Ep. 101: Edgar Allan Poe on Mushrooms and Men

Edgar Allen Poe was no Locofoco sympathizer, but he did tell a tale about class struggle much different than the ones we have discussed before. 

00:00/
Previous Episode
Ep. 100: Quakertarianism, with Caleb Brown
Next Episode
Ep. 102: What it Takes to be a Bankster

Edgar Allen Poe was far from being defined as a Locofoco. He was no lover of democracy. He idolized the “devoted loyalty” of old Virginia gentry. As a dark romanticist poet, he believed the America’s Old World aristocracy was fighting the noble cause of attempted to preserve the elevated cultures of the past.

What did Edgar Allen Poe think of the class struggle? Did Edgar Allen Poe think that Americans were spoiled? How did Poe think America erected an aristocracy? Was Edgar Allen Poe a conservative?

Further Reading:

The Fall of the House of Usher (Story by Poe), written by David Rush

Edgar Allen Poe, Poetry Foundation

Who was Edgar Allen Poe?, The Poe Museum

Related Content:

Mushrooms & Men, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

An Introduction to Imaginative Literature, Part IV, written by Jeff Riggenbach

Libertarians, Class, and the Left, Anthony Comegna & Caleb O. Brown

Anthony Comegna: Edgar Allan Poe was anything but a Locofoco. He hated democracy, couldn’t stand its elevation of the average and the mundane as though they were things of beauty in themselves. He grew up the foster child of John and Frances Allan, educated for several years in an English boarding school while his family attended to trade. He learned a slew of Old World languages, absorbed its literature, imagery, and ideas, and then the clan returned to Richmond. He looked somewhat longingly at the tired old Virginia gentry, calling those who remained the “debris of a devoted loyalty,” and he exulted in that legacy. For a dark romanticist poet like him, America’s Old World aristocracy was fighting a lost but noble cause to preserve the high cultures of the past in the face of world-shaping transition. In one of his best known and most richly descriptive short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe depicts the decaying, crumbling, crashing fall of a once-stately elite, its own life force sponged up by democratic mushrooms—the inverse version of our class language from two weeks ago. So let’s get to it: one of my favorite descriptions of the grand American war between mushrooms and men.

Anthony Comegna: On May 5, 1840, in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay on “The Philosophy of Furniture.” The piece begins with an assertion we have often heard on the cultural history episodes of this show—We are familiar with the   generation of Young Americans who wanted to crate an American national culture distinct from its European antecedents. Poe quite agreed, and throughout his career he wrote about the need to stop slavishly imitating European art simply because it was European. He saw plenty of authentically American themes and images to work with, yet Americans often persisted in either their merely imitative and imported culture from Europe or they indulged their own preposterousness. Because Americans had no aristocracy of blood, Poe argued, they had erected an aristocracy of dollars and display. In England, gentlemen did not dispute one another lightly because the costs of besmirched honor ran so high in that society—and because (our author says) people naturally imitate the aristocracy, the whole country is inclined to work together more and share a common code of conduct which people scrupulously follow. Poe continued, “But, in America, dollars being the supreme insignia of aristocracy, their display may be said, in general terms, to be the sole means of aristocratic distinction; and the populace, looking up for models, are insensibly led to confound the two entirely separate ideas of magnificence and beauty. In short, the cost of an article of furniture has, at length, come to be, with us, nearly the sole test of its merit in a decorative point of view. And this test, once established, has led the way to many analogous errors, readily traceable to the one primitive folly.”

Anthony Comegna: Lets go to his evidence, then—he says Americans keep their houses perhaps a bit too neat, they organize their things in straight lines and design with right angles and few curves, “unduly precise,” in his wording. Almost no one chooses the right curtains for their house and they are usually far too extravagant for the rest of the room. As to carpets, “the soul of the apartment,” Poe notes that “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” Well, in America men not to be trusted with the management of their own mustachios wax on about the complexities of carpetry. A conservative like Poe believed that the base stupidity of the “rabble” spoiled good American taste before it could even start growing. He continues, “The abomination of flowers, or representations of well known objects of any kind should never be endured within the limits of Christendom.” “We are violently enamored by gas and glass,” he said, resulting in an embarrassingly high amount of glare in American homes. We would do silly things like buy lampshades of cut glass mainly because they cost more and so indicated our higher status over other members of the democracy. But really, what good is that?—all it does is create a bunch of glaring spots of light across one’s field of vision, a blinding glow rather than a soft and useful light. Poet hated all things that glitter: “in that one word how much of all that is detestable do we express!” He says glittering, flickering objects and lights may be pleasing to some (“children and idiots” especially), but they are more often “the quintessence of false taste.”

Anthony Comegna: Indeed, glitter was the scourge of American life, to hear Poe tell it. It’s very existence in American households was proof that we confused the gaudy, flashy, and shallow pleasures or pursuits in life while letting things of true and lasting value fall into rapid and abject disrepair. Like so many modern frat boys decorating their apartments with empty liquor bottles, American dotted their mantles, shelves, and walls with British-made plates or mirrors that caught the light with a dazzling (and all too desperate) sparkle. For our author, “It is an evil growing out of our republican institutions, that here a man of large purse has usually a very little soul which he keeps in it. The corruption of taste is a portion and a pendant of the dollar-manufacture. As we grow rich our ideas grow rusty.”

Anthony Comegna: So let’s finally get to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which appeared in the September 1839 edition of Burton’s, about eight months before Poe unveiled his full “Philosophy of Furniture.” Already in “Usher” we see these inclinations at work in some of the richest and densest descriptive writing around. I would say “Usher” is a veritable buffet of adjectives and analogies, but the comparison to that great democratic institution—the modern buffet—would no doubt offend Poe’s great sensitivities.

Speaker: During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was — but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me — upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain — upon the bleak walls — upon the vacant eye-like windows — upon a few rank sedges — and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees — with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium — the bitter lapse into everyday life — the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart — an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it — I paused to think — what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down — but with a shudder even more thrilling than before — upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows….

Anthony Comegna: Our narrator explains that he is visiting his old childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who had recently written of a crippling mental disorder characterized by great nervous agitation. Roderick requested his friend’s presence to ease his pains and the narrator obliged—though he’s careful to note that they did not know each other well and it had been some time since the relationship was well kept—much like the House of Usher itself. Our author informs us that the Usher family had accomplished great things, but not a one of its line enjoyed genetic success. The family was about to die out, Roderick and his late sister the only ones who were left. Thus, we have two houses of Usher falling to pieces in this story. Catching himself day-dreaming while staring down at the house, our author reflects on the atmosphere surrounding it: “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn — a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.” Let’s go back to our text…

Speaker: Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.

Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the house. A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master. Much that I encountered on the way contributed, I know not how, to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken. While the objects around me — while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy — while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this — I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up. On one of the staircases, I met the physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on. The valet now threw open a door and ushered me into the presence of his master.

Speaker: The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellised panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all….

Anthony Comegna: “Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior,”—“hanging in a fine tangle web-work from the eaves,” yet still Poe’s House of Usher stands, stately and proud. The mushrooms crowded thickly around the last of Virginia’s (and other states’) great, old aristocrats, but the disgusting, gaudy, glittery tastes of the mushroom democracy had not quite won out yet. Poe folks lingered on!, haunting the country like the “cadaverous” Roderick Usher, the man claiming to be stricken ill with “a constitutional and family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy.” The source of his temporary, maddening sickness—Like Poe in a glittery dance club, “He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses,” and the slightest clatter of sound, spark of light, or hard touch would arouse horrible pains and anguish. Roderick Usher lived in constant fear and adjusted his lifestyle to meet the musty, grim dullness of his decaying House. And this brings me back to the late sister I mentioned earlier. We find out that Madeline Usher’s illness “had long baffled the skill of her physicians,” until the patient and everyone else around her all settled into apathy. As it happened, she died the very day our narrator arrived for his visit, perhaps at the very moment he stood there gazing at the House earlier, admiring its collection of mushrooms. For days, then, the two men said very little and busied themselves about the house doing whatever it is aristocrats do—wasting time, mainly.

Anthony Comegna: But they do enjoy themselves and Poe gives us some poetry to break up the story a bit and do some foreshadowing, tone-setting, that sort of thing. At one point Usher remarks to his friend that he believes all things are sentient, alive, purposeful, decision-making agents—animals, vegetable, maybe even mineral life. As proof of this bizarre theory, he offered “the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn.” Gradually, a discernable atmosphere condensed around all of these things, bringing them into meaningful and powerful connections with one another until the whole was truly more than the sum of its parts—and the whole started to act as a thing of its own. And the results of this compound process: people like Usher had their destinies prepared for them long ago by their families, by their House, by their history, and now—by the democracy.

Anthony Comegna: The most disturbing part of the story comes when Usher requests that our narrator help him entomb the recently deceased Madeline, including a scene where they open up the coffin for a good looksy. After this, though, Usher goes off the deep end. He loses interest in all the leisurely stuff they normally enjoyed and falls deeper into paranoia and pain. Meanwhile, the narrator himself is annoyed with noises he hears throughout the night. Neither one is quite sure who’s going mad and what’s really happening, but both are increasingly on edge. Storms shake the house and winds whips through, “huge masses of agitated vapour” poured into the mansion, backlit by unnatural, sourceless light. The narrator corrals Usher into his room, determined to wait out the night together. As he reads, Usher falls asleep but our narrator is plagued by a series of escalating shrieking sounds that seem to keep pace with the story in his hands. As he fears for his own sanity, a loud and powerful sound cracked across his ears.

Speaker: Immediately, I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity. But, as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.

“Not hear it? — yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long — long — long — many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it — yet I dared not — oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am! — I dared not — I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them — many, many days ago — yet I dared not — I dared not speak! And now — to-night — Ethelred — ha! ha! — the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangour of the shield! — say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!” — here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul — “Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”

Speaker: As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell — the huge antique pannels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust — but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold — then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.

From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could wi have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind — the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight — my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”

Anthony Comegna: So there you have it—Roderick murdered his sister!, or, at least he prematurely buried her (one of Poe’s favorite devices to just toss into a story). And then, The Shining style, the house collapses in on itself, brother and sister together, and the whole edifice releases a long scream as though generations of trapped spirits were being poured out into the sky. There it went, back into the stuff of history, its destiny unhappily fulfilled.

Once again, if American history can be told as some sort of grand war between mushrooms and men, then according to Poe’s telling, the mushrooms have won—but he didn’t see things the same way his locofoco contemporaries did. For Poe, real men—real human beings—were still often boorish jackals, every bit as bad as the worst, most tyrannical aristocrats, and some of the average rabble were truthfully far worse. Turn the country over to the Democracy, and the national capitol would become a glitterly, gaudy thing, decorated with plenty of ostentatious baubles but without any soul or substance whatsoever. Mushrooms are as soulless as corporations, certainly, but we’re talking about a metaphor here (even our mushroom aristocrats were actually human beings—just not the common sort). Something Poe and other conservative minded contemporaries saw that their fellows often forget is that evil and darkness lurk in all our hearts, but only some of us choose to indulge it or unleash it on the world. The remnants of those Old World aristocracies might have been swiftly dying away in the Jacksonian era, but once all those Houses of Usher fell, where would their accumulated evils go?—where would those spirits be released into the atmosphere? What would happen to the mushrooms who had been making such great sport of climbing and eating the place? Now that they would have to make it on their own—no House of Usher to tear down anymore—would they even survive?