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Terry J. Martin is Professor of English at Ohio’s Baldwin-Wallace College, and his Rhetorical Deception in the Short Fiction of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville (1998) delivers concise and compelling readings of three short stories which every lover and student of the American Renaissance will have within easy reach: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), and Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1855). Martin argues that his three chosen authors practiced “deception” as “a deliberate and sophisticated rhetorical strategy,” and that their “ultra-deceptive stories” elaborate upon previous forms of satire in being intentionally “structured as tests” for the reader. In each example, the “challenge to the reader to discover and transcend the deception is the main point of the story,” and seeing through this deception will occasion a “radical critique of a major world view.”

Martin contends that although several writers had dabbled with narrative ambiguities before Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, “no one had so fully exploited the potential for rhetorical deception in the limited point of view.” Any reader who is provoked to scepticism by these stories, will be mindful of the unreliability of their narratives and the deceptive “innocence” of the protagonists whose “limited point of view” they reflect.

Martin identifies “Young Goodman Brown” as a “parable about the failure of allegory as a cognitive system of understanding.” An allegory is a fiction of which each component represents a particular idea, leaving no possibility of interpreting an allegory in a way which it does not itself endorse (other than “this is a dreadful allegory”). “Young Goodman Brown” ostensibly promises an allegory, evoking such hackneyed antitheses as day versus night, and a bright town versus dark woods – and even citing a character named “Faith”! – but by the time that we arrive at the famous question upon which the whole tale turns (“Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?”), the allegory has imploded, its currency of representation is thoroughly devalued, and we are left to interpret the tale for ourselves.

Martin sets to work cataloguing the failures of allegorical clarity within “Young Goodman Brown.” Deep in the forest, it may be that only Brown’s mind transforms the wind into a sinful hymn and the pine trees into candles, and there is no hiding anything from Martin, who at one point spots that “Hawthorne’s choice of pine trees is especially significant since pine needles do not burn with the clear steady flame of a candle, but rather splutter and smoke greatly…” As a Puritan, Brown is “eminently predisposed to view life allegorically, and it is in the nature of allegory to turn sensory phenomena into specters and ideal essences.” Yet if Brown wishes to be married to a human being and one “more than either angel or witch,” then he will need to overcome the idealising and demonising spells of allegory and accept all the awkward ambiguities of reality. “… pink ribbons may mean nothing at all,” Martin warns, “unless there is an allegorical mind nearby that cannot tolerate an empty signifier.”

Martin argues that the midnight revelation of sinfulness amongst Brown’s family and fellow citizens “constitutes a covert act of violence, a heinous pathological form of character assassination.” Whilst the devil possesses “rhetorical eloquence” and a fiendish omnipotence, he ultimately speaks truth in championing the universality of sin, whilst Goodman Brown’s deception lies in not admitting his own evil, “which for Hawthorne is the precondition of brotherhood as well as salvation.” More unhappily, the knowledge of universal sin reduces Brown to a state of “sexual” frenzy.

Like any good Romantic, Edgar Allan Poe strived to transcend the nuts-and-bolts of materialism, allegory, and rationalism through the powers of the imagination. Yet Martin reasons that “in exclusively championing the imagination, Poe was simultaneously condemning [C. Auguste] Dupin, the arch-positivist in whom the worst excesses of rationalism are united.” Without a peep of the destructive orangutan remaining in his rational mind, Dupin is more concerned with studying technicalities than greater human truths, and he accordingly displays “an utter absence of feeling and a completely schizophrenic dissociation from the unconscious, irrational, and latently hysterical part of himself.” After running amok, the orangutan demonstrates a very human guilt in attempting to conceal the bodies of its victims, but Dupin reduces the beast to merely an input in a mechanical equation.

Martin himself doubts that Dupin is compos mentis: “it is symbolically significant that Madam L’Espanaye’s head is severed from her body, for, as Dupin’s double, she vividly portrays his failure to integrate thought and feeling.” Ultimately, for all his ingenuity, the “innocent” Dupin “cannot imagine that the motive for the crime could have been sexual in nature.” Yet this false innocence implicates him in the murder, just as the sinfulness of Brown’s mind is projected over the forest, because “in the symbolic logic of the tale, the fury of the orangutan’s passion is equalled only by the degree of the emotional repression which gives rise to it.”

Martin describes how Herman Melville’s Amasa Delano is “reassuringly rooted in middle-class American values,” and how American readers may “identify more with Delano precisely because he is American – because, that is, he represents the known and familiar in a milieu in which the reader, as much as Delano, is at sea.” Yet rather than being the “innocent” victim of the trickster Babo, or an ensign of “white” civilisation aboard a ship of savages, Delano and the mutinous slave share a certain affinity as symbolic leaders. After investigating the San Dominick, Delano concludes that the stricken ship requires leadership and discipline, and yet Babo’s mutiny will almost succeed because he “conforms to all Delano’s requirements of an ideal commander.” Significantly, neither Delano nor Babo will murder anybody with their bare hands.

Martin evokes the symbol of the dark, masked satyr on the stern-piece of the San Dominick in asserting that “Babo and Delano become doubles when each by turns assumes a position of satyr-like dominance over his victim(s).” Martin concludes that, “If sheer will to power is the measure, then Babo and Delano are indistinguishable from each other.” Delano’s “innocence” may equally project a criminal violence on to the outside world – akin to Brown’s witches and Dupin’s orangutan – in the possible accordance between his own unspoken piratical ambitions and the actions of his rampaging crew.

The format of the short story and the journalistic setting of the literary magazine were crucial to the success of rhetorical deception, not least because the delusion of a character such as Delano could not be realistically sustained over the course of a novel. Yet there may have been greater historical influences over this fiction than the mere availability of the short-story format. For example, Martin’s brief, largely structuralist readings fail to acknowledge that deception was itself a leading characteristic of early American fiction. Constance Rourke’s American Humor (1931) proposed that America’s “national character” was “forged” within genres such as the frontier tall tale, which, for Rourke, was an inexorable part of America’s identity, mythology and general make-up. Although it may seem that this “native” American humour was destined to survive only within Porter’s Spirit of the Times and the later fiction of Mark Twain, Poe was an incorrigible practitioner of hoaxes (“Dupin” = “Duping”), Hawthorne had studied the history of the American frontier, and Melville’s famous white whale would have been thoroughly at home in the world of tall tales. The possibility remains that the “rhetorical deception” identified by Martin was far more traditionally American than he assumes.

Tychy has previously contended that the Romantic Irony within the fiction of the American Renaissance was the product of a particularly republican and democratic ideology, and that the lack of didacticism within such fiction concedes to the newfound interpretative power of citizen readers over the dictats of old-world narrators. Martin, for his part, argues that although the “ultra-deceptive story… lacks explicit authorial commentary, it nevertheless conveys a moral judgment and, in fact, implicitly prejudices the reader’s response. Of course, readers are not entirely constrained by such a judgment.” Indeed, Martin has hitherto named and shamed twenty-seven modern literary critics who were “hoodwinked” over Captain Delano’s “goodness.” Martin concludes that the reader may “deem the text’s judgment rhetorically heavy-handed, oversimplified, or in some other manner inadequate,” although, in doing so, they may run the risk “that the text’s fabular warning of the dangers of ideological blindness in interpretation may, after all, prove prophetic.”

Martin is also unconcerned by the relationship between the three given writers, who never satisfactorily achieved the creative brotherhood which may have been possible between them. Poe, who was eternally jealous of other authors’ successes, enthused over Hawthorne’s fiction until it became popular, at which point his ardour cooled. Melville likewise penned an enthusiastic tribute to Hawthorne’s powers, and became similarly disaffected when attempts at close friendship and a literary collaboration between himself and Hawthorne failed. There are curious and possibly coincidental correspondences within Poe and Melville’s writing, such as the structural affinity between Melville’s Benito Cereno and Poe’s “Tarr and Fether.” Hawthorne, for course, was a total pig, and he was apparently uninfluenced by both Poe and Melville’s writing. Although these authors plainly shared many literary ambitions and methods, it should be remembered that their writing may have been very different had they achieved the financial independence which they had each coveted, and that their fiction can be consequently regarded as influenced or compromised by the demands of the nineteenth-century literary marketplace.

(Tychy has previously attempted to salvage Babo’s story from the narrative of Benito Cereno, but Martin picks up some interesting details that my own essay missed: that Delano’s ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, is named after that of the buccaneer William Ambrose Cowely; and that, rather wonderfully, Amasa Delano is almost Spanish for “mass from the anus [masa del ano].”)