Science Fiction Studies

#21 = Volume 7, Part 2 = July 1980



  • Robert K. Martin. The Quest for Poe (Peter Haining, ed. The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook; David Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception in Poe)
  • Robert M. Philmus. References Anyone? (Peter Nicholls, ed. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia; Frank N. Magill, ed. Survey of Science Fiction Literature)


Robert K. Martin

The Quest for Poe

Peter Haining, ed. The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook, NY: Schocken Books, 1978, 144p. $7.95 paper.

David Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception in Poe, Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1979, xv + 285p. $17.50.

The two works in question illustrate the problems of Poe criticism. One, a popular work designed for a mass audience, stresses Poe's role as a creator of horror, makes use of the almost legendary biography, and completely confuses the Poe of popular imagination, the Poe of the film-makers, with the poet, critic, and fiction writer. The other, a scholarly work addressed to a literary critical audience, concerns itself with the "real" Poe, Poe the conscious artist, and attempts to demonstrate the falseness of almost all preconceptions about America's first professional writer.

The Haining book is just the sort of dangerous misinformation that Professor Ketterer needs to sweep away before he can even begin his study. Misinformation, not because the facts are wrong (the Scrapbook reprints some interesting trivia and even a few valuable documents) but because they are presented in a misleading (dare I say deceptive?) way. Comments on the life are interwoven with remarks on the works (almost entirely devoted to questions of sources and the like and never to critical evaluation), and the illustrations mix photographs of Poe and his family with illustrations from many of his works and comic books and films very loosely based on the stories.

The illustrations appear to be the raison d'etre of this volume, since almost all of the textual material is available elsewhere (although, interestingly, the copyright page records no permission to reprint, despite the fact that several of the excerpts would appear to be still in copyright). They are abundant, but so unselective as to be almost without value. Many are clearly presented as filler, such as the famous illustration of the young Whitman from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass which accompanies the story of Whitman's attendance at the reburial of Poe in 1875. Others are offensive by their juxtaposition: Elizabeth Barret Browning adjoins a photograph of Vincent Price in the 1963 film of "The Raven". Still others are misleadingly or inadequately identified, such as the Aubrey Beardsley "sketch" for "The Murders in Rue Morgue" which is in fact a signed drawing. No indication is given of the dates or sources of most of the illustrations and the book has no bibliography or index, nor even a table of contents.

Such a book is dangerous for reasons which go beyond its vulgarity and tastelessness. One might welcome a study of the iconography of Poe's tales, and such a study might give us useful indications of the history of popular taste. But such a study would only be of sue if it began with Poe's works themselves. Clinging to them like barnacles are the results of over a hundred years of popular imagery and distortion, not to say exploitation. If one is to recover Poe the artist, one must return to the works without the preconceptions we have all acquired before we ever read our first Poe tale.

This is the task that David Ketterer sets himself and largely accomplishes. His work is indebted to several major studies which precede it, notably those of John Lynen and G.R. Thompson. From Thompson, Ketterer has taken the concept of Poe's central irony: that the majority of the stories are not to be taken straight but as examples of the "Romantic Irony" that, Thompson claims, Poe derived from German sources. But Ketterer downplays the ironic element, or balances it, by his concern for what he calls the "visionary" Poe. For Ketterer Poe "attempts to destroy a deceptive reality" because of his "belief that in relation to a sensed visionary reality, everyday reality, constitutes one gross deception" (p.xii) What will particularly interest readers of SF is Ketterer's belief, in contrast to Lynen, that Poe's views of reality developed through his life "from an immediately attainable supernal reality to a unified reality in the future" (p.xiii).

Ketterer's exposition of Poe's development is one of the most valuable elements in his study. His analysis makes sense of the apparent conflict between the Poe who vigorously denounces reality, the Poe, say, of "Sonnet - To Science," and the Poe who celebrates a perfected state of being, the Poe of "Landor's Cottage" or "The Philosophy of Furniture." That perfected state, which Ketterer terms "fusion," is a state of the soul in which a perfect harmony with the world is achieved, by an entry into a purely imagined, or transcendent, universe. Here Ketterer implicitly takes issue with Thompson, who sees even "The Philosophy of Furniture" as ironic, and restores to Poe some of his drive for the reunion of the divided soul.

On this point Ketterer might have strengthened his argument by some greater attempt to place Poe in a literary and philosophical context. He deals with Poe's life in a surprising vacuum. It would perhaps be useful to consider the relationship between Shelley and Poe as a guide to Poe's concept of the function of poetry or his use of the figure of the ideal woman as a symbol of the separated soul. And a discussion of Poe as a visionary which takes no account of his relationship to Platonic philosophy seems strangely unbalanced.

Ketterer claims for his study that it is "the only critical analysis" to "take detailed account of Poe's entire output" (p.xiv). That is indeed a large assignment, and one which accounts in part, for both the strengths and the weaknesses of the resulting book. (It should be noted in passing that the claim is slightly exaggerated. It is hardly just to say that "detailed account" is taken of Poe's very substantial body of criticism, although it is referred to from time to time.) Ketterer provides readings of the stories, poems, Pym, and Eureka, readings which vary in length from a few sentences to a full chapter. Sometimes the analysis seems unduly elementary, too close to plot summary and note-taking. In the best sections, however, Ketterer offers fascinating and complete readings, as in the section on Pym. Here he offers what will probably remain the definitive analysis of the structure of the work, convincingly showing the unity and balance of Poe's conception.

The introductory chapter is a fascinating study of "The Half-Closed Eye," the deliberately blurred vision of which Poe induced as a means to a more accurate perception that could extend beyond a deceptive reality. Ketterer convincingly argues for the relationship between this half-conscious state of synaesthesia and the later theories of the Symbolists, who responded so enthusiastically to Poe. However, he rather surprisingly makes no attempt to place the concept of the "half-closed eye" in any Romantic context. He does try to link the idea to American Transcendentalism, but without complete success. It is true that Poe used a metaphor related to that of Emerson (the "transparent eyeball") or Thoreau (the "sauntering eye"), but that does not seem in itself sufficient to draw the connections that Ketterer wants. What Poe shared with the Transcendentalists was a philosophic idealism, derived from Plato. What separated them was not merely the question of politics, a difference Ketterer notes, but also an attitude to earthly existence and to the body. Poe's heaven was, as his own imagery suggests, far closer to a Koranic (or Swedenborgian) ideal than to a phalanx or a cabin in the woods.

One of the virtues of this book is its attempt to make sense of Poe's terms "arabesque" and "grotesque." Unlike Thompson, or his major source, Kayser, Ketterer is not especially concerned with the critical history of the terms. He attempts to show how Poe used them, and he distinguishes (pp. 36-37) between the two kinds of tale, the arabesques that attempt to "melt away the rigid pattern that is imposed by man's reason" (such as "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher") and the grotesques that describe "the world created by man's divided perceptions" (such as the satiric tales). Although the terms have often been taken to be interchangeable in Poe, Ketterer is at pains to show that there is both a response to a false reality (the grotesque) and the creation of a new, "real" reality (the arabesque). In many of the arabesque tales, there is still a sense of a lingering grotesque reality along with the desire to extend life beyond those limits.

Ketterer interestingly connects the arabesque with Poe's interest in the decorative arts and suggests that entrance into a room or a house may represent a shift from one kind, or level, of reality to another. He remarks, in an interesting aside, "Poe's conception is very close to the notion of a warp in space-time, a favorite device of science-fiction writers who wish to transport their characters or material objects to other times or dimensions" (p.42). It should be remembered, however, that in Poe this device is used not to afford a better view of reality but to accomplish a permanent transition to a higher spiritual state.

If Poe is widely known as a precursor of SF (a topic which David Ketterer has addressed in two other studies), he is even better known as a precusor of the modern detective story. In Ketterer's view, the detective story in Poe is used to develop the third stage of consciousness, the union of reason and the imagination. He points out that Dupin is as much a visionary as an analyst and that his methods combine an imaginative identification with the criminal and a meticulous examination of the evidence. Ketterer's view of Dupin as a heroic figure seems open to question, especially by those who would link him with Poe's other "mad" protagonists. Ketterer identifies Dupin with Poe himself and sees the tales of ratiocination as allegories of artistic practice as well as signs of Poe's struggle to reintegrate his own schizophrenic personality.

Oddly enough in this study which seeks to free Poe from the limitations of the popular image, there is a chapter devoted to Poe's biography. Placing that chapter second, Ketterer seems to be suggesting that we may even view the life as but another element of the fiction. The value of this chapter remains questionable, Ketterer has no new biographical information and no new way of interpreting the old. Although he is concerned to view Poe's work seriously, and thus is somewhat dubious about the psychoanlytic views which have tended to dominate Poe's biography, he himself makes considerable use of the jargon of psychoanalysis: Poe has a "masochistic tendency" (p.55), he is "almost psychotic" (p.59), he seems destined for "a schizophrenic breakdown" (p.63), Eureka may be a "final, futile, paranoid gesture" (p.69). It is never clear whether Ketterer means these terms in a clinical or popular sense, and he comes perilously close to interpreting the work as a manifestation of the inner psychic life (as Marie Bonaparte did). At one point he seems to reverse the argument, holding that by distorting facts in his own life "Poe is carrying his theoretical proposition - that truth is impossible - into practice" (p. 63). Ketterer probably sees his biographical material as essential to his theory of Poe's development, but he could equally well have studied that development in the works themselves. Entering into the life in this way simply begins a task that cannot be accomplished within the confines of what is essentially a critical study and flirts dangerously with the reductive approach to Poe that has so long operated to trivialize and distort his accomplishment.

Ketterer offers us little critical evaluation, preferring explication. He does venture at the end, the opinion that "Although a great writer, Poe is not the finest of American writers [but] he is the most original" (p. 276). Many readers will take issue with that judgment, which seems perhaps unduly generous, but not totally at odds with Henry James's memory of his small boy's response to Poe, "by reason of that predominant lustre in him which our small opening minds themselves already recognised and which makes me wonder to-day at the legend of the native neglect of him." It was the Prince in James's The Golden Bowl who remembered Pym as "a thing to show...what imagination Americans could have." Ketterer has successfully managed to capture for the reader that sense of imagination. His readings not merely clear away the rubbish of accumulated Scrapbooks but accomplish a first sowing of the new soil, one that is sure to be harvested by all those interested in Poe for many years.


Robert M. Philmus

Reference, Anyone?

Peter Nicholls, ed. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. Garden City. NY: Doubleday. 1979. 672 p. illus. $12.95 (paper).

Frank N. Magill, ed.Survey of Science Fiction Literature. 5 vols. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1979. 2542 + 1vii [+7] p. $200.00.

If you have been having difficulty finding criticism or bibliographical information about your favorite SF author(s), don't despair. You may soon have quite a different problem: deciding which volume to refer to first. There is by now no shortage of more or less annotated general bibliogaphies, most of them masquerading as checklists (with SF often undifferentiated from fantasy): Robert Reginald's and Marshall Tymn's have recently made their appearance, joining the Tymn-Schlobin-Currey Research Guide (see SFS No. 14); a modified version of Everett Bleiler's pioneering effort has just been reissued (see SFS No. 20): and a revision of Anatomy of Wonder should be out presently. What may be more useful than any of these for the bibliophile or scholar is Lloyd Currey's Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors (G.K. Hall), a listing of first editions (and selected secondary material pertinent thereto) from H.G. Wells on. And perhaps most welcome of all in this line of business is a series of individual author bibliographies (supposed to Catalogue just about everything by and about the author in question) that the Gregg Press division of G.K. Hall is in the process of bringing out under Tymn's direction (the volumes on Norton, Simak, Sturgeon, and Williamson are already available).

Here and in regard to its project for republishing "classics" of SF criticism. Gregg seems to have a field to itself -- at least as of this moment. This is not the case with its series of critical monographs, each devoted to a single SF writer, under the general editorship of Roger Schlobin. These will run into a certain amount of competition from a similar undertaking on the part of George Schlusser and the Borgo Press (see David Samuelson's review further on) and eventually -- perhaps later this year or early next -- from a series of book-length studies that Oxford Press will be publishing under the supervision of Robert Scholes.

If you have in mind something briefer or more particular in the way of a critical "introduction" (as virtually all these series style themselves), you might look up the latest offerings among Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander's "Authors of the 21st Century." Or wait for Bleiler and Scribner's to come out with their collection of essays (by several hands) surveying the opus of selected SF writers. Or consult one of the titles under review here....

Even the most casual perusal of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction reveals it to be precisely what its title advertises it as being. Its half-folio size, three-column, closely printed (but easily legible) and rather profusely illustrated pages contain over 2700 entries, the overall scope of which Peter Nicholls defines in his Preface with admirable concision and clarity. According to the tabulation he provides, about two-thirds of the articles (1817, to be exact) deal with SF authors (along with some fantasists). The remainder he apportions to the following categories: themes (175, with a master list at the front of the volume); films and film makers (ca. 300); magazines (207) and original long-run anthologies (e.g., Orbit:10 ); illustrators (ca. 60); editors and publishers (no number given); terminology (75); critics (no number given); comics (13) and TV programs (56); and awards (14), fanzines (40), etc.

Against all odds, the Encyclopedia is a remarkable achievement. For one thing, its articles show a far greater degree of consistency in point of style and content -- thanks, no doubt, to the intervention of Nicholls as editor -- than might be expected in the product of a cooperative effort by 34 contributors. (The occasional lapses from this standard are mostly in the direction of inappropriate over-particularity: the entry for "xenobiology," for instance, concentrates somewhat parochially on the findings of the recent Mars probe.) The articles are likewise consistently intelligent and well-informed; and their information is as reliable as that to be found in any other first-rate encyclopedia -- which is to say, not wholly reliable in every detail. (The full original title of Gulliver's Travels is given inexactly, as is that of Wells's essay, "The Limits of Individual Plasticity"; the "gansas" [English: "geese"]! of Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone are referred to [only] as "swans"; etc.) The coverage is also surprisingly thorough. Authors little-known outside their native country sometimes have entries in their own right; and if not, the reader will probably find them and their works mentioned in the article on the SF of that country. In addition most author entries have appended to them a selective list of secondary materials (though the entries for pre-19th-century writers all seem to lack such a bibliographical appendix, as do those for certain 19th-century authors -- R.L. Stevenson, for example).

The one subject-category that Nicholls and company have not treated with the comprehensive- ness and balance characteristic of the Encyclopedia as a whole is "films and film makers." The volume's inadequacies in this area are matters partly of omission and partly of misplaced emphasis. Why should there be entries both for Robert Wise and for each of his two best-known films (The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain) when Tod Browning receives mention only under "The Devil Doll" (while his Dracula goes unrecorded, though other horror films of dubious SF status are listed)? And why does James Whale's name appear only in the entries for The Invisible Man and Frankenstein, not in its own right (nor in connection with The Bride of Frankenstein, which is cited in the article on the original film as if it were merely one more second or third rate sequel or remake)? The entry for Things to Come gives brief acknowledgment to Wells for the film script; but no notice is taken anywhere of the existence of the film version of The Man Who Could Work Miracles, in regard to which his achievement as a script-writer is hardly negligible. These stand out as lapses from the Encyclopedia's prevailing standard of thoroughness; on the other hand, they would not be especially notable if that standard were not as high as it is.

The Survey of Science Fiction Literature would have been more useful than it is had its editors been as conscientious as Nicholls apparently was. To be sure, the Survey is not strictly comparable to the Encyclopedia in scope, format, or purported objectives. But by the same token, it would not be easy to compare the two enterprises in those respects since the Magill editors do not spell out the Survey's intended scope and purported objectives, which are otherwise difficult to determine. Neither Frank Magill's Preface (which I suppose constitutes the principal, if not sole, basis for his claim to editorship) nor Willis McNelly's Introduction, bothers to define clearly even the chronological limits of the five volumes. (The terminus a quo turns out to be 1800 -- or rather, 1817, the date of first publication for Frankenstein.) Instead, Magill speaks of the "need for an extensive critical evaluation" of SF, gives some statistics about the geographical distribution of the essays that follow. and refers the reader to McNelly. Heralded as having "admirably delineated" "the purport and tone of" (p. viii the Survey (this may he all too true). McNelly begins by roundly asserting that the "books discussed . . . defy description" and "refuse to admit of definition" (p. xiii): but in the course of his meanderings, he finally comes to this delimitation of the genre: "the literature of ideas, known as science fiction" has "become a contemporary version of the Adamic myth" (pp. xvi-xvii). Confronted at the outset with statements of those sorts, the reader may not he surprised to find confusion or unwarranted certitude elsewhere in these volumes: in Gary Kern's declaration that R.U.R. is "fantasy" (p. 1838), in the inclusion of a piece on George Eliot's The Lifted Veil, in the discussion of Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand" as SF. etc. (From the latter instances, it should not he inferred that McNelly gets unanimous approval for his call to aggrandize the boundaries of the genre: John Clute, for one, remarks that if Giles Goat-Boy is science fiction, then so is [sic] The Faery Queene and The Pilgrim's Progress" [p.873].)

The Survey consists of 512 critical essays assembled alphabetically by the title -- real or ersatz (e.g. "The Short Stories of. . .") -- of the work (or in a few cases, works) each essay deals with. (Fortunately the last volume contains an author index to compensate for the perverseness of this arrangement.) It would not be fair to demand a high degree of qualitative uniformity from that many essays from the hands of 174 contributors. But there is not as much to be said by way of excuse for the general unevenness of the Survey as may first appear. For one thing, the statistics (as always) are somewhat deceptive. A count of attributions (the articles are signed, but no listing of them by contributor is provided) reveals that almost half the essays come from 15 critics: Brian Stableford (59) Walter E. Meyers (20), Franz Rottensteiner (17), Willis McNelly (17), David Samuelson ( 16), Stephen Goldman (151, Donald Lawler ( 13). Gary Wolfe (12), Grace Eckley (10), Gary Kern (9), Gianni Montanari (9), Richard Nolan (9). Vladimir Gakov (8), Sam Lundwall (8), and Thomas Shippey (8) Moreover, someone in charge ought to have caught at least the most obvious gaffes -- in the aperu, for example, that Erewhon is not "a Utopian novel like More's . . .: it is instead a satire" (p. 729). But there is little evidence to suggest that the editors acted to enforce some kind of positive quality control. On the contrary. someone with final jurisdiction over the submissions actually introduced errors into some of them, as I have reason to know, having myself been the victim of such interventions. Of The Time Machine, I had written: For the Eloi utopia of 'ease and delight,' while it incarnates (albeit parodistically) Morris' dream of returning to a preindustrial age, is a fool's paradise." My anonymous redactor, unconscious of the fact that I was using "for" as a conjunction and "Eloi" adjectivally, transformed the opening of the sentence into: "The utopia of 'ease and delight' for the Eloi" (p. 2288). Later on, where I was attempting to point out that the Morlocks, "ascending as predators in a strict -- i.e. biological -- sense," in effect serve to literalize the predator-prey relationship of Capitalist to Laborer, someone vitiated that attempt by removing the "i.e." (as if I had been distinguishing a strict biological sense from a loose one). I suspect that one or another of the plenipotentiaries in the project was likewise responsible for such pedantic turns of phrase as "eighteenth century Enlightenment" (p. 1036). Be that as it may, rumor has it that a number of contributors to the Survey were distressed to discover that what they had written had been trans- or dis-figured without their authorization, sometimes beyond their recognition. Certainly none of them could have felt joy at seeing someone else's brief but generally pointless summary of the book in question prefaced to their essay; and most must have been as dismayed as I was to find subjoined to each article a list of secondary references about which they had never been consulted, especially since the listings are so haphazard that they could have been compiled by lottery (in a series of unlucky draws).

This is not to say that the essays themselves are unevenly bad. Stableford's establish a level of competence that the majority of the others come up to. Each gives an account of what the fiction is mainly about and what its central meaning is, and does so with a coherence and clarity that make the account useful to the specialist as well as to the neophyte. Following Stableford`s example, as it were, Richard Matthews not only summarizes Cat's Cradle but also provides a solid interpretation of the fiction, and is particularly suggestive in his remarks on Vonnegut's choice of a title. Albert Berger offers a sensitive and sympathetic analysis of the politics of Le Guin's The Dispossessed. John Kinnaird, after an unpromising start (in the course of which he leads the reader to believe, among other things, that Mary wrote Percy Shelley's Preface), has some provocative observations about Frankenstein: he proposes, for instance, that Walton represents "the thematic ideal of unified consciousness by which" the "moral failure" of Victor's "heroic" "egocentricity" is gauged (p. 835). Robert Crossley is equally provocative on A Modern Utopia: seeing Utopia as Wells's subject, he argues that the book "draws its conceptual power and courage from the cheerful utopists of the Victorian era while it carefully addresses the worries of an audience newly suspicious of wholesale remedies to problems it is not even sure exist" (p. 1429).

The problem with the Survey is that worthwhile essays of this sort appear side by side with others that are incoherent or eccentric. Sometimes, of course, the eccentricities are of interest, as in the piece wherein Thomas Shippey emphasizes the English topicality of Brave New World (he suggests, e.g., that Huxley's aphroditeum stands for the Athenaeum Club). Usually, however, they are merely unintentionally perverse. One critic, for example, laying stress on the fancy that "vril" anticipates nuclear energy (p. 419), manages to write four pages about Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race while never so much as dropping the name of Darwin. Another neglects to explain the basic analogical significance of Edwin Abbott's Flatland. The exegete of 1984 remains totally silent on the subject of Zamiatin's We. There is no hint in the essay on Delany's Triton that his fiction has anything to do with The Dispossessed. The existence of a book entitled Walden goes unnoted in the article on B.F. Skinner's Walden Two. And so on. In some of these instances and in others as well, the critic has not furnished a comprehensible account of the book supposedly being surveyed. All too typically in such cases, the author of the essay seems to assume that his or her reader is already quite familiar with the work under discussion and needs guidance only in evaluating it -- not by putting its ideology into some kind of historical perspective, mind you, but by assessing its technical merits (most often in respect to the rotundity of its characters). If you have had trouble sorting out the plot of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for example, or The Inheritors, what the Survey has to say on Miller's and Golding's books will not unperplex you.

Anyone who goes through a small random sample of the contents of the Surveys will come away with doubts about its purpose. Indeed, there are enough essays of value only to the undergraduate looking -- desperately -- for a crib to make a reviewer of these volumes wonder if that is what the editors had in mind for them. Yet that theory about its purpose will not entirely explain the Survey's principle of selection, particularly in regard to the 90 or so foreign-language titles included.

Perhaps it needn't be said (in these pages, that is) that this gesture toward recognition of SF in languages other than English is highly laudable. (Not so laudable, by the way, is the chronological distribution of the works surveyed: 10% are from the 19th century, and less than 30%. from the period 1900-1945.) At the same time, it seems questionable to devote space to a work in, say, Italian or Hungarian which has dubious credentials as SF and which no one has thought worth translating (though it may have been around for a century) or which represents the first novel by an author who has yet to achieve some kind of renown in his or her native country. It seems even more questionable to do so at the expense of established authors -- which is what those responsible for the Survey have done. Names like Lino Aldani and Piero Prosperi -- which I suspect will not be familiar to many Italian readers find a place in these volumes: Dino Buzzati, Grard Klein, and Michel Jeury do not. (While the essays on the foreign-language titles will give the reader some idea of what the books they attach to are about, certain editorial practices may be misleading. For one thing, it seems peculiar for a North American publisher to give Swedish transliterations of Russian words. For another, the editors have on occasion unaccountably departed from the principle of listing translations by their English title and providing the original title underneath that: Cosmicomiche. for example, appears at the head of the article about it as if Italo Calvino had titled it in English. Cosmicomics.)

Librarians will undoubtedly shelve the Survey in the vicinity of the Nicholls Encyclopedia. They are not, however, "reference works" in identical senses of the term. The Encyclopedia is the sort of reference book that every student of SF will want to have at hand to refer to. The Survey, by contrast, is the sort of thing you go to a library to consult -- unless you are an SF addict with an insatiable craving for Rich Critical Prose.

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