I came upon a curious fact by accident: E. E. Cummings had a hand in a silent-film adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” His name doesn’t appear in the credits, at least not in the versions that stream online, but his involvement is certainly evident in the film’s beautiful use of language. This begins with the opening sequence, in which Poe’s text crashes round, kaleidoscope fashion (evoking, of course, the crashing down of the Usher mansion). There are also three crucial words later in the film (beat, crack, scream), broken down into their constituent letters, captions dancing the meanings of the scenes they explain. The Cummings involvement also makes sense given the prominent roles of two friends: James Sibley Watson, Jr., editor of The Dial, and Watson’s wife, Hildegarde, with whom Cummings maintained a vigorous correspondence. Sibley directed the film; Hildegarde starred as Madeleine Usher.
But why is the Cummings-Poe connection so obscure? That’s one of the things I found curious. The Cummings-Harriet Beecher Stowe connection has received at least some attention. He created a ballet of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1935); it was never produced, but the text appears in a book of his plays. “Usher” (1928) has fallen through the cracks. There’s no mention of the film in Cummings scholarship, and no mention of Cummings in The Poe Cinema. Yet his share in the film’s creation is mentioned several times online, most notably on the website of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (link). There, a brief clip is paired with extensive notes; those notes led me in turn to a fine essay by Lisa Cartwright, which likewise mentions Cummings. That essay, it’s true, draws on unpublished letters in private hands, but it isn’t clear that those letters disclosed his involvement. How then did it become known? And why isn’t it better known?
The full film is available for download at Archive.org (link) and streams from several other sites. A scant 13 minutes long, it is emphatically an art film, visually indebted to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but with an aspect that looks forward to Kenneth Anger. Do I mean by this anything other than that the film invests its silliness with ritual significance? Poe too invested the silly with significance, but for Poe ritual wasn’t the point. Still, the film is true to Poe, in its way, caring more for effect than explanation. The film is weird.
The NFPF notes that Watson’s Dial “published groundbreaking reappraisals of Edgar Allan Poe.” I would like to read those. I like, in any casem how the film pays tribute to Poe the writer, not by making him a character in his own stories — already a familiar tactic when this film was made — but by figuring books as part of the story’s Gothic architecture, a source of its horror.
Note: the online versions of the film have varied soundtracks and I haven’t sampled them sufficiently to give a ranking. This YouTube version (link) has an organ accompaniment that evokes tradition; no musician is credited. The score at Archive.org (link), by Lee Rosevere, is more fifties B-movie, which feels right too.
Found this steel engraving of Longfellow today in Graham’s Magazine (vol. 22, no. 5 [May 1843]); it accompanied an unsigned essay on the poet. Longfellow didn’t think much of it — to say the least. In a letter to Samuel Ward, he complained:
Why did you let Griswold have that head of me by Franquinet, to engrave for Graham’s Magazine? Do you know what the engraver has made of it? Why, the most atrocious libel imaginable; a very vulgar individual, looking very drunk and very cunning! An unredeemed blackguard air hovers over the whole. Now, when I think that forty thousand copies of this thing — this tasteless caricature — are to be printed and distributed through the country as my “counterfeit (very counterfeit) presentment,” I am in an indescribable agony. I solemnly protest against this whole proceeding, and shall write Graham this very day to prevent the publication.”
Obviously, his protest didn’t go very far, though it may explain the note of apology with which the essay ended:
The likeness which accompanies this, we are sorry to say, is not a very good one. Though correct, perhaps, in the general outline, Mr. Franquinet has failed to give that refined and poetical expression of his original which attracts the regard of every one who sees him in person.
These lines from “Morituri Salutamus” (1875) seem appropriate:
In mediaeval Rome, I know not where,
There stood an image with its arm in air,
And on its lifted finger, shining clear,
A golden ring with the device, “Strike here!”
Greatly the people wondered, though none guessed
The meaning that these words but half expressed,
Until a learned clerk, who at noonday
With downcast eyes was passing on his way,
Paused, and observed the spot, and marked it well,
Whereon the shadow of the finger fell;
And, coming back at midnight, delved, and found
A secret stairway leading underground.
The pinky ring intrigues me, but I won’t delve any further. In Longfellow’s poem, the curious clerk is soon struck dead!
Hawthorne found Thoreau “ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”; while Alfred Munroe, a schoolmate, in later years recalled, “He seemed to have no fun in him.” But seeming only went so far; Mary Hosmer Brown: “During his father’s illness his devotion was such that Mrs. Thoreau in recalling it said, ‘If it hadn’t been for my husband’s illness, I should never have known what a tender heart Henry had.’” This perhaps explains Elizabeth Hoar’s remark, recorded by Emerson: “I love Henry, but do not like him.” Not contradicted by Whitman but turned at an angle: “I liked Thoreau, though he was morbid.”
(Some choice bits from The Quotable Thoreau.)
From Poems of Places, vol. 4, England and Wales (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Though not Welsh himself, Michael Drayton (1563–1631) has eleven poems out of the 74 that Longfellow chose for the Wales portion of his anthology, more than any other poet, all of these extracted from Poly-Olbion, a poetic geography of England and Wales. Written in Alexandrian couplets, Poly-Olbion is divided into thirty “Songs,” each “illustrated,” as the work puts it, by copious notes from John Selden (Pope preferred these notes to the poetry). It takes up three volumes in Drayton’s collected works (full text here: vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3).
Longfellow does not identify these selections as extracts, but it speaks well to his editorial abilities that the fact is not immediately obvious. The fragments work as poems in their own right, at least in the context of Longfellow’s anthology. For those who are curious, the eleven are listed below, with links — for comparison’s sake — to anthology and original source:
In choosing one for presentation, I was drawn to the verses for Plynlimon (spelled “Plynillimon” by Drayton), for the recollection it yields of Melville’s Pierre. One of that novel’s more celebrated portions is a lecture delivered by “Plotinus Plinlimmon.” Melville’s allusion to the mountain in Wales is hard to ignore given the overall significance of stone in his novel (most obviously in the title and dedication, but not there alone). I have a faint suspicion that he in fact had Drayton’s Plynlimon in mind: the title of the lecture is “Chronometricals and Horologicals“; Poly-Olbion is subtitled “A Chorographicall Description.”
Longfellow’s extract runs to seventeen lines. It begins with the second half of a couplet, but the lack of rhyme for that line is not so noticeable given the off-rhymes that follow. The full rhyme at the end is more important, since it gives a satisfying sense of closure. The fifth line is the subject of one of Selden’s illustrations.
PLYNILLIMON’S high praise no longer, Muse, defer.
What once the Druids told, how great those floods should be
That here (most mighty hill) derive themselves from thee.
The bards with fury rapt, the British youth among,
Unto the charming harp thy future honor song
In brave and lofty strains; that in excess of joy,
The beldam and the girl, the grandsire and the boy,
With shouts and yearning cries, the troubled air did load
(As when with crowned cups unto the Elian god
Those priests his orgies held; or when the old world saw
Full Phoebe’s face eclipsed, and thinking her to daw.
Whom they supposed fallen in some inchanted swound,
Of beaten tinkling brass still plied her with the sound),
That all the Cambrian hills, which high’st their heads do bear
With most obsequious shows of low subjected fear,
Should to thy greatness stoop: and all the brooks that be
Do homage to those floods that issued out of thee.
for Dan Bouchard
Walter Savage Landor: It has been my fortune to love, in general, those men most who have thought most differently from me, on subjects wherein others pardon no discordance. In my opinion, I have no more right to be angry with a man whose reason has followed up a process different from what mine has, and is satisfied with the result, than with one who was gone to Venice while I am at Florence, and who writes to me that he likes the place, and that, although he said once he should settle elsewhere, he shall reside in that city.
W. C. Fields: Get away from me you little bastard! For two cents — or even one — I’d kick in your teeth.
Once upon a time, everyone under the sun — and a few in the shadows — knew a certain great novel so well, its characters’ names served as figures of speech. One still does, the very figure of servitude. Here’s a dictionary definition for another; it attests quite well to the novel’s ubiquity a century after publication. The definition was written by Eric Partridge and comes from his Name into Word: Proper Names That Have Become Common Property (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949):
Simon Legree tends, in American writing, to mean, literally and figuratively, ‘a cruel, sinister, relentless slave-driver’. …
For those few who have not read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in the early 1850s and did much to precipitate the emancipation of the Negroes in North America, it is necessary to mention that Simon Legree hounded Uncle Tom and his fellow-slaves and came to a somewhat gruesomely sticky end.
And for those few who have not read the novel, Legree’s comeuppance is precipitated by a certain Gothic tomfoolery, performed by two of the slaves, who prey on Legree’s mind by playing ghost. Here’s the sticky end as Stowe gives it:
… finally, there came over his sleep a shadow, a horror, an apprehension of something dreadful hanging over him. It was his mother’s shroud, he thought; but Cassy had it, holding it up, and showing it to him. He heard a confused noise of screams and groanings; and, with it all, he knew he was asleep, and has struggled to wake himself. He was half awake. He was sure something was coming into his room. He knew the door was opening, but he could not stir hand or foot. At last he turned, with a start; the door was open and, he saw a hand putting out his light.
It was a cloudy, misty moonlight, and there he saw it! — something white, gliding in! He heard the still rustle of its ghostly garments. It stood still by his bed; — a cold hand touched his; a voice said, three times, in a low, fearful whisper, “Come! come! come!” And, while he lay sweating with terror, he knew not when or how, the thing was gone. He sprang out of bed, and pulled at the door. It was shut and locked, and the man fell down in a swoon.
After this, Legree became a harder drinker than ever before. He no longer drank cautiously, prudently, but imprudently and recklessly.
There were reports around the country, soon after, that he was sick and dying. Excess had brought on that frightful disease that seems to throw the lurid shadows of a coming retribution back into the present life. None could bear the horrors of that sick-room, when he raved and screamed, and spoke of sights which almost stopped the blood of those who heard him; and, at his dying bed, stood a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, “Come! come! come!”
I say “as Stowe gives it” because the dramatizations that flourished in the nineteenth century and after often altered the details. Legree is shot, for instance, in the most popular of the stage versions, that of George L. Aiken.
Oddly, Partridge has no entry at all for Tom or Uncle Tom, though this epithet has had much a longer shelf life than Legree. Go figure.
Working backward in time, from the near present to the 1830s, by a combination of free and accidental association, in order to think forward: less a method than a way of passing the time — history as bookshelf, browsing as historiography.
American Hybrid (2009)
For a short time after its publication there was a lot of controversy over American Hybrid, a Norton anthology that made the claim — I guess I should say makes; it’s still in print — that poetry is no longer a matter of warring factions; the best poets now pledge no allegiance, it said — says — but jump sides at will. Or would if there were sides (which there are) (are not).
Let those parenthetical equivocations stand in for a fairer representation of the anthology’s own, which are not so much contradictions as uncertainties. For the purpose of the anthology has never been clear to me. I mean its editorial purpose, since the work is the work, produced for reasons — conscious and unconscious — of the authors’ own, which may or may not correspond to the imagination of the editors. But what was that imagination? Did the editors intend to produce an historical account of the literary present, or an aesthetic theory, or a manifesto? By what criteria should I judge their labor? And how strictly should I judge?
My choice has been to take the anthology as something more personal and more effervescent than a history, theory, or assault: I see it instead as lending substance to a mood, and in this regard its success is much less qualified, as the substance is not a matter of accuracy, coherence, or influence, but richness and suggestion.
The stumbling block for me (not that anyone is asking) is the title, which was meant to draw luster, I suspect, from postcolonial theory, where hybrid has become something of a master trope for the aftereffects of colonial relationships (and by extension the more symmetrical forms of engagement that occur between groups, ideologies, etc., which is how American Hybrid uses it). Associated in particular with Homi K. Bhabha, the trope of hybridity highlights the generative possibilities of such relationships, conceptualizing “an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on … the ‘inter’ — the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space — that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.” That hybrid is a trope is often forgotten, however, though not by the editors and publishers of American Hybrid — witness the flag-waving butterfly on the cover, each of its wings coming from a different breed. A hybrid literally is the offspring of two different species, and it has, for much of its history, carried a negative association when applied to human beings (I think, for instance, of Ezra Pound’s Fascist propaganda, which refers sneeringly to “hybrids of the Anglo ghetto” ). Postcolonialism is explicitly a critique of racism, so its redemption of the word is at once polemical and contextualized. Neither is the case with American Hybrid, which is unfortunate since some of the controversy over the anthology was owing to its “whitewashing,” as Craig Santos Perez put it, of American poetry and hybridity as concept. In any case, hybrid is not a trope I particularly like, no doubt for personal reasons: I am one generation removed from the eugenic nightmare of Nazi Germany (about which my father, a survivor, has written at length).
I should distinguish, though, between two versions of the trope, each of which is adopted in the anthology. Innocuous to me is the metaphor of poem as hybrid, especially in the horticultural form David St. John adopts at the end of his brief introduction (the second of two; the other, much longer, is by his co-editor, Cole Swensen):
I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based upon plurality, not purity. We need all of our poets. Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations. The purpose of this anthology is to celebrate these exquisite hybridizations emerging in the work of all our poets. Let the gates of the Garden stand open; let the renaming of the world begin again.
There is a certain confusion here — the Adamic citation at the end hardly points away from the fantasy of purity; and the slippage from “poets” to “poetry” does suggest that the former are the stock from which the latter’s “exquisite hybridizations” are produced — but to speak of poetry as cultivation, evoking a “Garden” of verses, is to till the very idea of culture in its most venerable form.
The other version of the trope appears in Swensen’s introduction, and the genetic aspects are there highlighted. She speaks of “writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits,” and refers to her poets as “THE NEW (HY)BREED.” Like St. John, moreover, she ends on a reference ill-matched to her announced aims. In her case, the reference is a citation of Mallarmé, “to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe.” Impurity, I should think, would be a more appropriate goal in this context; and since the poetic legacies at issue for Swensen were earlier defined nationally (as French or English in origin), I find myself thinking about the purity of “the tribe,” which cannot be the last thought she wanted me to have.
I hasten to add that I see no malignant design in this troping. It is just something I do not care for, hence my sensitivity to it; and when the anthology appeared, it kept me from sharing in the mood.
I am not entirely sure why I am going into such detail about my response to the anthology (or rather, my reasons for not responding), except that I came across a modernist precedent for the anthology’s conceit, which in turn suggested another precedent from the nineteenth century, and I did not think I could talk about these precedents without sorting out my original feelings. Read the rest of this entry »