Pretty Poison

Scott McLemee reviews a new book that examines the long literary and political history of a femme fatale that embodies two aspects of Eden: the beguiling female and the deceiving reptile, merged, literally, into one.

June 8, 2016
University of Iowa Press

The mythological creature called the lamia is something like a hybrid of mermaid and vampire: a beautiful woman from the waist up, atop a serpent’s body, driven by an unwholesome appetite. The indispensable Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable elaborates: “A female phantom, whose name was used by the Greeks and Romans as a bugbear to children. She was a Libyan queen beloved by Jupiter, but robbed of her offspring by the jealous Juno; and in consequence she vowed vengeance against all children, whom she delighted to entice and murder.”

Somewhere along the way, the Libyan queen’s proper name turned into the generic term for a whole subspecies of carnivorous nymph. Nor was the menu limited to children. In some tellings, the lamia could conceal her snaky side long enough to lure unwary human males to their deaths. (A femme fatale, if ever.) If the lamia outlived most of the other gods and monsters of antiquity in the Western cultural imagination, I suspect it is in part because of the coincidence that she embodies two aspects of Eden: the beguiling female and the deceiving reptile, merged, literally, into one.

That this overtly misogynistic image might ever have played a part in the political culture of the United States seems improbable -- a little less so in this election year, perhaps, though it remains difficult to picture. And it’s certainly true that the lamia underwent considerable mutation in crossing the Atlantic and finding a place in American literature and party politics. Sara L. Crosby’s Poisonous Muse: The Female Poisoner and the Framing of Popular Authorship in Jacksonian America (University of Iowa Press) follows the lamia’s transformation from the monster known to a classically educated elite to the sympathetic, vulnerable and all-too-human character accepted by the new mass public of early 19th-century America.

The author, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University at Marion, follows the lamia’s trail from antiquity (in Roman literature “she appeared as a dirty hermaphroditic witch who raped young men”) through the poetry of John Keats and on to such early American page-turners as The Female Land Pirate; or Awful, Mysterious, and Horrible Disclosures of Amanda Bannorris, Wife and Accomplice of Richard Bannorris, a Leader in That Terrible Band of Robbers and Murderers, Known Far and Wide as the Murrell Men. (Sample passage: “My whole nature was changed. All the dark passions of Hell seemed to have centered into one; that one into the core of my heart, and that one was revenge! REVENGE!! REVENGE!!!”) There are close readings of stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as of the case of Mrs. Hannah Kinney, alleged poisoner of husbands, acquitted after a trial that riveted the country’s newspaper readers.

From this array Crosby builds an argument in layers that may be synopsized roughly along these lines:

A standard version of the lamia story is presented by the Athenian author Philostratus in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. A young philosopher named Menippus falls under the charms of “a foreign woman, who was good-looking and extremely dainty,” and to all appearances very wealthy as well. He prepares to marry her. Unfortunately, the older and wiser philosopher Apollonius intervenes in time to set the young man straight: “You are a fine youth and are hunted by fine women, but in this case you are cherishing a serpent, and a serpent cherishes you.” Menippus resists this advice, but Apollonius has a verbal showdown with the foreign lady and forces her to admit that she is a lamia, and places her under his control.

Menippus thus receives instruction on the difference between appearance and reality -- and in time to avoid being eaten. The situation can also be read as a kind of political fable: a wise authority figure intervenes to prevent a naïve young person from succumbing to the deceptive, seductive and destructive powers of a woman. For the figure of the lamia is congruent with a whole tradition of misogynistic attitudes, as expressed by the medieval theologian Albertus Magnus: “What [a woman] cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.” (This is only one such passage Crosby cites by an authoritative figure maintaining that authority itself is endangered unless men with power practice epistemological as well as moral vigilance.)

But with his 1820 poem “Lamia,” John Keats offers a revisionist telling of the story. To wed her human lover, Lamia sacrifices both her venom and her immortality. In the Philostratusian telling, the confrontation with Apollonius makes her vanish, and presumably kills her, and her beloved immediately falls dead from grief. Having been savaged by reviewers and dismissed as a “Cockney poet” by the literary establishment, Keats recasts the story as a defense of beauty and a challenge to authority. The older man’s knowledge is faulty and obtuse, his power callous and deadly. Poe was an ardent admirer of Keats, and his critical writings are filled with expressions of contempt for the cultural gatekeepers of his day; Crosby interprets the title character of “Ligeia” (a very strange short story that Poe himself considered his best work) as “a revamped Romantic lamia” akin to Keats’s.

The continuity is much easier to see in the case of "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which Beatrice (the title figure) is a lamia-like menace to every living thing that crosses her path. This is through no fault of her own; suffice to say that a man with authority has turned her into a kind of walking biological weapon. Once again, the Philostratusian version of the story has been reconfigured. The misogynist vision of the lamia as a force for deception and destruction is abandoned. Her story becomes a fable of oppression, corruption, the illegitimacy of established authority.

These literary reimaginings took shape against a political backdrop that added another layer of significance to the transformation. In the first half century of the United States, citizens “practiced a ‘politics of assent,’ in which a relatively small population of mostly rural voters bowed to the leadership of local elites,” Crosby writes. Editorials and sermons issued Apollonius-like warnings about the need to subdue desire and cultivate virtue. One widely circulated and much-reprinted story told of a daughter who rapidly went from sassing her parents to poisoning them. Clearly the republic’s young females in particular were on the slipperiest of slopes.

“But by the time Andrew Jackson won the presidential election of 1828,” Crosby continues, “the nation was transitioning to a far more raucous and partisan ‘mass democracy,’ characterized by a ‘politics of affiliation’ in which larger populations of newly enfranchised white ‘common men’ identified with national political organizations.” Those organizations issued newspapers and magazines, to which publishers added an enormous flow of relatively cheap books, pamphlets and broadsides.

The old elites (largely associated with the Whig Party) dismissed most of this output as trash, and they may have had a point, if “revenge! REVENGE!! REVENGE!!!” is anything to go by. At the same time, Poe was arguing that, in Crosby’s words, “genius occurred in that space of free exchange between writer and reader” that could open up if Americans could shed their cultural subservience to the Old World. As for Hawthorne, he was a Democratic Party functionary who idolized Jackson, and "Rappaccini's Daughter" was first published in a Democratic Party magazine.

So the basic thematic implications of the “old” (Philostratusian) and “new” (Keatsian) lamia stories lined up fairly well with Whiggish and Jacksonian-Democratic cultural attitudes, respectively. For one side, the American people needed guidance from Apollonius the Whig to avoid the madness of excessive democracy (let the French revolution be a warning) and the lamia-like seductions of the new mass media. For the Democrat, danger came from corrupt authorities, out to manipulate the citizen into believing the worst about the innocent and moral female sex.

The political allegory took on flesh in the case of a number of women accused of murdering with poison -- an act of deception and homicide of decidedly lamia-like character. The Boston trial of Hannah Kinney -- whose third husband was found to have died from arsenic poisoning -- is both fascinating in itself and a striking corroboration of the author’s point about the lamia as a sort of template for public narrative. Early newspaper reports and gossip depicted her as a bewitching temptress of questionable morals and undoubted guilt. But as the trial continued, Democratic journalists described her as a pleasant, somewhat matronly woman whose late husband was mentally disturbed and who was trying to get over syphilis with the help of a shady “doctor.” (The arsenic in his system might well have gotten there through quackery or suicide.)

The jury acquitted her, which cannot have surprised the junior prosecuting attorney: “Recent experience has shown how difficult, if not impossible it has been to obtain a verdict of condemnation, in cases of alleged murders by secret poison, when females have been the parties accused, and men were the persons murdered.” By contrast, a number of British women accused of poisoning during the same period were dispatched to the gallows with haste. Factors besides "the lamia complex" may account for the difference, but the contrast is striking even so.

It’s unlikely that many Americans in the 1840s had read The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, or heard of Keats, for that matter. Cultural influence need not be that direct to be effective; it can be transmitted on the lower frequencies through repurposed imagery and fragments of narrative, through relays remixes. Perhaps that is what we’re seeing now -- with who knows what archetypes being mashed up on the political stage.


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