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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Pit and The Pendulum (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was the first American author to survive on his earnings as a writer.

The Pit and The Pendulum
by Edgar Allan Poe
Read on Ipad/Ebooks
Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume II
originally published in 1842

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

  It has become clear to me that I can't review another Edgar Allan Poe short story without additional discussion of the format of the short story, which I despise, just personally. (1)
  Really, the short story has to be viewed as a "modernization" of the Novel, in that it took advantage of technological and social changes in the Audience and modified the length and scope of the Art Form of the Novel to achieve a different effect.  But you can't begrudge the Artistic success of the short story as a form of literature, particularly in the 20th century.
        Certainly the 1001 Books list contains few Novellas and even fewer short stories.   So what makes Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum one of three short stories Poe gets onto the 1001 Books list in the 2006 edition?  I guess the fact that he is pretty much first, that he didn't write any "full-length" novels and that he is American.  I think his American citizenship plays a part in his enduring fame. Also, his Romantic biography helps.
  He kind of has the "rock star" quality where the biographical details outweigh the Artistic output.   You get the sense that he just didn't have the time and space to sit down and write a Novel- that's the impression you get from any introduction to a Poe short story.
  The Pit and the Pendulum is  both one of the first short stories and one of the best, according to the 1001 Books list.   I think most of this has to do with the early publication date- 1842. Considering that the short story "didn't bloom" in the U.K. until the 1890s- that would make Poe fifty years ahead of his time- the equivalent of a delta blues man to Mick Jagger, artistically speaking.
  I would say that this period- from 1840 to 1890- the short story suffered from the kind of lack of critical attention that other popular art forms have experienced- film, photography, pop music, comic books, etc.  It's an attitude that continues in the field of "genre fiction" until today.
    So yeah, The Pit and The Pendulum- the story of this guy- being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition- is rich and atmospheric and achieves in less then 50 pages what lesser Authors took 400 or 500 pages to accomplish.   Poe produced his short stories for a public, magazine reading audience, and his style reflects that audience.  He remains clear and readable to the present which is a testament to the enduring value of his prose style.
   But does Poe deserve three titles in the 2006 edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die?  I would say, no.


(1)  I just Googled "history of the short story" and chose an article by Willliam Boyd at site called, Prospect Magazine.  The article is called "A Short History of The Short Story,"  and all quoted paragraphs in this note come from this specific source.


      It has been argued that the honour(sic)(A) goes to Walter Scott’s story “The Two Drovers,” published in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827.  The only problem is that after Scott’s start, the short story in Britain hardly existed in the mid-19th century...Therefore, in many ways the true beginnings of the modern short story are to be found in America. One might posit the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in 1837 as a starting point. When Edgar Allan Poe read Hawthorne, he made the first real analysis of the difference between the short story and the novel, defining a short story quite simply as a narrative that “can be read at one sitting.”


  Fundamentally, up until the beginning of the 20th century, you have the two great traditions: the event-plot story and Chekhovian story. 
  (1) (2)  The event-plot story (the term is William Gerhardie’s) refers to the style of plotted story that flourished pre-Chekhov—before his example of the formless story became pre-eminent. Most short stories, even today, fall into one of these two categories. From them other types emerged over the coming decades. Perhaps the most dominant of these new forms is what I termed the modernist story, in which a deliberate, often baffling obscurity is made a virtue, however limpid the style in which it is written. 
  (3)    Next among the other varieties I classified was the cryptic/ludic story. In this form of story there is a meaning to be deciphered that lies beneath the apparently straightforward text. This is also known as “suppressed narrative” and is a more recent development—perhaps the first clear move away from the great Chekhovian model. Mid-20th century writers like Nabokov, Calvino and Borges are representative of this mode of writing.
 (4)     The next category, the poetic/mythic story, is a rarer beast. Dylan Thomas’s and DH Lawrence’s stories are typical and JG Ballard’s bleak voyages into inner space also conform to this set. 
  (5) The final category, and one that brings us up to the present day, is what I called the biographical story, a catch-all term to include stories that flirt with the factual or masquerade as non-fiction. Often the impedimenta of the non-fiction book is utilised(sic) (footnotes, authorial asides, illustrations, quotations, font changes, statistics, textual gimmickry). This is the most recent transmutation of the short story form and largely originated in America in the 1990s, where it has found particular favour(sic) with younger writers: Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, William T Vollman are notable exponents. 

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