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Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the best-known American Romantic who worked in the Gothic mode. His stories explore the darker side of the Romantic imagination, dealing with the grotesque, the supernatural, and the horrifying. He defined the form of the American short story.
As one might expect, Poe himself eschewed conventional morality, which he believed stems from man's attempts to dictate the purposes of God. Poe saw God more as process than purpose. He believed that moralists derive their beliefs, and thus, the resultant behavioral patterns, from a priori knowledge. In Eureka, we find that Poe shunned such artifices of mind, systems which, he professed, have no basis in reality. Yet Poe employed in his writing the diction of the moral tome, which causes confusion for readers immersed in this tradition. Daniel Hoffman reiterates Allan Tate's position that, aside from his atavistic employment of moral terminology, Poe writes as though "Christianity had never been invented." (Hoffman 171)
Poe did offer to posterity one tale with a moral. Written in 1841 at the dawn of Poe's most creative period, Poe delivers to his readers a satirical spoof, a literary Bronx cheer to writers of moralistic fiction, and to critics who expressed disapprobation at finding no discernible moral in his works. The tale "Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral" presents Poe's "way of staying execution" (Poe 487) for his transgressions against the didactics. The story's main character is Toby Dammit, who from infanthood, had been flogged left-handed, which since the world revolves right to left, causes evil propensities to be driven home rather than driven out. The narrator relates that by the age of seven months, Toby was chasing down and kissing the female babies, that by eight months he had flatly refused to sign the Temperance Pledge, and that by the end of his first year, he'd taken to "wearing moustaches, but had contracted a propensity for cursing and swearing, and for backing his assertions with bets." (Poe 488)
As Toby reaches manhood, the narrator finally accepts that his young friend is incorrigible. By this time, Toby utters scarcely a sentence without oaths, his favorite of which is to bet the devil his head that he can accomplish whatever challenge lies before him.
One day as the narrator accompanies Toby Dammit on a route which requires the crossing of a covered bridge, Toby bets the devil his head that he can leap over a bridge stile, pigeon winging as he performs the feat. Unexpectedly a "little lame old gentleman of venerable aspect" (Poe 491) interrupts with an emphatic "ahem" to take Toby up on his bet. The elderly gentleman wears a "a full suit of black, but his shirt was perfectly clean and the collar turned very neatly down over a white cravat." Oddly, his eyes are "carefully rolled up into the top of his head," and he wears a black silk apron. (491)
After he takes charge of Toby, allowing him a running start, the elderly interloper takes his position just behind the stile. The narrator awaits the gentleman's "One--two--three--and--away," when Toby initiates his running leap. To all appearances, the young reprobate is destined to clear the stile easily, pigeon-winging as he flies, when abruptly his progress is arrested, and the luckless Toby falls flat on his back on his side of the stile. The elderly gentleman is indistinctly seen wrapping a bulky object in his apron, and taking his leave of them. When the narrator throws open an adjacent window, he sees that Toby has been deprived of his head by a sharp, heretofore unnoticed cross-support located directly above the stile. Stated so that the targets of Poe's ridicule cannot miss it, the moral of his tale is the title of the story. Yet the moral of the tale is not its theme. Poe purposes ridicule of those who presume to judge him, and of their small-mindedness. This ridicule is his theme.
His rendering of this riotous spoof illustrates that Poe believed he had more important things to do than pass moral judgment in his tales. Poe instead opted to depict what occurred to him as the natural order of man's behavior, rather than to engage in baseless speculation concerning what God intended for the individual. Appropriately, Poe asks, "if we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how
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