Commentary Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary

"The Man That Was Used Up" was first published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in August of 1839, a month before the publication of his renowned "The Fall of the House of Usher," written in a very different style. While the story of Roderick Usher is of a highly personal nature in describing his own pining for female affection, this tale of Brigadier-General Smith is intended to be a political satire. It functions similarly to "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether," except that the focus of ridicule is directed not at Charles Dickens. To understand the exact context of this tale, one must first recall the political situation in America at the time that this story was written.

In 1839, the United States Presidency and White House were controlled by Martin Van Buren, who had been hand-picked by the former general and seventh President of the United States of America, Andrew Jackson. A Democrat and celebrated war hero himself during the War of 1812, Jackson had also waged many battles in the South against Native American tribes throughout Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee before his presidential administration of 1829-1837. Following this, he hand-picked New Yorker Martin Van Buren as his successor, who won the election of 1836. Although he did not receive enough votes to officially become Vice-President, Richard M. Johnson was elected to that post by the Senate in accordance with constitutional law anyway. Johnson, too, was a famous military veteran, and he had incurred serious injuries while fighting against British and Native American troops at the Battle of the Thames in Thamesville, Ontario on October 5, 1813.

These injuries led to his great success in politics, especially since he had reportedly killed the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Thames. Although he had fought side-by-side with retired General William Henry Harrison, a Whig, and political enemy of Andrew Jackson, Richard Johnson nevertheless chose to support Andrew Jackson's political agenda. This support helped him to attain his position as Vice-President under Van Buren. The two filled this office before losing the election of 1840, when Whig nominee William Henry Harrison was elected to become the ninth President of the United States. Unfortunately, Harrison died a month into his tenure, and Vice President John Tyler served out the rest of his presidency, until his term ended in 1845. It is also good to note that Edgar Allan Poe attempted to get a job as a Customs employee with the support of President Tyler, and later he was invited to the White House in March of 1843, to negotiate plans for the government to sponsor his own literary magazine. However, Poe was intoxicated on this occasion and made an embarrassment of himself, ruining any hope of securing government support for his writing.

One final piece of information that should make "The Man That Was Used Up" make more sense, is that, although the Bugaboo tribe is fictitious, the Kickapoo Indians were native to northeastern Texas. Indeed, it was there that the Kickapoo, Cherokee, and Shawnee tribes banded together to wage the Cherokee War of 1839 against the United States military, which was ongoing throughout the spring and summer of 1839 before this tale was published in August. This reveals that the theme of fighting Native Americans was immediate and important to Poe's audience, and reading about a United States soldier who survived many battles against these tribes such as John Smith, would be a topic of some interest. Furthermore, given that Poe attempted to gain political support from Tyler in 1843, a Whig, may give some clue as to Poe's political allegiances, as Tyler and Harrison had been intense nemeses of the Jacksonian crowd that had included Van Buren and, more importantly, Vice-President Richard Mentor Johnson. It is plausible then that this satire is directed at not only Andrew Jackson himself, renowned for his own fierce fights with Florida's Seminole tribes, but moreover at Richard Johnson who was in office from 1837-1841, a figure of great amusement when he appeared in public upon crutches and tied up in bandages.

It was he who had supposedly slain Shawnee Chief Tecumseh in 1813, and it was from this experience during the War of 1812 when the British allied themselves with Native American tribes, and not necessarily due to his more contemporary accomplishments, that he had attained most of his fame, just as Brigadier-General Smith is defined by his famous battle with the Bugaboo and Kickapoo Indians. Note also that in 1839, the Kickapoo and the Shawnee were allied together in Texas during the Cherokee War. That the two are associated directs attention towards Richard Johnson, since Tecumseh was a Shawnee. The deeper implication of this association between Smith and Johnson is that Poe criticizes the Jacksonian crowd. Jackson and Johnson are great war heroes, but they are men that are used up with nothing more to give, going so far as to suggest perhaps that Johnson is useless as a Vice-President. Poe's later support of the administration of John Tyler also suggests that he may be against these Jacksonian Democrats, who were Tyler and Harrison's political rivals.

In many ways, Poe comments on the fact that Johnson is defined by his past victories, rather than by his present successes, because nobody in "The Man That Was Used Up" wants to think of Smith as he is now. Instead they recall his bravery during the Indian Wars, because his wretched appearance now sickens them. In parallel, Edgar Allan Poe comments on Johnson's popularity as well, that his grotesque appearance is not something that people like to talk about, but instead they are polite and courteous due to his past heroism. This generation of nineteenth century readers has long since died out, so it will never be revealed what their true perceptions were of Johnson, especially if, as with Brigadier-General John A.B.C. Smith, it was a topic that nobody liked to discuss. This tale conveys that feeling, however, and the reader can share in the frustrations of Poe's narrator in perhaps not knowing exactly what mystery lies behind "The Man That Was Used Up." More obvious in revealing Edgar Allan's political sentiments is that he published some of his work, such as "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," in The American Whig Review, a periodical directed at a Whig audience. Poe wouldn't have done this, if he had shared views of the Democrats, who were the Whigs' political rivals. This revelation further supports the argument that Poe is mocking the Jacksonian Democrats in this humorous tale.

A few interesting items of note that deviate from historical trends refer to literature. Climax performs a scene from Othello, a play about a soldier seeking to marry the king's daughter that ends in his death. Additionally, there is mention of Lord Byron's poem, "Manfred," which functions as a long incantation pronounced over the body of a dead soldier. The persistent theme is that of fallen warriors yet again, implying that even though Smith is able to function with the aid of his many devices, he is essentially dead to the world, a fallen hero much like Othello or Manfred; even Le Cid stars a Spanish warrior. Indeed, that opening epigraph from Pierre Corneille effectively reiterates this idea. The one half of a man being dead already has caused the other half to die as well, because of the loss of dignity that accompanies it, as Smith is reduced to a "large bundle" that the narrator kicks out of his way. Being only half the man that he was once, Smith is no longer a man at all.

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