The Poe Uncertainties: His Place in the History of Detective Fiction

Once upon a time, I blogged about the debate over Edgar Allan Poe’s birthplace. I titled the post “The Poe Uncertainties: His Birthplace,” a title that implies I was starting a series of posts. Quite a bit of time has passed since then, but a recent discussion on Facebook inspired me to explore another murky area related to Poe and his legacy. Specifically, it’s Poe’s place in the history of detective fiction. Boom! Now, I’ve got a series.

The notion that Poe “invented” the detective story genre is alive and well. In fact, it’s an idea that, for years, I stated as undisputed fact in front of trusting students, so I’ve had a hand (or maybe only a pinkie finger) in perpetuating it. There’s something quite appealing in the simplicity of this notion. It’s also nice how it makes Poe look more like a sharp-minded genius and less like a man whose brilliance shone despite — or even because of — his alcohol- and, perhaps, opium-addled head. (I think the best refutation against the Poe-as-addict view, first sparked by his vindictive rival Rufus Griswold, is the remarkable amount of impressive material that came from Poe in his limited lifetime.) However, only a bit a research reveals that various sound challenges have been made to the claim about Poe’s unassisted creation of the mystery genre.

My research has not been intense — and there may well be earlier evidence — but in the 1897 issue of The Columbia Literary Monthly, William Aspenwall Bradley offhandedly refers to Poe as the “originator” of detective stories. He is writing in response to the celebrity surrounding Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose adventures had debuted a decade earlier. Bradley wants to show Poe’s influence on Conan Doyle, almost as if to remind readers that detective fiction started with an American author, not some upstart British one.

However, at least as early as 1906, the Poe-as-inventor-of-detective-stories view was a topic of debate. In The Scrap Book, an anonymous editor says that “it is almost certain that Poe, who was deeply versed in French literature, got the suggestion of the method [of solving crimes by combining logic and imagination] from reading certain passages in the Oriental tale called ‘Zadig,’ by Voltaire.” This is followed by an excerpt from Voltaire’s 1747 work  and then by Poe’s 1844 “The Purloined Letter” to illustrate their similarities. At this point, detective fiction isn’t originally American or British. Nope, it’s French.

One year later, in a Scribner’s essay titled “Poe and the Detective Story,” Brander Matthews returned paternity to Poe, even after acknowledging that — when it comes to literary history — “beginnings of a species, or of a sub-species, are obscure more often than not; and they are rarely to be declared with certainty.” Despite admitting the difficulties of pinning down literary firsts, he goes on to bluntly state that “the history of the detective story begins with the publication of the ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’. . . .” Matthews grants Honorable Mention to Voltaire for Zadig, but he adds that the logical method illustrated there was presented “casually, playfully, and with satiric intent.” In contrast, Poe presented that logical method “seriously and…as the mainspring of his story.” Okay, then. Detective fiction is American again.

Essay 3 - Poe 10
I taught a research class that included an infographic unit. Not wanting my students to have all the fun, I attempted one of my own.

And yet, so far, the birth of detective fiction is very male, which is odd considering how women had been leaving their mark on the literary world even before the days of Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austin. In Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre, Lucy Sussex gives ample evidence that women played a significant role in developing the genre. Here’s how I discuss this in the Introduction for the forthcoming Ghostly Clients & Demonic Culprits: The Roots of Occult Detective Fiction:

[Sussex] is particularly interested in illuminating the role that women authors had in developing mystery fiction, first tracking the generic roots through several non-fictional, fictional, and theatrical works. Along the way, Sussex points out, “There is actually more mystery in [Ann Radcliffe’s 1774 novel The Mysteries of] Udolpho than in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, hailed as the first novel to feature a detective,” and Radcliffe’s novel beat Godwin’s to publication by several weeks. Sussex goes on to say that Catherine Crowe’s Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence (1841) is a murder mystery with three female detectives published four months before Poe introduced readers to C. Auguste Dupin with ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’

To challenge the Poe-as-inventor claim, Sussex advocates abandoning a monogenic approach to the birth of genres, which she explains as treating a new genre as “the achievement of a single author.” In its place, we should use an approach that is polygenic or “less via an individual genius than collectively, even organically.” This rings very true to me, since authors continually emulate, “borrow from,” and try to improve upon previous authors. Furthermore, thinking in polygenic terms accounts for other works that literary historians have cited as pre-Poe mystery fiction, including E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri (1819) and two anonymous works published in 1827,  Richmond; Or, Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Officer and “The Rifle.” Hmm. The list now adds Hoffmann, a German, to the French, British, and American authors. One is tempted to think of the emergence of detective fiction as internationally polygenic.

This growing list of pre-Poe detective fiction also includes two more stories — both published in the U.S. not too long before “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” — that strike me as especially interesting. I’ve already discussed why in my post about William Evans Burton’s “The Secret Cell” and Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead.” My hunch is there are additional works out there worthy of consideration, but all of these candidates together raise the question of how the Poe-as-inventor myth came about in the first place. Did the wide popularity of Sherlock Holmes lead some critics to insist that detective stories were a distinctly American invention, something like the Jazz of literature? Was it a product of thinking about literary history and nascent genres in tidy, monogentic terms? Did it have something to do with what Poe added to those early glimmers when he introduced C. Auguste Dupin, a detective who leans harder on logical thinking than on courage, leadership, patience, an eagle-eye, dumb luck, and the other characteristics that make those earlier detective characters successful crime-solvers?

This, then, might be the real Poe uncertainty: what gave birth to the claim that Poe gave birth to detective fiction? As I mention in my post about Poe’s birthplace, I suspect his ghost finds any mystification regarding this issue very amusing indeed.

Creepy GIF-source

P.S. Those who are fascinated by Poe’s work, his life, and his world — and who don’t mind an occasional chuckle — might enjoy The Lost Limericks of Edgar Allan Poe, published by Brom Bones Books. In addition, my editing work on Ghostly Clients & Demonic Culprits is going well. It should be available by late summer.

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