Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque is a collection of previously-published short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1840.



It was published by the Philadelphia firm Lea & Blanchard and released in two volumes. The publisher was willing to print the anthology based on the recent success of Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher." Even so, Lea & Blanchard would not pay Poe any royalties; he was given 20 free copies. It was dedicated to William Drayton, a former member of Congress turned judge who may have subsidized the book's publication.

In his preface, Poe wrote the now-famous quote defending himself from the criticism that his tales were part of "Germanism." He wrote, "If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany but of the soul."

Critical response

Contemporary reviews were mixed. The anonymous critic in the Boston Notion suggested that Poe's work was better suited for readers of the future; people of the time should consider it "below the average of newspaper trash... wild, unmeaning, pointless, aimless... without anything of elevated fancy or fine humor." Alexander's Weekly Messenger, on the other hand, remarked that the stories were the "playful effusion of a remarkable and powerful intellect." Likewise, the New York Mirror complimented the author's intellectual capacity, his vivid descriptions, and his opulent imagination. Even with those positive reviews, the edition did not sell well. When Poe requested a second release in 1841 with eight additional tales included, the publisher declined.

"Grotesque" and "Arabesque"

There has been some debate over the meaning of Poe's terms "Grotesque" and "Arabesque." Both terms refer to a type of art used to decorate walls. These arts styles are known for their complex nature. It has been proposed that the "grotesque" stories are those where the character becomes a caricature or satire, as in "The Man That Was Used Up." The "arabesque" stories focus on a single aspect of a character, often psychological, such as "The Fall of the House of Usher."

See Patricia C. Smith in " Poe's Arabesque," from Poe Studies, vol. VII, no. 2, December 1974, pp. 42-45


Epigram on title page

Seltsamen tochter Jovis
Seinem schosskinde
Der Phantasie


The epithets "Grotesque" and "Arabesque" will be found to indicate with sufficient precision the prevalent tenor of the tales here published. But from the fact that, during a period of some two or three years, I have written five-and-twenty short stories whose general character may be so briefly defined, it cannot be fairly inferred — at all events it is not truly inferred — that I have, for this species of writing, any inordinate, or indeed any peculiar taste or prepossession. I may have written with an eye to this republication in volume form, and may, therefore, have desired to preserve, as far as a certain point, a certain unity of design. This is, indeed, the fact; and it may even happen that, in this manner, I shall never compose anything again. I speak of these things here, because I am led to think it is this prevalence of the "Arabesque" in my serious tales, which has induced one or two critics to tax me, in all friendliness, with what they have been pleased to term "Germanism" and gloom. The charge is in bad taste, and the grounds of the accusation have not been sufficiently considered. Let us admit, for the moment, that the "phantasy-pieces" now given are Germanic, or what not. Then Germanism is "the vein" for the time being. To morrow I may be anything but German, as yesterday I was everything else. These many pieces are yet one book. My friends would be quite as wise in taxing an astronomer with too much astronomy, or an ethical author with treating too largely of morals. But the truth is that, with a single exception, there is no one of these stories in which the scholar should recognise the distinctive features of that species of pseudo-horror which we are taught to call Germanic, for no better reason than that some of the secondary names of German literature have become identified with its folly. If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul, — that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results.

There are one or two of the articles here, (conceived and executed in the purest spirit of extravaganza,) to which I expect no serious attention, and of which I shall speak no farther. But for the rest I cannot conscientiously claim indulgence on the score of hasty effort. I think it best becomes me to say, therefore, that if I have sinned, I have deliberately sinned. These brief compositions are, in chief part, the results of matured purpose and very careful elaboration.

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