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"Twice-Told Traumas: Whatever Happened to Mary Rogers or Poe's Revenge on Life"

Submission: 15/01/2011- Acceptance: 07/03//2011 ES 32 (2011): 203-224
Marta Miquel-Baldellou
Universidad de Lleida
In 2006, the American scholar
and writer Daniel Stashower
published The Beautiful Cigar Girl:
Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and
the Invention of Murder. In this
postmodern work, which can be
described as a mixture of historical
and detective narration, Stashower
intercalates the investigation of Mary
Rogers’ murder and Edgar Allan
Poe’s simultaneous fictionalisation of
the actual events in his tale “The
Mystery of Marie Rogêt”. Even if Poe
boasted he had managed to solve the
case, updated information published
in the press of the time menaced to
defeat him as a master of detection,
since Dupin’s thesis seemed to be
wrong in the light of new discoveries.
Poe thus faced a traumatic situation
that may have cost him his reputation
as a renowned tale-teller. Nonetheless,
he managed to escape fatalism
through rewriting some sections of the
tale. This article aims at taking
Stashower’s postmodern account as a
point of departure to reinterpret Poe’s
tale “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” as
a textual source for trauma and for
En el año 2006, el académico y
escritor norteamericano Daniel
Stashower publicó Edgar Allan Poe y el
misterio de la bella cigarrera: la
investigación de la atroz muerte de Mary
Rogers. En esta obra postmoderna, que
puede ser descrita como mezcla de
narración histórica y relato detectivesco,
Stashower intercala la investigación del
asesinato de Mary Rogers con la
ficcionalización simultánea de los
hechos que Edgar Allan Poe realizó en
su relato “El misterio de Marie Rogêt.”
Pese a alardear de haber resuelto el caso,
las últimas noticias acerca del caso
divulgadas en la prensa de la época
amenazaban con derrotar a Poe como
maestro de la detección, puesto que la
tesis de Dupin parecía errónea a la luz de
los nuevos descubrimientos sobre el
caso. Poe encaró así una traumática
situación que pudo haberle costado su
reputación como reconocido escritor de
cuentos. Este artículo pretende tomar el
relato postmoderno que ofrece
Stashower como punto de partida para
reinterpretar el cuento de Poe “El
misterio de Marie Rogêt” como origen
textual de su trauma así como de la
ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa 32 (2011): 203-224
restoration of his creative distress as a
writer, thus unravelling the traumatic
discourse hidden in Poe’s tale through
a postmodern perspective.
Key Words: traumatic discourse;
creativity; detection; textual therapy;
curación de su malestar creativo como
escritor, desvelando así el discurso
traumático escondido en este cuento de
Poe a través de una perspectiva
Palabras clave: discurso
traumático; creatividad; detección;
terapia textual; postmodernismo.
In his recently-published volume entitled The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary
Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder, Daniel Stashower ties
together a thoroughly researched recreation of a factual nineteenth-century
crime, as well as a detailed portrait of an episode in Edgar Allan Poe’s life that
gave rise to the second tale comprising his detective trilogy, “The Mystery of
Marie Rogêt”, published in 1842. Gathering extensive data from the periodicals
of the time about Mary Rogers’ death, together with Poe’s biographical writings
and personal letters, Stashower’s volume may be read as a both comprehensive
nineteenth-century documentary of crime in New York, as well as a detective
narrative which not only recreates the atmosphere of the period and reinterprets
the dreadful events that took place at the time but, as a postmodern work, it also
sheds light on the creative process of writing and rewriting, thus subverting the
slight boundary separating fact from fiction.
According to Fredric Jameson (1991), postmodernity turns the historical
past into a series of stylisations he aptly terms ‘pastiche’ which are mostly
aimed at commodification and consumption, ultimately describing
postmodernism as the consumption of sheer commodification. In this respect,
drawing on Jameson, postmodern texts underscore desperate attempts at
recuperating and making sense to ultimately discover that there is no possible
way outside ideology and textuality, thus realising there is no possible claim to
‘truth’ outside culture. Jameson also draws attention to our loss of historicity,
which inevitably propels a breakdown of the signifying chain and a loss of
subjectivity, limiting our experience to pure material signifiers and a series of
unrelated presents in time. Hence, the past merely becomes a referent which
leaves us nothing but texts giving way to an infinite regress into textuality and
the omnipresence of the formation processes. Likewise, Ihab Hassan (2001)
associates postmodernism with terms such as textualism, relativism, scepticism
and indeterminacy, ultimately concluding that postmodernism can be defined as
a continuous inquiry into self-definition as it assumes epistemic self-reflexivity,
a polychronic sense of time, and eventually, a crisis of cultural and personal
ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa 32 (2011): 203-224
identities. In this respect, both Poe’s and Stashower’s texts refer back to other
texts, thus revealing the impossibility to escape from recurrent textualities as
well as the collapse of meaning outside the text.
More recently, according to Mary Klages, postmodernism has been
characterised by subjectivity in writing and perception; a movement away from
apparent objectivity, a multi-layered narrated form, a blurring of distinctions
between genres, as well as an emphasis on spontaneity and discovery in creation
(2006:165). Postmodern narratives thus evoke fragmentation and discontinuity,
ambiguity and an emphasis on the decentered subject, using forms such as
pastiche. Likewise, Steven Connor (1997) also refers to the nature of
postmodernism as particularly concerned about self-consciousness, celebrating
fragmentation, provisionality and even incoherence, thus focusing on
metanarratives and the discursive function. In this respect, Patricia Waugh
defines metafiction as a mode of writing within a broader cultural movement
often referred to as postmodernism (2001:21), claiming that nearly all
contemporary experimental writing displays some sort of explicitly
metafictional strategies drawing the reader’s attention to its process of
Taking these textual features into consideration, Stashower’s contemporary
re-telling of Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, along with the factual
evidence gathered from nineteenth-century newspapers, arises as a paradigm of
postmodernism. The intercalation and subsequent problematisation of fact and
fiction -of Poe’s biographical details, Poe’s fictionalisation of Mary Rogers’
case, and the careful depiction of her murder in journals– constructs a pastiche
that refers back to its form, leading critics to hesitate whether to consider
Stashower’s work as historical fiction, literary biography, or history of crime in
nineteenth-century America. Stashower’s intention to intertwine different levels
of reality and fictionalisation through extracts from periodicals, letters,
fragments from Poe’s story, and his own personal interpretation as a twenty-
first century scholar and writer, ultimately serves the purpose of coming to
terms with different instances of trauma at a personal and, especially, at a
creative level. In this respect, The Beautiful Cigar Girl carefully examines the
way Edgar Allan Poe’s interest was raised by the death of the beautiful young
American girl Mary Cecilia Rogers, and how he decided to unravel this real
mystery and turn it into one of his most well-known detective tales, thus
outlining striking parallelisms established between both tragic figures, Mary
Rogers and Poe himself. Furthermore, Poe’s second detective tale would prove
especially traumatic for him as a story-teller as it compelled him to face the
threat of public exposure. Having advertised his tale as an ingenious piece
which sorted out the puzzle of Mary Rogers’ death, Poe had to witness how the
explanation to the real case of Mary Rogers not only came earlier in the
ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa 32 (2011): 203-224
periodicals of the time than in his own tale, but also how the solution of the
puzzle that Poe pointed out in the manuscript he was shortly to publish
ostensibly differed from the updated accounts given in newspapers. If Poe felt
compelled to retell his tale twice so as to suit reality, Stashower also
incorporates a dual perspective through his creative mixture of Mary Rogers’
crime together with Poe’s fictionalisation.
Having been compared with works such as Caleb Carr’s The Alienist
(1994) and Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003), in Stashower’s
postmodern recreation of the murder of Mary Rogers and the strenuous attempts
at its resolution, a nineteenth-century trauma is brought back to life to
ultimately discover and explore Poe’s own traumatic experience as both a tale-
teller and a master of ratiocination. This article thus aims at interpreting
Stashower’s documentary narrative as a point of departure to explore writing as
both a source and a cure for trauma through the construction and deconstruction
of one tragic episode in Poe’s life, that is, Poe’s personal trauma at facing the
threat of being defeated as a master of detection. Subsequently, this article will
also explore trauma from different perspectives, such as the changing attitudes
towards Mary Rogers as an epitome of the American heroine, the concern about
the vulnerability or strength of the law enforcement at the time, and above all,
the changing attitudes towards the reception and ultimate meaning of Poe’s
second detective tale, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.”
Even though nowadays Mary Cecilia Rogers is known as the beautiful
young girl who inspired one of Poe’s most popular tales of detection, her death
in 1841 instantly became a national sensation in the United States. Mary Rogers
was born in 1820 in Connecticut, and when her father died in a steamboat
explosion, Mary and her mother Phoebe moved to New York City, where they
managed a guesthouse. Mary soon took a job as a clerk in the tobacco shop that
John Anderson owned, and she was paid a generous salary as Anderson
believed her good looks would attract many customers to the store. Actually,
notable literary figures such as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving
became habitual customers, as Mary’s youth and beauty soon turned her into a
focus of attraction, becoming one of the most well-known women of the time in
New York.
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In October 1838, Mary suddenly disappeared from both her home and
Anderson’s store, causing a great stir as the periodicals of the time widely
reported. Despite the fact her mother claimed she had found a suicide note her
daughter wrote and the local coroner asserted the girl had the determination to
commit suicide, it was soon reported that Mary Rogers’ disappearance was
merely a hoax as she had only gone to Brooklyn to visit a friend. Even though
Mary did not go back to work immediately, she eventually resumed her post at
the tobacco shop, thus leading some periodicals to boast the whole event had
been devised by John Anderson as a publicity machination so as to attract more
Nonetheless, only three years later, Mary Rogers went missing again and
this time she would never return to the store. On July 25, 1841, Mary Rogers
left home, told her fiancé Daniel Payne she would visit her aunt, and asked him
to come and fetch her in the evening. As a result of the terrible storm that
unleashed that night, Payne believed Mary would remain at her aunt’s house
until the following morning and finally decided not to meet her as they had
arranged. Even though many believed she would return soon as had happened
some years before, her body was eventually found floating in the Hudson River
three days later. Due to the terrible violence inflicted on her body, it was soon
estimated she had been sexually abused and killed, becoming a victim of the
violent gangs that began to populate the city of New York at the time. The
details surrounding the case were soon published in the periodicals of the time,
and as a result of her youth, beauty and popularity, her death was
sensationalised in the periodicals, receiving national attention, and becoming an
icon that was soon to be known as the ‘Beautiful Cigar Girl.’ Nonetheless, in
the following year, while the inquest was ongoing, Mary Rogers’ fiancé, Daniel
Payne, was found dead in the spot where Mary had presumably been murdered,
and beside his body, a remorseful note and an empty bottle of laudanum were
found, thus proving Payne had committed suicide.
In clear analogy with Jack the Ripper’s case in Victorian England, Mary
Rogers’ murder also gained special significance, soon turning into a symbol of
the loss of innocence and the surrounding circumstances characterising the
American society at the time. Mary Rogers’ case also brought to the floor the
ineptitude of the city’s system of law enforcement. Despite the recent massive
increase of the population in New York, the citizens still had to rely on an
archaic force of watchmen that only seemed committed if a really notorious
reward was at stake. As happened with Jack the Ripper in Victorian England,
Mary Rogers’ murder acquired notorious relevance as evidence of the citizens’
manifest vulnerability in an increasingly corrupted city, where the police
enforcement seemed powerless and at the mercy of gang violence. Resembling
the crimes committed in the Whitechapel districts of Victorian England, Mary
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Rogers’ case also raised extensive newspaper coverage, and attracted much
attention due to the youth and beauty of the victim as well as the unusual
violence inflicted on her body. Resembling Jack the Ripper’s victims, Mary also
presented abdominal mutilations and wounds around her neck that seemed to
prove she had been raped and strangled.
However, there was a slight but an important difference that separated both
cases across the Atlantic. If Jack the Ripper often attacked prostitutes in
Whitechapel, and therefore, embodiments of the so-called Victorian fallen
woman, thus becoming a reactionary epitome against the moral corruption that
characterised the East End of London, Mary Rogers was conversely heralded as
a martyr and an innocent victim of the sinful citizens that began to populate the
American metropolis. Mary thus became a symbol for the loss of innocence in
nineteenth-century America and a popular folklore myth; an American
counterpart to the Irish Molly Malone. Despite being constantly exposed to the
public gaze at the Anderson’s tobacco shop, Mary Rogers came from an
honourable and even Puritan family, originally related to the notorious Cotton
Mather, and regardless of her job as a clerk and her apparently coquettish
manner with customers, both her acquaintances and most periodicals after her
decease exalted her virtuosity and piety, debunking the watchmen’s ineptitude
at identifying her murderer and thus avenging her death.
Daniel Stashower’s fictionalised study, as well as narrative based on actual
facts, minutely details Mary Rogers’ mysterious murder as well as Poe’s
increasing interest in the case. In this respect, Stashower echoes Poe’s actual
actions in the past, fictionalising them as well as reifying the fictional events
Poe included in the tale, which in turn were also gathered from different actual
sources. In this sense, Stashower’s work becomes a contemporary contribution
underscoring manifold layers of textuality, only becoming meaningful in
relation to the symbolic order from which it originates.
At the time Mary Rogers’ death was extensively reported in journals,
Edgar Allan Poe had become especially concerned about the powers of
ratiocination, the analytical method of detection, as well as the slight boundary
separating fact from fiction. Being well acquainted with the art of fiction, Poe
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was nevertheless familiar with journalism, since he had already had been hired
as editor in several journals. Thus, it is no wonder he felt interested in
fictionalising real events, and conversely, writing hoaxes that he would
advertise as actual truths. After all, as Garner asserts (143:1990), Poe’s own tale
about Mary Rogers could be regarded as an example of ill-disguised journalism.
Struggling harshly against economic constraints, Poe moved to New York
in 1837, together with his wife Virginia and his aunt Maria Clemm, to work on
new tales, find a new job in one of the periodicals of the city, and raise enough
money to fund his own journal, The Stylus. During this period, Poe had become
specially concerned about the slight boundary separating fact from fiction, as
his tales and articles show. Some years before, Poe had published an essay
entitled “Maelzel’s Chess Player” (1836), in which a narrator accurately
explained the mechanisms by means of which an automaton had acquired the
skill to play chess proficiently, which was ultimately found out to be a hoax.
Likewise, when he was living in New York, Poe had also finished the only
novel he would ever publish, The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838),
with the exception of the six instalments of his unfinished novel The Journal of
Julius Rodman, which were published in different issues of Burton’s
Gentleman’s Magazine in 1840. The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym
included a significant prologue through which Poe presented himself as a mere
editor of the actual account provided by Arthur Gordon Pym, who led an
expedition across the ocean. At this stage, Poe had also acquired scientific
reasoning through the edition of The Conchologist’s First Book (1839), and in
his tale “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), he had also begun to create the
fundaments of the detective tale. Moreover, as editor of journals such as
Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine or Graham’s Magazine, Poe repeatedly
encouraged his readers to send him puzzles, enigmas and cryptograms so that he
could solve them. Taking into consideration these precedents, Poe further
explored the mixture of artistic temperament and scientific reasoning in his first
detective tale, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), thus consolidating the
analytical method and the powers of detection he had been introducing in
previous tales.
It was precisely soon after Poe had published his first detective tale that
Mary Rogers’ body was found in the Hudson River. Poe may have felt
immediately attracted towards the case. Having presented Dupin’s abilities of
deduction and the way his method could be applied to sort out any kind of
puzzle, Poe took advantage of the popularity the death of Mary Rogers had
acquired to try to solve that real-life mystery using Dupin’s methodology. Poe
had been in charge of unravelling the enigmas his readership sent and had thus
showed evidence of his skills at detection. Despite his obvious ingenuity, Poe
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always felt underestimated, compelled to accept minor and underpaid jobs to
earn a living, and thus may have felt it was high time to make amends.
Having published several tales presented as actual facts, as he would do
later again with “The Balloon-Hoax” (1844), in his tale “The Mystery of Marie
Rogêt” (1842-3) Poe for the first time fictionalised a contemporary real
incident. Setting the action in Paris again, as a continuation of his first detective
tale, and changing the names of the actual characters to suit the Parisian setting,
Poe faithfully followed Mary Rogers’ case through journals, boasting he had
managed to solve the mystery by the mere careful analysis of the reports
published in the periodicals of the time. Poe thus attempted to gain popularity
and reputation, taking advantage of the extensive coverage Mary Rogers’ case
had attracted. Nonetheless, there seemed to be more than met the eye, as Poe’s
concern about solving Mary Rogers’ murder soon appeared to acquire personal
Years later in “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Poe would claim
that the death of a beautiful girl was the most poetic topic, and thus Mary’s
untimely death, at scarcely twenty-one years of age, must have attracted his
attention. Moreover, as Stashower estimates, Poe may have even been
personally acquainted with Mary Rogers as many literary figures often
approached Anderson’s shop to buy tobacco from the lovely cigar girl.
Nonetheless, even if Poe had never met Mary personally, he may have
identified several features which struck him as particularly familiar, especially
with regard to his wife. In the same year Poe published “The Mystery of Marie
Rogêt”, his wife Virginia broke a blood vessel while she was playing the piano.
Since then, Virginia’s health seriously declined, leading Poe to fear the
inevitable outcome arising from this terrible incident. Poe may have noticed the
haunting nature of his writings, and how fiction and real life often presented a
blurring boundary that separated both domains. He may have thought that, if he
managed to solve Mary’s puzzle in fiction, Virginia’s condition may also find a
cure in real life, thus exchanging fact for fiction, and vice versa. After all,
Mary’s youth and beauty, as well as her fragility and innocence, may have
easily reminded Poe of his own wife.
Moreover, Mary’s biographical details also bore striking similarities with
those of Poe. Both of them had travelled to New York in search of a better job
to make a living. In the great American metropolis, Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm,
decided to set up a guesthouse to earn some money. Likewise, Phoebe Rogers,
Mary’s mother, also managed a pension in the same city. With regard to their
respective backgrounds, Poe was the natural son of travelling actors, but when
his father David abandoned his family and his mother Elizabeth died from
consumption, Poe was soon adopted by John and Frances Allan; the former
being a prosperous tobacco merchant that provided young Poe with the
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education and wealth which otherwise he would have never known, even
though his spoiled youth soon came to an end when he was disinherited on
turning twenty years of age. Similarly, Mary was raised in a fairly wealthy
household, but was forced to take a job as a clerk in John Anderson’s tobacco
shop when her father died in a steamboat explosion. Consequently, at some
point in their lives, both Poe and Mary got acquainted with the lifestyle
pertaining to affluent households, but as a reversal of fortune, they also had to
struggle against harsh economic constraints. Moreover, despite their popularity,
none of them were fairly treated by the press and the public opinion. Even
though Mary’s innocent reputation was heralded at first, some moralist journals
began to assume her murder was the result of her careless behaviour as a young
coquettish girl. Similarly, even if Poe was an already reputed writer, his
character and his constant problems with alcoholism often discredited him in his
profession. Their identities as both victims and perpetrators were often difficult
to separate. Actually, Mary’s tragedy may have exerted a deeper influence that
even Poe acknowledged to admit, as time would subsequently show. If Mary
Rogers’ fiancé, Daniel Payne, was found dead months after Mary’s decease
beside a bottle of poison and a suicide note, in 1848, after Sarah Helen
Whitman had rejected his proposal of marriage, significantly, Poe also
attempted to commit suicide ingesting a copious dose of laudanum.
As shown, the outstanding similarities established between some of Poe’s
biographical details and Mary Rogers’ case endow Poe’s tale, “The Mystery of
Marie Rogêt,” with a particular significance. Poe inevitably felt personally
involved, but he was also putting himself to the test, challenging himself to sort
out more than just another murder mystery. Poe faced public exposure, as by
means of fictionalising a factual mystery, he was also aiming at unravelling an
actual unsolved crime. Turning fact into fiction, he sought to subvert the
boundaries separating both domains, thus turning fiction into fact. Feeling under
unbearable pressure as a result of his wife’s terrible illness, Poe attempted to
escape reality by turning reality into fiction. Feeling underestimated by the
press and the public opinion, he tried to make amends and gain public acclaim.
Nonetheless, Poe may have also been led by the imp of the perverse, and to use
Stashower’s words, his own self-destructive character since, as Poe would later
notice, he would soon realise that, through this creative attempt, he had simply
risked far too much.
Confident as a result of the success his first detective tale had acquired, Poe
wrote a letter to the editor Joseph Evans Snodgrass, dated June 4 1842, in the
hope he would accept his tale “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” for publication in
the Sunday Visitor of Baltimore. According to Hobson Quinn, Poe must have
been in desperate need for money at the time (1998:357). This letter shows Poe
felt particularly optimistic about the success of the tale not only as a
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fictionalised piece but about its transcendence to solve the mystery, thus stating:
“I really believe, not only that I have demonstrated the falsity of the idea that
the girl was not the victim of a gang as supposed, but have indicated the
assassin” (Ostrom 1966:202). Despite Poe’s great expectations, Snodgrass
rejected to publish his tale, and so did George Roberts, director of the Bostonian
journal Notion, which Poe had also requested to consider his tale. Except for
some tales like the “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Man of the
Crowd” (1840), and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), Poe had
recently undergone a hardly prolific creative period, and he seemed to be in
desperate need for success. Poe’s tale was finally published in the Ladies’
Companion of New York; a highly-respected journal which was mainly
addressed to ladies of ‘taste and exquisite refinement’, as its director William
Snowden professed (Stashower 2006). Even though Poe’s intricate and
repulsive details about Mary’s atrocious murder appeared to be particularly
unsuitable for publication in such a refined journal, Snowden’s acceptance of
Poe’s tale mainly responded to the concern Mary’s death had awaken among
young female readers, as well as to the need of calling authorities to look into
the matter and solve the crime so as to ensure the security of other young ladies
in the city.
Due to the unusual length of “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, it was agreed
the tale would be published in three instalments, each section being divided
rather randomly and appearing in November 1842, December 1842, and
February 1843, respectively. Setting the action in Paris and changing the names
of the main characters, Dupin solves the case through the methodical analysis of
extracts from six periodicals of the time about Mary Rogers’ mystery, focusing
on clues such as Marie’s former disappearance years before, the kidnapping of
another girl on the same night, the wrongful accusations of some suspects, the
extended belief that Marie was attacked by a gang, and the late discovery of a
boat floating adrift on the Seine River. Dupin definitely refutes any possibility
of Marie being still alive or the general conviction that a gang had attacked her,
and conversely, along the two first instalments of the tale, Poe rather seems to
point at a navy official as Marie’s ultimate murderer.
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At this stage, Poe’s apparent confidence in his powers of ratiocination,
taking Auguste Dupin as his own alter ego even if not his exact duplicate
(Garner 1990), seemed to be coming to an end, thus ultimately unveiling
scepticism and relativism in the creative process. As luck would have it, even if
the investigation of Mary Rogers’ case had apparently come to a halt at the end
of 1842, real life seemed resolute to defy Poe’s attempts to unravel the puzzle in
the domain of fiction. Poe had already finished writing his tale and the three
instalments had been sent to the Ladies’ Companion for their publication, when
quite unexpectedly, journals reported some breaking news. Frederica Loss,
landlady at the Nick Moore’s Tavern, where Mary Rogers had been witnessed
in the company of a dark man before her disappearance, had suffered a terrible
accident. Apparently, one of her sons had shot her unintentionally, and before
she died, she determined to tell a secret she had kept during the past months. As
a result of Frederica Loss’ revelation, most journals published the startling news
that Mary Rogers had died as a result of an abortion, and therefore, had not been
murdered as everybody had believed up to then. Likewise, Nick Moore’s
Tavern was believed to be one of the dwellings of Ann Trow Lohman, widely
known as Madame Restell, an abortionist, who presumably operated on Mary
on that day, ultimately causing her death.
Even though this unexpected revelation seemed to contradict obvious facts
such as Mary’s clear signs of having been strangled and the finding of some of
her torn clothes in a forest nearby, these late reports significantly contributed to
changing the public opinion about the case and the victim herself. If Mary
Rogers had been considered an innocent victim of the ineffective system of law
enforcement and the increasing corruption of the city, her attempted abortion
inevitably turned her into a fallen woman. Mary thus illustrated a national
trauma; formerly a martyr, she had become a source of contempt. Nonetheless,
for Poe himself, this updated piece of news proved particularly traumatic. At the
beginning of his tale, Poe had boasted that, by means of solving Marie Rogêt’s
murder, Dupin would also be pointing at the solution of Mary Rogers’ case. In
the light of these new findings, Dupin’s apparent resolution seemed to lack
consistency. Having rejected the theory defending that Mary was attacked by a
gang as well as underlining the importance of her former disappearance years
before, Dupin rather implied that Marie had been killed by a former lover; a
navy official she had met during the first period she had been missing. Hence,
Poe not only faced the danger of being defeated as a master of detection, but he
may have also felt threatened to be deprived of his ingenious creative gift, and
especially, the alluring prospect of managing his own journal someday. If
Dupin’s resolution of the case was wrong, Poe was well aware he would not
achieve his expected success as a tale-teller, but would rather meet a resounding
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When Frederica Loss’ confession was echoed in the press, Poe’s first two
instalments of “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” had already been published in the
Ladies’ Companion. As a detective tale, the third and last instalment was
presumed to include Dupin’s resolution of the crime, and therefore, the
criminal’s identity, as Poe had shown in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Poe
may have realised he had set himself a trap, and certainly had little time to
escape fatality. Dupin had been right in rejecting the theory of the gang as well
as any possibility of finding Marie still alive. However, it was clear that Dupin’s
thesis pointed at a sailor having committed Marie Rogêt’s murder, regardless of
any remote reference to a possible abortion. Poe’s last chance simply consisted
in modifying certain aspects in the third instalment of the story that still had to
be published so that the tale would have a conclusion and Poe’s reputation
would remain undamaged. Poe thus took revenge on real life, rejecting to
introduce any explicit hint at the abortion theory in his tale. As if he were
actually Dupin, Poe followed his analytical method revising the periodicals
again, modified the manuscript he had written, and delayed the publication of
the third and last instalment of the tale until February 1843, one month later
than it was due. Poe obviously felt unable to alter the course of the story
significantly as the first two instalments had already been published. Therefore,
the outcome of his tale could not possibly be entirely detached from the
preceding sections, especially taking into consideration his ‘theory of the
effect’, whereby all details should be addressed to achieve an overall result in
the whole story.
Even if still subtly incriminating the sailor, Dupin never states the identity
of the criminal categorically, and despite his cryptic reflections, in the tale it is
asserted his resolution was found to be correct, and as a result, the criminal was
correspondingly apprehended. Poe thus effectively introduces an unexpected
turn, a poetic license, claiming that the identity of the criminal was mentioned
in the manuscript of the story, but the editors of the journal decided to omit this
section for the sake of decency. Thus, a significant paragraph in square
brackets, presumably written by the editors of the tale, was placed towards the
end of the third instalment of the tale in its 1843 edition which reads as follows:
For reasons which we shall not specify but which to many readers will
appear obvious, we have taken the liberty of here omitting from the MSS.
placed in our hands, such portion as details the following up of the apparently
slight clew obtained by Dupin. We feel it advisable only to state, in brief, that
the result desired was brought to pass; and that an individual assassin was
convicted, upon his own confession, of the murder of Marie Rogêt, and that
the Prefect fulfilled punctually, although with reluctance, the terms of his
compact with the Chevalier. Mr. Poe’s article concludes with the following
words. – Eds. (Poe 1843:166-7)
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After all, Poe’s second detective tale seems to remain open-ended since,
despite Poe’s editorial notes and Dupin’s self-confidence, the reader remains
mystified as for the actual identity of the criminal. In Gerald Kennedy’s words,
he is left “in a condition of attenuated mystification” by means of what he
regards as a “forgettable experiment in forensic narrative” (1987:120). In spite
of the fact it seems obvious Poe made some alterations in the manuscript of the
third instalment before publication, as Stashower claims, it becomes difficult to
assert the precise modifications Poe introduced as the manuscript has not been
preserved. Nonetheless, the delay of its publication together with the last
paragraphs through which Dupin reflects on coincidences together with the
reassuring editorial notes added seem enough evidence to prove Poe’s concern
about literally saving his tale. In addition to the editor’s openly asserting that
Dupin’s resolution of the case was entirely right, the detective and narrator of
the tale, Poe’s alter-ego, also feels the need to justify himself asserting that the
case of Marie Rogêt and its resolution may not be applicable to any other
situation in real life, obviously making an implicit reference to Mary Rogers’
case and its recent resolution:
But let it not for a moment be supposed that, in proceeding with the sad
narrative of Marie from the epoch just mentioned, and in tracing to its
dénouement the mystery which enshrouded her, it is my covert design to hint
at an extension of the parallel, or even to suggest that the measures adopted
in Paris for the discovery of the assassin of a grisette, or measures founded in
any similar ratiocination, would produce any similar result. (Poe 1843:167)
(Poe 1845:198)
Dupin’s final words, which appear in both the 1843 and 1845 editions,
seem to be in sharp contrast with the footnote which was later added to the first
instalment of the story in its 1845 publication, asserting that a parallel could be
established between Mary Rogers’ real case and Poe’s fictionalised text:
Herein, under pretence of relating the fate of a Parisian grisette, the
author has followed, in minute detail, the essential, while merely paralleling
the inessential facts of the real murder of Mary Rogers. Thus all argument
founded upon the fiction is applicable to the truth: and the investigation of
the truth was the object. (Poe 1845:152)
This footnote was subsequently added two years after the first publication
of the tale, when the abortion theory had merely become another possible
explanation to the mystery. In any case, the editor’s assertion of Poe’s success
in the 1843 edition, and especially, Poe’s own footnote in the 1845 edition
stating the applicability of his method in real life, stand in sharp contrast with
Dupin’s hurried last words, which appear in both the 1843 and 1845 editions,
about the blatant dissimilarity between the tale and the real case. Dupin thus
seems to question Poe’s self-confidence. Dupin is allowed to show his
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weakness; Poe simply could not. Poe thus made use of a poetic license, taking
revenge on life through fiction, asserting he was right in his deductions, and
including the editor’s reassurance for his own sake. Despite these obvious
inconsistencies, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” has been held as one of Poe’s
most highly-acclaimed works of detection. Stashower’s postmodern
intercalation of fact and fiction subverts Poe’s fictionalisation of a real event,
and provides a reification of a fictionalised piece instead. Through his
postmodern interpretation, Stashower’s postmodern account shows that Poe’s
tale can be focalised from a different perspective, no longer a real event turned
into fiction, but a fictionalised tale turned into reality, that is, the ordeal Poe was
compelled to undergo to save his tale, and by extension, his creative genius.
Most critical studies on Poe’s tale “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” are
embedded within wider analyses of Poe’s trilogy of detective fiction and its
critical apparatus has mostly been overshadowed by its preceding tale “The
Murders in the Rue Morgue” (Daniel 1971; Garner 1990; Van Leer 1995;
Thoms 2002). However, there exist some outstanding previous studies
especially focused on this tale. The most thorough critical study to date is John
Walsh’s detailed historical analysis, carefully examining Poe’s use of
newspaper accounts, his revisions to accommodate the news that Mary Cecilia
Rogers had died from an abortion, as well as his self-congratulatory footnotes,
which Walsh found out to be hoaxes, ultimately concluding that neither Poe nor
anybody else had convincingly solved the mystery of Mary Rogers.
If Walsh mostly revealed Poe’s strategies to save his reputation as a master
of ratiocination, Richard P. Benton rather drew attention to the textual nature of
Poe’s tale itself, describing it as a mixed form of colloquy, tale, and essay,
through which Poe sought to ridicule “the thinking of the Jacksonian common
man” (1969:147); thus, not entirely removed from Stashower’s own postmodern
rendering based on Poe’s tale. In this sense, Benton’s allusion to forms of
ratiocination refers back to Poe’s intention to reveal the whole secret of the
construction of tales of ratiocination in the second tale of his detective trilogy.
This secret ultimately consists in Dupin’s mode of reasoning which amounts to
the fact that proof for his hypothesis lies in, firstly, reasoning inductively from
collateral or circumstantial events, which often conceal the truth precisely
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because of their own marginal status, and secondly, relying on the doctrine of
chance, which must also become a matter of calculation so that Dupin’s
reasoning is ultimately based on the reciprocity between chance and calculation,
thus founding his scientific method of analysis. Benton’s reference to the
linguistic nature of the tale as well as Poe’s intention to unveil his scientific
reasoning brings into play the important role of the symbolic order which
determines the nature of the signifier. In this respect, Lacan’s reading of Poe’s
“The Purloined Letter” also seems to be relevant to interpret Poe’s second tale
in his detective series.
In this respect, in his essay on Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, Jacques Lacan
does not dwell upon the psychology of the author, but rather interprets Poe’s
tale as a metaphor which sheds light on the unconscious and the nature of
psychoanalysis as well as on aspects of language. In his reading of Poe’s tale,
Lacan focuses on different hypotheses to support his argumentation, mainly
claiming that firstly, the stolen letter is an emblem of the unconscious itself;
secondly, Dupin’s investigation of the stolen letter enacts the process of
psychoanalysis, and thirdly, the letter with its unknown content merely becomes
an embodiment of the nature of language. Hence, Lacan concludes that the letter
in Poe’s tale is merely a signifier, and therefore, its content is ultimately of no
importance. Nonetheless, Muller and Richardson go as far as to assert that the
place of the signifier is ultimately determined by the symbolic system within
which it is constantly displaced, as it is only in terms of a symbolic order that
one may refer to the signifier as the symbol of an absence (1998:58).
Nonetheless, through the perspective of time that Stashower’s work offers,
Poe’s second detective tale can thus be interpreted as a textual source for
creative trauma as well as a restorative and therapeutic cure for it. Poe surely
faced public opprobrium as a result of the publication of the two first
instalments of the tale and the updated news about Mary Rogers’ possible
abortion, which were virtually mutually-exclusive solutions to the case.
Nonetheless, despite Poe’s apparently traumatic situation, he struggled to find a
cure and modify the third instalment of the tale to suit reality. Poe thus both un-
wrote and re-wrote the conclusion of the tale in both its 1843 and 1845 edition,
coping with his traumatic situation and struggling to find a cure, omitting and
adding fragments correspondingly. Thus, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” is not
only a detective tale, but a text that underlines a personal creative trauma.
Moreover, it can also be defined as a palimpsest, including traces of omissions,
additions and alterations so as to ultimately save Poe’s reputation as a tale-teller
and a master of detection.
Reality insisted on taking revenge on Poe’s fictionalisation of Mary
Rogers’ case, while Poe further attempted to take revenge on real life through
the careful and subsequent manipulation of his tale. As such, this traumatic
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experience as a writer exerted a deep influence on Poe during a certain amount
of time since, not only was he compelled to modify the manuscript of the third
instalment of the story, but a comparative analysis between Poe’s tale as
published in 1843 and its subsequent revised version in 1845 also shows
significant differences, thus proving Poe must have felt particularly concerned
about his failed attempt at unravelling a real life mystery. According to Thoms,
the critic John Walsh claimed that Poe introduced about fifteen changes in the
1845 edition of the tale, so that, if necessary, the abortion thesis could appear
somehow plausible (2002:140), in addition to adding the footnote which
asserted he had been correct in its judgement from the very beginning, and
underlined the parallelisms between real life and his fictionalised version.
As a case in point, in the excerpt corresponding to the original third
instalment of the tale, Poe introduced some significant changes in the
description of the crime scene. In the 1843 edition of the tale, Dupin mentioned
in a rather confident way that “that it was the scene, I believe –but there was
excellent reason for doubt” (1843:162), whereas in its 1845 edition, Dupin
seems more hesitant stating that “that it was the scene, I may or may not believe
–but there was excellent reason for doubt” (1845:185). In addition to the
description of the scene where the murder was committed, Poe also introduced
some meaningful alterations when referring to the criminal. In this respect, in
the 1843 edition of the tale, Dupin claims that “the horrors of this dark deed are
known only to one living human being, and to God” (1843:165), thus explicitly
stating that he considered only one single person could be incriminated as the
murderer. In contrast, in the 1845 edition of the tale, this sentence is altered to
widen the search, thus stating that “the horrors of this dark deed are known only
to one, or two, living human beings, and to God” (1895:194).
Apart from these significant changes in both editions of the tale, Poe also
applied some omissions which are worth noticing, since he decided to omit
sentences that appeared too categorical or seemed particularly telling. In the
1845 edition, Poe omitted a fairly confident assertion in relation to the criminal,
thus questioning “and who that one? It will not be impossible –perhaps it will
not be difficult to discover” (1843:165). Likewise, Poe also seemed to have felt
the need to omit a passage from the third originally published instalment in
which Dupin gave out too much information, as he explicitly pointed at a dark
man, a sailor, as the ultimate murderer of Marie Rogêt, thus stating:
We are not forced to suppose a premeditated design of murder or of
violation. But there was the friendly shelter of the thicket, and the approach
of the rain –there was opportunity and strong temptation– and then a sudden
and violent wrong, to be concealed only by one of darker dye. (1843:165)
Poe’s introduction of hesitating remarks as well as Dupin’s inevitable
incapacity to provide an outright answer to the puzzle has led critics to prefer
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Poe’s first and third detective tales to the detriment of Poe’s fictionalisation of
Mary Rogers’ murder. Critics such as Van Leer thus recently argued that “The
Mystery of Marie Rogêt” is probably the least familiar of Dupin tales and is not
as successful as the rest of tales conforming Poe’s trilogy. In this respect, Van
Leer claims that Poe’s tale is “too long, too detailed, too unshapely, and too
inaccurate to offer an entertaining account of Marie Rogêt or an historical
illumination of Mary Rogers from whom she derives” (1995:80). Likewise,
Hoffman tried to exculpate Dupin claiming “the crimes he solves are best
solved when committed for the purpose of his disentangling them, not when
they are the actual deeds of others” (1998:116). However, from a postmodern
perspective, Poe’s second detective tale unravels much more than another
murder mystery; it unveils Poe’s own trauma and his own use of detection to
restore a traumatically creative situation.
As Stashower’s volume widely shows, despite Poe’s obvious trauma as a
tale-teller and master of detection, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” has defeated
the test of time as well as the actual investigation of Mary Rogers’ case in
nineteenth-century America. Nowadays, Mary Rogers is mostly known because
of Poe’s fictionalisation of her case. Actually, Stashower’s volume entitled The
Beautiful Cigar Girl has also been published in its subsequent edition under the
telling title of Edgar Allan Poe and The Murder of Mary Rogers, thus showing
the interest in the Bostonian writer takes precedence over the murder of Mary
Rogers itself. Hence, Poe has ultimately taken his particular revenge on life
through time. He took advantage of a traumatic situation at a national and a
personal level to apply his genius and turn Dupin’s story of detection into a
cryptic tale about his own trauma as a creator; a contemporary reading of the
tale that may be pursued through postmodern tenets.
As opposed to the first and third detective tales of the Dupin series, “The
Mystery of Marie Rogêt” necessarily remains an open-ended tale; a forerunner
of the postmodern detective narrative, as Dupin does not provide a concrete
solution, partly because of Poe’s dependence on his contemporary reality and
the events taking place at the time. Nonetheless, according to Stashower’s
postmodern intercalation of Poe’s biography and criminal research into Mary
Rogers’ case, nowadays Dupin’s, and thus Poe’s, resolution of the case seems to
possess a greater validity than the abortion theory that was brought up at the
time. After all, Dupin may not have solved the case, but actually nobody
managed to reach a definite conclusion about the case in real life either.
However, as Carlson asserts, Poe considered his second detective tale as the text
that revealed the whole secret of the mode of construction for the tales of
ratiocination (1996:241). Poe’s tale thus becomes significantly telling because
of what it seeks to conceal rather than what it actually unveils.
ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa 32 (2011): 203-224
In sharp contrast with Jameson’s concept of pastiche or blank parody,
which he describes as mere imitation or mimicry of a peculiar style, Linda
Hutcheon (1989) perceives much to value in the parodic self-reflexivity
pertaining to postmodern literature. As a matter of fact, postmodern parody,
critical and ironic in its approach rather than nostalgic, is not entirely
ahistorical, as it certifies that present representations derive from already
existing ones, even if it also underlines that these representations are inevitably
separated from the past. According to Hutcheon, postmodern parody also
contests humanist assumptions about artistic originality and uniqueness, and
thus, in terms of historiographic metafiction, it problematises revision and
reinterpretations of the past, underscoring the process of reproduction and thus
foregrounding the politics of representation. Furthermore, the postmodern
parody both legitimises and subverts what it parodies, becoming
deconstructively critical and constructively creative. In this sense, Stashower
significantly parodies Poe’s tale and its surrounding events, rendering a
contemporary pastiche, a blending of fact and fiction, which legitimatises as
well as subverts Poe’s text, arising from it so as to unveil the artificiality of both
Poe’s tale and his own creation. Nonetheless, if Stashower’s approach is
eminently postmodern, Poe’s treatment of his tale and his constant manipulation
also prove to be definite forerunners of these theories.
In this respect, according to Carlson, Poe’s constant subversion of
“the notion of a rationally ordered and morally coherent universe” made him
appear postmodernist more than a century before the precepts of the postmodern
literary theories were developed (1996:410). Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” has
often been cited as a tale specifically illustrating Poe’s postmodern qualities.
The French poststructuralists soon became interested in Poe’s work, and
Lacan’s deconstructionist reading of “The Purloined Letter” still remains a
seminal interpretation of Poe’s third detective tale, despite Derrida’s subsequent
objections. From Lacan’s perspective, “The Purloined Letter” involved a
display of the Freudian repetition automatism, reconstructing two passages that
were repeated all through the tale, namely the scene in the chamber with the
king, the queen, and Minister D, and subsequently, its counterpart scene in the
chamber with Minister D. and Dupin. Marie Bonaparte already argued that the
purloined letter’s true content was hidden in some secret biographical details
that necessarily reffered back to the real. Lacan went beyond this and analysed
the symbolic evidence of the letter’s displacement within a signifying structure,
thus underlining the analogy between language and the psyche. Taking these
ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa 32 (2011): 203-224
precedents into consideration, later on Shoshana Felman seemed to draw on
both the interpretation of the letter’s actual reference in real life and Poe’s tale
as an allegory of psychoanalysis to interpret his third detective tale as a display
of the poet’s superiority in the art of concealment as well as an allegory for
poetic writing.
In this respect, Poe’s previous detective tale, “The Mystery of Marie
Rogêt” also seems to display these qualities, even though postmodern studies
have not taken Poe’s rendering of the actual murder of Mary Rogers as
earneastly as Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” Poe’s second detective tale also
illustrates the Freudian repetition automatism inasmuch as Dupin must
necessarily re-enact Marie Rogêt’s actions so as to unravel what happened to
her. Moreover, Stashower’s recently-published volume further underlines this
repetition by means of the constant intercalation of facts and fictionalisation, as
well as the inevitable mirror-effect it involves as it constantly refers back to
Poe’s text. Dupin’s armchair investigation also involves a careful textual
analysis of the reports of Mary Rogers’ murder published in the press, thus
illustrating the repetitive reference to linguistic structures. Finally, Poe’s “The
Mystery of Marie Rogêt” not only illustrates an actual reference to the real, as it
is a story based on actual facts, but it inevitably displays the intricacies of poetic
writing, as both editions of the tale, published in 1843 and 1845 respectively,
show Poe’s own process of unwriting and re-writing so as to save his own
reputation as a creator, thus becoming a tale illustrating Poe’s own art at self-
It can thus be argued that, through his postmodern approach,
Stashower has turned a detective tale into a source of trauma which is
articulated by means of Dupin’s hesitating interpretation of Marie Rogêt’s
mystery as well as Poe’s particular trauma and his apparent failure at solving
Mary Rogers’ case. In this respect, Stashower’s documentary narrative acts like
a mirror, turning a fictionalised text, Poe’s tale, into a textual rendering of
traumas as well as a restorative account of creative distress. Poe took advantage
of a national trauma symbolised by the death of a young girl as reflecting the
nation’s loss of innocence, the weakness of the American law enforcement and
the corruption that characterised New York, to exorcise a personal trauma: his
need to escape his immediate reality and show his reputation as a master of
scientific reasoning. However, Poe faced public exposure when life seemed to
take revenge on him. In an attempt at retaliation, Poe modified the conclusion of
his tale to save his reputation. However, his hands were tied as part of the story
had already been published. Subsequently, he would also feel the need to
introduce different changes through time to assert he was right, even if he knew
he had inevitably failed. Nonetheless, if Poe fictionalised a real case, Stashower,
taking a postmodern perspective, has reified Poe’s fictional tale, turning Poe’s
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tale into a real account of Poe’s situation as a writer at the time. Poe tried to
cure his trauma through altering the source of it, the tale itself, and therefore,
Stashower interprets Poe’s tale as a necessary restorative text for his trauma,
thus proving trauma necessarily reverberates in a series of cause and effect, of
grievance and healing, through textual intercourse.
Dupin’s solution to Poe’s second detective tale may have often been
interpreted as a triumph of error (Daniel 1971: 108). Ultimately, Stashower’s
narrative biography and accurate interpretation of a nineteenth-century murder
case underlines trauma at different levels, namely at a national, personal, and
creative level, which in turn undergoes changes through the passage of time.
Due to Mary Rogers’ death, the law enforcement watchmen were openly
debunked at first in the press due to their incapacity to protect young women.
Likewise, the police are also harshly criticised in Poe’s tale due to their
ineptitude. Nonetheless, as a result of the social concern raised by Mary Rogers’
case, the police force acquired professional running in America for the first
time. Similarly, soon after her demise, Mary was heralded as a martyr in the
press, as a coquettish victim in Poe’s tale, and finally, as a fallen woman once
she was believed to have undertaken an abortion. Nonetheless, postmodern
reinterpretation of her case may even consider Mary Rogers as a forerunner of
the liberation of women. Likewise, through his alter ego Dupin, Poe openly
boasted that he could solve Mary Rogers’ murder. However, he was soon to
discover his thesis was not entirely satisfactory, and felt compelled to modify
his first resolution of the case so as to avoid public exposure. And yet, owing to
his creative genius, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” remains one of Poe’s most
well-known and well-rounded tales, precisely because it underscores Poe’s
creative trauma and his therapeutic efforts to restore his text.
All in all, Poe’s second detective tale can be considered as a literal
palimpsest, comprising traces of trauma, but also including the seeds of its own
restoration. It is an explicit sample of both construction and deconstruction in a
single text. The contemporary impact it still exerts is illustrated through the
recent publication of Stashower’s postmodern volume in which he wisely
intercalates Poe’s life, the creative process of his tale of detection, and the
nineteenth-century investigation of Mary Rogers’ case, thus constructing a
pastiche of biography, research and postmodern interpretation of a traumatic
past, ultimately mirroring Poe’s own creative intentions from a contemporary
perspective. Poe fictionalised a real case so as to mirror and try to defy reality,
and conversely, Stashower reifies Poe’s tale so as to find out and further explore
Poe’s creative trauma, thus conforming a continuum and becoming two sides of
the same mirror. As Oscar Wilde would say, these two parallel texts, which
speak to each other through time, and underline their own nature as sources and
restoratives of twice-told traumas, seem to exemplify the axiom that life
ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa 32 (2011): 203-224
imitates art far more than art imitates life. After all, nowadays Poe’s solution to
the case seems to have prevailed over other possible hypotheses, and Mary
Rogers remains inextricably linked to Poe’s second detective tale rather than to
the historical annals of crime in America, which becomes an ultimate proof that
fiction sometimes surpasses life. Through Stashower’s concatenated writing of
biography and criminal research, Poe’s tale appears as a pastiche; a text
reflecting the trauma of exposure as well as displaying the restorative effect of
omitting and rewriting so as to suit reality and ultimately preserve Poe’s
reputation and cure his trauma as a defective-detective even if just for once.
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How to cite this article:
Miquel Baldellou, Marta. “Twice-Told Traumas: Whatever Happened to
Mary Rogers or Poe’s Revenge on Life.” ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa 32
(2011): 207-230.
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In America, Gothic Romanticism was received in a spirit which reflected both the distance that separated the consciousness of the New World from the cultural history of Europe, and the fascination which that half-possessed inheritance exerted upon the American soul. Harry Levin has argued, in The Power of Blackness, that the overt ideals of nineteenth-century American society, the belief in material progress and human perfectibility, the ‘bland perfection’ of Americans’ daylight selves, were offset by a compensating visitation of darkness and insecurity in the night-side of the nation’s collective psyche. Creative minds were drawn to this neglected or repressed dark component: ‘Where the voice of the majority is by definition affirmative, the spirit of independence is likeliest to manifest itself by employing the negative’1 That negative is most memorably voiced in the melancholy reiteration of Edgar Allan Poe’s hauntingly insistent Raven: ‘Nevermore.’
Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 1-13 What Was Postmodernism? What was postmodernism, and what is it still? I believe it is a revenant, the return of the irrepressible; every time we are rid of it, its ghost rises back. Like a ghost, it eludes definition. Certainly, I know less about postmodernism today than I did thirty years ago, when I began to write about it. This may be because postmodernism has changed, I have changed, the world has changed. But this is only to confirm Nietzsche's insight, that if an idea has a history, it is already an interpretation, subject to future revision. What escapes interpretation and reinterpretation is a Platonic Idea or an abstract analytical concept, like a circle or a triangle. Romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, however, like humanism or realism, will shift and slide continually with time, particularly in an age of ideological conflict and media hype. All this has not prevented postmodernism from haunting the discourse of architecture, the arts, the humanities, the social and sometimes even the physical sciences; haunting not only academic but also public speech in business, politics, the media, and entertainment industries; haunting the language of private life styles like postmodern cuisine -- just add a dash of raspberry vinegar. Yet no consensus obtains on what postmodernism really means. The term, let alone the concept, may thus belong to what philosophers call an essentially contested category. That is, in plainer language, if you put in a room the main discussants of the concept -- say Leslie Fiedler, Charles Jencks, Jean-François Lyotard, Bernard Smith, Rosalind Krauss, Fredric Jameson, Marjorie Perloff, Linda Hutcheon and, just to add to the confusion, myself -- locked the room and threw away the key, no consensus would emerge between the discussants after a week. But a thin trickle of blood might appear beneath the sill. Let us not despair: though we may be unable to define or exorcise the ghost of postmodernism, we can approach it, surprising it from various angles, perhaps teasing it into a partial light. In the process, we may discover a family of words congenial to postmodernism. Here are some current uses of the term: What do all these have in common? Well, fragments, hybridity, relativism, play, parody, pastiche, an ironic, anti-ideological stance, an ethos bordering on kitsch and camp. So, we have begun to build a family of words applying to postmodernism; we have begun to create a context, if not a definition, for it. More impatient or ambitious readers can consult Hans Bertens' The Idea of the Postmodern, the best and fairest introduction I know to the topic. But now I must make my second move or feint to approach postmodernism from a different perspective. Postmodernism/Posmodernity. I make this move by distinguishing, as I did not sufficiently do in my earlier work, between postmodernism and postmodernity. This is the distinction that constitutes the main thrust of my argument, and to which I will later return. For the...