Poe’s humor debunks the illusions of the mystical and the vagaries of philosophical idealism as developed by the Transcendentalists whom he labels “Frogpondians” after the pond on Boston Common. His invention of spurious events and conversely his ruses of elaborate detection are directed against the falsity of literary hegemony and scientific pretensions. He stubbornly values his derisive art as an eye-opener meant to awaken his reader’s skepticism, his taste for mystification being a clue to his overriding irony. The hoax ranges from the conspicuously farcical to the pseudo-scientific. In “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” he lampoons encyclopedic knowledge by quoting the famous volume “Tellmenow Isits ¨ oornot.” Affecting to use scientific methods in “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” he finally admits that analysis is inconclusive and relies on chance. So does Legrand elaborate ratiocination in “The Gold Bug.”

“Thou Art The Man” also exemplifies the epistemological function of irony. Charles Goodfellow is a criminal mystifier who speaks like Anthony over Caesar’s body in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (III, 2, 80 ff.) to deceive the crowd, but fatally betrays himself. The intrusion of dramatic irony through Old Charley’s slip when alluding to “the heir of the worthy gentleman” does not fully dispel ambiguities, so far as the omniscient narrator has withheld information and partially misled the reader into both literal meaning and nonsense. Now he conducts his own counterinvestigation on the death of Shuttleworth who incidentally shifts from life to death and back – “Old Charley” is himself tricked to his downfall by means of a whalebone, a mechanical device contrived to give the appearance of life to the corpse of Shuttleworth and operate a slapstickdeus ex machina.

The Balloon Hoax

Foreshadowing P. T. Barnum, Poe delighted in mystification. “The Balloon Hoax” is a text of fiction expected to be read as an authentic document about real facts. The prologue constitutes a verbatim record of Poe’s announcement in The New York Sun on 13 April 1844, about the first transatlantic crossing of a flying machine. The subsequent narrative enlarges upon the astounding deed by combining technicalities with bird’s eye views of the landscapes in an apocryphal journal of the flight. The rapturous delight of the crew annihilates the threat of the waters below, especially when elemental forces are subdued by human inventiveness. As far as the exhilarating adventure smacks of the Emersonian spiritual ambition to reach for a star, at least metaphorically, the “double entendre” slyly associates the overstated enunciation with implicit ironic deflation.

“The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” amounts to a tall tale version of the then popular myth of the man in the moon. It is discomfiture rather than exhilarating success that awaits Poe’s clown astronaut. As he ascends to the dead planet, the balloon is attracted by its gravity and collapses instead of smoothly alighting. Ultimately, “the dark and hideous mysteries which lie in the outer regions of the moon” (P&T, 994) are strangely reminiscent of the American desert described by explorers of the Great Plains in the earlier part of the nineteenth century.

Shifting from the cosmos to the cruel sea, “MS. Found in a Bottle” first recalls travel narratives by accumulating precise observations substantiating the validity of one Solomon Seadrift’s log, before the protagonist caught in a storm is hurled with irresistible violence upon the rigging of a phantom ship (P&T, 194). Then only the inveterate naive reader would not realize that Poe is pulling his leg. For a time the frenzied actor-narrator on his flying trapeze is the reverse replica of Sam Patch, the jumping folk-hero who in 1829 dived to his death in the Genesee Falls. But Solomon is finally engulfed into “the bowels of the earth” (199) and crosses the threshold to the unknown, following his epic struggle with the monstrous forces of the ocean. The voyage of discovery turns out to be a Grotesque trip into the absurd. Like Aladdin’s lamp the bottle has revealed secrets from the depths but forever remains as incredible as magic.