Thursday, January 15, 2009

An Edgar Allan Poe Oddity

Listeners to the Basement might notice that we are celebrating Edgar Allan Poe's Bicentennial Birthday with readings of his funniest stories and poems. Poe is not really appreciated by the public for his humor, but he could write some knee-slappers now and then. Poe himself seemed to consider some of his horror tales a laugh riot, but even so, we have found some good stuff that is okay for the squeamish...

One of the stories we have read is called Diddling -- Considered as One of the Exact Sciences from 1843. You can listen to it at A diddler, in case you didn't know it, was a 19th Century term for a con artist. When I read this piece, something struck me as familiar, and then I remembered that way back in Basement Episode number 438, found at, I had read an 1830 Seba Smith story called My First Visit to Portland. In this tale, country boy Jack Downing comes to the big town and outsmarts the city slickers.

The two stories each feature scenes which resemble each other very much. Here's the scene from the Smith 1830 story:

Well, then, says I to myself, I have a pesky good mind to go in and have a try with one of these chaps and see if they can twist my eye- teeth out. If they can get the best end of the bargain out of me they can do what there ain't a man in our place can do; and I should just like to know what sort of stuff these ere Portland chaps are made of. So in I goes into the best-looking store among 'em. And I see some biscuit lying on the shelf, and says I:

"Mister, how much do you ax apiece for them ere biscuits?"

"A cent apiece," says he.

"Well," says I, "I shan't give you that, but if you've a mind to, I'll give you two cents for three of them, for I begin to feel a little as tho' I would like to take a bite."

"Well," says he, "I wouldn't sell 'em to anybody else so, but seeing it's you I don't care if you take 'em."

I knew he lied, for he never seen me before in his life. Well, he handed down the biscuits, and I took 'em, and walked round the store awhile, to see what else he had to sell. At last says I:

"Mister, have you got any good cider?"

Says he, "Yes, as good as ever you see."

"Well," says I, "what do you ax a glass for it?"

"Two cents," says he.

"Well," says I, "seems to me I feel more dry than I do hungry now. Ain't you a mind to take these ere biscuits again and give me a glass of cider?" and says he:

"I don't care if I do."

So he took and laid 'em on the shelf again and poured out a glass of cider. I took the glass of cider and drinkt it down, and, to tell you the truth about it, it was capital good cider. Then says I:

"I guess it's about time for me to be a-going," and so I stept along toward the door; but he ups and says, says he:

"Stop, mister, I believe you haven't paid me for the cider."

"Not paid you for the cider!" says I; "what do you mean by that? Didn't the biscuits that I give you just come to the cider?"

"Oh, ah, right!" says he.

So I started to go again, but before I had reached the door he says, says he:

"But stop, mister, you didn't pay me for the biscuits."

"What!" says I, "do you mean to impose upon me? Do you think I am going to pay you for the biscuits, and let you keep them, too? Ain't they there now on your shelf? What more do you want? I guess, sir, you don't whittle me in that way."

So I turned about and marched off and left the feller staring and scratching his head as tho' he was struck with a dunderment.

Now here is the similar paragraph from Poe's piece:

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 the 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 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 travellers."

Now there is a significant difference in the details, but the two are quite close. Investigating further, I discovered that Poe was indeed quite familiar with Seba Smith's work, and had written a scathing review of Smith's poetry, stating that the author would be better off sticking to humor.

So what do you think? Your comments and emails are welcome...


Anonymous said...
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