Monday, July 07, 2008

Poe Eye For The Straight Gent

WE ARE NOTHING HERE at Warden's World if not eclectic. Some would say we are nothing period. Nihilists. In any event, a few months ago I bought an old book at The Strand on 12th Street, which I found outside the store where all the discount stuff is priced to move.

It had a worn green cover, with a beaten-up spine, and I could barely make out the title. On closer inspection, it was a copy of The Works Of Edgar Allan Poe. I immediately looked for a date on the title page, nothing there, and then looked for it elsewhere. Still nothing. But this sucker looked really old and I couldn't believe it was only one dollar. I would have paid at least two!

When I looked inside, I found it was actually Volume VIII of a 10-volume set. Another page indicated that I was holding No. 581
of a limited thousand-copy set published in New York by Henry W. Knight. Knowing a little something about old books, I'm gonna say this edition dates to 1910 or 1914. Just has that feel.

I guess the editors of this edition front-loaded all his best-known tales and poems into the early volumes, because Vol. VIII contains mostly lesser-known work of uneven quality. Among the short stories are The Oblong Box (about a mysterious coffin taken aboard a ship), The Man That Was Used Up (about a literally broken war veteran), The Business Man (a satire on the self-made man) and The Sphinx (a gimmicky short horror story).

Also included in the volume are a few nonfiction pieces, including one on a mechanical chess player in Richmond, Virginia, that generated a strong response (according to Wikipedia) when it first appeared in 1836.

But my favorite piece in this volume is Philosophy of Furniture, a strange little treatise that bluntly, sometimes hysterically, outlines Edgar's strong feelings about the art of interior decorating. In our modern vernacular, Poe takes no prisoners. You'd hate to see the man's powers of description unleashed on a studio apartment furnished by, say, Ikea or Gothic Cabinet Craft if he ever did return to life and subsequently started his own blog.

As in most of his more familiar prose, here Poe becomes very excitable about the subject, almost overwrought at times, and as a result we get a liberal use of dashes and italics scattered throughout as he goes about decrying the startling lack of taste found among the new nation's nouveau riche. He begins, however, by engaging in a sweeping generalization of other nations' predilections in this regard, a pattern which continues with an offhand stereotyping of America's lower rabble. Here are some highlights:
"In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture of their residences, the English are supreme. The Italians have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colors ... The Dutch have, perhaps, an indeterminate idea that a curtain is not a cabbage. In Spain they are all curtains--a nation of hangmen. The Russians do not furnish ... The Yankees alone are preposterous.

To speak less abstractedly ... first, wealth is not, in England, the loftiest object of ambition as constituting a nobility ... The people will imitate the nobility, and the result is a thorough diffusion of the proper feeling. But in America, the coins current being the sole arms of the aristocracy, their display may be said, in general, to be the sole means of aristocratic distinction; and the populace, looking always upward for models, are insensibly led to confound the two entirely separate ideas of magnificence and beauty. In short, the cost of an article of furniture has at length come to be, with us, nearly the sole test of its merit in a decorative point of view--and this test, once established, has led the way to many analogous errors, ready traceable to the one primitive folly.

There could be nothing more directly offensive to the eye of an artist than the interior of what is termed in the United States--that is to say, in Appallachia--a well-furnished apartment. Its most usual defect is a want of keeping. We speak of the keeping of a room as we would of the keeping of a picture--for both the picture and the room are amenable to those undeviating principles which regulate all varieties of art; and very nearly the same laws by which we decide on the higher merits of a painting, suffice for decision on the adjustment of a chamber.

A want of keeping is observable sometimes in the character of the several pieces of furniture, but generally in their colors or modes of adaptation to use. Very often the eye is offended by their inartistical arrangement. By undue precision, the appearance of many a fine apartment is utterly spoiled.

Curtains are rarely well disposed, or well chosen, in respect to other decorations ... Carpets are better understood of late than of ancient days, but we still very frequently err in their patterns and colors. The soul of the apartment is the carpet. From it are deduced not only the hues but the forms of all objects incumbent. A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius ... The abomination of flowers, or representations of well-known objects of any kind, should not be endured within the limits of Christendom ... As for those antique floor-cloths still occasionally seen in the dwellings of the rabble--cloths of huge, sprawling, and radiating devices, stripe-interspersed, and glorious with all hues, among which no ground is intelligible--these are but the wicked invention of a race of time-savers and money-lovers--children of Baal and worshippers of Mammon--Benthams who, to spare thought and economize fancy, first cruelly invented the Kaleidoscope, and then established joint-stock companies to twirl it by stream.

Glare is a leading error in the philosophy of American household decoration--an error easily recognized as deduced from the perversion of taste just specified. We are violently enamored of gas and of glass. The former is totally inadmissable within doors.

In the matter of glass, generally, we proceed upon false principles. Its leading feature is glitter--and in that one word how much of all that is detestable do we express! Flickering, unquiet lights are sometimes pleasing--to children and idiots always so--but in the embellishment of a room they should be scrupulously avoided ... The huge and unmeaning glass chandeliers, prism-cut, gas-lighted, and without shade, which dangle in our most fashionable drawing-rooms, may be cited as the quintessential of all that is false in taste or preposterous in folly.

The rage of glitter--because its idea has become, as we before observed, confounded with that of magnificence in the abstract--has led us, also, to the exaggerated employment of mirrors. We line our dwellings with great British plates, and then imagine we have done a fine thing. Not the slightest thought will be sufficient to convince any one who has an eye at all, of the ill effect of numerous looking-glasses, and especially of large ones ... In fact, a room with four or five mirrors arranged at random is, for all purposes of artistic show, a room of no shape at all ... The veriest bumpkin, on entering an apartment so bedizzened, would be instantly aware of something wrong, although he might be altogether unable to assign a cause for his dissatisfaction. But let the same person be led into a room tastefully furnished, and he would be startled into an exclamation of pleasuse and surprise.

It is an evil growing out of our republican institutions, that here a man of large purse has usually a very little soul which he keeps in it. The corruption of taste is a portion or a pendant of the dollar-manufacture. As we grow rich, our ideas grow rusty.

It is therefore not among our aristocracy that we must look for the spirituality of a British boudoir. But we have seen apartments in the tenure of Americans of modern means, which, in negative merit at least, might vie with any of the or-molu'd cabinets of our friends across the water. Even now, there is present in our mind's eye a small and not ostentatious chamber with whose decorations no fault can be found. The proprietor lies asleep on a sofa--the weather is cool--the time is near midnight: we will make a sketch of the room during his slumber."
Poe closes the essay by detailing the contents and arrangement of an idealized room that would suit his high standards. Let's just say Poe would have made a perfect Felix Unger if he had been born a hundred years later. One would think long and hard before rooming with Ed Poe for any duration.
This piece was first published in May 1840 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, a Philadelphia-based publication where Poe contributed stories before becoming a co-editor starting in 1839.

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