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Frederick S. Frank & Anthony Magistrale, eds. The Poe Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut & London: Greenwood Press, 1997. ISBN: 0313277680. Price: $89.50.

  • Henri Justin

…more information

  • Henri Justin
    Université d'Orléans

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This pleasantly presented volume is first of all, as the preface puts it, 'a compendious assemblage of all branches of Poe knowledge'. The alphabetically arranged entries carry the reader into the minutest details of Poe lore. An average of five entries per page, developing over 380 pages, must result in something like 1900 entries. Poe's cat is here (under 'Caterrina') as well as the Jesuit priest who allowed Poe the use of the library of St. John's College at Fordham (under 'Doucet, Father Edward'), together with every single person or animal, real or fictitious, that Poe ever mentioned in writing by its, his, or her name. The titles of the three indexes give some idea of the scope of the whole: 'Index of critics, editors, and acquaintances' (where the famous Poe critic Burton Pollin hobnobs with one Catherine E. Poitiaux, a long forgotten companion of Poe's childhood), 'Index of authors, artists, and titles', and 'Index of themes, subjects, and characters'. These indexes share the matter of the book between them, it seems to me, somewhat confusingly (or why is Hegel an 'author' and Kant a 'subject'? and how can one find the entry for the theme of the devil, except by chance, under 'Encounters, satanic-demonic, theme of'?), but if you get the hang of them they can often carry you a long way. They are completed by six pages of selective bibliography, and the 'Abbreviations' list in which the most consistently quoted reference sources are recorded.

This reference work is the first in the series and offers no survey article, say, on Poe and psychoanalysis, or Poe and New Criticism. This is partly compensated by the 'subjects' dealt with in the corresponding index—the long and rich entry on Poe's influence on other writers and artists completed by the one on the French response, for instance. But the priority goes to exhaustive reference.

Within these (flexible) limits, the 450 pages of this 'eclectic reference aid' (p.ix) are brimming with information. The Poe Log and the best biographies, in particular, have been tapped unremittingly and, more interestingly, Frank and Magistrale give an exhaustive listing of everything that Poe wrote, except the letters (without discussing their choice of a canon). For each text, they give a summary often completed by some comment on the possible readings. It is an ambitious task, performed with some degree of success. The entries do give interesting openings to the Poe student, and may offer the occasional surprise to the Poe scholar, but they cannot be fully trusted. In too many cases, one point or other invites strong reservation. It is not true that the narrator of 'The Imp of the Perverse' has been condemned for 'perverse crimes' (p. 174) ; only his confession is presented as perverse by Poe. Or again, only the omission of the famous 'I am dead' in the summary of 'the Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' can leave the tale in 'the tradition of gore-gothic' (p. 125). As to the disingenuous curtailing of the conclusion of 'Lionizing', it does indeed give the tale an 'absurd moral' (p. 205).

To me, the most useful part of the encyclopedia is the itemization of other writers, the obvious ones but also, for instance, Charles Brockden Brown or Voltaire (commented on by Poe), W.H.Auden or Isaac Asimov or Paul Claudel (commenting on Poe), or Victor Hugo (with references working both ways). The entries are generous enough, giving us the gist of what one would probably find by going to the sources. The only reservation is that, in the case of post-Poe writers, we are not given direct reference to the primary sources, so that we cannot by-pass the secondary ones, which is only fair to the scholars involved, of course, but can result in the loss of many opportunities. The stress on reference is the very essence of this type of book, but the ensuing atomization of information should be compensated by generous two-way cross-reference. On the contrary (and the preface claims this as a conscious editorial choice [ p.xi]), the book only offers one-way cross-references in a strictly limited number of occasions. Marie Bonaparte is itemized (and fairly dealt with), but with no link to Lacan (who appears under two tale-entries). Freud appears in an index, but still with no link to Lacan. Or again, the entry 'Kempelen, Baron Wolfgang von' introduces the eighteenth-century inventor of the chess-playing robot mentioned in 'Maelzel's Chess-Player' with no cross-reference to the fictitious nineteenth-century Poe character in 'Von Kempelen and his discovery '. The latter is rightly itemized as 'Von Kempelen' but there the cross-reference reads 'He is also mentioned in 'Maelzel's Chess-Player', an obvious confusion which could have been avoided by tigher cross-reference meshing.

The 'Index of themes, subjects, and characters' can serve for cross-reference between objects explicitly named in Poe. But it would work better if Hegel was not omitted under 'Philosophy and philosophers'. It is impossible to give statistics, but one stumbles too often on misleading blunders. 'L'Omelette, Duc of' appears in its proper place and type, with one page reference—and again, between 'Lewis' and 'Lexicography' and in the wrong type, with the other page references. Our Baron is now called 'Kempeler' instead of Kempelen—but after all, Empedocles is now called 'Empedodes'... Surely, such mistakes are inevitable in a book swarming with names and dates and page numbers. But they just come a little too thick. It is difficult to stop picking them up: I am not aware that Robert Regan calls himself Robert Regan Forbes (an obvious slip, Forbes being the next name in the list [p. 96]) and I never knew that Stéphane Mallarmé could be listed as 'Mallarmé, Stéfane [Etienne]'. The Poe text too is occasionally read amiss. I did not know that the narrator of 'Ligeia' could not remember his own name (p. 251). As to the 'absolute lifelikeness of expression' of the 'oval portrait' (as quoted on p. 265), it is, in the authenticated versions, a thrillingly suggestive 'lifelikeliness '. Poe is that complex.

The choice of the articles and other scholarly studies offered for further reading is precise and rich and, it seems, a little erratic too. Under 'narrators' one is glad to find mention of the decisive article by Gargano, but under 'The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym' one wonders why the remarkable chapter in American Hieroglyphics by John Irwin is ignored. Again, under 'Tales of the Folio Club', it is only right that four lines be used to refer to the work of the 'founding father' of this 'lost book, , Alexander Hammond, but why has J. S. Wilson's epoch-making article, 'The Devil Was in It,' been omitted ? The Preface does not say.

To take one last general example, the 'Coleridge' entry consists in eight lines of presentation, two odd lines of textual references, and five and a half lines of reference to four articles (1910, 1930, 1655, and 1978) and a two-page passage in a book-length study (1963). One feels both real interest and a nagging doubt: has nothing more decisive been written on the subject up to 1994, Frank and Magistrale's acknowledged limit? Clearly, these five references must 'represent [...] the historical shifts in changing interpretation and thematic emphasis', as the authors intend such references to do... 'in some cases ' (Preface, p. x). But one would like to know much more precisely how the authors have gone about their choices.

What with this and with its numerous slips, The Poe Encyclopedia appears, partly because of its ill-mastered inclusiveness, as a happy-go-lucky, rich but approximate sort of guide. It is also funny in its way: to be told that 'Teufel' is a character in 'The Devil in the Belfry ' seems almost a joke. But it is very interesting too: to read, in the 'subjects ' index, the double entry 'Cities, as settings of tales and poems' and ' Cities Poe resides in' (sic) and find that the two lists have no cities in common confirms what we know of Poe's aesthetics. So The Poe Encyclopedia can be useful for the student—especially if he has no easy access to the most recent biographical studies and the standard bibliographies completed by the regular updates in Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism—but he must use the volume with circumspection, only to open doors, which after all is what a reference aid is for. It is a pity too many of them creak on their hinges.