A Tale of the Ragged Mountains
|"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains"|
Illustration for "Tales and poems - vol.2" published in 1800's
|Author||Edgar Allan Poe|
|Published in||Godey's Lady's Book|
|Publisher||Louis Antoine Godey|
"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe partially based on his experiences while a student at the University of Virginia. Set near Charlottesville, it is the only one of Poe's stories to take place in Virginia. It was first published in Godey's Lady's Book in 1844 and was included in Poe's short story collection Tales, published in New York by Wiley and Putnam in 1845.
In the text of "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" readers can discover scientific theories of Poe's day such as Mesmerism, and the story also connects with British imperial history as in the kiosk scene in the "Eastern-looking city." The story also includes psychoactive drugs in Bedloe's daily morphine, the transmigration of the soul to this city and the dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship as explored in Bedloe's history with Doctor Templeton.
Set in late November 1827, the tale is begun by an unidentified narrator whose story is the loose outer frame for the central tale of Augustus Bedloe, a wealthy young invalid whom the narrator has known "casually" for eighteen years yet who still remains an enigma. Because of ongoing problems with neuralgia, Bedloe has retained the exclusive services of 70-year-old physician Dr. Templeton, a devotee of Franz Mesmer and the doctrine of animal magnetism, also called "mesmerism".
Augustus Bedloe had met the doctor previously at Saratoga where Bedloe seemed to benefit from Templeton's ministrations. Though they most likely met in a medical context at the Saratoga mineral springs.
The unidentified narrator recites the tale as told by Bedloe, delivered after his late return from one of his customary long rambles in the Ragged Mountains, "the chain of wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville". At 9:00 that morning, after a breakfast of strong coffee and morphine for the pain of his neuralgia, Bedloe leaves Charlottesville heads towards the Ragged Mountains. About an hour later, he enters a gorge of "absolutely virgin" solitude, filled with a "thick and peculiar mist" in which the visual beauty of his surroundings stands out to him in delightful brilliance as the morphine takes effect.
Soon, Bedloe hears unexpected drumming and a metallic rattling sound after which he is startled when "a dusky-visaged and half-naked man rushed past... with a shriek" followed by a hyena. Overcome by this bizarre encounter, Bedloe sits beneath a tree and suddenly notices that its shadow is that of a palm tree not native to Virginia. In "perfect command" of his senses, Bedloe notices a strange odor on the breeze and hears a low murmur after which a wind clears the fog and he sees "an Eastern-looking city, such as we read of in the Arabian Tales" later identified by Dr. Templeton as Benares. Bedloe descends into the city and eventually finds himself barricaded in a kiosk with British officers as a battle rages. In the fighting Bedloe is killed by an arrow shaped like "the writhing creese of the Malay" that strikes him in the temple.
As Bedloe recounts his inexplicable journey and return, Dr. Templeton strangely seems to know the story already. When the unnamed narrator challenges Bedloe's claim of death, the odd rapport between the doctor and the patient becomes evident as Bedloe trembles in pale silence while Templeton stares with bulging eyes and chattering teeth.
Bedloe then describes the physical and mental experiences of disembodiment and re-embodiment punctuated by distinct galvanic shocks, on his return from Calcutta to the Ragged Mountains. Though Bedloe cannot ultimately dismiss his adventure as a dream, the story concludes ambiguously leaving us with suggestions that either the power of Dr. Templeton's writing caused Bedloe's disembodied time-travel experience or that Bedloe is the reincarnation of Templeton's friend Oldeb who died in 1780 fighting alongside Warren Hastings and a group of British soldiers and sepoys during the insurrection of Cheyt Singh.
The story ends with Bedloe's death by the accidental application of a poisonous "sangsue" (sanguisuge) or leech to relieve a "great determination of blood to the head". The narrator completes the tale with a note of astonished perplexity upon reading the obituary and finding Bedloe's name accidentally spelled without the "e", making "Bedlo" the perfect reverse of "Oldeb".
In the 20th century, it was translated into Spanish as "Un cuento de las Montañas Escabrosas" by Julio Cortázar.
This article possibly contains original research. (May 2008)
Mesmerism, a forerunner of hypnotism, is the central scientific feature of the story, and was first developed in the 18th century by Franz Mesmer. It is a therapeutic doctrine or system by which a trained practitioner can induce a hypnotic state in a patient by the exercise of a force called animal magnetism.
The problem presented by Franz Anton Mesmer, who died in 1815 (within Poe’s lifetime), was that he had the right facts (the trance and the curious phenomena resulting from it) but the wrong theory. Mesmer believed that he put his subjects into his celebrated trance by infusing their nervous systems with “animal magnetism”, rays of a universal cosmic fluid. This original theory of the founder lingered after the true theory had been put forward by his followers, namely, that the trance resulted from suggestion in the subject’s mind, its cause being psychological rather than physical. When this fact was established, Mesmerism became scientific hypnotism.
Mesmerism had an enormous impact on literature in Europe and America. Poe took his version largely from Chauncy Hare Townshend's Facts in Mesmerism, which informed him that one human being could control animal magnetism, channel it through space into the nervous system of another human being, and thereby dominate his ideas, volitions, and emotions. Poe, who believed Townshend’s theory, found it an admirable starting-point for a special type of Gothic fiction. In “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”, thought transference from Templeton could be what causes Bedloe to have hallucinations.
In this story, we have already seen the ways in which mesmerism, the aforementioned mysterious scientific practice, sets the landscape for the story. The theory closely resembles hypnotism whereby a trained practitioner can induce a hypnotic state in a patient through the utilization of a force. This procedure appears to be the foundation for the relationship between Dr. Templeton and Mr. Bedloe.
It is apparent that Templeton and Bedloe’s interactions center around their dealings with animal magnetism. Near the very beginning of the story, we are told that Templeton has control over Bedloe and can make him go to "sleep" by "mere volition". Templeton harnesses this power so fully and expertly that it is not unbelievable that he could put Bedloe through a thoroughly fantastic journey.
The authenticity of Bedloe's adventure is never truly known, as Poe forces us to question the unexplainable and embrace the ambiguous. He demonstrates his deftness as an author because, on one level, he uses the occult to bring us to question reality, and on another, he uses it to challenge the validity of Bedloe’s "Tale of the Ragged Mountains".
Some critics, like E.F. Bleiler and Doris V. Falk, criticize the story for its lack of clarity and literary sophistication. They argue that its ambiguity hurts rather than helps its literary quality, especially in the canon of Poe's characteristically well-elaborated works. Other critics look to the focus on mesmerism as a source of its weakness. They argue that it gives the story too scientific a slant that distracts from its strengths in plot and style.
- Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 231. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
- Falk, Doris V. "Poe and the Power of Animal Magnetism" as collected in PMLA, May 1969. p. 536-546
- Works related to A Tale of the Ragged Mountains at Wikisource
- Publishing history of "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" from the Edgar Allan Poe Society online
- "Poe, Creator of Words"