Allegory, American Literature, Books, Edgar Allan Poe, History, Literary criticism, Lunatic Asylum, Madness, Race, Romanticism, Slavery, The Mind of the South, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
Regular readers of Tychy will be aware that the website has previously contemplated the tentative and euphemistic allusions to the American South within Edgar Allan Poe‘s tales “William Wilson” (1839), “The Gold Bug” (1843), and “The Black Cat” (1843). Poe was not informed by any sense of actively belonging to a regional community and his aspiration to make a living from American literature necessitated abandoning the South, which did not have any literary marketplace to speak of. Poe’s idea of the South did not entail any active affinity with this region, but the fantasy that it might provide a sanctuary from the modern world. He identified the South as an ahistorical and apolitical Arcadia, and he used a sort of imprecise allegory – or an allegory subverted by Romantic irony – to avoid evoking the political controversies which were associated with the region. Yet the consequent pictures of the South within Poe’s writing are often of a threatened or a lost Arcadia.
“The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” (1845), however, suggests a return to a happier time when the South’s house was in order. The story is narrated by a tourist who visits a lunatic asylum in the South of France. At a dinner party, he meets the asylum superintendent’s “friends and assistants,” who recount how the asylum’s inmates variously believe themselves to be cockerels, spinning tops, cheeses, frogs, and pinches of snuff. The diners’ impersonations of the lunatics are alarmingly realistic and, as the dinner party degenerates into anarchy, it becomes apparent (at least to the reader) that the diners are the very lunatics whom they claim to be impersonating. The superintendent is, of course, in with the maniacs: “Mon dieu! what is it you imagine? This lady… is as absolutely sane as myself.” Eventually, however, the superintendent’s erstwhile assistants – who have been tarred, feathered, and imprisoned in a dungeon – escape and storm the dinner party, recapturing the asylum.
Allegorical possibilities abound in “Tarr and Fether.” The tale suggests a fable of the dreaming mind, in which the lunatics represent the unconscious and irrational fancies that run riot in dreams, the imprisoned keepers symbolise a conscious reason which has been put to bed; and the recapture of the asylum, which coincides with a lunatic cockcrow, suggests an inevitable awakening. Yet the story equally suggests an allegory of the American South. The asylum is located in the “southern provinces of France” and the narrator initially fails to see anything amiss with the lunatic dinner because he believes its extravagance and eccentricity to be customary in the South.
Dining with bare-breasted elderly women – and feasting upon cat – the narrator remembers “having been informed in Paris that the southern provincialists were a peculiarly eccentric people, with a vast number of antiquated notions.” The narrator states that there “is no knowing what one eats… at the tables of these people of the provinces.” During the storming of the dinner party, its musical entertainment “broke out with one accord into “Yankee Doodle”, which they performed… during the whole of the uproar.” This old Dutch tune has circulated with various lyrics since the fifteenth century, although those of a popular parody in which Yankee Doodle “stuck a feather in his hat/ and called it macaroni [a dandy]” refer to gentility bestowed through a feathering of sorts. “Yankee Doodle” has been appropriated as both an American and a specifically Southern anthem, and it is unclear whether the lunatics’ rendition of the song refers to their shabby “macaroni” gentility or a reunification of America symbolised by the recapture of the asylum (or both).
The lunatics lapse in their madness into assuming that they are items such as cheese, champagne, snuff and a pumpkin, and their degeneration from aspirant Southern aristocrats into a market of consumable goods perhaps symbolises the inability of the South to escape the advance of Yankee capitalism. In suggesting a conflict between a rowdy, decadent South and an enlightened America, Poe’s sympathies appear to lie with neither party, and his story seemingly concludes with the ambiguous assertion that an American triumph is inevitable, but that the hedonism of the South is more enjoyable.
“Tarr and Fether” may be equally interpreted as an allegory of the relationship between slaves and their masters. The tarred and feathered keepers resemble “big, black baboons” and the lunatics’ aspiration to hold a perpetual party at their expense suggests a Southern economic system based upon the exploitation of black labour. Yet just as Southern farmland would become progressively depleted through the cultivation of cotton, the lunatics’ merriment is ultimately unsustainable. If the lunatics’ party had not been crashed by their keepers, then the asylum would soon have run out of food. Dining on cat, in this respect, may not have been entirely eccentric. The “blackness” of the keepers is manmade – the results of a good tarring – and the physically repulsive appearance of these slaves is only a consequence of their misfortune. The surprising rectification of their subjection suggests that there is nothing natural to the master-slave relationship, and that both struggle to impose their versions of reality upon one another. The keepers consequently resemble both Yankees and disagreeable Negroes – the amassed enemies of the Old South – although this allegory is, of course, characteristically uncertain and inconsequential.