’m pretty sure this is them. [from Disney’s Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers, 2006.]

I’ve got some more literary evidence but before we wander too far afield (and we’ll be going on a bit of a hike) let’s bring it back to one of our specialities: Shakespeare. Cast your minds back a few months to our Henry V, which I am certain all of you saw. The Dauphin throws tantrum after tantrum and stomps around the stage in a towering rage at all times, and he explicitly claims that his strength and anger comes from his French heritage. About midway though he throws some shade on the phlegmatic English and suggests the French have naturally quicker blood which is, what’s more, “Spirited with wine” and should easily carry them to victory over their cold-blooded foes. The Dauphin is characterized throughout the play by his arrogance, choler, and eagerness to pick a fight. It is his tennis balls which spark the conflict, and he tells Exeter and the audience that he “desire[s] nothing but odds with England!” He is portrayed as a buffoon in the play to draw unfavorable comparison with the slow-to-anger Henry V, but the effectiveness of the character and the specificity with which he hits those clues seems to suggest that there was a stereotype already in place.

 

SONY DSC

L-R: Kiernan McGowan as Henry V, Niusha Nawab as the Dauphin. From We Happy Few’s 2017 production of Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin.

But where did this stereotype come from, for Shakespeare to have heard of it in the 16th century and for Dumas to embrace it in the 19th? We will need to look back about a century to Thomas Malory and Le Morte D’Arthur, and then immediately back another three centuries to French poet Chrétien de Troyes, who inspired Malory. Before you start, yes, King Arthur is originally a Welsh story and an English king. BUT, it was written at and more importantly ABOUT a time when there was both animosity and commonality across the channel. Remember from THIS that every English king between Harold Godwinson and Henry VII was descended from French Normans. It is no accident that de Troyes, who really couldn’t have a more Medieval French name if he tried, is one of the most important Arthurian poets. Perhaps his most important contribution to the Arthurian mythos, and certainly most relevant for my thesis, was the invention of Sir Lancelot du Lac, widely recognized as the most ardent and heroic knight in the canon of chivalry.

Significantly for my purposes, Lancelot was a native of France. He was raised by the Lady of the Lake in, I guess, Avalon, but he was born in Brittany and it shows. He is the greatest jouster and swordsman at the Round Table from the moment he arrives at age 16, he has a tendency to win fights where he is enormously outnumbered, and his colleagues universally acknowledge that he was in every [apparent] aspect the perfect knight. But, as you doubtless remember from the cultural osmosis by which all people learn about King Arthur without consciously reading any stories, he also had a pretty major flaw in the shape of an affair with Arthur’s wife Guinevere. And when his secret is discovered, instead of acknowledging his mistake and accepting their punishment, he allows his pride to get the better of him, kills a dozen of his fellow knights and saves the queen, throwing the nation into civil war over a crime that is certainly romantic but is also unequivocally his fault. Lancelot represents a chivalric morality that seems complex to us but would make absolute sense to the Dauphin, and D’Artagnan, and Cyrano himself.

Bigger Lancelot

Lancelot, by Howard Pyle. For Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot, 1881. I like this picture of Lancelot because he looks Chinese.

 

Even for Lancelot, however, there is a suggestion that his being FROM France would be meaningful to the readers, otherwise it serves no purpose. Lancelot can trace his own literary heritage back to the Chanson de Roland, the final in a series of stories about Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and his companions the Paladins. Charlemagne’s army is marching back to France from Spain when they are betrayed and ambushed by a Moorish army. Roland has the rearguard but refuses to call for help from the main army for fear of being labelled a coward. He does finally blow his famous horn Olifant and call for aid vengeance after his forces’ destruction is assured. [sidenote: Roland isn’t actually killed by the Saracens, he dies because he blew the horn so hard he broke his own skull. Hand to God. -KH] Roland and his Paladins are widely regarded as the origin and gold standard for literary examples of chivalric behavior, and I don’t think it unreasonable to claim that every other character in this blog owes their existence to Roland’s heroic but ultimately selfish sacrifice.

I hope I have proved both that the Impetuous French Warrior exists and that there is something interesting about that fact. We can observe as time passes that interpretation of the archetype changed from prideful and passionate closer to arrogant and ill-tempered; or perhaps we as a culture became less tolerant of pride in our heroes. Both Roland and Lancelot would have been regarded as unequivocal and uncomplicated heroes to their contemporaries, but as time passes we seem to expect more out of our characters. Their characteristics remained largely the same (brave, dangerous, rash, proud) but the way the audiences interpret them has changed from admiration to indulgence/scorn/frustration. Or maybe you think I’m totally off-base and this whole essay you’ve been getting madder and madder at my understanding of your favorite characters. If that’s the case I would implore you to come to the reading tomorrow night and demand satisfaction. You will not find me wanting.

Even if you DO agree with my arguments, though, you should come to the reading at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop at 7:30PM Friday night. And then, the following day, you should come to the Kennedy Center at noon for a portion of our upcoming Dracula in their Page to Stage Festival. Two DIFFERENT We Happy Few events in the same weekend! And you can go to both! For free! How lucky you are!

Until next time I remain, yr humble Blogslave,
K. Hock

Henry IV: Theatrical Prequel

Happy one month into the New Year, Faithful Readers!

I’m sorry I missed you for our first performance a couple weeks ago, when we brought A Midnight Dreary, our immersive Poe-and-alcohol performance, back to DC in mid-January. I had some personal stuff happening in my Real World Life that was occupying most of my time and I figured you all could go without me waxing rhapsodic about horror for another 1500 words. And it turns out I was right, because we sold out that performance! Thank you all for coming to that! Sometime I’ll share with you all yet more of the thoughts I have on that subject. But that’s a blog post for another time. Today I want need to talk to you about the reading of Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, that we’re doing tonight, free of charge, at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop!

We’re reading Henry IV tonight because we’re performing Henry V in April, and Henry V, in case the Roman numeral at the end of the title didn’t give it away, is that rarity in theatre; a sequel. While we are used to sequels in our movies and books and video games, it is unusual to see playwrights doing them. Tennessee Williams didn’t follow up the success of The Glass Menagerie with Menagerie 2: Broken Glass, Broken Dreams. Eugene O’Neill foolishly declined to pen the logical successor to his masterpiece with Long Night’s Journey into Day. There was no The Importance of Being Frank from Wilde, no Rumors 2: Electric Boogaloo from Simon. And Arthur Miller had a bad habit of ensuring that his plays could not be followed by having his characters die at the end; there could be no Life of a Salesman or 2 Fast 2 Crucible. Most playwrights seem opposed to following their characters across multiple stories and adventures.

rambo

I can’t imagine why.

There is a theatrical reason for this. The Aristotelian Unities insist that plays should be structured with uniformity of action, uniformity of time, and uniformity of place; that is to say, they should be about one thing, happen in one day, and take place in one location. We have largely thrown those last two restrictions out by now, 2500 years after Aristotle said them, but we generally abide by the first rule (not least because it is the rule most open to interpretation). Plays tend to follow one problem from its inception to its conclusion. If there is room for a sequel in a play, it suggests that there are loose ends floating around, and in order for a story to be satisfying (cathartic, as Aristotle would describe it) it should have resolved itself by the time the play ends.

This is not to say that theatrical sequels or series are unheard-of or impossible, though. Just unusual. Angels in America is a two-part play. So is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which also happens to be a cross-platform sequel to a book series, making it a rare and unstable Doppelzequel. The Greek tragedians almost uniformly organized their plays into cycles of three tragedies and one comical satyr play, and these tetralogies often focused on the same characters, such as Orestes or Prometheus, or at least a continuous story, such as the Curse of Laius (these examples are also all intended to be viewed back-to-back). August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle springs to mind, as does Brian Friel’s setting of Ballybeg, as interconnected narratives; not sequels per se, but inhabiting the same universe and populated by the same characters. Charles Mee’s Summertime and Wintertime overlap a few characters and a setting while telling very different stories. Alan Ayckbourn’s very odd House & Garden exists as a single play happening simultaneously in adjoining theatres, which is a stretch as far as my sequel/series theme goes but is so goddamn weird I never pass up an opportunity to mention it.

And then, of course, there was Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies, one spin-off, and a lost sequel, all but the last circling around the same period and family. The lost sequel, of course, is Love’s Labours Won, an alleged follow-up to Love’s Labours Lost. Since all we have of …Won is the title, there is room for disagreement on whether it was actually a sequel, an alternate name for a different play, or a completely unrelated story, but the structure of …Lost certainly suggests room for a sequel. The spin-off is The Merry Wives of Windsor, a light comedy following the adventures of fat idiot knight Sir Falstaff, bosom friend of Prince Hal in Henry IV. And the tetralogies are a series of historical plays during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses. Confusingly, these series are referred to as the Henriads even through the cycle begins with Richard II and ends with Richard III. More confusingly, there are eight plays in the series but the plays are only about five kings; Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, the plays for IV and VI being broken into two and three parts, respectively. And most confusingly of all, the Second Henriad was written first and the First Henriad second, like the Star Wars movies.

house-of-plantageneet

I don’t know, it doesn’t seem THAT confusing.

I’ll give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt on the difficulties and pitfalls and artistic risks inherent to theatrical sequels because, well, he’s Shakespeare. He does as he pleases. He also gets a pass because most of them are histories, and therefore based on real events. Shakespeare didn’t create the Wars of the Roses, they actually happened. It may not be convenient to us as an audience for the life, death, and legacy of Henry VI to be broken into three parts on stage, but a lot of stuff happened because of him, stuff that couldn’t be adequately expressed, in Shakespeare’s mind, in a single play. The founding of the House of Lancaster, their consolidation of power, and their greatest triumph under Henry V is too complex a story to be told in one sitting, so Shakespeare broke into pieces, choosing to hew more closely to the narrative itself than to the conventions of theatre.

Which brings us to tonight, where we explore a piece of that story. As I mentioned before, we will be performing the second and third pieces of the First Henriad, Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, condensed in true We Happy Few fashion into a single two-hour performance by Cofounder-in-Exile Hannah Todd. It is named after King Henry IV, and happens predominantly during his reign, but it in actuality is mostly about Prince Hal, the soon-to-be King Henry V, and his growth from a callow playboy in the company of ne’er-do-wells to a noble knight and worthy heir to the throne. Since Henry V explores, in part, Henry’s nobility in light of his checkered past we figured a reading of this play would be a good way to introduce that character and his erstwhile companions to the audience. Plus its another opportunity for you to spend some quality time with the We Happy Few team, for free! Who could pass up such an opportunity? I hope you can make it to CHAW tonight, by 7:30PM, to see it!

Poe: American Literature’s Bitter Uncle

Ladies and Gentlemen! There has been a palace coup in the We Happy Few Managerial Hierarchy! I have been deposed as Production Manager by the altogether-more-competent Kiernan McGowan, who, I promise, will live to rue the day he dared step to me. I shall engineer such a revenge that the ill-gotten fruits of his underhanded betrayal will turn to ashes in his mouth, and he will weep for a death which will not come will do a much better job in the role than Yours Truly. I, for my sins, have been given the title of Literary Director and was graciously allowed to keep the title of Blogslave after I told them that they could have the password to this WordPress account when they pried it from my cold dead hands. “But what does this mean for me, the loyal follower of WHF?” I hear you asking, and the answer is: literally nothing. Unless you are a member of the organization this change will impact you not even the tiniest bit, except that our names will be labelled differently in the programs of future shows. So I encourage you to put it out of your mind and come with me into today’s blog post.

In celebration of our new organizational structure, in recognition of my sexy new title, and in anticipation of some very exciting upcoming performances of ours, I would like to offer you some thoughts on American writing’s mopey godfather: Edgar Allan Poe. I personally regard Poe as the father of horror. Others call him the father of the detective story and of science fiction, and even of the American short story. Indeed, with so many literary children to take care of it is small wonder that he drank himself to death! [rimshot] But I am not here to tell you about his drinking problem (…yet), I want to talk to you about his legacy and how his stories, for all their influence, never earned him the title that would seem to be rightfully his: the Father of American Literature.

poe-annie-daguerreotype

Before we really get into that a brief biographical sketch is necessary. Edgar Poe was born in 1809 in Boston to an actress named Elizabeth Poe, whose husband David either died or disappeared at some point in 1810. In 1811 Elizabeth moved to Richmond and then died in her turn, leaving Edgar too far from his paternal grandfather to be brought up with him and therefore at the mercy of the people of Richmond. He was taken in (but not adopted; he retained the name ‘Poe’) by wealthy merchant John Allan and his wife Fanny. Fanny seems to have cared more for the boy than John, with whom Edgar did not get along. Allan was not a member of the landed Virginia gentry, but rather a first-generation Scots trader who had made good, and it is likely that his neighbors did not let him forget it. Poe was betrothed to a woman named Sarah Elmira Royster, with whom he exchanged letters for some time despite her father’s disapproval of the match. Poe attended the University of Virginia but was forced to withdraw after a year due to financial difficulties (Allan had provided Poe with not quite enough money for both classes and rent, and Poe was forced to borrow and gamble in an ill-conceived attempt to make it up). Upon returning to Richmond he discovered that Sarah Royster had married someone else, doubtless under pressure from her father. After a series of arguments with Allan, Poe ran away to Boston where he published his first collection of poetry. It did not make any money and he was forced to join the Army to make ends meet. After some time in the Army, and with the aid of Fanny on her deathbed, Poe was able to convince Allan to support his bid to enter West Point. Unfortunately bad luck conspired to delay his entry until 1830, by which time Fanny Allan had died. Some of Poe’s debts caught up to his foster father in this time period and Allan severed all communication with Poe around the same time as he was expelled from West Point in 1831. Poe moved to Baltimore and lived with his paternal Aunt Maria Clemm and his 9-year-old cousin and future wife Virginia Clemm (they would marry when she was 13. Not as unusual for the time as you might think, but certainly…off-putting).

From this point until his death in 1849 he worked as a professional writer and lecturer, as well as an editor and critic for literary magazines. He regarded it as his mission as a critic to improve the quality of American writing and make it competitive with the writers of Europe, especially England and France (where he was always more popular than America), and as such he made powerful foes of a clique of New York writers, centered on the Knickerbocker magazine and led by the hilariously-named twin editors Lewis and Willis Gaylord Clark, for their propensity to “puff”, or uncritically endorse, each other’s pieces in reviews. He achieved widespread fame upon the publication of “The Raven” in 1845 but was unable to parley even that into financial security, often moving between Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City as work and finances dictated. Virginia died in 1847 after fighting tuberculosis for some time, and Poe himself died under somewhat mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk and wearing someone else’s clothes) in Baltimore some two years later. For a number of years his reputation in America was damaged by the actions of his literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had (unbeknownst to Poe) hated him and spread rumors of infidelity and drug abuse after his death, but his legacy had been salvaged by the end of the 19th century.

You may have noticed that my biography seems to lean very heavily on his early years, before he became one of America’s first professional writers. I assure you that this is by design; it is my belief that Poe’s writing was more shaped by the first half of his life than the second. Poe learned at a young age what it was to be alone, to be outside of the norm, and it seems that he may never have truly learned what it was like to be otherwise. The lessons of Poe’s childhood were cruel and thorough, as I hope I have demonstrated above. He learned how it felt to lose a loved one, to disappoint a friend, to be hungry and cold for want of money, to desire a thing he could not attain, and above all, to be neither welcome nor wanted by those around him. Though Poe did happily marry, and his later life was as full of bosom friends as with rivals, he would never reach a financial level that one might call “stable”, let alone comfortable, despite his fame, and he still struggled with bouts of depression, which were doubtless exacerbated by his financial instability and his wife’s untimely demise. It should come as no surprise that his writing should tend toward the macabre and Gothic, into the dark and brooding half of Romanticism and away from the nationalist Romanticism of his fellows.

wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. This picture is pretty much all you need to know about Romanticism.

Poe seems to have projected this psychological isolation and half-imagined social exile onto his characters. Contrary to the now-traditional American protagonist of the cunning and self-made frontiersman, popularized by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and inspired by outdoorsy American heroes such as Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Andrew Jackson, Poe created elegant, aristocratic protagonists. Prince Prospero, Roderick Usher, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, Montresor, and his many nameless narrators of such pieces as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Black Cat”: these are men of property and education. They are aristocrats, similar to Poe’s classmates at the University of Virginia or West Point, or his childhood friends in Richmond. But (excepting Mssr. Dupin) their education and breeding boots them naught. Poe’s characters are almost universally undone or driven mad by their own obsessions, by their isolation, their superiority, their overwhelming desire for the unattainable, and above all by their arrogance. His characters are blind to their faults, assuming that their superior intelligence and class will keep them safe, that they are too clever and important to suffer any consequences. Poe inverted the American Dream, before we even really knew what that meant. His characters start with everything and then lose it all.

squandered-resources

Squandered Resources, Visions, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Romas Kukalis

Even more striking than Poe’s choice of characters is his choice of settings and subjects. Poe’s contemporaries, Longfellow, Whitman, Whittier, Cooper, Hawthorne, Irving, positively reveled in writing about the the rough, vast new country in which they found themselves. Longfellow, a member of the adversarial Knickerbocker clique and Your Humble Narrator’s favorite poet, is best known for the thoroughly American poems Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Hawthorne rooted himself so inextricably to colonial Massachusetts that I had to read The Scarlet Letter twice in high school, first to learn about Puritans and then again to learn about Transcendentalism. Cooper’s Leatherstocking stories may be poorly written drivel, but they were indisputably American drivel. Whitman even wrote a poem titled “I Hear America Singing”, for God’s sake! The American frontier and our brief but vibrant history offers an infinity of stories to American writers.

But Poe was not seduced by the Great Wide Open or America’s heroic past. Poe’s stories are set in crowded cities, where people get too close and drive one another mad, where apes escape from their owners and commit grisly murders, where science, blindly pursued, visits horrific consequences on its practitioners. They take place in crumbling manors and castles, where mad kings die at their own hideous parties and where long-sought vengeance is planned. They take place in richly appointed rooms where men may be alone with their grief and their wine. They take place in nightmares and prison cells, museums and graveyards, hurricanes and catacombs. Poe didn’t completely ignore America, “The Gold-Bug” is set on an island where he was stationed in the Army and Arthur Gordon Pym is from Nantucket, but he did not feel the urge to tell ‘American’ stories in the way that his colleagues did. Maybe his melancholia simply found better purchase in the foggy Gothic settings favored by his colleagues in Europe than the bright sun of the American frontier, though I think the answer is more complicated than that. Poe, perhaps, did not have the same unblemished view of his country as his fellows. His experience with America had shown him many more unfriendly faces, closed doors, and cold, dark city streets than welcoming arms and sun-dappled meadows. Moreover, he did not feel himself to be a member of the community of American writers which he had worked so strenuously to create, and which had consistently shunned and maligned him, even after he was in the grave.

harry-clarke-into-the-maelstrom-poe

“A Descent Into the Maelstrom”. Illustration by Harry Clarke, for Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.

For these reasons I find it difficult to either grant or rescind Poe the title of Father of American Literature. He was among the first and greatest writers in American history and he dedicated his life to improving America’s writing profile on the world stage.  But at the same time his stories, for all of his being one of America’s finest writers, are not American. They are horror stories, detective stories, adventure stories, melancholy poems, introspective poems, the origins of science fiction, but not a one of them is an American story in the way that Tom Sawyer or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby is. Poe’s writing lacks the setting and the spirit that sets The Great American Novel apart from other genres. It is impossible to ignore his role in American literature but his own actions disqualify him from the title. It’s all right, though. Horror is a better genre than Americana.

If you agree with me that horror is great, and you also think that drinking is great, keep a weather eye on this space as well as the We Happy Few emails, websitetwitter, and facebook; however you keep track of our comings and goings. We will have some Poe-related things coming up  soon that you will be VERY excited to attend. Remember THIS THING I told you about last year? Think bigger, and keep your eyes open for more details! Until next time, I am (and always have been) your friend Keith Hock.

[editor’s note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that, in addition to Wikipedia for quick fact-checking, I relied heavily upon Nigel Barnes’ “A Dream Within a Dream: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe” (Peter Owen Publishers, 2009) and Edward H. Davidson’s “Poe: A Critical Study” (Harvard University Press, 1957) while writing this blog post. KH]