Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
Initially published in the pages of Philadelphia' Graham's Magazine during November of 1845, Poe hoped to include "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether" in a volume of tales to be published soon after, but this book never emerged from the planning stages. At this time, Poe was residing in New York City with his wife Virginia, whose health continued to deteriorate due to her tuberculosis, and Edgar worked as an editor at The Evening Mirror and later, The Broadway Journal. The story itself is filled less with details of a personal significance, and serves instead as a humorous satire of various historical and social trends of his time. Although simplistic in nature, the story holds a greater significance due to the underlying message this rare change from Poe's usual morbidity and horror sends forth.
First to note is the one anachronism that emerges in the story, that in this supposedly French setting for the tale, the musicians choose to play the American tune "Yankee Doodle" upon being invaded by the escaped patients. In reflecting also upon the polarization that occurs as well, between the urban elites of Paris, from which the narrator comes, and the old-fashioned ways of dressing and eccentricities of those in this place in the "extreme southern province of France," which is extremely rural, the immediate parallel to America should be clear. Poe is making fun of the elitist North as compared to the old-fashioned Southerners in America, thus explaining the musicians' music, as they frantically play to calm the invaders down. Being from the South himself, it should thus be clear why the urbanite narrator is the subject of much mockery, because he fails to understand the reality that there is no Doctor Tarr or Professor Fether; Poe is subtly attacking the arrogance of many northerners in their perceptions of southerners. Residing in New York City in the North at this time, the differences in outlook and demeanor were all too clear, being himself a southern gentleman raised in Virginia.
Another social trend that emerges is the topic of slavery, that an inferior breed of people, such as the lunatics, can rise up and overthrow the hospital administrators would no doubt remind many readers of the same role reversal between slaves and their masters. Poe may be exploiting the horror and outrage felt by slave owners at the sheer thought that they could be overthrown by their slaves, while at the same time he suggests that those that are inferior are not so different than their captors; in this instance, the doctor-narrator holds less intelligence than the lunatics whom he so disdains. The issue of race relations was also raised in "The Gold-Bug," where the negro Jupiter is seen simultaneously as a figure of mockery and congeniality. Whatever Poe's intentions, the increasing importance of slaves, race, and the southern way of life in this pre-Civil War era are evident through "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether," among others. Also noteworthy is that the escaped keepers appear to be "black" because of all the tar that covers their bodies, and the stupid narrator wonders if these are monkeys from the "Cape of Good Hope," which is at the southernmost tip of Africa, the continent from which the early slaves in America had originated. Once again, North and South come into play, as does the color of one's skin. These are engaging themes that should be explored with greater depth and research.
Finally, one must note the more personal nature of this satire. The writing style and dialogue utilized in this tale mirror that contained in British author Charles Dickens' American Notes exactly. Dickens holds conversations with people at the asylum he visits, much as Poe relates the narrator's visit to the "Maison de Sante" as holding a dialogue with guests at the dinner table. Dickens' voyage to America occurred in 1842 and the collection of observations was published shortly thereafter, just three years before Poe published his own tale satirizing the tale of Dickens. However, in "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether," the narrator is a subject of mockery due to his stupidity. To understand the reasons for mocking Dickens, one must recall that Poe actually met with Charles Dickens during this very visit to America when he had visited the "Insane Hospital" in Boston, followed by another in Hartford, CT. Dickens had promised to help get Poe's work published in England, as Edgar no doubt sought to extend his fame and popularity elsewhere beyond America's shores.
However, nothing came of this, and Dickens failed to give the aid he had once promised to Poe. This tale could thus be perceived as retaliatory, mocking Dickens by contorting his own experiences, criticizing both the northern elite as and his old acquaintance Mr. Dickens. In Chapter Five of American Notes, Dickens even says to a mental patient "What a delicious country you have about these lodgings of yours!" mirroring the same adjective utilized here in Poe's tale. Maillard uses the word "delicious" to refer to the "system of Tarr and Fether," and Joyeuse also calls the crowing patient "delicious." These similarities thus bear a close resemblance to Dickens' American Notes.
Note also that an alternate interpretation by Richard Benton ("The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether": Dickens or Willis? Poe Newsletter, vol. I, No. 1. April 1968, pp. 7-9.) proposes that Poe's satire is directed instead at Boston-born poet and literary critic Nathaniel Parker Willis, who visited a mental hospital in 1833 and later wrote about it in his obscure short story, "The Madhouse of Palermo." Poe had already admittedly mocked Willis in "The Duc De L'Omlette" (1832) and "Lionizing" (1835), because Willis had criticized Edgar Allan Poe's work during the year 1829 in the American Monthly Magazine that he edited at the time. Benton dismisses the ten year gap between the showdown with Willis and the publication of "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether" by merely assuming that Poe had in fact written the story soon after Willis' tour of a mental hospital at Palermo, Sicily in 1833 but had never even bothered to publish it. He assumes that the later release of Dickens' American Notes and its description of Dickens' visit to a psychiatric hospital in 1842 suddenly reminded Poe of this earlier story, and he decided finally to publish it in Graham's Magazine after letting the tale simply lie around, forgotten for over ten years.
This "soothing system" that is the topic of much discussion in Poe's tale is factual as well, having been instituted in the very same "Insane Hospital" at Boston that Charles Dickens visited during his time in America, strengthening the argument even further that this tale is an attack upon this British author. The soothing system was called the system of "Moral Treatment," which did not punish patients but instead provided moral instruction, as its name suggests. Poe also befriended a celebrated gentleman named Dr. Pliny Earle, who facilitated the transition from the old system of incarceration in asylums, to the newer system in America, working in Frankford, Pennsylvania, and later in Bloomingdale, New York. Earle also helped to found the organization that would later become the "American Psychiatric Association." Having resided in both states, Poe corresponded with this man and was aware of the "soothing system," explaining its central role to this story. Although set in France, the implication of the story is that it refers to happenings in America; the distant locale was chosen to provide creative distance, to distance history from artistry, and to separate reality from the imagination. Here, Edgar Allan Poe has brilliantly molded together a story wrought with humor, seemingly insignificant and simplistic in nature, yet as with all of Poe's stories there is always more than meets the eye. Poe's portrayal of the oblivious and stupid narrator who takes things at face value may well be a message to the reader, who is in many ways a visitor to Poe's universe as much as the narrator is to that of Monsieur Maillard.