English Research Seminar: Professor Francesca Sawaya, College of William & Mary

The Garden Seminar Room, Kennedy Hall

Edgar Allan Poe’s Mermaid: Race and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination

“The mermaid resurgence” of the long nineteenth century, writes Celeste Olalquiaga, is “befuddling.” Why in the post-Enlightenment period would mermaid sightings, “fake” mermaid displays, and mermaid stories and objects increase so dramatically? In order to think about this broader transatlantic phenomenon, this talk focuses on Edgar Allan Poe’s obsession with the popular German mermaid story Undine (1811) by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte Fouqué. Poe published at least nine different critical essays either devoted solely to Undine or extolling its praises, and many of his stories and poems arguably bear traces of Undine. Indeed, the Poe scholar and editor, Burton Pollin, called Undine a “basso ostinato” in Poe’s oeuvre, playing a central role in both his “literary theory as well as his creative works.” Pollin sees Poe’s obsession as characteristic of Poe’s “delight in the land of fairy.”
By contrast, this paper particularly focuses on Poe’s interest in Undine as connected to the history of slavery and slave rebellions. The first half of this paper contextualizes Undine as a response to the Haitian Revolution and the French occupation of Germany. I trace the way Undine condenses a range of contradictory responses to slavery and slave rebellion through a fantastical account of mermaid/human love, betrayal, and revenge. The second half of the paper demonstrates why Poe found Undine a resonant model for his own work in the wake of Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 and what has been called the Great Southern Reaction of the 1830s and 1840s. I focus particularly on Poe’s “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Morella” and the ways Poe uses and revises for his own purposes the nineteenth-century’s analogy between race and gender as embodied in the mermaid.

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