Presented as “‘The Head Fell Off’: Textual and Historical Clues to reading Edgar A. Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Trianon Morgue,’” at the Society for Textual Studies Conference, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, March 2013
Abstract: In his brilliant critical analysis of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first in Edgar A. Poe’s genre-spawning trio of detective tales, literary scholar par excellence John Irwin dazzles with close-reading skills and cultural-historical erudition that rightfully place him into that same uncannily insightful realm discovered and dominated by Poe’s own masterful Parisian super sleuth. Irwin’s reading is heady stuff, the sort of criticism that ensures scholars will never read the story in question in quite the same way they had before. Irwin’s reading stands as brilliant in its way as the groundbreaking readings that Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida perform on another of Poe’s seminal detective tales, “The Purloined Letter.” Still, Irwin’s reading – powerful as it is – also provides an exemplary case that demonstrates the self-imposed limits of literary criticism deprived of the essential tools made available through textual scholarship that attends to texts as physical objects with important transmission histories.
Irwin’s critical analysis of this tale is not wrong – far from it. His insights are brilliant, essential, but neither can this essay finally stand as the ne plus ultra reading of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” because it fails to take into account the story’s textual history, the details of which lend an almost supernatural coda Irwin’s lucid explication, in which Irwin makes much of the story’s play on heads and bodies and the severing of one from another. For example, he observes how one of the story’s victims is so nearly decapitated with a straight razor that the head falls off when the police move the body, and how the secret of this locked-room puzzle hinges upon a trick nail whose head comes off to reveal that one of the windows only appears to be nailed shut.
So, compelling as Irwin’s reading may be, it neglects to acknowledge and examine the ways in which the very text of Poe’s tale has undergone a similar severing of head from body during its transmission history. Both Poe’s original handwritten manuscript and the first published version of this detective tale in Graham’s Gentleman’s Magazine include a different opening paragraph, a brief discussion of phrenology and the possibility of an organ of analysis, that future versions excise. Thus the standard “any old copy” version of Poe’s story, reproduced almost everywhere – and utilized by Irwin in his own scholarship – effectively cuts the “head” (the original first paragraph) off the “body” of story. In this conference paper, I examine the consequences of cutting off this textual head and argue that by aiding and abetting the silent editorial decapitation of Poe’s original version, the reader in fact begins to ape the violent acts of the story’s murderous orangutan.