Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was one of the first literary authors I ever read on my own for enjoyment, and from quite a young age. The initial entry points were undoubtedly the poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee”. I remember a kid reciting the former in the Junior High library once, and became intrigued. The latter poem I associate with my father for some reason; I seem to recall a conversation we had about the ill-fated Virginia Clemm, Poe’s literal child-bride (his 13 year old cousin, in fact) and her sad death at age 24, which filled Poe with such despair. I think I had to write something about it for school. Since I was no older than 13 myself at the time, he explained that in the the 19th Century, and in the South, things were different, and sometimes girls married young (though 13 was on the young side). When I was about 16, I received for Christmas a volume containing Poe’s complete fiction, poetry, and oddments like “Eureka”, “The Balloon Hoax” and some of that weird game and puzzle stuff he indulged in. I read it cover to cover and then I read it again. Around the same time, I no doubt also first saw many of Roger Corman’s Poe films with Vincent Price on television.
Over the years I’ve read and re-read Poe’s key tales so many times I can quote certain brief passages verbatim. The ones I know best are undoubtedly the ones you know best: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Premature Burial”, “Descent into the Maelstrom”, “William Wilson”, and that delicious tale of revenge with the hilarious title “Hop-Frog”. I thought of turning “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” into a screenplay. I DID steal the situation at the climax of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym for a play I wrote (it was presented at HERE’s American Living Room (in 1997, I think?) One of the many things that initially drew me to my wife was that she had adapted “The Fall of the House of Usher” into a film. I’ve reviewed countless theatrical adaptations of his works for various publications over the years. And by now I’ve even read some of his harsh, harsh criticism of his contemporary authors. And I finally made it to his cottage in the Bronx a few years ago. I wrote about it here.
My unwholesome predilection for Poe is scarcely unique, I well realize. He remains a favorite among teenagers and former teenagers everywhere. He is the Father of American Goth, and the first and most prominent American Romantic. The Founder of Horror as a specialized literary genre. A creature of self-torture, obsession, and angst, also given to hallucinatory flights of fantasy. His writings are practically rock albums, and they seem that way became he was the one who influenced them.
One thing that particularly interests me, nay, nags me like a thumping heart under the floorboards, is: where did he come from? Because, frankly, he goes against the American grain. America was always about cutting ties with the Old World and starting from scratch with a clean slate. America was about birth, not death. Its natural landscape was beautiful, not terrible. We build new structures here; there are no ruins and ancient castles to contemplate. Without even intending to, in that little passage, I found myself evoking Emerson and Whitman. THAT is what most American writers sound and sounded like. Exhortations to remake the world! Exhilaration at the prospect of all that is possible!
That is certainly not the voice of Edgar Allan Poe. I say again: where did he come from? Poe even attended the University of Virginia. He certainly didn’t learn despondency there. Jefferson designed that place himself; its very existence is a demonstration of the American love of REASON. Poe is above all a creature of UNreason. His imagination is superstitious. He writes of imps, sylphs, angels, ghosts, doppelgangers. One is surprised to learn that he was apparently not religious as an adult. He was however raised an Episcopalian (as many Virginians were), something close to Catholic, and quite a different sensibility from the Puritans of New England. Now we get close to a key, I think. Virginia was settled by Cavaliers, not Roundheads. The outlook was more Medieval, more resigned to what was regarded as the God-given social order. It was aristocratic and land-loving. It was not about change, reform, self-improvement, equality. Virginia was the birthplace of America’s dark heart, none darker than the stain of slavery. Dissipation and decadence, that was Southern stuff. In New England, you worked on your character. If you had a free moment, you devised something useful to do. When Poe had a free moment (even when he didn’t), he gambled, drank, and enjoyed the company of women. Yes, and clearly read, studied and wrote profusely. But that, too, was pleasure.
So Poe’s voice feels like it has more in common with Gray’s “Elegy” and Coleridge and Mary Shelley and German philosophy than that of his fellow countrymen. Though there is this observation: at the same time he writes for a popular audience (one of the first to do so in the modern age), the theatre is beginning to flourish in America for the first time. In fact, both of Poe’s parents were actors. And above all, the public loved Shakespeare. And who is more morbid at times than Shakespeare? Hamlet, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet. Did you ever notice that Poe looks a little like John Wilkes Booth? I have! These Southern artists who drink themselves into dementia, work themselves into a froth, and fight duels. They are more like Byron than Longfellow. Poe disliked Longfellow, who so lacked the passion that was Byron’s whole genius. Passion is why we love Poe. He is rash and intemperate and that thrills us. He is bold and unafraid to shape the language to his needs. It is full of exclamation points!!! It reads like Beethoven! What do you prefer, anyway? Bloody? Or a bloody bore?
And lastly there is the stardom of his person. That skull — surely it is phrenologically unsound. The unkempt hair, circles under the eyes — they betray that he has been up all night scribbling with a feather quill. And the legend of his mysterious death, like something out of one of his own stories. If you want to keep people on the hook for 180 years give them questions, not answers. ultimately it dawns that reality mimics fantasy and that Poe and his work — bizarre and appalling as it is — have become one.