On Poe: The Best from American Literature

On Poe: The Best from American Literature

by Edwin H. Cady, Louis J. Budd

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From 1929 to the latest issue, American Literature has been the foremost journal expressing the findings of those who study our national literature. The journal has published the best work of literary historians, critics, and bibliographers, ranging from the founders of the discipline to the best current critics and researchers. The longevity of this excellence lends a special distinction to the articles in American Literature.
Presented in order of their first appearance, the articles in each volume constitute a revealing record of developing insights and important shifts of critical emphasis. Each article has opened a fresh line of inquiry, established a fresh perspective on a familiar topic, or settled a question that engaged the interest of experts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379911
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Series: The Best from American literature
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 448 KB

About the Author

Louis J. Budd in James B. Duke Professor, Emeritus, at Duke University.

Edwin H. Cady is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at Duke University. Both scholars have served as Managing Editor and Chair of the Board of Editors of American Literature.

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On Poe

The Best from American Literature

By Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7991-1


Poe and Phrenology

Edward Hungerford


The forehead is broad, with prominent organs of ideality." So, in 1846, wrote Edgar Allan Poe of William Cullen Bryant.

Eight and a half decades of changing scientific theory have all but obliterated the meaning which Poe and his readers attached to this statement. Only a few modern readers will understand that Poe is using the language of what was once a science. And those who have some rccccc phrenology, will recognize it only jocularly. Unconsciously, in the speech of today, such phrases as "my bump of direction," or "my bump of order," survive. But the word bumps is, for most of us, all that remains of the science of cranioscopy, or craniology, or, as it came to be known, phrenology.

There are, to be sure, many books—many, many books—which lie upon library shelves. And the phrenologist himself (or herself, rather more frequently) is not unknown in the twisted walks of life. But the student of the more humane letters does not, in these days, feel called upon to inform himself about the "organs of ideality." If he feels that he is shrewd in the science of mind he will perhaps engage in the psychoanalysis of his literary favorite, discovering, in the discreet jargon of a newer science, many an unutterable complex, fixation, and psychosis. Yet while he applies to some by-gone poet the terminology of a recent learning, many subtleties of interpretation wait upon his willingness to re-explore the half lost meanings of the old. So to "the organs of ideality," and phrenology, and Edgar Allan Poe.

In those American thirties and forties through which Poe brooded and dreamed a perilous artistry, the science of phrenology occupied a position not unlike that of the hazardous psychologies of today. In the wisdom of our enlightenment we know that phrenology was a half ridiculous pseudo-science, faulty in its assumptions, and disreputable in its associations with quackery. We may regard it as naïve of Poe that he should have studied Spurzheim, and Gall, and Combe. But we should not so misjudge Poe and his decades. The human spirit has often been dazzled by any so-called science which offers the master key to locked mysteries. And the American has been long prone to a get-rich-quick attitude toward learning or wealth. The same enthusiastic disposition which produced Jack-sonian democracy, produced also an energetic desire to read the riddles .of mental phenomena with a too hasty disregard for final facts and logic. And phrenology was once a serious science indeed, looking forward optimistically to practical and humanitarian utilities. Not unlike the psychology of today, it hoped to provide accurate vocational guidance for the young, to revolutionize our systems of education, to revise the care of the insane, to bring wisdom into the treatment of criminals, and, like our modern eugenics, to provide dependable information upon the advisability of marriages. From 1791, when, in Vienna, appeared Gall's first chapters of his Medico-philosophical Enquiries into Nature and Art in Health and Disease, until the latter fifties in America, phrenology had a not dishonorable career. When Spurzheim, Gall's first disciple, died in America in 1832, he and his master had acquainted the civilized world with its principles. The Austrian government had frowned upon Gall, and France had prohibited the lectures of the enthusiasts, but they had been received sympathetically in Holland, Germany, England, Scotland and America. Scotland had been especially hospitable. Edinburgh, through the efforts of George Combe, continued the teachings of the first investigators in a Phrenological Journal, founded in 1832; and societies, journals, and books followed this flourishing interest in England and America. That caustic traveler, Frances Trollope, had found phrenology penetrated so far west as Cincinnati—and this in 1828, when Caldwell lectured there, and those vulgar, unmannered Americans tried to found a society.

But who cares now about all that? The Cincinnati society, and Mrs. Trollope, and phrenology itself have withered with her sarcasm. Modernity has declared the assumptions of the science to be untenable. The neat little system wouldn't work. It had sounded very reasonable. As the brain grows, the cranium takes shape around it. Every area of the cranium is shaped as it is because of some peculiar growth in the brain itself. And, since within the brain there are special areas in which are confined some primary activity of mind, such as combativeness, or wonder, or cautiousness, it follows that the external surfaces represent the development within. There is likewise an external area called Combativeness, or Wonder, or Cautiousness. The size of the organ within the brain determines the degree of intensity with which the individual possesses the quality. And the bump is the index which can be read.

It was a neat system, and not a bad one, as systems go. One should be philosophical about such matters. It was not the first well-cargoed ship to go down. We moderns may recall how stupidly Plato thought about the intellectual functions. Think of his locating the imagination in one's liver! And Aristotle was not much better, relegating it to the heart. Truly did the Scriptures say of man that "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Surely the system was no worse than that of old Bartholomeus Anglicus, who found that "the brayne hath thre holow places, whiche physytiens calle Ventriculos, small wombes. In the foremeste celle and wombe imagination is conformed and made, in the midle, reason, in the hyndermeste, recordation and minde." And yet a not far different scheme was good enough for Pico, and for Vallesio, and Agrippa, and Fernelius, and Wierus, and Bacon, and Ficino, and Nymannus, and Fienus, and others and others. Spurzheim and Gall and Combe merely followed the leaders down the paths of oblivion. And who follow them ? James ? and Freud ? and Watson?

To the American who read Edgar Allan Poe's essay on Bryant, the observation about his "prominent organs of ideality" would have meant just about as much as calling a man an "introvert" would mean to us. Not that the two are similar. If one had consulted one's phrenological guide one would have discovered that the organs of Ideality are just such organs as a good poef ought to have, and to have in a well developed state. Gall had discovered the organ of Ideality, the outer index of which was the surface just at the upper; corner (if I may use the word) of the forehead. Gall had been inclined to call the organ that of poetry, but Spurzheim, noting that poetry is the result of various organs, and that this organ gives to poetry or prose "a certain quality of beauty, elegance, perfection, or sublimity," called it Ideality. Now we know the implication of Poe's comment. We may question his judgment, but we know his meaning. We shall understand what qualities Poe admired in Bryant's "Oh, Fairest of the Rural Maids" when he called it "richly ideal."


One may trace Poe's interest in the science of phrenology with considerable exactness. There is no definite indication of any concern with the subject before 1836. In the previous year had appeared an American edition of a work by Mrs. L. Miles which had been printed in a different form in London. The new edition was printed in Philadelphia by Carey, Lea and Blanchard under the title: Phrenology, and the Moral Influence of Phrenology: Arranged for General Study, and the Purposes of Education, from the First Published Works of Gall and Spurzheim, to The Latest Discoveries of the Present Period. Poe reviewed the book for The Southern Literary Messenger in March, 1836. His review is enthusiastic:

Phrenology is no longer to be laughed at. It is no longer laughed at by men of common understanding. It has assumed the majesty of a science, and, as a science ranks among the most important which can engage the attention of thinking beings—this too, whether we consider it merely as an object of speculative inquiry, or as involving consequences of the highest practical magnitude.

Some short comment on the history of the science follows, together with remarks upon its uses, and upon the particular merits of the book under review. As usual in his reviews, Poe's comments are specific. He appears to have read the book thoroughly. He refers to the London edition as if he were familiar with it; he speaks of "George Combe who wrote the 'Phrenology'"; and of the hostility of The Edinburgh Review. But this knowledge could be gleaned from Mrs. Miles's pages, and does not indicate that Poe had known phrenology before. The interest given him by the review of Mrs. Miles's treatise led to immediate results. The review was written in March. In the April number of The Southern Literary Messenger there is an extensive criticism of Drake and Halleck in which phrenological terms are used significantly. And in the following month, in the same magazine, he reviewed Walsh's Didactics, taking Walsh to task for an article hostile to phrenology. Poe regrets "to see the energies of a scholar and an editor (who should be, if he be not, a man of metaphysical science) so wickedly employed as in any attempt to throw ridicule upon a question (however much maligned, or however apparently ridiculous), whose merits he has never examined, and of whose very nature, history, and assumptions, he is most evidently ignorant." After 1836, Poe's references to phrenology are numerous. Presumably, then, Mrs. Miles's book first attracted his interest in the subject. It is likely that once his interest was aroused he increased his knowledge, reading some of the scores of books and articles being written in America as well as in Europe. By 1836 George Combe's Elements of Phrenology and his System of Phrenology had both passed through four editions, and his Outlines through six. By 1838 Poe seems to have become acquainted with Combe's Lectures on Phrenology. In 1839, when Poe was living in Philadelphia, Combe delivered a series of lectures in the Museum, which Poe may have attended.

The review of Mrs. Miles's book was written in March, 1836. In April, we find Poe writing about Drake and Halleck. He has been discussing the necessity of arriving at a definite opinion about the nature of poetry. Admitting the difficulty of defining poetry, the term, he believes that "we apprehend no difficulty in so describing Poesy, the Sentiment, as to imbue even the most obtuse intellect with a comprehension of it sufficiently distinct for all the purposes of practical analysis." Poe proceeds to declare that we have "certain faculties, implanted within us." We have, for example, "a disposition to look with reverence upon superiority, whether real or suppositious." This faculty is a primitive sentiment. "Phrenologists call it Veneration."

Mrs. Miles has discussed Veneration. With the phrenology hint in our minds, the subsequent discussion is illuminating:

Very nearly akin to this feeling, and liable to the same analysis, is the Faculty of Ideality—which is the sentiment of Poesy. This sentiment is the sense of the beautiful, of the sublime, and of the mystical.

And now Poe begins to build up his theory of poetry, employing for literary criticism the terminology of his newly discovered science. Poetry, we find, is "the practical result expressed in language, of this Poetic Sentiment in certain individuals ..." We must test poetry by its capabilities of exciting the poetic sentiments in others. Poe's philosophizing is peppered and salted with the new terms: "We do not hesitate to say that a man highly endowed with the powers of Causality [Mrs. Miles had a section on Causality]—that is to say, a man of metaphysical acumen—will, even with a sufficient share of Ideality [Mrs. Miles again], compose a finer poem (if we test it, as we should, by its measure of exciting the Poetic Sentiment) than one who, without such metaphysical acumen, shall be gifted, in the most extraordinary degree, with the faculty of Ideality." And so on. We discover, for instance, that Coleridge's head "gave no great phrenological tokens of Ideality, while the organs of Causality and Comparison were most singularly developed."

In the discussion of Drake which follows, the transference of phrenological terms into criticism is continued. The critics of Drake's "The Culprit Fay" are at fault, Poe thinks, from this "indistinct conception of the results in which Ideality is rendered manifest." The root of the trouble is that Drake exercises the faculty of Comparison, but he lacks Ideality. Poe applies his principle intelligently; doubtless he was right in saying that neither "The Culprit Fay" nor Halleck's "Marco Bozzaris" had the highest requirements of Ideality. Drake had, these many years, carried Benevolence, Comparison, and Causality into the dust to which all Benevolence, Comparison, and Causality return. But poor Halleck, living down in Guilford, Connecticut, something of a town drunk, may well have gazed in his mirror wistfully, longing for bigger bumps of Ideality.

Halleck was not the only poet whom Poe's critical comments must have sent to the mirror. Though Poe was never in high serious mood when he penned his confessedly journalistic project, The Literati, the sketches were clever enough to be considered. N. P. Willis, that most elegant of the New Yorkers, must have puckered his brows to learn that his forehead "would puzzle phrenology." Evert A. Duyckinck, editor of The Library of Choice Reading, was doubtless pleased to learn that his "forehead, phrenologically, is a good one." We learn of George Bush, learned professor of Hebrew at New York University, that "His countenance expresses rather benevolence and profound earnestness, than high intelligence. The eyes are piercing; the other features in general, massive. The forehead, phrenologically, indicates causality and comparison, with deficient ideality—the organization which induces strict logicality from insufficient premises." Poe is disturbed by Charles Fenno Hoffman. His A Winter in the West "conveys the natural enthusim of a true idealist, in the proper phrenological sense, of one sensitively alive to beauty in every development." But Poe observes with surprise that the forehead, "although high, gives no indication of that ideality (or love of the beautiful) which is the distinguishing trait of his moral nature." Perhaps, in the long testing of time, phrenology was right about Hoffman.

Other instances of the use of phrenological terms in Poe's criticism need hardly be enumerated. It is clear that his interest in phrenology intrudes itself with some frequency into his analysis of men of letters. In this he merely follows his teachers. Throughout the treatises of George Combe and others, a great deal of attention is paid to the phrenological developments of poets. Byron is a favorite, and Burns, and Pope, and Racine, and Tasso. As with modern psychology, the science overflowed into literary criticism. In December, 1838, one L. N. F. contributed to The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany an article entitled "Application of Phrenology to Criticism," and in April of the following year appeared A. Wren's essay, "Application of Phrenology to the Analysis of the Character of Shakespeare's Iago." If Poe erred in introducing his pet interest into the field of literary criticism, the whirligig of time has brought in a just revenge upon him. He phrenol-ogized his contemporaries. Modern critics have not yet tired of psychoanalyzing him.


Although Poe's use of phrenology in the analysis of character comes to him legitimately and naturally from the interest similarly felt by other men of his time, there is in this interest something deeply indicative of Poe's personal taste. He was always eager to arrive at exact analyses of qualities of mind. It is characteristic of him that he employed other pseudo-scientific devices for reading the disposition. He made much of his ability to read character through handwriting. One catches occasional hints of similar pursuits. In his sketch of Freeman Hunt in The Literati we find a provoking description of the chin as "massive and projecting, indicative (according to Lavater and general experience) of that energy which is, in fact, the chief point of his character." The name Lavater, which slips so glibly from Poe's tongue, gives us a revealing glimpse of our poet's intellectual processes. Johann Casper Lavater was the author of another character-reading system. Noses, eyes, chins, and ears, were Lavater's indices. His elaborate Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beforderung der Menschenkenntnitz und Menschenliebe had been published at Leipzig in 1775. Poe used Lavater as he used phrenology. He surely made less use of his science of physiognomy, but the parallelism is significant. Was he less impressed by Lavater? Is that "Science of Noses" of which he makes such fun in "Lionizing" a slur at the art? Robert's "Nosology" made him great fame:

When I came of age my father asked me, one day, if I would step with him into his study.

"My son," said he, when we were seated, "what is the chief end of your existence?"

"My father," I answered, "it is the study of Nosology."

"And what, Robert," he inquired, "is Nosology?"

"Sir," I said, "it is the Science of Noses."

"And can you tell me," he demanded, "what is the meaning of a nose?"


Excerpted from On Poe by Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Series Introduction vii

Poe and Phrenology (1930) / Edward Hungerford 1

Poe as Social Critic (1934) / Ernest Marchand 24

Edgar Allen Poe, Cryptographer (1936) / William F. Fiedman 40

Edgar Allen Poe: A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism (1937) / Yvor Winters 55

Poe and the Chess Automaton (1939) / W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. 78

The Refrain in Poe's Poetry (1953) / Anthony Caputi 92

Poe and His Nemesis--Lewis Gaylord Clark (1956) / Sidney P. Moss 102

Poe as Literary Theorist: A Reappraisal (1961) / Emerson R. Marks 122

The Comic in Poe's Fiction (1962) / Stephen L. Mooney 133

Poe's "Metzengerstein": Not a Hoax (1971) / Benjamin F. Fisher 142

Poe's Sense of an Ending (1973) / Paul John Eakin 150

The Limits of Reason: Poe's Deluded Detectives (1975) / J. Gerald Kennedy 172

Usher's Hypochondriasis: Mental Alienation and Romantic Idealism in Poe's Gothic Tales (1976) / David W. Butler 185

Poe and the Theme of Forbidden Knowledge (1978) / Jules Zanger 197

"The language of the cipher": Interpretation in "The Gold-Bug" (1982) / Michael Williams 208

The Psychology of "The Murders in the Rue Morge" (1982) / J. A. Leo Lemay 223

Poe's Re-Vision: The Recovery of the Second Story (1987) / Cynthia S. Jordan 247

Index 267

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