Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Cask of Purple ... and Poe's Prose

The other day my eye caught on a line written by a writer with experience, who was giving advice to one without:

"I can't advise on how to make one's writing more Poe-like because I don't admire purple prose."

It being his birthday today I feel it only fitting to let Poe's prematurely buried spirit utter its "Nemo me impune lacessit." To say Poe's prose is purple is to call it, as this writer also does, "the overwrought, some say hysterical, prose of Poe." This writer offers it as representing one end of the writing spectrum, with the "minimalist approach as used by Carver and at his best Hemingway" as the other.

To say some among Poe's narrators are overwrought and sometimes hysterical seems to me fine, as a statement. So does saying that some among Poe's narrators are saturated with rationality. We could also say that some are murderous, because of their being actually murderers; or that some are witty. Poe himself takes no place among the characters in his stories. His stories require that their narrators be someone other than Edgar, in order to work.

Clearly Poe put words in his narrators' mouths, or writing hands. I hope no one sees this as a damning observation: for he did so with a fine command of his materials.

Clearly, too, Poe worked in a literary atmosphere influenced by the Gothic; and his genius likely found this influence inescapable because complete escape offered no particular attractions. Yet his vision arose from within a sphere of other influences, as well, including that of Milton—although some readers may regard Milton, too, as "overwrought."

In any case, even if an author's narrator's expressions might seem to do violet violence to the English tongue, for someone to take that one narrator's narrative rhetoric from among the variety to be found within that author's works, and then to glue that particular rhetoric-name as a generalization upon that author's prose, strikes me as unfair to the author, and unbecoming to the one so gluing.

One might as well call "The Cask of Amontillado" purple in its prose because its hapless character Fortunato, who is not the narrator, in essence purples himself with wine.

Poe's prose offers many examples of his utter clarity of expression, as well as his economy of expression. These should offer correction enough to any accusation of purpleness in his prose.

(At a time when I was reading more Hemingway than I have in recent years I happened to read "Amontillado" for what seemed the first time. It may well have been my first time as an adult reader. I recall clearly my impression upon emerging from it that Hemingway would never have become the writer he did without Poe's story to point American letters in the direction it did.)

While as a reader I relish some wildly absurd passages in Poe's stories, I cannot call his prose in general wildly absurd, even as to its content. The absurd, however, has its place as a technique in his tool box. Similarly we would find Gothic excess to be a technique in his tool box. Similarly, too, we would find expressive restraint.

Among his stories we encounter some among the most analytically constructed works we ever will. In thinking and speaking about Poe we need to keep in mind his distinct and distinctive grasp of literary craft.

Grapes going into a crush destined to become Amontillado, by the way, I imagine must be darkly purple. Any excess of color falls away, however, by the time of casking. This happens to some degree naturally during the wine-making process.

Yet it happens to some degree, too, thanks to the skill of the winemaker.

Cheers ...

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