It’s easy to think of Edgar Allen Poe as the Master of the Macabre or the Grand General of the Grotesque (okay, so that second one we just invented, but the sentence seemed like it was incomplete without it). But are you aware that he had quite the wicked wit bubbling among the grisly imagery and metaphors in his brain? Well, he did.
In fact, many scholars have studied his humor in depth. One, Sorbonne Professor Roger Asselineau, claims that Poe “…chose to laugh at his miseries rather than cry. His black humor is the courageously camouflaged expression of [his] despair…” (Roger Asselineau, “Introduction,” Edgar Poe: Choix de Contes [Paris: Aubier, 1958], p. 88). That sounds really depressing if you think about it, so let’s not go there. Besides, he could be wrong. Many other scholars see Poe’s work as irony, that his serious stuff could be read on several levels, including a darkly funny ironic one.
Outside the realm of scholarly arguments, though, it’s commonly agreed that his early writings, his satiric poems and burlesque writings, were simply quite funny. Among them is the short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” which Poe published in Graham’s Magazine in 1845. The story, in essence, is about how patients at an asylum overtake their hospital and trade places with their doctors. While not exactly a laugh-out-loud, knee-slapping tale it is considered a satirical commentary on American democracy as well as a critique of medical practices contemporary to Poe. And the naive lad who narrates the story just doesn’t “get it” at the end, when the reader does, which is a funny kind of thing. See, (spoiler alert–skip to the next paragraph if you want to be surprised by the end of the story), it’s obvious there is no real Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, but the narrator, who wants to know more about the special treatment they supposedly gave to patients, ends the tale with: “I have only to add that, although I have searched every library in Europe for the works of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, I have, up to the present day, utterly failed in my endeavors at procuring [a book that describes their techniques].”
Not all of Poe’s humor is “dark.” In fact many of his early poems could be considered lampoons. Here’s one he wrote in 1843 about an unpopular instructor at Westpoint who was well-known for going overboard when making reports on others for breaking rules:
Lines on Joe Locke:
As for Locke, he is all in my eye,
May the d — l right soon for his soul call.
He never was known to lie —
In bed at reveille “roll call.”
John Locke was a notable name;
Joe locke is a greater; in short,
The former was well known to fame,
But the latter’s well known “to report.”
So the next time you think of Poe, if dark and gorey images come to mind, lighten them up a little by remembering even he was once a snarky teen who disrespected his superiors.