Poe in Cyberspace

By Heyward Ehrlich
From Poe Studies Newsletter (Spring 1999)

At times the World Wide Web is a house of cards. Primary e-text sites may be the root of second and third generation pages which either copied the original content (often without credit) or linked to it. As successive generations build up the process of re-copying or re-linking, the original site is often forgotten. What happens, then, if a root or primary e-text site is suddenly removed? Will the result be a small chain reaction? Such a potential catastrophe actually took place in the realm of Poe e-texts when the important Virginia Tech Eris Books source dropped out of service without warning in September 1998.

Predating the expansion of the World Wide Web, the Virginia Tech Eris Books collection contained plain e-texts of 133 authors -- English, American, classic, and foreign. The Poe section contained more than 140 works in 122 files; for many years it was the largest readily available electronic edition of Poe online. But anyone putting in an internet request after September 1998 to the usual Poe address (gopher://gopher.vt.edu:10010/11/134) would receive this curt message: "Server error: Sorry, access denied." (Perhaps the old gopher protocol itself, initially a menu for basic ftp network, had finally been superseded by the Web's own http protocol.) Persistent snooping on the Eris Books site yielded this terse explanation:

	The Eris Books have been removed from this site.
	The works that were on this site can be found 
	at Project Gutenberg site at http://www.promo.net/pg/
	We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.

webmaster@vt.edu Sept. 23, 1998 (gopher://gopher.vt.edu:70/00/erisbooks)

Not unexpectedly, for a few months other Poe lists continued to link to the dead Eris site. By March 1999, more than five months later, the Poe texts had not yet surfaced as promised at the Project Gutenberg site, although it is hoped that they will yet do so. The better specialist indexes, such as Voice of the Shuttle, Internet Public Library, and the CMU English Server, had trimmed the luxuriant but dead Eris shrubbery. But the Web has no method of automatically treating "bit rot," the problem of abandoned or changed pages or sites, and even the best web search engines continue to show dead links. (If you think it's hard to get information onto a computer network, try getting it off.)

The extent of the problem is shown by a recent Altavista search, which revealed 65 internet sites with links to the defunct Eris Books Poe e-text site. (Let's not even think about links to the other 132 Eris authors!) Some of the lists needing updating are at such normally honorific locations as Book Stack (Oxford), Xroads (Virginia), Carrie (Kansas), IAT (UNC), Mimi (Keele), Poets (Cornell), Favorite Authors (Ohio State), Forrest's Fall of the House of Usher, and Great Books (Mindspring). Of course, the usual crop of dead links can be found on personal pages at AOL, Geocities, and Tripod. (My embarrassing discovery was that the leading offenders here were my own forgotten drafts of old Poe webliographies, orbiting like abandoned space debris.)

Although the copy-cat nature of the Web can produce dead links, it can also create backup copies which prove useful when an original ceases to be available. Indeed, several lesser known e-text file copies or mirror sites, relatively unimportant when Eris Books was still functioning, can now be used to fill in the gap. The miracle of these digital copies is that they can be indistinguishable from the originals. Here are several alternate locations for the Eris Books Poe e-text collection -- not yet generally picked up by electronic bibliographers.:

  1. The University of Missouri at St. Louis (UM-StL) put up its own set of Poe e-texts from a Walnut Creek CD-ROM, quickly withdrawn in 1992 after a copyright controversy over a dictionary it contained.

  2. Stefan Gmoser, who formerly maintained links to the Poe Eris e-texts, has now refurbished local text copies with readable HTML typefaces. (This site is sometimes hard to reach.)

  3. Mindspring Thorazine has a copy of the Eris Poe e-texts, unfortunately coded in HTML which produces white text on a black background, impossible to print.

  4. The CD ROM literary anthology Library of the Future (4th ed.), contains a similar grouping of Poe e-texts, as does another CD-ROM, Corel World's Greatest Classic Books (out of print).

Some members of this text family contain Pym, some Eureka, some neither, some both. By the way, the provenance of these Poe e-texts cannot be positively established. The Walnut Creek CD-ROM used by UM-StL dates from 1992 ("Desktop Library CDROM, 1st ed. Aug. 1992, CDRM1017370"). The Virginia Tech Eris Books gopher site obviously pre-dates my first downloads from it, dated August 1, 1994. Other CD-ROM editions may date back to 1990, making it seem likely that some CD-ROM edition probably came first. But regardless of which electronic edition was the earliest, where did all these texts -- over 140 tales, poems, and criticisms -- come from in the first place?

There are two identifying marks of this family of e-texts: first, the works are grouped into about 120 files; and second, two of these files, identified as "Criticism" and "Marginalia," are clusters containing several works. These two characteristics are closely matched in only one printed edition, the Borzoi Poe: The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (2 vols., New York: A. A. Knopf, 1947, 1092 pp., with an Introduction by Arthur Hobson Quinn and Bibliographical and Textual Notes by Edward H. O'Neill). Neither Pym nor Eureka was included in the Borzoi Poe, presumably for reasons of length.

After the Borzoi Poe was kept in printed by Knopf well into the 1970s, it appeared under various reissue titles, the most recent being Complete Tales and Poems (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992. ISBN 0-88029-366-7). This economy version can be found on remainder tables as well as on the publisher's Web site, www.barnesandnoble.com. By the way, you won't find it at the rival web site, www.amazon.com!

Although the Borzoi edition is not a standard edition for scholarly reference, as are the Harrison and Mabbott-Pollin editions, it may uniquely help to fill a definite pedagogic need for combined printed/electronic editions of Poe. For the most part, Poe editions are available in print or electronically -- rarely in both forms. There are no electronic editions of any of the standard printed editions of Poe, such as Harrison, Mabbott-Pollin, or the Library of America edition -- the latter based in part on Mabbott and recently issued as a school paperback edition. On the other hand, there is no printed counterpart for the widely available electronic family of some 30 Poe texts, variously accessible at Internet Wiretap, the Oxford Text Archive, the Virginia Electronic Text Collection, and the Michigan Humanities Text Initiative. (For online links to these Poe and other e-texts, see A Poe Webliography at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~ehrlich/poesites.html.)

To be sure, there are corresponding printed editions for such historically-based e-texts as those which have appeared recently in the Poe Society of Baltimore, the ?? Southern Documentary Collection at the University of North Carolina, the Michigan American Verse Collection, the Michigan/Cornell Making of America project, and the Virginia/Chadwyck-Healey Early American Fiction project -- but they are likely to be found only in the rare book rooms of research libraries. We need more photofacsimile editions such as Jay B. Hubbell's out of print textbook edition of the 1845 Tales and The Raven and Other Poems (Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1969. SBN 675-09529-9 and 675-09530-1).

Meanwhile, the Borzoi-Eris combination may be useful despite its faults. The Eris Poe e-texts are largely unverified, a task for which the Borzoi texts are the appropriate tool. The original Poe texts of the first generation, the editions from Borzoi and Eris Books, are both gone now, but their printed and electronic sons can step forward now in a meeting of ancestors and descendants who up to now have been total strangers utterly unaware of each other's existence.