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Jacksonian Man of Parts

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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

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