Wójcicka, Natalia. "The Living Dead: The Uncanny And Nineteenth-Century Moral Panic Over
Zimmerman, Brett. "Poe As Amateur Psychologist: Flooding, Phobias, Psychosomatics, and The Premature Burial'." Edgar Allan Poe Review 10.1 (2009): 7-19. 19 Nov. 2012.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial”
Edgar Allan Poe had a captivating way of telling horror stories. From poetry to fiction, Poe’s diligent approach to cohesive writing and reliability to the audience set his works apart from most other American authors published during the nineteenth century. His ideas were thoroughly thought out, craftily worded, and specifically structured in attempt to terrify the reader; therefore, his success was heavily based on the audience’s perception of his work. Transitioning his creative story structures into popular themes among American society’s current affairs and social norms, Poe was able to establish a developing rapport with his readers. His works were often published in local newspapers where they were accessible to common folk living the Northeast. One way Poe was able to commandeer the attention of his readers was by presenting typical fears among society, such as being buried alive in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper periodical, “The Premature Burial”. The presentation of the hushed taboos of American society and the narrator’s eventual overcoming of his cripple fear are prime reasons why Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial” should be included within the canon of early American Literature.
Born January 1st, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, Poe was the son of travelling actors (www.poemuseum.org). He became accustomed to hardship at a very young age when his mother passed away of Tuberculosis. His father left Poe up for adoption, and he was taken in by John Allan and his wife. Allan was a successful tobacco merchant; therefore, Poe was able to attend some of the best private schools along the east coast and eventually enrolled at the University of Virginia. Due to a lack of funds, he dropped out of the university and moved back to Richmond, only to find out that his foster mother had passed away, like his birth mother, of Tuberculosis. This tragedy led him back to his hometown of Boston, where he enlisted at West Point Academy, and published his first collection of poems. The Academy expelled Poe after only eight months of service, and Edgar Allan found his way to Baltimore, where he found out his foster-father, Allan, had passed away. He then married his cousin Virginia, who was only fourteen years old at the time of their matrimony. The couple was very much in love, and very much in poverty; which resulted in the Poe family relocating time and time again along the Northeast. While spending time in Philadelphia, Poe worked for the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, where he published “The Premature Burial” in 1844. Less than three years after its publication, Poe’s wife, Virginia, died of Tuberculosis. This loss devastated Poe, and a few years later, he too, passed away (www.poemuseum.org). Poe’s background indicates that he had an unpleasantly familiar relationship with death and the process of dying. An orphan by the age of three, adversity was something Poe was forced to adjust to at a very young age. These experiences may explain some of the content within his poems, specifically, “The Premature Burial.” Obviously, dealing with grievance was not an exclusive issue to Poe, as many of his readers too, experienced the hardship of losing a loved one(s). Poe recognized this and utilized these themes to create some of the most terrifying short stories in the history of literature. Up to this point in American literature, many writers such as William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, and even fellow dark romanticist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, presented themes of death and dying in their writings, but they typically did so in a religious sense. These authors discussed the consequences that arise after death based on one’s obedience or disloyalty to God. Hawthorne even questioned the morality of science, and its manipulative powers that contradict the Christian religion. Poe, however, focused on the mental torments of fearing death itself, and the psychological battle one must endure to overcome it. “The Premature Burial” takes this theme even further, by presenting a protagonist with catalepsy who is plagued with thoughts of being buried alive. During the 19th century, when medical technology was still primitive, death was a morbid yet controversial topic among society. Oddly, taboo topics such as being buried alive made their way into common conversation. Poe had this in mind when he wrote “The Premature Burial” for the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, emphasizing his own troubles within a story that not only relates to its audience, but also effectively portrays society’s perception of a surprisingly popular taboo subject. These perceptions were developed by real life examples of people awakening after they have been assumed dead and buried. Steve Semiatin references one of these horrific tales in a periodical published in History Magazine, “In the 1850s, a young girl in South Carolina supposedly died of diphtheria. She was quickly interred in the family mausoleum because it was feared the disease might otherwise spread. When one of the family’s sons died years later, in the Civil War, the tomb was opened to admit him. A tiny skeleton was found on the floor just behind the heavy stone door. (History Magazine 11.5 (2010):9-11)”
Polish researcher Natalia Wójcicka points out in her article “The Living Dead: the Uncanny and Nineteenth-Century Moral Panic over Premature Burial” that premature burial was such a frightening topic that legislature was passed in order to prevent it:
“ [n]o body shall be received [into the morgue] unless a statement on the part of an attending physician or Coroner, whether he has found the following signs of death or not, is with it: First – Permanent cessation of respiration and circulation. Second – Purple discoloration of the dependent parts of the body. Third – Appearance of blistering around a part of the skin touched with a red hot iron. Fourth – The characteristic stiffness known as rigor mortis. Fifth –Signs of decomposition. (“To Stop Premature Burial” 1899: 3)”
Furthermore, American entrepreneurs even found ways to capitalize on this common fear. Wojcicka points out that a few companies patented an alarm system for coffins, just in case one was to awaken from their “terminal” state: “In the spirit of the Industrial Revolution, innumerable plans for vaults allowing proper ventilation, with their own food and water supplies and the means of communicating with the outside, were drawn. Blueprints of so-called “alarm” or “safety” coffins, equipped with mechanisms that would set off an alarm signal in response to the slightest movement of the body within, were created, patented and sold.” Not only did these “safety” coffins exist, they were a popular item, selling thousands a year (USPTO, patent number 4,367,461). Steve Semiatin addresses in his periodical in History Magazine that “Even our heroic first president, George Washington, supposedly had such a dread of being buried alive that he ordered his servants to allow his corpse to remain in his bed for three days, to be jabbed and prodded with needles to verify his death before being laid to rest. (History Magazine 11.5 (2010):9-11)”
This societal phobia of premature burial, or Taphophobia, was rooted within a lack of medical technology and procedure in pronouncing someone as ‘deceased’. In many cases, medical conditions that may cause its victim to appear to be dead, such as the narrator’s case of catalepsy, led physicians to pronounce a patient as deceased without any procedure to confirm that the subject was, in fact, no longer alive. According to George K. Behlmer’s journal article of British studies: “Late-Victorian fears about premature burial constituted a moral panic‟ in the sociological sense of that term” as they contained the three traits characteristic for this sociological phenomenon which “involves popular overreaction to a perceived threat,” has a “tendency to occur when ethical boundaries seem blurred,” and becomes a “process by which disciplinary agents – police, prosecutors and judges – help vilify the socially marginal. (2003;42(2):206-235” Although Behlmer’s points out that Taphophobia was generally an overreaction to folklore and actually stemmed from a lack of legislation requiring a physician to physically examine the patient before pronouncing him or her dead, the fear itself still existed. For someone who suffered from a disease such as catalepsy, thoughts of waking up in a coffin could lead to madness as it does for the narrator in the story. His vulnerability allows the reader to emotionally connect with the character while developing a relationship that allows Poe to convince him or her into sharing these same fears. This becomes evident when the narrator describes the perimeters of his condition:
“Its variations seem to be chiefly of degree. Sometimes the patient lies, for a day only, or even for a shorter period, in a species of exaggerated lethargy. He is senseless and externally motionless; but the pulsation of the heart is still faintly perceptible; some traces of warmth remain; a slight color lingers within the centre of the cheek; and, upon application of a mirror to the lips, we can detect a torpid, unequal, and vacillating action of the lungs. Then again the duration of the trance is for weeks—even for months; while the closest scrutiny, and the most rigorous medical tests, fail to establish any material distinction between the state of the sufferer and what we conceive of absolute death.” (Poe, “The Premature Burial”)
Even if the fear of premature burial was over-exaggerated during this period, such conditions could lead anyone to believe it was a possibility.
Despite the grave nature of the short story, Poe offers an interesting source of relief from the narrator’s overbearing psychological condition. While upon a ship, he falls asleep in a small wooden area beneath the ship and dreams that he has been buried alive only to awaken with an epiphany:
“There arrived an epoch -- as often before there had arrived -- in which I found myself emerging from total unconsciousness into the first feeble and indefinite sense of existence. Slowly -- with a tortoise gradation -- approached the faint gray dawn of the psychal day. A torpid uneasiness. An apathetic endurance of dull pain. No care -- no hope -- no effort. Then, after a long interval, a ringing in the ears; then, after a lapse still longer, a prickling or tingling sensation in the extremities; then a seemingly eternal period of pleasurable quiescence, during which the awakening feelings are struggling into thought; then a brief re-sinking into non-entity; then a sudden recover. (“The Premature Burial”)”
He realizes through somewhat of a near death experience that he has become a victim of catalepsy, and through this realization he is able to overcome his crippling fear. It is important to mention that there is no divine intervention or outside therapy that advocates this realization, but rather, it occurs through a true experience. Astoundingly, Poe references psycho-therapy concepts introduced by Sigmund Freud, who was not even alive during the time of the story’s publication, that suggest one may overcome fear by facing fear itself, which in this case, is death. This empowerment of the self is a refreshing aspect of early American literature and an important representation of dark romantics such as Edgar Allan Poe.
The canon of American literature honors works which exemplify major themes within a time period, and Poe’s “The Premature Burial” should absolutely be part of this collection. His diligent approach to writing, where the reader’s interests are the main focus of his message, is a creative and refreshing reminder of the power of fiction. Additionally, Poe’s allusion to the power of the self in overcoming fears as crippling as death is well ahead of the time period. The story works on so many levels: as a horror story, a satire, and even a psychological analogy. Therefore, it is important that scholars recognize these attributions, and never forget the power of social taboo’s and their effect not only on literature, but the psychological consequences that arise from them.
Moorshead Magazines, Limited. "Buried Alive! Premature Burials." History Magazine 11.5 (2010): 9-11. History Reference Center. 19 Nov. 2012
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Premature Burial." Works of Edgar Allan Poe -- Volume 2. 101-110. n.p.: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2006. Literary Reference Center. 20 Nov. 2012.
Wójcicka, Natalia. "The Living Dead: The Uncanny And Nineteenth-Century Moral Panic Over
Premature Burial." Styles Of Communication 2010.2 (2010): 176-186. Communication &
Mass Media Complete. 19 Nov. 2012