I must admit, I was caught completely unaware by the magnitude of Edgar Allan Poe’s awesomeness. True, I knew his tales of the raven and of walling people up alive, and I knew about heartbeats from murder victims and seemingly unsolvable homicides. I also knew about tintinnabulation and black cats from beyond the grave. All of those are unarguably fascinating and make for great reading, but I was still unprepared for an essay recently found in my Poe anthology: Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences.
This is not a literary work commonly forced upon schoolchildren, nor has it received widespread satire in other works. Indeed, it would seem itself to be a work of satire, or at least pure comedy, if not for the self-assuredness conveyed by the author upon its undertaking. It would be misleading to say that I can completely comprehend the allusions or even the purpose of its writing, but its sheer brilliance is not lost on me. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:
Diddling – or the abstract idea conveyed by the verb to diddle – is sufficiently well understood. Yet the fact, the deed, the thing diddling, is somewhat difficult to define. We may get, however, at a tolerably distinct conception of the matter in hand, by defining – not the thing, diddling, itself – but man, as an animal that diddles. Had Plato but hit upon this, he would have been spared the affront of the picked chicken.
He speaks to the nature of man by defining man as a diddler, and he looks on this definition as being composed of separate “ingredients.” It is among the explications of these components that we find what cements Poe as a man’s man, the kind of bold assertions that few would dare make:
Impertinence:-Your diddler is impertinent. He swaggers. He sets his arms akimbo. He thrusts his hands in his trousers’ pockets. He sneers in your face. He treads on your corns. He eats your dinner, he drinks your wine, he borrows your money, he pulls your nose, he kicks your poodle, and he kisses your wife.
I had to pause my reading right there, as I instantly recognized the lines as the pinnacle of Poe’s storied career. It is an utter shame that it goes so unrewarded. Still, I had no idea what Poe was talking about, so I decided to read on. I was met with several examples of diddling – a “very good diddle,” a “quite respectable diddle,” a “very simple diddle” (and one similar), a “bold diddle,” a “neat diddle,” a “very minute diddle,” two “very clever diddle[s],” and a “very decent, but rather elaborate diddle.” One of the most interesting diddles goes thusly:
Rather a small, but still a scientific diddle is this. The diddler approaches the bar of a tavern, and demands a couple of twists of tobacco. These are handed to him, when, having slightly examined them, he says:
“I don’t much like this tobacco. Here, take it back, and give me a glass of brandy and water in its place.”
The brandy and water is furnished and imbibed, and the diddler makes his way to the door. But the voice of tavern-keeper arrests him.
“I believe, sir, you have forgotten to pay for your brandy and water.”
“Pay for my brandy and water!-didn’t I give you the tobacco for the brandy and water? What more would you have?”
“But sir, if you please, I don’t remember that you paid me for the tobacco.”
“What do you mean by that, you scoundrel?-Didn’t I give you back your tobacco? Isn’t that your tobacco lying there? Do you expect me to pay for what I did not take?”
“But, sir,” says the publican, now rather at a loss for what to say, “but, sir-”
“But me no buts, sir,” interrupts the diddler, apparently in very high dudgeon, and slamming the door after him, as he makes his escape.-“But me no buts, sir, and none of your tricks upon travelers.”
I knew Poe to be great, but I did not know him as transcendent. Given this creation, it is no wonder that his successor in the lineage of great American writers was so equally proficient with his words.
The full digital text for this essay may be found on the literature page.