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The Cask of Amontillado | Context


Poe's Influence on Gothic Literature

Poe was strongly influenced by Gothic literature, and "The Cask of Amontillado," with its mood of creeping horror and imminent death in an Italian palazzo, most definitely shows those influences. This and many other Poe stories are rich in Gothic themes such as madness, cruelty, perversion, and obsession, and feature a number of mentally unbalanced narrators; Montresor certainly qualifies on this count. Poe, in turn, affected later Gothic literature, particularly Southern Gothic. This strand features Poe-like dark humor and pays more attention to complex, troubled, even delusional characters and the society in which they live than to the supernatural themes often favored in British Gothic fiction.

Premature Burial

While some fears are universal, other fears or anxieties are specific to particular periods. "The Cask of Amontillado" plays on one of those particular 19th-century fears: the fear of being buried alive. This concern started to become more common in the late 18th century and became especially widespread in the 19th century. Late in the century Italian doctor and teacher Enrico Morselli gave this fear a formal name: taphephobia. There was even a Victorian organization that tried to address this concern: The Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive. The public's obsession with being buried alive may have stemmed from a few actual cases of premature burial. This would occasionally happen due to inadequate medical means for distinguishing death from other death-like conditions. Whatever the reason, the fear of being buried alive was widespread, and Poe capitalized on it in both "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Premature Burial" (1844).

The American Literary Scene

The period in which Poe wrote saw an explosion of literary activity. In 1820 Sydney Smith asked in the Edinburgh Review, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?" Such calls challenged American writers to develop literature that was truly American in nature. By the end of the decade, authors such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Poe had answered the call through explorations of regionalism. Cooper captured the spirit of the American frontier; Irving criticized the society of New England; and Poe, a southern writer, explored the dark psychology of the American character.

The emergence of the American magazine market contributed to the development of a distinctly American literature. While the first American magazines had begun in the 1740s, none of these publications lasted long. By contrast, a number of magazines founded in the early-to-mid-19th century had very long lives. For example, The North American Review was founded in 1815 and lasted until 1939. Godey's, which published one of Poe's early stories in 1834 and "The Cask of Amontillado" in 1846, was published under various names from 1830 to 1878. These magazines gave writers several new opportunities. First, they could edit magazines, which gave their critical judgments wider arenas. Second, they could make money writing for magazines. Poe did both throughout his career. And third, they could read others' works in a more varied and timely fashion and enter into a kind of artistic conversation (or even competition) with one another.

This literary exchange turned ugly at times, and some critics have suggested this as a source for the revenge motivation in "The Cask of Amontillado." Poe was involved in a "War of the Literati" in the 1840s after publishing criticism in Godey's Lady's Book titled The Literati of New York. New Yorkers Thomas Dunn English, a former colleague of Poe's, and Evening Mirror editor Hiram Fuller, responded with criticism of Poe in several publications. The exchange between Poe and English continued for several rounds until Poe sued English's publisher, The New York Evening Mirror, for libel—a case Poe eventually won.

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