The Poe’s unfortunately neglected tale “The Man that
The recent International Poe conference saw a number of panels and individual presentations dedicated to examining the author’s works in their social and historical contexts, suggesting that contemporary Poe criticism is moving in a cultural direction long overlooked by scholars and critics.
With no less than two full panels devoted specifically to issues of race in Poe’s writing, and other papers addressing issues of cultural identity, gender politics, Poe’s relationship to American literary nationalism, and the author’s ties to both antebellum society and Jacksonian democracy, this conference provided overwhelming evidence of a current desire to emplace Poe more specifically within his cultural and historical milieu. In a broader sense, such attention to the historical and cultural dynamics of Poe’s writing suggests increased attention of late to Poe’s own Americanness. This critical trend toward assessing Poe as a distinctly American writer has, of course, also informed such excellent recent works as Terence Whalen’s Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses (1999) and the essays collected by Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe (1995). This paper represents an attempt to further such inquiry into the American “face” of Poe by examining the ways in which Poe’s unfortunately neglected tale “The Man that Was Used Up” complicates the author’s position in relation to American racial and national politics. One of Poe’s most biting satirical pieces, this tale raises vexing questions regarding the connections between matters of race, masculinity, and national identity as these concepts were imagined and constructed in Jacksonian America.
A minor tale in the canon of Poe’s short fiction, “The Man That Was Used Up” was first published in the August, 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and subsequently revised and published twice more in Poe’s lifetime, first in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), and, finally, in the 9 August 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal. In this odd story, which chronicles the compromised stature of a military hero of the Indian Wars, Poe makes what would seem to be one of his most scathing, if indirect, commentaries on contemporary American politics. Specifically, the tale evokes the troubled relationship between the oppressive racial policies of the United States in the Age of Jackson and the burgeoning sense of national purpose and unity embodied in the figure of the robust, heroic, Jacksonian “self-made man.” Composed at a time when the United States was embroiled in the Second Seminole War (1835-42), among the longest and costliest of the Indian Wars, the story positions its central figure, Brevet Brigadier General John A.
B.C. Smith, as both a valorous hero and, ultimately, vanquished victim of a recent brutal campaign against the “Bugaboo” and “Kickapoo” Indians.1 Both the description of this campaign as the “late tremendous swamp-fight away down South” and Smith’s ambivalent status as hero and victim call to mind the brutality and the seeming futility of the Second Seminole War. Moreover, Poe’s inclusion of the character Pompey, a black slave who ministers to Smith, complicates further the racial dynamics of the tale by invoking the increasingly contentious issue of southern slavery. Published at a time when the administration of Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, continued to struggle not only with Indian Removal but also with the precarious balance between state’s rights and preservation of the union particularly as this conflict was impacted by the ongoing slavery debate Poe’s tale anticipates a thematic concern that would recur in the writing of such American Renaissance authors as Melville and Stowe: the conflicted relationship between a hierarchical politics of racial dominance and the building of a unified American nation.
The story centers on the quest of Poe’s unnamed narrator to penetrate what he perceives to be an air of mystery surrounding the General and identify the “something remarkable” he senses in Smith’ s character. Upon first being introduced to General Smith by a mutual acquaintance at an unspecified “public meeting,” the narrator immediately becomes fascinated by him, and in particular by his manly form. In fetishistic fashion, Poe’s narrator casts his gaze over Smith’s body, describing in detail the perfection of the General’s person. The narrator’s fascination in the General is undiminished by the latter’s banal discourse, as Smith holds forth in vague but animated fashion on the “wonderfully inventive age” in which they are fortunate enough to be living. Indeed, Poe’s narrator seems so taken by the grandeur of Smith’s physical being that he allows himself to be drawn in by this lecture on the “march of invention,” concluding that “I was not only pleased but really instructed. I never heard a more fluent talker, or a man of greater general information” (49).
2 Nevertheless, the narrator who concedes that he is “constitutionally nervous,” and that “the slightest appearance of mystery…puts me at once into a pitiable state of agitation” (46) remains troubled by what he refers to as an “odd air of je ne sais quoi which hung about my new acquaintance” (47). Determined to get to the bottom of the Smith mystery, the narrator engages over the course of the tale a series of interlocutors all acquaintances and devotees of the famous war-hero in order to come to a fuller understanding of the mysterious General. In remarkably similar phrasing, each conversant praises Smith’s “prodigies of valor” in the recent “horrid affair” with the Bugaboo and Kickapoo Indians, who are described in turn as “wretches,” “savages,” and “terrible creatures.
” Moreover, each interviewee shares the General’s devotion to the current “wonderfully inventive age.” Exasperated after this series of interviews over the fact that he has made no progress in solving the riddle of General Smith, the narrator eventually decides to “go to the fountain head” himself and interrogate the General in person. When the narrator’s quest leads him at last to Smith’s quarters, he is astonished and utterly dismayed to discover that the fabled war hero has been literally rent to pieces by his antagonists, the Bugaboos and Kickapoos; in contrast to the magnificent physical being he had met previously, upon entering Smith’s quarters he hears the General’s voice emanating from an “exceedingly odd looking bundle of something” lying on the floor. More troubling yet is the General’s reconstruction: the narrator watches in horror as Smith, with Pompey’s assistance, “rebuilds” himself, piece by prosthetic piece, from the bundle of rubbish into his former grandiose physical stature. Ironically, Poe’s narrator has discovered this celebrated man of magnificent parts to be precisely that: an utterly artificial, store-bought collection of manufactured body parts, assembled for public display by the guiding hand of the slave Pompey.While this closing image of a suddenly re-embodied form marks General Smith as something of a thematic counterpart to such other of Poe’s revivified figures as Madeline Usher and the lady Ligeia, several factors distinguish the closing of this story from the author’s more familiar ruminations on the death of the beautiful woman. For one thing, Poe seems to play the ending of this tale simply for laughs, using the comical image of the dismembered Smith as the “odd looking bundle of something” which the narrator at one point unwittingly kicks in his impatience and disgust to complete his parody of an empty-headed war-hero and his would-be acolyte.
Smith also stands in contrast to Madeline Usher and Ligeia because, of course, he is a man, and not just any man at that: as a hero of the ongoing Indian Wars and a revered figure in the community, Smith is presented as a man of some parts, indeed a virile, robust figure whose heroic status and enthusiasm for the onward march of civilization’s “progress” mark him as an ideal model of Jacksonian manhood. And it is in this characterization that we can locate the target of Poe’s satire in this biting tale: that is, through the dismembered form of General Smith, Poe offers an image that serves as a scathing critique of the ideologies of manhood and citizenship that held sway in the Jacksonian era. With his depiction of Smith, Poe offers a revisionary look at the figure of the American, imagining a body and, by extension, a body politic whose illusion of wholeness or unity is both compromised and tenuously held together by contemporary race politics. Given the rich thematic density and political relevance of “The Man That Was Used Up,” it remains a curious fate that the tale occupies a minor place in the canon of Poe’s short fiction, having garnered scant attention from scholars over the years. While a number of critics have speculated on the possible target of Poe’s satire, suggesting that the author was lampooning any one of a number of contemporary political and military heroes such as William Henry Harrison, General Winfield Scott, then-Vice President Richard M.
Johnson, or even Andrew Jackson himself others have read the tale as a metafictional commentary on the nature of writing and criticism, seeing in the piecemeal figure of General Smith the image of an author abused and “used up,” torn to pieces by his critics.3 While each of these approaches to the tale has its merits, neither takes into full account the force of the final image of the story, which reveals the General – a “heroic” figure symbolizing the robust Jacksonian American – to be nothing more than an assemblage of manufactured parts, a contrivance reliant for his very existence on the ministrations of his slave.That is to say, previous critical appraisals of this odd tale or dismissals of it, and there has been no shortage of those seem to pay little attention to the force of history as it impacts Poe’s narrative. On the one hand, it is not difficult to see why readers of the tale have disregarded the notion that in “The Man That Was Used Up” Poe was offering a serious commentary on the inequities of American society, for at this point in his career Poe was hardly thought of as a writer committed to portraying the American scene. Indeed, J. Gerald Kennedy has argued that at least throughout the decade of the 1830s, Poe could be thought of as “the least American of antebellum authors.
“4 Foregoing the native settings often embraced by his contemporaries, Poe tended to set his tales either in Europe or in an undefined imaginative landscape whose contours nonetheless resembled the Old World far more so than the new. Poe’s critical writings only support this sense of his willful disengagement from even antagonistic relationship to the American scene. As Leon Jackson argues, Poe’s attitude toward American literary nationalism in the 1830s was essentially “one of deep and consistent contempt.”5 Given such a disposition, Poe hardly seemed a likely candidate for suddenly becoming a committed critic of U.S. politics and culture. Nevertheless, as Kennedy has pointed out, “The Man That Was Used Up” marks the beginning of Poe’s interest in the American setting, foretelling a shift toward increasing emphasis on American themes in his later writing.
6 Given his subsequent career trajectory, it might prove instructive to reconsider the historical and cultural contexts of this tale, foregoing an inquiry into the precise biographical referent behind Poe’s General Smith in favor of a broader reconsideration of the historical forces that impinge upon this first specifically “American” tale of Poe’s.*Such an effort toward an historical and cultural reading of the tale is not without its hazards, of course. It ought to be noted, for example, that Poe’s propensity for literary playfulness and trickery to say nothing of the often intentionally obscure settings of his tales works to undercut from the outset any attempt at culturally-informed critiques of his fiction. Rachman and Rosenheim remind us of this in their introduction to The American Face, rightly pointing out that Poe’s authorial strategies present a particular challenge to the cultural critic: “Anyone who would locate Poe’s writing within a cultural context must confront the way his work tends to advertise itself as ethereal and otherworldly, or avowedly timeless, or preoccupied with aesthetic, cognitive, and linguistic categories or psychopathological conditions.”7 Such a caveat bears consideration in the case of “The Man That Was Used Up,” a story in many ways driven by the same indeterminacy, self-reflexivity, and literary gamesmanship that informs so much of Poe’s fiction. Characterized by repetition, misdirection, and a dubious sense of closure, this story hardly announces itself at first glance as a pronounced bit of sociopolitical commentary. And yet, despite its thematic and structural open-endedness, “The Man That Was Used Up” does reference historically specific concerns of antebellum America, positioning the emblematic Jacksonian hero precisely between the very structures of sanctioned racial domination Indian removal and slavery that both tacitly informed and worked to undercut the Jacksonian vision of a unified, representative republic.
And if, as Kennedy has asserted, Poe’s subsequent American tales would tend to “take the form of hoaxes or quizzes on national credulity,” then I would suggest that the playful indeterminacy of “The Man That Was Used Up” belies just such a stinging social commentary on “national credulity.”8 In this, his first specifically “American” tale in terms of both setting and concerns, Poe quite literally deconstructs his hero, in the process figuratively deconstructing the mystique of rugged individualism central to the Jacksonian vision of the American citizenry. First published half way through Van Buren’s term as president and ten years into the Jacksonian era, Poe’s tale bristles with anti-Jackson sentiment, emerging not only as an indictment of the political ignorance underlying the Jacksonian tenet of rule “by the masses,” but also as a rumination on the effects of the racial oppression that administrations of the 1830s both institutionalized and attempted to ignore.
Subtitled “A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign,” “The Man That Was Used Up” evokes the contemporary horrors of the Second Seminole War (1835-42), the latest and one of the most controversial of the Indian Wars resulting from Jackson’s aggressive policy of removing Native American tribes to lands west of the Mississippi. Costing between 10 and 30 million dollars and resulting in 1,500 U.S. casualties and devastating losses for the Seminole tribe over its seven year span, the Second Seminole War threw into relief the ramifications of the Indian removal policy.9 Indeed, this war offered compelling evidence that Indian removal a practice that had been gaining momentum since the early part of the century and was made official U.S. government policy with the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, Jackson’s second year in office in many ways compromised the very nation it was purported to be working toward defending and uniting.
In fact, the complex racial politics of the Second Seminole War mark this particular campaign as a challenge to national unity on a number of levels. To begin with, the very policy of Indian removal remained contentious and divisive throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, and its institutionalization through the Removal Act was achieved only by a slim margin of votes and after much congressional debate.10 For Jackson, and Van Buren after him, at stake in the removal policy was nothing less than the preservation of the union itself; as their rigorous support and defense of a strong national removal policy indicates, Jackson and his followers saw a strong centralized policy on the Indian question as a means of heading off potential regional conflicts over the issue.
And in a period that saw growing regional discord over the question of slavery, as well as a specific threat to national union in the form of the South Carolina nullification controversy, such concerns over regional discord were no doubt warranted. Lobbying for the Removal Act in his first annual message (December 8, 1829), Jackson argued that institutionalizing his removal policy as federal law was a necessary step toward maintaining states’ rights within the union. Wishing to avoid a showdown between the federal government and state legislatures over Indian claims of sovereignty in various parts of the nation, Jackson couched his plea for a national removal policy in terms that underscored the connections between Indian Removal and a united body politic: “A state cannot be dismembered by Congress or restricted in the exercise of her constitutional power,” Jackson argued, suggesting that a centralized removal policy would actually support states’ autonomy by avoiding the prospect of ad-hoc federal intervention in states’ Indian affairs.11 Such circuitous logic demonstrates the precarious balance of federal and state power Jackson was attempting to effect through the passage of the Removal Act.12 Jackson’s corporeal trope seems only fitting, given his desire to maintain a unified body politic in the United States, albeit one predicated on exclusion and removal of the native population.
Indeed, Jackson’s compulsive dedication to Indian removal he spearheaded the movement from his first removal campaign against the Creeks in 1813 onward suggests that the policy formed a foundation of Jackson’s vision of national identity. In a larger sense, Indian removal served to shore up a nascent sense of national unity figured through unified racial identity. As Dana Nelson notes, the removal of Native Americans was one of the processes supporting the growth a phenomenon she compellingly terms “national manhood,” or the “imagined fraternity” of American white males. Nelson argues that a vague, as-yet ill-defined sense of “white/national manhood” that began to take shape in the age of Jackson “found one means for stabilizing its internal divisions and individual anxieties via imagined projections into, onto, against Indian territories, Indian bodies, Indian identities.”13 That is, the ongoing expansion into Indian territories, with its consequent displacement/replacement of native peoples, worked to confer upon white America increasingly “authentic” status as native Americans. In this regard, a burgeoning sense of white/national identity was reliant upon the native Other, even as it necessitated the removal or destruction of this Other.
Ultimately, then, the Jacksonian removal policy can be interpreted as the logical end of a process of usurping native identity into a growing racialized sense of national identity. And if, as Leon Jackson argues, the complex relationship between whites and Indians in this cultural exchange was “fraught with tension as Self and Other threatened to collapse into one another with every shift in perspective,” then the national policy of Indian removal worked systematically to deflate this tension, conferring “native” status on white Americans by erasing the actual native population from the landscape altogether.14 Indian removal thus served both political and psychological functions in the building of a unified American nation. The adherence to a strong national removal policy by the Jackson and Van Buren administrations and its continuance under the subsequent administrations of Whigs Benjamin Harrison and John Tyler suggests the central role Indian removal played in the development of American nationhood in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the case of the Second Seminole War, the psychological and racial politics of removal became more tangled and complex, due to the large numbers of escaped black slaves living with and fighting alongside the Seminoles. From as early as the late-seventeenth century, Florida lands that would later become Seminole strongholds had been a safe haven for escaped slaves from Georgia and South Carolina.
15 By the time of the Second Seminole War, Seminoles and escaped slaves enjoyed a relatively harmonious coexistence, and escaped slaves fought vigorously in the war to defend their freedom.16 Because of this unique racial and political situation, the Second Seminole War excited regional concerns over the status of fugitive slaves as much as over the removal of Indians. As historian Michael Paul Rogin notes, American commander Winfield Scott was charged with a dual mission in the campaign; he sought not only to secure the surrender and removal of the Seminoles, but also to capture and return to slave holders all blacks living in Seminole lands, including children of escaped slaves.17 Subsequent American commander General Philip Jesup, in a Dec. 9, 1836 letter to U.S.
Secretary of War Benjamin F. Butler, spelled out the centrality of race issues in the war, as well as their possible ramifications: “This, you may be assured, is a negro, not an Indian war; and if it be not speedily put down, the South will feel the effects of it on their slave population.”18 A controversial campaign from the outset, the Second Seminole War only highlighted the fractious racial politics of the era, exacerbating regional and ideological disputes that in turn threatened the union itself. Nevertheless, against this troubled backdrop of divisive national politics, the Jacksonian mystique of masculinity posited a unifying image in the figure of the robust common man, committed to diligent labor and national progress. Indeed, as Michael Kimmel has argued, the ideology of Jacksonian masculinity served to efface the brutal racial politics of the age by implicitly sanctioning the “annihilating or controlling” of threatening “others.”19 As a case in point, Jackson repeatedly cloaked the brutal policy of Indian Removal in paternalistic rhetoric; as Rogin has demonstrated, this rhetorical strategy, while infantilizing Indians and thus justifying their removal from the culture at large, also reflected a broader, psychological desire to envision the young nation in distinctly masculinist terms.20 At the center of this vision was, of course, Jackson himself, who from his ascent to the presidency onward became, in the words of David Pugh, “this nation’s first official prototype of the manliness ethos.
“21 With his humble beginnings, staunch spirit of individualism, and heroic war record, Jackson emerged as the ideal figurehead for a new cult of masculinity that served as a uniting force for the growing nation. And yet, the very policies Jackson pursued for the sake of preserving the union Indian removal and the tacit support of southern slavery only heightened regional conflicts within the nation. What this growing regional discord revealed was that the Jacksonian mystique of rugged masculinity however pervasive and influential it was could not fully conceal the realities of the exploitative and even genocidal racial policies upon which it was reliant. It is precisely at this confounding nexus of racial politics and gender mythology that Poe situates his critique of Jacksonian citizenship in “The Man That was Used Up.” *In the figure of Brevet Brigadier General John A.B.C.
Smith, Poe fashioned a character who serves to expose the contradictions inherent in the ideology of Jacksonian manhood. Of his status as a model of Jacksonian masculinity, the case seems clear enough: given the General’s fondness for mouthing encomiums to progress and to the rapid “march of invention,” and the narrator’s own fascination with the perfection of Smith’s manly form, it requires not much of a stretch to identify the General as the epitome of Jacksonian manhood: a virile and energetic if unreflective – adherent to the mercantile, progressivist ethos of the day. Nevertheless, by revealing the utterly compromised nature of Smith’s masculinity he has been “used up,” dismembered by the Indians he was charged with removing, and he relies on the manipulations of his slave to achieve wholeness again Poe gives the lie to the Jacksonian mythology of the “self-made man.” For Smith, unmade and unmanned by his warfare with the Indians and continually remade by Pompey, serves to reflect in a larger sense the contradictions of the Jacksonian body politic. That is, Smith’s dismembered form suggests Poe’s revisionary take on the evolving mystique of “national manhood”: the General is a representative figure after all, but a figure reflecting a union compromised by its own racial divisiveness, a vulnerable illusion of wholeness whose fragile stability is undercut by its own oppressive racial politics.In effecting his critique of Jacksonian national manhood, Poe from the outset focuses his narrative around the issue of Smith’s masculinity.
After recalling the “anxious and tremulous embarrassment” that he experienced on first meeting Smith, the narrator recounts the scene, indicating that his own embarrassment was born of his fascination in and attraction to Smith’s body. First describing him as a “presence singularly commanding,” the narrator goes on to recount, in minute detail, every aspect of Smith’s physical form. Beginning at the General’s head featuring “hair that would have done honor to a Brutus” and “the most brilliantly white of all conceivable teeth” and proceeding downward to consider the rest of Smith’s body, including a bust that would bring a “blush of conscious inferiority” to Apollo and the “ne plus ultra of good legs,” the narrator systematically re-embodies Smith from memory, a telling gesture that stands in direct contrast to the close of the tale.
(46-47) A passionate rendering of Smith’s physical form, this long opening passage is notable for its remarkable similarity to the opening of “Ligeia”; indeed, as G.R. Thompson notes, both the narrator’s approach to and passionate fervor in recreating from memory the physicality of Smith, considered in light of his eventual discovery of the utter artificiality of the General’s body, marks him as something of a “comic Doppleganger of the narrator of Ligeia.”22 But Poe’s attention to Smith’s physicality here amounts to more than simply an intertextual inside joke, instead also setting the political terms behind the eventual exposure of Smith as a fraud. The ultimate disassembly of Smith emerges as a politically charged moment precisely because the General is depicted, by both the narrator and others he encounters, not only as a perfect physical specimen but also a model of valor and rugged heroism. Worth noting as well is the fact that Poe’s dismemberment of General Smith stands as more than merely an attack on a contemporary political or military hero, in that it also works toward undercutting, in a broader sense, the ideology of Jacksonian society that saw its promise in the figure of the robust, virile, “self-made” man.
For as much as Smith is revered as a hero, Poe consciously sets him up as a representative man as well, a characterization the author captures through the appropriation of Smith’s interests and even his speech patterns by those who admire him. Just as the General is fond of reflecting optimistically on the “wonderful age” of “progress” and mechanical invention in which he lives a trait which itself marks him as a model Jacksonian so too do his admirers adopt his interests; as the narrator goes from one friend to another, trying to discover the mystery behind the magnificence of General Smith, each person reiterates the General’s favorite assertion, that “we live in a wonderfully inventive age.”23 There is a good deal of irony in this bit of ventriloquism, given the eventual revelation that the age of invention has superseded, even created, the man who praises it. At the same time, the unreflective adherence to Smith’s credo by all whom he encounters characterizes the General as a representative figure of the age.
Daniel Hoffman has noted as much, arguing that Smith, in the “vulgarity of his spirit, is the Man of the Hour, the Man of the Nineteenth Century,” and a “type of the national character.”24All the more telling, then, are Smith’s vulnerability and compromised position, traits which are gradually revealed through the feints, misdirections, and half-statements provided by the narrator’s friends as he seeks, throughout the tale, to unravel the mystery behind the General. While he interviews a series of acquaintances concerning Smith, all the narrator can learn, repeatedly, is that Smith is a “great man” who has somehow suffered in the “horrid affair” of battle with the “savage” Bugaboos and Kickapoos.
For each time he nears learning the truth about Smith, his conversation is interrupted, thus delaying the revelation of Smith’s true identity until the narrator’s encounter with him at the close of the tale. And while this repeated pattern of interruption serves to prolong the narrator’s ignorance, each break in conversation also highlights the duplicity of Smith’s image; while Joan Tyler Mead astutely notes that the first two of these interruptions, one from a Reverend preaching from the book of Job and the second from an actor on stage playing Iago, both evoke literary allusions “that suggest deception is a part of life,” it is a literary allusion that comprises yet another disruption in conversation that may be the most telling of them all.25 As he is about to learn the true nature of Smith’s character from one Miss Pirouette, this conversation is interrupted by a woman who wishes the narrator to settle a dispute “touching the title of a certain poetical drama of Lord Byron’s” (52). She wants to settle a disagreement with a friend, who mistakenly guesses that the title of Byron’s great verse drama is “Man-Friday,” rather than “Manfred,” but the narrator assures her that the true title is “Man-Friday.” Another telling intertextual moment in the tale, this replacement of Byron’s solitary hero with a reference to the valet to Defoe’s Crusoe presages the revelation of Smith to be anything but the independent, self-made man he appears to be; for as we and the narrator soon learn, Smith is less Manfred than he is Crusoe, less the exalted, self-sufficient individual than a figure dependent upon his “Man-Friday” for his very existence.
Poe reveals the extent of Smith’s vulnerability in the astounding final scene, when the narrator confronts the General in his bedroom. Reeling from the shock of discovering Smith to be the “odd-looking bundle” that he had kicked in disgust upon entering the room, the narrator watches in both fascination and horror as Smith, aided by Pompey, assembles himself into the magnificent form that had enraptured the narrator upon their first meeting. As the narrator chronicles Smith’s assembly, from the ground up a reversal of the narrator’s top-down description of the General at the outset of the tale Smith himself remains animated, praising the manufacturers of each part of his anatomy as he screws the various appendages into place. Smith’s vertical reassembly is not the only reversal effected in this scene; in addition, the General’s status as a “hero” of the Indian Wars repeated to the narrator throughout the tale by all of his interlocutors is undercut by the monologue Smith offers, as he reconstitutes himself, concerning his suffering in the war. For aside from removing his arms and legs, the General notes that the Bugaboos and Kickapoos had also scalped him, smashed his teeth down his throat with the “butt end of a rifle,” gouged out his eyes and cut out “at least seven-eighths” of his tongue. (55-56) Parallel to this telling reversal between the perception and reality of the “Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo campaign” is the suggestion of a reversal in the master-slave relationship between Smith and Pompey. For Smith is helpless and ruined without the assistance of Pompey, who, we are told, handles his reassembly of the General with “the knowing air of a horse-jockey” (56).
And while Smith attempts to maintain his position of supremacy, belittling and deriding Pompey throughout the process of his re-embodiment, the latter returns the disdain: when the narrator upon entering the room inquires into Smith’s whereabouts, Pompey bursts into fits of laughter, and Poe frames Pompey in an image that underscores the physical and psychological violence inherent in the master-slave relationship, as well as in its reversal. As Pompey reels with derisive laughter over the fate of the general, the narrator observes the slave “with his mouth fairly extended from ear to ear, and with his forefinger held up close to his face, and levelled at the object of my apprehension, as if he was taking aim at it with a pistol” (54). Here we might take note of another intertextual connection: Pompey, like the character of Jupiter in Poe’s other tale specifically referencing the southern slave holding tradition, “The Gold Bug” (1843), contemplates a gesture of violence toward his master. Pompey’s gesture, of course, is merely a pantomime; Jupiter, on the other hand, at one point prepares a “huge stick” with which he threatens to “chastise” LeGrand with a “flogging.” Nonetheless, Poe’s symbolic reversal of the master-slave relationship is, if anything, more dramatic in the case of Pompey and Smith.
For in contrast to Jupiter, who throughout “The Gold Bug” remains utterly subservient to LeGrand, Pompey has assumed stewardship over Smith’s very being; hence, his feigned violence toward the General only underscores the dynamics of their relationship. Between Smith and Pompey, the master-slave relationship has indeed come full circle: Smith is reliant on Pompey for his mere existence. The final scene in Smith’s bedroom offers a series of stark images emphasizing the General’s utter debasement, from his position as an “odd-looking bundle” being kicked across the room by the narrator to Pompey’s gesture with the pistol and another vision of Pompey, leaning over Smith’s form with his hands in Smith’s mouth, literally putting the voice back into the General. And while Smith does regain his imperious tone upon his eventual full reassembly, he hardly regains his heroic status; as Hoffman notes, in the end Smith proves only to be “a mechanismus, a puppet, himself a product of the very mechanical ingenuity whose mindless praise comprises his only philosophy.”26 Perhaps more significantly, the revelation of Smith’s dismemberment leaves the narrator’s position compromised as well; for though he satisfies himself that he has solved the mystery of Smith’s identity, realizing at last that he was “THE MAN THAT WAS USED UP,” the narrator is left profoundly affected by his vision of the ruined General.
Shocked into silence by what he sees “Devil the word I could say” (55), he muses all the narrator can manage to do is repeat verbatim each of the exclamations the General makes as he puts himself back together. In his unintentional act of mimicry, Poe’s narrator finds himself becoming one with the series of Smith’s admirers who had mindlessly echoed the General’s words and sentiments throughout the tale. The narrator’s final position thus suggests that Smith’s dismemberment and artificial reassembly are symbolic of the larger fragility of the society he epitomizes. That is, the narrator finds himself unmanned as well after witnessing the dismembered form of the General, and is only able, as Mead notes, to “echo aloud every sense of the General’s build up, because symbolically it is his own reassembly.”27With the deconstruction and shocking re-embodiment of his Jacksonian ubermensch, Brevet Brigadier General John A.
B.C. Smith, Poe effects what I would suggest is a rather stinging attack on both the posturing vacuousness of Jacksonian Democrats and the hypocrisy of contemporary racial politics. The first of these assertions may be more readily accepted by most than the second. After all, substantial critical effort has been put into demonstrating that Poe was anything but sensitive to racial issues.
Quite to the contrary, Poe has long been held as both a racist and a defender of slavery. Furthermore, such solid bits of textual evidence as his grossly stereotyped depiction of Jupiter in “The Gold Bug,” for example, or his portrayal of the “ferocious-looking” half-Indian Dirk Peters in Pym, only serve to support such readings of Poe’s racial attitudes. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that a good deal of the ammunition behind attacks on Poe’s racism comes from perceptions of the author as a defender of slavery; this notion, in turn, typically hinges on attributions of the infamous Paulding-Drayton review from the April, 1836 Southern Literary Messenger to Poe himself. In light of Terence Whalen’s brilliant and thorough debunking of this attribution in the recent Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses, it may indeed be time to reconsider Poe’s attitude toward slavery and race matters in general.
Nevertheless, it is not my intention to claim that Poe constructed, in “The Man That Was Used Up” or elsewhere, an impassioned plea on behalf of either slaves or Native Americans. Instead, what I hope to have suggested is that the racial dynamics of this tale operate in the service of the author’s larger satirical aim: taking to task the simplistic contemporary vision of a unified nation of self-made men. For A.B.C.
Smith, cut to pieces by his Indian foes and ritualistically remade by his slave, a constructed manly facade creates and maintains the vital, tenuous illusion of wholeness. In debunking the pervasive mystique of Jacksonian masculinity, Poe seems to be saying much the same about the United States itself. If, as Leland Person has argued, “the dominant ideology of maleness in nineteenth-century America was the Jacksonian cult of masculinity and….
This mystique exaggerated ideological and psychological conflicts in American culture,” then “The Man That Was Used Up” may be most notable for the ways in which it highlights the conflicts inherent in the Jacksonian vision of both masculinity and American society.28 For, as David Leverenz has noted, the “vital relation” between classic American writers and historical context can be located in the “broad pressures of…ideology” that come to bear upon their works.
29 And while Poe was, in 1839, just beginning his fictional foray into the American scene, the broad pressures of race and gender ideology, as they manifest themselves in “The Man That Was Used Up,” make this a tale worthy of critical reevaluation. Critiquing the ideology of Jacksonian manhood by situating it within the historical context of the continued policy of Indian removal and the ongoing institution of slavery, Poe in this tale explored the troubled racial politics of “national manhood,” anticipating a thematic concern that has at various points occupied Melville, Twain, Ellison, and others. Indeed, as a direct commentary on the American cultural and political scene, Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” anticipates the very interconnections between race, gender, and national identity that would inform American literature in the American Renaissance and beyond. Notes1 Though Poe uses the name of an actual tribe, the Kickapoos would seem, for both geographical and historical reasons, an unlikely model for the events that transpire in the story.
If Poe indeed intended this tale as a timely satire, then we can safely presume the historical backdrop to be the Second Seminole War. 2 Due to Poe’s ongoing process of revision, this story appeared in three different forms: first, upon its initial publication in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, August, 1839, then in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), and finally in The Broadway Journal of 9 August 1845. This analysis and all textual references it contains are based on the version which appears in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965).
3 Included among those who speculate on the biographical target of Poe’s satire are the following: William Whipple, “Poe’s Political Satire,” University of Texas Studies in English, 25 (1956); G.R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973); and Daniel Hoffman, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972). Among those who view the tale as a metafictional commentary on the writerly life are J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987); and Scott Peeples, Edgar Allan Poe Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1998).
4 Kennedy, “The American Turn of Edgar Poe.” Paper presented at International Poe Conference, 10 October 1999. As Kennedy notes, with the exception of the early sections of Pym, Poe to this point in his career had not even given an American setting to any of his works.5 Leon Jackson, “Behold Our Literary Mohawk, Poe’: Literary Nationalism and the Indianation’ of Antebellum American Culture.” Paper presented at International Poe Conference, 10 October 1999.6 In “The American Turn,” Kennedy points out that “The Man That Was Used Up” was the first tale to which Poe gave a distinctly American setting; on the other hand, Kennedy argues that “The Gold Bug” (1843) marked the turning point toward an increased interest in American themes and settings.7 Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman, “Introduction: Beyond The Problem of Poe,'” ix-xx in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed.
S. Rosenheim and S. Rachman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995), xii.8 Kennedy, “The American Turn.”9 Jerry Keenan, in his Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars, 1492-1890 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997), notes that the war cost America “$30 million in addition to the 1,500 casualties” (207). Historian and Jackson biographer Robert V. Remini, in The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays in Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 1988), also puts the number of U.
S. soldiers killed at 1,500; however, he estimates the total cost of the war at 10 million dollars. Historian John K. Mahon, in his History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842 (Gainseville, University of Florida Press, 1967), concludes that there is “no way to be sure how many Seminoles perished in the war” (321); nevertheless, Mahon concurs with other historians of the war in noting that, after enduring losses in battle and the subsequent removal west of the Mississippi, the number of Seminoles still in Florida numbered at most 300. 10 The Removal Act passed the House by the margin of 102 votes in favor to 97 opposed.
While it passed the Senate with less opposition, this legislation clearly polarized Congress along both regional and ideological lines. For an in-depth discussion of the Removal Act and the congressional debates it spurred, see Ronald N. Satz, American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1975), especially Chapter 1, “Old Hickory Takes Command,” pp. 9-38.11 Andrew Jackson, “First Annual Message.
” pp. 35-65 in The Statesmanship of Andrew Jackson: as Told in His Writings and Speeches, Ed. Francis Newton Thorpe (New York: Tandy-Thomas Company, 1909), 58 (emphasis mine).12 As Michael Paul Rogin notes in Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York: Knopf, 1975), Jackson’s circular logic on this issue worked toward reinforcing his vision of strong centralized power: “He used states rights.
..as a weapon against the tribes, not against federal power. Just as he supported states rights against local tribes, so he supported federal rights against local states” (272).13 Dana Nelson, National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 67.14 Leon Jackson, “Behold Our Literary Mohawk.
“15 For a detailed analysis of the relationship between African-Americans and Seminoles, see Kenneth W. Porter, The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996).16 As Porter notes, “blacks were prominently involved in nearly all…major battles” of the Second Seminole War. (107).17 Rogin, Fathers and Children, 238.18 qtd. in Rogin, 238.19 Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 36.20 See Rogin’s Fathers and Children for his compelling psychoanalytic interpretation of Jackson and his Indian policies.21 David G. Pugh, Sons of Liberty: The Masculine Mind in Nineteenth-Century America (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983), xvii.22 Thompson, Poe’s Fiction, 85.23 In his depiction of the people’s unconscious mimicry of Smith, Poe hits on what Pugh has identified as a “major paradox” of the Jacksonian mystique of masculinity: that Jackson’s call for a nation of “tough independent citizens,” in its emphasis on a staunch egalitarianism, also emerged, ironically, as a “call for conformity” (23-24).24 Hoffman, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, 194.25 Joan Tyler Mead, “Poe’s The Man That Was Used Up’: Another Bugaboo Campaign,” Studies in Short Fiction, 23 (Summer 1986): 286.26 Hoffman, 195.27 Mead, 286.28 Leland S. Person, Jr., Aesthetic Headaches: Women and a Masculine Politics in Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 7.29 David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 3.