Poe's closing argument


Since the current U.S. president called his city a rodent infested mess where human beings wouldn't want to live, Edgar Allan Poe has been having a bit of a moment. 

In a song on his latest album, Bob Dylan confesses to having a "tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe and skeletons in the walls of people you know."

Saturday Night Live's cold open gives viewers Jim Carrey's Joe Biden reading from Poe's The Raven, corrected and updated for Hillary Clinton's electoral college loss to and Lil Wayne's support for Trump. 

Once upon a midnight dreary

while Trump retweeted QAnon theories....

But it's Poe's The Masque Of The Red Death that is required reading in this historical moment. Masque as homonym for mask. Red as suggestive of Orange. Death being in and on the air in this pandemic. And that's just the suggestive work of the title.

"The 'Red Death' had long devastated the country" is how the short story begins. You don't need a degree in clairvoyance to see a fable for our time taking shape. 

The story is the tale of Prince Prospero, who rules over a land ravaged by a powerful virus that kills its victims quickly, disfiguring them with scarlet stains, earning the scourge the name Red Death.

To protect himself and his court from the plague, Prospero invites these heroes and high types inside a walled castle.  

Poe writes of Prospero: 

"When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in."

Poe goes on:  

"The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion." 

And on:  

"The external world could take care of itself."

And, finally, this: 

"In the meantime, it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori..."

In all of this, the allegorically minded are forgiven for calling to mind this Associated Press photo from Amy Coney Barrett's Rose Garden superspreader masque. 

Poe unearthed sympathies between people and the structures that housed them. Famously and terrifyingly in The Fall Of The House Of Usher, Poe united the sad fate of tenant and tenement. In Masque Of The Red Death, this union of person and place happens again.

Prospero's castle layout does not follow the norms of the day, which would give his revellers, no matter what room they are in, a view of the whole colourful event thanks to moveable walls being slid back into place. Instead, Prospero's castle is more of a claustrophobic design, mirroring the duke's love of the bizarre. 


"The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect." 

Limited vision, sharp turns, novel effects—Poe neatly sums up the causes of the psychological fatigue for many over the last four years. 

Poe notes an unease felt momentarily by some of the thoughtful revellers, a discomfort they are nonetheless able to banish, until the figure of the Red Death is seen inside the castle. The intruder has gotten in—just as a number of maskless Rose Garden invitees and West Wing types have learned in our time. 

Back to fiction. The deathlike figure passes close to Prospero himself. The duke is enraged, in part by the impudence of the contagion, in part by his own cowardice. He raises a dagger to the figure, but, instead, is killed. 


"And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall." 

Data For Progress poll, U.S. Senate, South Carolina, October 27, 2020: 

Harrison 46% Graham 46%

There are, of course, very many very good reasons to read Edgar Allan Poe these dark days. Whether he predicts the fall of the white house of Trump is just a fanciful bonus. 


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