[I am still threatening to serialise my research dissertation on Tychy later in the month – as soon as the illustrations are ready – but for now, here is a passage which, for reasons of space, has not quite made the final draft. Ed]
…Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” first appeared in Philadelphia’s United States Saturday Post in August 1843. “The Black Cat” has traditionally been identified as a tale of horror – and perhaps, in a more superstitious and candlelit age, it frightened many of its original readers – but modern studies of the tale often appear oblivious to its humour. Like “The Tell Tale Heart,” which was published in the January of the same year, “The Black Cat” presents the final statement of an apprehended murderer. Yet in “The Black Cat” Poe seems to exploit the anguished and confessional narrative of the earlier tale to the same ends that a frontiersman confides in a greenhorn, and he accordingly slips past us some outrageous absurdities.
The narrator scientifically explains the appearance of “a gigantic cat” in bas relief on the wall of his burnt out home, by deducing that the body of the black cat – which he had lynched in his garden earlier in the day – was thrown through his bedroom window by a bystander “probably… with the view of arousing me from sleep.” Somebody being awakened by a dead cat landing in their bed is surely funny, regardless of the context? The paragraph in which the narrator rants about his “dread” of the black cat – and in the course of his outpourings reveals that the creature has sprouted a patch of white fur in the shape of a gallows upon its breast – is one of the finest examples of Poe’s comic writing. The line, “oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime – of Agony and of Death!” may not seem out of place in Poe’s fiction, but when uttered by a man holding a cat, even the most terrified reader would surely struggle to suppress a smile.
One refrains from categorising “The Black Cat” as a humorous tale – although it is far funnier than many which went under the same name in the nineteenth century – but critiques of “The Black Cat” may appear incomplete if they fail to observe the ironies, surprises, and general air of liveliness which characterise the story. The narrator’s wife “regarded all black cats as witches in disguise” although she was never “serious upon this point.” The narrator’s irrational aversion to his black cat leads to murder and ruin, and his seriousness “upon this point” is ultimately his downfall.
The slaveholding South was founded upon a principle of domestic sovereignty, in which the home itself was regarded as a political regime, and domestic violence was conflated with economic exploitation. In one of the first works of American fiction, St John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Farmer James finds that his ideal of “the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence” is challenged during a visit to the South, when he encounters another “American farmer” who allows a man to be tortured to death upon his land. James is paralysed with indecision at the sight of the victim (a rebel slave). He gives him some water and contemplates a mercy killing – actions implicitly endorsed by the slaveholder (the gourd of water is “ready fixed to a pole”) – but it does not occur to him to try and assist an escape from the slave’s cage, presumably because this would defy the freedom and independence of a fellow American farmer. For Farmer James, the example of the South demonstrates that the principle upon which America is founded – safeguarding the liberty of the individual – can leave the individual resembling one of the tyrants of the Old World.
“The Black Cat” is introduced and summarised as a “series of mere household events.” The narrator has a “partiality for domestic pets” and as monarch of all that he surveys, he commands quite an array of subjects: “birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.” The “Fiend Intemperance” soon intrudes upon this American Eden, provoking hellish disarray and bringing violence upon the heads of those whose rights the domestic sovereign should presumably safeguard. Eventually the narrator’s wife and cats are reduced from the subjects of his domestic violence to physical features of his actual home, emblazoned upon or encased within its walls.
Many Virginian slaves were indiscriminately lynched in the hysteria which followed Nat Turner’s rising in Southampton in 1831. This unexpected rebellion spooked many Southerners, and lead them to fear that they did not know the minds of the slaves who were working in their own homes. Without wishing to unnecessarily speculate on the best way to kill a cat, one suggests that hanging is not the easiest method of dispatching such a creature, and that a noose, a black victim, and a histrionic master were ultimately cited to remind Poe’s readers of the Turner rising and its appalling aftermath. Yet Poe equally alludes to the sentimental accounts of slavery produced by some of his fellow Southern authors:
…I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree: – hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; – hung it because I knew that it had loved me…
The hanging of a cat is surely an unpleasant and very noisy spectacle – with a great deal of clawing and hissing (a cat is very light and it would slowly strangle to death) – and the narrator’s sentimental account may appear thoroughly preposterous in the light of an imagined scene of the cat’s death.
It is hard to conclude that this satire does not fall on anything other than the heads of Southern slaveholders, but as a Romantic author Poe had a principled aversion to didactic fiction, and his political allegories are therefore necessarily imprecise. Leland S. Person’s essay “Poe’s Philosophy of Amalgamation” is wary of treating the story as if it were an allegory, and his argument is suitably cautious (“Without suggesting that the cat in Poe’s tale is a surrogate black person…Without reducing the tale to a racial allegory…”) (215-16). Person cites Lesley Ginsberg’s argument that “The Black Cat” is a “Gothic reenactment of Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt” and he compares the narrator’s racism to that of the Europeans in Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno (216). Yet Person notes that “The Black Cat” is rather misnamed, because there are in fact two cats in the tale. The “second cat is not the ghost of the first” as it sports a white patch of fur, and Person suggests that the narrator’s horror of this cat can be attributed to its spreading whiteness, which perhaps symbolises “the erasure of visible colour differences” (217).
The division between labour and capital in many areas of the South was based upon a racial distinction which was often untidy in practice, and the whitening of the black cat heralds the apocalypse of the South and a sort of political revolution through dialectical synthesis. Although Poe’s Gothicism is often presented as entailing the helpless observation of a demoralised and overwhelmed white America, his imprecise use of allegory allows us to interpret “The Black Cat” as an antislavery satire, and one which conveys the domestic tyranny, racism, self-deluding sentimentality, misogyny, psychological isolation, and utter doom and damnation of the Southern slaveholding classes.