The historical context of Edgar Allan Poe is always worth noting when discussing his work. The United States was plagued by Tuberculosis and chattel slavery. This comes across in his poetry through a variety of motifs. Do you remember reading Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (or, perhaps, having it read to you)? I believe this particular poem is a not-so-subtle commentary on race, racial purity, and the transmission of property (among other things) within a traditional line of people. I will tell you why.
Do you recall what was so remarkable about the Usher race? The narrator immediately pulls us into a gloomy scene as he describes a long day of traveling by horseback until he was finally “within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”* He then describes his childhood friendship with the proprietor of the house and continues to note, “the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch.”* The remarkable thing about the Usher race is, in part, the fact that it made sense for the narrator to call it a race instead of just a family. No new branches from the stem of that family line means, well, as the narrator explains, “in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain.”* The Usher bloodline was kept pure, so to speak. It never varied. The narrator denotes this lack of variation as a deficiency. After all, he is referring to a lack. The Usher race lacked deviation. It lacked diversity.
The narrator considers “this deficiency…while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other.”* The narrator is looking upon what he calls the “melancholy House of Usher” as he considers the connection between the lack of genetic diversity, the character of the Ushers, and the result of these things after centuries of continuation without variation. The narrator also considers the connection between the house and the family to be as unyieldingly entrenched in sameness. He explains that, “the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the ‘House of Usher’.”* The estate and the bloodline bore the same name and ultimately referred to the same thing. And, of course, the title The Fall of the House of Usher refers to the falling of the Usher race as well as to the crumbling fall of the estate as it crushes its proprietors after one fell atop the other. So, the story ends, and we are left with the notion that an attempt to keep others from crossing our borders might eventually lead to self-destruction.
Doctor of Philosophy
Edgar Allan Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/932/932-h/932-h.htm)