Dear Edgar #4 Loss of Breath

“What you have to bear in mind is, it was a different time…” ~ Anon

Don’t you just detest facile justifications like the one above..? I will admit, however, such justifications get easier to swallow as they gulf in years between a work being written and it being read grows ever wider. A story written in the 1920’s was certainly written in a different time, compared to a story written in the 1970’s. One is only fifty years ago, the other a century. One is my life time, the other double it. Attitudes change. What was and is acceptable, changes, I cringe when I see some stuff from the 70’s now, so add another half century and perhaps sometimes you do need to bear in mind that something was written in a different time…

I butted up against this problem a lot when I studied the complete works of Lovecraft, and if there was ever an author that required a reader to ‘bear in mind, it was a different time,’ it was old tentacle-hugger… Sometimes I gave him the benefit of the doubt, other times, no so much… A century ain’t far enough removed to allow basic racism, homophobia and misogyny a pass, no matter how wonderful some of his stories are. Up till now however this has not proved to be an issue reading our Dear Edgar…

Up to now that is, which doesn’t bode well when you are only four stories in. But this story opens with the narrator, Mr Lackobreath spending a good paragraph berating his wife of almost twenty four hours with a frankly rather vile torrent of verbal abuse. A torrent which could be forgiven in context of the story if it had any agency within it. If we needed to detest Mr Lackobreath for the story to work, or if there was any real reason for the existence of said passage. Frankly however there isn’t. What it is, is just a torrent of abuse issuing forth from a husband at his spouse of 24 hours because I presume Poe thought it was entertaining to have his narrator do this before he lost his breath…

It’s not…

It might have been a different time but frankly no one needs to read that paragraph. A paragraph that will be triggering for some people and is just not acceptable in this day and age. It might have been a different time, but that is no excuse and so I can not let it pass without at the very least giving a trigger warning…

All that said, 1830 is nigh on two centuries ago, if the ‘it was a different time argument holds any water at all then surely it hold some here and actually in terms of the story that ‘it was a different time’ is somewhat central to our understanding of why this story even exists. The Story is based firmly on a general mistrust of the medical profession and the outlandish quackery that was the staple of the profession at the time. As a premise this is almost lost on the modern reader. We live in an age of antibiotics, chemo-therapy, face-lifts and wonder drugs that we take for granted like ibuprofen, antihistamine’s and Insulin. Sure, there are some fringe elements of society sceptical about some aspects of modern medicine but most of accept the validity of most things medical in this day and age.

This is to say that the quacks in our modern age tend to be the ones who rail against medical wisdom rather than those who spout it. When Poe wrote ‘Loss of Breath’ however the reverse was very much the case. Modern medical practises were still very much in their infancy, and a whole lot of strange and wonderful treatments existed that no one would ever contemplate in our more enlightened age… Well, some of them we would but we would call it alterative medicine if we did…

If you doubt the quackery that was prevalent in the 1800’s and have a little spare time go read up about Doctor John Harvey Kellogg. Yes that Kellogg… Inventor and holder of the patient for the Kellogg Cornflake. I will apologise in advance however if reading about him put you off your breakfast cereal.

Among other things Kellogg was an ardent believer in water therapy, hot baths, cold baths and hose pipes where ‘the sun don’t shine’. Colonic irrigation might as well have been spelt Kellonic… He also believed firmly that the way to treat men who were ‘chronically addicted to masturbation’ was with adult circumcision without aesthetic, because the man who invented cornflakes believed that masturbation was the root of all evil, that it caused cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, and mental and physical debility… And of course death… Of those who suffered from such ailments, he once stated without a wit of humour…

“such a victim literally dies by his own hand”

I shall not explain how he proposed to treated women in whom he diagnosed as afflicted with similar afflictions, including ‘nymphomania’ which is to say any woman who enjoyed any kind of sexual agency in her own right outside of the marriage bed, because frankly you don’t want to know. Just let me state it was horrendous.

Yes more horrendous that male genteel mutilation without anaesthetic… Much more horrendous… Occasionally research takes you down some dark dark alleyways and frankly I am never eating Kellogg’s cornflakes again…

In any regard when reading a story in which Poe lampoons the medical profession for all it is worth it’s worth bearing in mind that it was written twenty years before Doctor John Kellogg was even born… So imagine the strange and questionable practises on the fringes of medicine at the time…

A time when electricity was only just becoming a thing an average medical scientist could play with… This story was written only 14 years after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and the idea of reinvigorating human tissue with electricity was an exciting new science full of all kinds of possibilities for the medical profession… At the same time surgery was an evolving science and some surgeons had complex moral compasses about the sacrifice of the few for the benefit of the many. Dissection was a great way to learn new skills if the corpse was fresh enough, which was why Mr’s Burke and Hare had being undertaking their own unique solution to the freshness issue in Edinburgh again only 4 years before Poe put pen to paper…

Suffice to say the medical community were not held in the highest of esteem in 1830, making them a fair target for Poe’s satire. In the case of the medical profession, it really was a different time… That however is also the essence of the issue’s I have with Dear Edgar’s ‘Loss of Breath’ It is all of its time and while that doesn’t excuse the horrendous misogyny of opening passage, it does explain all you really need to know about the rest of story. Mr Lackobreath in the midst of berating his with suddenly losses the ability to breath. He doesn’t die, he just can’t talk and doesn’t breathe. Of course at first his main issue with this strange affliction is that he can not longer berate his wife… And so he geos into hiding so she doesn’t realise what has happened to him…

What follows after is perhaps his due. As the narrator has a series of misadventures at the hands of the medical profession who keep assuming he is dead so dissect him , shock him, break his bones to practise setting them and a dozen other things. All the whole he is conscious and unable to breath. The problem with all of this is mostly its hard to care and the modern reader has a very different attitude to medical professionals than was common at the time. The humour in all this misses it’s target and its all just a bit pointless. But then it is very ‘of its time and its time has long passed…

Beyond that, there really is little to it, save perhaps as an exercise in understanding attitudes to the medical profession in the past a little better.


Should your read it: Frankly no, it contains little of interest and is just a little detestable.

Should you avoid it: It comes with a trigger warning and its not worth making any allowance for its being ‘of it’s time’ so yes, you should avoid it .

Bluffers fact:  Some more ‘fun facts’ about Doctor Kellogg… he once designed a mechanical camel… A vibrating chair, and was highly taken with electro therapy. Also, in 1906 he founded the Race betterment Foundation, a centre for the Eugenics movement in the USA, which promoted racial segregation is the US and believed immigrants and non-whites would pollute the white American gene pool… So while eating your cornflakes please remember the man who invented them was a racist favouring the kind of science most associated with the Nazi’s.

You don’t want me to tell you anything about the inventor of Coco-pops, trust me.


About Mark Hayes

Writer A messy, complicated sort of entity. Quantum Pagan. Occasional weregoth Knows where his spoon is, do you? #author #steampunk
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5 Responses to Dear Edgar #4 Loss of Breath

  1. You mentioned the first paragraph could perhaps have value if we need the rest of the story to seem ‘his due,’ and for me it does achieve that. I would feel distressed if he lost his breath and couldn’t talk if he was a fabulous bloke. But as it is, I don’t mind at all. This puts my focus not on sympathy for him but rather on the occurrences following. Perhaps that was Poe’s intent?
    If it was, then I see the initial abuse as despised by Poe, which helps me appreciate the piece somewhat – especially since ‘it was a different time’ when women were still the property of their husbands, and such abuse was commonly accepted. Hard for us to fathom now – thankfully!

    Liked by 1 person

    • darrack1 says:

      Hi, thanks for your input , its always good to find another view 🙂

      I read this story, as i do all of them when I do these, at least three time. As well as gathering a lot of other opinions out there. The ‘Poe is making you dislike the narrator on purpose so he is getting his due’ argument you suggest is a popular interpretation, your far from alone in thinking it.
      I went a bit back and forth on it. In the end when i read it the final time I came down on the other side of that fence.
      I think giving it a trigger warning is important as I know too many people who have been in abusive relationships in the past. Which is I think the main reason I went that way.
      I also didn’t enjoy this one at all, so found it hard to be forgiving of that early paragraph in any context .

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree it’s just as well most people don’t read this one. Not much merit as a story in a modern context. As far as a trigger warning, I’d say people with trauma triggers may be best to avoid Poe in general, or choose just ones vetted for them by a friend. Your warning is well taken! Thanks for spotlighting it and for the thoughtful and thought-provoking review.

        Liked by 1 person

      • darrack1 says:

        only 60 more to go ‘ish’

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Dear Edgar #4 Loss of Breath – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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