Friday, August 15, 2008

Edgar Allan Poe - Why Include Him In A Christian Blog?

I do love old time radio shows. I general tune one in at night on the drive home.

Last week's show was a short story by Edgar Allan Poe called Never Bet The Devil Your Head. The radio play featured some grand old actors that included Howard McNear and Daws Butler.

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the names, but you would recognize their voices instantly. Daws Butler voiced many of the popular cartoon characters from the 1950's and 1960's such as Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Louie, Augie Doggie and Elroy Jetson to name a few.

Howard McNear was a fine stage actor with a deep voice. On radio he was the voice of Doc Adams in Gunsmoke. But his most famous character was the scatter-brained Floyd the Barber on the Andy Griffith Show.

The play was an adaption of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The author's stated theme was to prove that he could write a story that concluded with a moral.

In the actual story he goes on for two long paragraphs how certain authors have determined that stories need to provide an underlying moral lesson for the reader. He implies, tongue-in-cheek, if one is not there some scholar will find it. For example he states "Jacobus Hugo has satisfied himself that, by Euenis, Homer meant to insinuate John Calvin; by Antinous, Martin Luther; by the Lotophagi, Protestants in general; and, by the Harpies, the Dutch. Our more modern Scholiasts are equally acute. These fellows demonstrate a hidden meaning in "The Antediluvians," a parable in Powhatan," new views in "Cock Robin," and transcendentalism in "Hop O' My Thumb." In short, it has been shown that no man can sit down to write without a very profound design."

In this tale Poe becomes the narrator who tells the story of his friend, Toby Dammit, a man of many vices presumably due to physical abuse by his left-handed mother who flogged him with her left hand, which was considered to be improper. The narrator watched Toby grow from a baby to a man and continually tried to rehabilitate him to no avail.

Toby's worse vice was gambling which was impossible for a man with no known resources. So the only to wager he eventually came up with was "I'll bet the Devil my head." One can easily imagine the conclusion of the story.

The reason that include Poe's story in my blog is because it was actually a very clever attack on Transcendentalism, which was all the rage at the time among the elite writers of the day including Prominent transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Peabody and George Ripley.

Transcendentalism was a melting of religion, culture, philosophy and literature that emerged in New England and was nurtured at the Transcendental Club at Cambridge.

Among transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. They denied that evil existed. Their publication was called The Dial. The goals of the transcendentalists were varied; some among the group linked it with utopian social change, some with socialism and others linked it with science. Emerson became the father of New Thought and other went on to found Religious Science.

Poe thought this "New Age" movement thought to be lunacy and stated in the story that it was this disease that afflicted Toby Dammit. He calls Transcendentalists Frogpondians. The two lengthy opening paragraphs of the story are written from the perspective of an intellectual, full of great references, though I suspect some of them to be manufactured and are a poke in the eye at Transcendelists who deem themselves to be above the common man. At the story's end when Dammit is killed and the Devil does get his head, the narrator of the story sends off for help from the Homeopathics who, "did not give him little enough physic, and what little they did give him he hesitated to take. " Finally when the narrator sends the bill for his funeral expenses to the Transcendentalists, as he blames them for Dammit's morally defunct life. However they send the bill back to him. To settle the expense, Dammit is exhumed and sold for dog food. Which sounds horrid, but is the final jab as Poe equates that Transcendentalism has turned his character into dog food.

Poe's abbreviated life was tragic. For all I know he may have been an agnostic. It just strikes me as ironic that a man whom we equate with some of the most terrifying and macabre tales could see right through the charlatans and New Age hustlers of his day and call them out with such finese. One of these Transcendentalist, a writer named Thomas Holly Chivers received a letter from Poe wherein Poe states "he does not dislike Transcendentalists, only the pretenders and Sophists* among them."

*Sophists in ancient Greece were a class of itnerant intellectuals that skilled in philosophy and rhetoric. They would teach the craft in most cases for a price. Due to the emphasis in Greece for
litigiousness, the price could be a very high fee. They developed their rhetorical skill into a fine art to win arguments regardless of whether or not their point was valid. Their method made their point appear to be valid.

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