In his essay “King Weirdo,” anthologized in the collection Now Dig This, the American humorist Terry Southern writes about his first encounter with Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.
As a seventh grader in a Dallas junior high school, Southern is sent to the library for a two part assignment, “a bit of horror-show wretchedness called 'Getting to Know Your Public Library'" that also required reading a Poe story (Southern’s teacher calls this killing “two buhds with one numbah-six shot…twelve-gauge.”) Southern, responding to a grim scene in the novel where a guilty party heaves a body overboard, reacts:
Holy Mack! What manner of weirdness was here. The idea of hassling a corpse overboard is perhaps commonplace enough, but to have an “entire leg” come off in your grasp… far out. But what really nailed it down for me was the imagery, “…the mass of putrefaction SLIPPED over the side”! Christ you could practically taste it! UGH! ACCHH!”
But back to Southern. The young Texan was hooked by Poe’s high yuck quotient, and found in Pym an opportunity to test his own satirical chops. At age 12 he rewrote the novel, transposing his school’s players into the grotesque roles. In an interview among his papers in The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature
, Southern talks about how his early exposure to Pym informed the casual, confessional tone of his narrative journalism for the rest of his career. The Southern papers in the Berg Collection also include the manuscript of “King Weirdo,” anthologized in the collection Now Dig This
(the collection will soon be available to the public; for access, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
T.S. Eliot credited Poe’s appeal to the young by attributing it to Poe’s own Peter Pan
qualities. In a manuscript in the Berg Collection, “From Poe to Valery,” published in the Hudson Review
in 1948, Eliot reflects on Poe’s arrested intellectual development. Poe’s intellect is that of “a highly sighted young person before puberty.” George Bernard Shaw
also alludes to Poe’s childish preoccupations in an undated Berg Collection manuscript, “Edgar Allan Poe.” Unlike other American and English authors of the period who are overly concerned with the sensual, Poe delights in fairy tales and the supernatural. His work is peppered with a boy’s flights of fancy, but realistically narrated. As Shaw writes:
...grotesques, negroes, madmen with delerium tremens, even gorillas take the place of ordinary peasants and courtiers, citizens and soldiers, in his theatre. His houses are haunted houses, his woods enchanted woods; and he makes them so real that reality itself cannot sustain the comparison. His kingdom is not of this world.
However fanciful and childlike Poe’s work may have seemed, it was grounded in a realism that produced palpable chills. Southern writes of Poe’s use of clever framing devices in Pym
, describing his inclusion of strange and sometimes seemingly insignificant details that lend his accounts verisimilitude. A letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning
to Poe in the Berg Collection attests to the effect even his most fantastical poetry had on his readers. In April 1846, she writes
Poe that a friend, who owned a bust of Athena similar to the one Poe describes in “The Raven
,” could no longer look at it in the twilight. Barrett Browning reports in this same letter that “The Raven," which the author had dedicated to her, had produced a “fit horror” in England.
Poe himself was critical of his own abilities. Just as he does in Pym, Poe adopts a fictional conceit as a framework for another Berg Collection item, “A Reviewer Reviewed.” Here he writes under the name “Walter G. Bowen,” and undertakes a review of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. About “The Raven” he writes that he doesn’t think so well of it “as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or as Mr. Poe himself does.” Later in the review, Bowen provides numerous examples of how Poe has borrowed too exactly from the work of other poets, excoriating Poe for accusing others of plagiarism when he himself is guilty in so many instances of his poetry.
How serious is Poe, writing as Bowen here? Is Poe really insinuating that he knowingly plagiarized other poets? More likely, he’s poking holes in the act of criticism itself. Bowen writes in the same essay that Poe’s “critical judgments are of little value,” a statement that runs the risk of cancelling out the review in its entirety. But the arguments of “A Reviewer Reviewed” are also thoughtful and carefully considered. “A Reviewer Reviewed” is a curious blend of seriousness and parody. Just as in his fiction, Poe throws his voice here convincingly, in order to tell his own version of the truth.
Among the Berg Collection’s Poe highlights are not one but two copies of the first edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems. Only 12 copies are known to exist of the original 50 print run. A facsimile
of this edition can be found in the Library's Rare Books Division
. View a 2009 New York Times slide show
of Poe material in the Berg Collection.