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The Danger of Sympathy: Edgar Allan Poe's ‘‘Hop-Frog'' and the Abolitionist Rhetoric of Pathos

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2001


For most of the twentieth century, the predominant view of Edgar Allan Poe held him to be a passionate aesthete with little interest in the political and social issues of his time. However, in recent years, there have been numerous scholarly efforts to place Poe back into his cultural milieu and to illustrate that rather than an apolitical romantic Poe was indeed a man very much engaged in the major debates of his day. Much of this attempt to historicize Poe has focused on the issue of slavery and has reconstructed Poe as a typical antebellum Southerner, possessing aristocratic pretensions, racist opinions, and an overwhelming – though perhaps subconscious – fear of slaves and their potential for uprising.For a sampling of recent studies that address Poe, the South, and slavery, see Richard Gray, ‘ “I am a Virginian’: Edgar Allan Poe and the South,” in Edgar Allan Poe: The Design of Order, ed. A. Robert Lee (London: Vision, 1987), 182–201; Louis Rubin, The Edge of the Swamp: A Study of Literature and Society of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989); John Carlos Rowe, “Poe, Antebellum Slavery, and Modern Criticism,” in Poe's Pym: Critical Explorations, ed. Richard Kopley (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), 117–41; Joan Dayan, “Romance and Race,” in The Columbia History of the American Novel, ed. Emory Elliott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 89–109; Dana Nelson, The Word in Black and White: Reading ‘Race’ in American Literature, 1638–1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); Scott Bradfield, Dreaming Revolution: Transgression in the Development of American Romance (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993) ; James Livingston, “Subjectivity and Slavery in Poe's Autobiography of Ambitious Love,” Psychohistory Review, 21 (1993): 175–96; Joan Dayan, “Amorous Bondage: Poe, Ladies, and Slaves,” American Literature, 66 (1994): 239–73; Sam Worley, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and the Ideology of Slavery,” ESQ, 40 (1994): 219–50; David Leverenz, “Poe and Gentry Virginia,” in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, eds. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 210–37; Teresa Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Nancy Harrowitz, “Criminality and Poe's Orangutan: The Question of Race in Detection,” in Agonistics: Arenas of Creative Conflict, eds. Janet Lungstrum and Elizabeth Sauer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 177–95; Jared Gardner, Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787–1845 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); and Lesley Ginsberg, “Slavery and the Gothic Horror of Poe's ‘The Black cat,’ ” in American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, eds. Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998), 99–128. Recently, Terence Whalen has challenged many of the assertions of these critics in Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum American (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). This body of work has convincingly illustrated the connections between Poe's often ignored views on slavery and fictional works such as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Black cat,” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” One of Poe's final stories, “Hop-Frog” (1849), a tale of an abused dwarf's violent revenge upon his cruel master, would certainly lend itself to an examination of the author's views on slavery but has never been fruitfully employed in this discussion apart from being briefly mentioned in larger discussions of Poe and slavery by Harry Levin, Louis Rubin, and, most recently, Joan Dayan, who has argued that “Hop-Frog,” Poe's “most horrible tale of retribution,” is his “envisioned revenge for the national sin of slavery.”Dayan, “Amorous Ladies,” 258. See also Dayan, “Romance and Race,” 103–04; Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville (New York: Knopf, 1957), 122; and Rubin, The Edge of the Swamp, 183–89.

Research Article
© 2001 Cambridge University Press

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