"Review of Gabriella Vöő's Kortársunk, Mr. Poe. Felfedező utak az összegyűjtött elbeszélésekben" by Lívia Szélpál
Lívia Szélpál completed her MA in American Studies and History at the University of Szeged and earned a PhD at Central European University in Comparative History of Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe. Currently she is assistant lecturer at the Institute of English Studies, University of Pécs (PTE). Her research interests include the history (including the unconventional histories) of the USA, the issue of history on film, urban history, modern and contemporary American culture. Email:
Kortársunk, Mr. Poe. Felfedező utak az összegyűjtött elbeszélésekben
Budapest: Ráció Kiadó, 2016.
Edgar Allan Poe’s unfathomable life-story and oeuvre astonish and puzzle us persistently. Gabriella Vöő’s Kortársunk, Mr. Poe. Felfedező utak az összegyűjtött elbeszélésekben [Our Contemporary, Mr. Poe: Discoveries in the Collected Tales] invites us to take a fascinating literary expedition in Poe’s uncanny and mysterious world. Vöő is focusing on Poe’s short fiction as a kind of resonating box of antebellum US society, politics and culture. One of the pivotal merits of her book is the emphasis on the fact that Poe was not only frail artist and an unrecognized genius but one of the first writers to capture the modern experience, a professional journalist, an ardent critic and, what is more, a subversive thinker who undermined the national, political and cultural myths of his country. Kortársunk, Mr. Poe is an elegant and brilliantly structured collection of critical essays on Poe’s tales.
The introductory chapter of the volume, “Az újraolvasott Poe” [“The Rereading of Poe”] outlines the methodology of the study and provides a map for understanding the author’s peculiar journey into the world of the tales. The book contains critical analyses of Poe’s seventy tales arranged in the order of their publication from “Metzengerstein” (1832) to his last, unfinished piece “The Light-House” (1849). Our Contemporary, Mr. Poe bears the testimony of a broad-minded philologist’s work with more than seven hundred footnotes to the interpretive essays that provide a substantial and impressive theoretical and critical background to her study. Vöő’s pivotal argument is that Poe’s short-stories are deeply embedded in the sensationalist journalism and fiction of antebellum US, published in literary magazines and penny papers. Moreover, Poe’s stories are satirical writings and philosophical contemplations on occult matters, media hoaxes and scandals, technological innovations, reform movements, racial theories, the political and social impacts of the westward expansion, the alienation of the individual in the modern city and, above all, the intrigues of the contemporary literary scene.
Vöő points out that below the visible surface of the “Poe-hypertext” there are alternative—satirical or subversive—commentaries on antebellum America’s literary, social and political culture (13). The term “hypertext” is used with a reason since the study originates from a weekly published internet blog dedicated to Poe’s short stories. Vöő is taking her readers on a pedestrian journey, a kind of “Mr. Poe Guided Tour.” She deliberately avoids commitment to any particular school of interpretation (93): her admittedly personal way of reading of Poe lends authenticity and charm to her style. The strength of the volume lies in balancing critical insights with playful free associations through space and time. The essay on “Lionizing” enlightens readers about the transition from woolen hose to pantaloons in the US diplomatic corps, and we find out that the fastidious dandy Bon-Bon and French statesman François Mitterrand had the same culinary taste. The discussion of each tale is followed by a list of related short stories, providing the reader with signposts for alternative routes within Poe’s fictional universe. Vöő’s pleasant writing style is similar to what Žižek describes as symbolic identification (Vöő 138; Žižek 121): she is wittily japing and winking at the reader as she leaves some critical questions purposely open to further pondering.
As we learn from the introductory chapter, Poe’s short stories fall in thematic groups coined by the author himself. Such distinct categories are his “tales of ratiocination” [“okoskodó mesék,” see Bollobás 83] like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” or “The Oblong Box;” his confessional horror stories of the “grotesque and arabesque” [“groteszk és arabeszk írások,” see Bollobás 83] like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat” and “A Cask of Amontillado;” or bizarre “burlesques” like “The Angel of the Odd: An Extravaganza and Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” Some of the tales—for example, “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”—can be read, alternately, as satires and parodies of contemporary reform discourses, popular scientific or pseudo-scientific theories. Also, Poe caricatured sensational stories and media hoaxes in “How to Write a Blackwood Article?” or in “The Balloon-Hoax.” Vöő argues that since Poe worked as a professional journalist, his writings are the products of literature as a business enterprise (173). The strategies of contemporary popular sensationalism were part of his bag of tricks, but the discerning reader can recognize satirical and parodic elements in almost all of his tales. Also, as he paid by the number of words he produced, Poe freely borrowed excerpts from the writings of other authors in “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall” or in “The Journal of Julius Rodman.”
Surprisingly to us, Hungarian readers, references to our country can be found in “Metzengerstein” or “Von Jung, the Mystific.” However, the reason for this is not Poe’s specific interest in Hungary, but his intention to place the setting of these short stories into an exotic and grotesque country: coincidentally, ours. The image of the powerful and frightful women who die and resurrect is a recurring motif in “Berenice,” “Morella,” “Eleonora,” “Ligeia” or “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Vöő’s interpretation of such women figures is plausible. She argues that if we regard the narrator of Ligeia to be authorial — as Poe had encouraged one of his friends in a personal letter—, then the female character is nothing but the representation of an exalted mood, a state of mind experienced while the imagination is detached from reality and enters into the state of creativity (125). The book ends with the discussion of Poe’s unfinished tale “The Light-House.” Poe’s last piece of fiction is generally interpreted as the metaphor or emblem of his oeuvre because its narrator comes from an aristocratic family, writes books, and suffers from anxiety and visions. However, Vöő begs to differ. Her “Mr. Poe” resembles Henry Winstanley, the seventeenth-century English artist, engineer and uomo universale who built the first Eddystone lighthouse. Poe was also a polymath interested in the visual arts, science, and technological advancement, but first and foremost a playful mind and spirit whose creativity knew no boundaries.
Kortársunk, Mr. Poe strikes a delicate balance between professional and popularizing ways of writing. Poe is well-known in Hungary: the bulk of his work has been translated, and an almost comprehensive collection of his work was published by the Szukits publishing house in the three-volume Edgar Allan Poe Összes Művei [Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe]. In many cases Vöő is not satisfied with the accuracy of translations and provides her own rendering of the original text (18-19). Her interpretations of Poe’s tales are stimulating and intellectually challenging. Readers of her study will be impressed by the profound scholarship and intellectual sweep of the book. These essays provide a practical and helpful resource for teachers, students interested in Poe. They will also appeal to inquiring, adventurous readers who embark on their maiden voyage into Poe’s fictional world. Vöő’s book is definitely a bracing new and unconventional contribution to the field of Poe Studies in Hungary.
- Bollobás Enikő. Az amerikai irodalom rövid története. Budapest: Osiris Kiadó, 2015.
- Nemes, Ernő. ed. Edgar Allan Poe összes művei I-III. Szeged: Szukits, 2000, 2003.
- Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 2008