Forevermore: The Iconic Poe of the 21st Century
“To be thoroughly conversant with a man’s heart, is to take our final lesson in the iron-clasped volume of despair.” —Edgar A. Poe
“Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors . . . on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed.” —Edgar A. Poe
Imagine Edgar A. Poe’s wonder and bewilderment if he were given an opportunity to walk the earth in the 21st century, during the bicentennial year of his birth. Wandering through New York City, Richmond, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore, all of his old haunts, he would come across visible evidence of people honoring his life and his work. Books, films, lectures, readings, exhibitions, a re-enactment of his funeral, and even musical theater! If someone were kind enough to show him the Internet, he would see hundreds of websites around the world that commemorate him and celebrate his writings. In a truly Poe-esque irony, the man whose writing romanticized death and mournful remembrance in the 19th century has truly become far more successful post-mortem than he ever dreamed he would become in his short life span of 40 years.
Alas for Poe, his golden road to immortality has been more like running a gauntlet of critics for the last 200 years. As a merciless (and sometimes mercenary) literary critic himself, Poe was a master at writing excoriating reviews, so perhaps it is poetic justice or karma that he has been getting his proverbial hind end kicked for two centuries. From the first defamatory obituary notice written by his self-appointed literary executor, Rufus W. Griswold, right up to more recent Poe-ographies by Kenneth Silverman (Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance) and Peter Ackroyd (Poe: A Life Cut Short), many have derided Poe as a alcoholic, a drug addict, an egomaniac, a plagiarist who accused other writers of plagiarism, a philanderer, and above all, a hack. Poet James Russell Lowell referred to Poe as “three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge.” And the extant photographic images of Poe have ingrained the popular notion of the author as a brooding, depressive, crazed and almost ghost-like figure in American literature. One such image has been copied and parodied to death.
Yet Poe’s works have remained popular even though he has always divided critics and readers. In spite of suffering much of his adult life through abject poverty, being cheated out of royalties for works that were pirated, being mocked by the literary elite of his day, and even being turned down for mundane jobs, Poe’s writing has been incredibly influential and persistent, not only in literature but in contemporary culture. Many writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and W.H. Auden have been proponents of his work, as well as being influenced by it. He has been called the first and foremost American poet of the 19th century, an influence on European romanticism, a seminal force in Surrealism and Symbolism and, unexpectedly, he has also become one of the best-known of the “dead white authors” of the 19th century.
Poe was arguably America’s first full-time fiction and poetry writer. Most other authors of the day couldn’t make a living from their works (international copyright conventions didn’t exist until the Berne Convention in 1886), but that dubious distinction also meant a lifelong struggle to earn enough money to support himself, his young wife Virginia, his aunt/mother-in-law Maria Clemm, and his often foundering writing career. Although he was arguably one of the leading literary critics of his day, he was continually begging for opportunities for paid work, seeking sponsors or patrons for his work, and trying to secure paid speaking engagements once he became more well-known with his publication of his signature work, “The Raven”, although overall he had more commercial success with his short fiction than his poetry.
Not only did Poe pioneer the short story as an artform in its own right – partly because poverty led him his from his vocation as a poet to his career as a writer of short magazine pieces in periodicals such as the Southern Literary Messenger—but he also developed the sensational style of writing a story as if it were a true account, or at least that the narrator of the story believed to be true. In The Tell-tale Heart, the narrator convinces us of his sincerity even as we increasingly begin to believe that he is mad. Poe developed this style of “reality writing,” hoaxes with verisimilitude, for a very practical reason – to help create a sensation among readers and sell copies of magazines. These stories were, in Poe’s own words, “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.” This approach has since become a convention for horror writers from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.
In his lifetime, Poe was the victim of a piteous number of rejections, failures and missteps, including attempts to gain employment as a teacher, a government bureaucrat and even an officer in the Polish army, not to mention failed attempts to start his own magazine, The Stylus. Yet his determination to make a living as a writer, and his extreme poverty through most of his adult life, may also have helped him become a literary innovator. Poe wrote a series of stories that were about what he called “ratiocination” (using creative intuition combined with facts to solve a problem). Tales such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or “The Gold Bug” were the artistic forebears of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Poe invented the term “cryptograph” and tried to establish a popular reputation as a master code-breaker. Even his many detractors have admitted that he was the originator of the modern detective or mystery story. Today The Mystery Writers of America even names its annual literary prizes, The Edgar ® Awards, after Poe, and the little statuettes bear his visage.
Poe’s early influences were works of European Romanticism from authors such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, yet Poe maintained in his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque that “If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul.” His tales of dark fantasy influenced by European romanticism included classics such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”, both of which are gripping accounts of revenge and torture that take place, not in his contemporary America, but in historical Europe.
Poe even dared to approach scientific theory through the lens of artistic exploration. He developed what may have been the first science fiction story in “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall”, which is about a man who reaches the moon via balloon using a breathing apparatus that compresses air from the vacuum of space. Pfaall’s narrative over a 19-day period includes descriptions of the Earth from outer space as well as the unlikely astronaut’s arrival on the blistering hot moon. Tales like this influenced later sci-fi writers such as Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon) and H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds).
A news article in the November 2, 2002 edition of the New York Times noted that Poe’s philosophical musings on scientific issues may have contained some brilliant and uncanny insights, such as his essay “Eureka,” which seems to describe what we now call “the Butterfly Effect” as well as portraying the origin of the universe in a way that would later be known to physicists as “the Big Bang Theory.” In the essay, of which only 500 copies were printed, Poe discourses about the beginnings of the universe from a single “primordial particle” which then radiated or diffused into space. He argued that the relatively equal distribution of the starry bodies was evidence of it: “This equability of distribution effected through radiation from a centre.”
While other writers of the day concerned themselves with moral correctness and the status quo, Poe was breaking all the rules and daring to maintain that the purpose of art was not morality but beauty and truth. Unlike Matthew Pearl’s supposition in his novel, The Poe Shadow, that Poe lived his life within his works—that it was “his true form of being”—Poe always insisted that he was only “in” his works insofar as it served his purpose as an artist. He always maintained, from his youth to his death, that “Art should not have a Moral basis but solely exist for Truth and Beauty of the art itself.”
Although he clearly worshipped at the altar of Art, Poe also made commercial forays into everything from comic farce (“The System of Doctor Tarr” and “Professor Fether”) to critiques of American home decorating styles (he had the journalistic trait of being a generalist so he could write about anything). Out of all this journalistic churn, however, came one of Poe’s greatest acts of innovation—he brought the language, rhythms and techniques of poetry into literary fiction of the day. Silvermanwrote that “Poe was becoming the first writer in English, or perhaps in any modern literature, to consistently apply to prose fiction some of the techniques of poetry.” Although Poe was a journalist by necessity, he was still a poet by definition. “With me,” wrote Poe, “poetry has not been a purpose but a passion.”
Yet aside from Poe’s obvious influences on literature, film, art and music (such as Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells), despite his contemporary critics and enemies who sneered at the “Magazinist”, and regardless of many modern academics who still consider Poe a pulp writer or a minor, embarrassing figure of 19th century American letters, Poe has become an important symbol in popular culture worldwide—and not just in English-speaking countries. Reproductions of his doleful, baggy-eyed visage are instantly recognizable and appear globally on t-shirts, posters, coffee cups, movies, music and fine arts. Even death metal fans who hardly read any literature are passing familiar with some of Poe’s works, and may have even read a story or two. Poe is a pop culture icon of dark fiction whose image, personality and work are inseparable and at times indistinguishable. Like many contemporary celebrities, Poe has become a brand of his own, along with all the preconceptions and misconceptions that kind of celebrity brings with it. This makes Poe one of the most famous and accessible writers of American literature, or for that matter, world literature. To read Poe is to meet Poe, which is why so many Poe admirers, fans, scholars, artists and “Poeists” become more than a little obsessed with him.
Like all of us, Poe was many things to many people at different times in his life. Detailed accounts of Poe’s 40 years conjure an image of a man dressed in Goth-like black who was desperate, conniving, confused, inventive, dispirited, disenfranchised, dolorous, bereaved, ambitious and hard-headed. Yet he was tender toward his mother-in-law, and the many women he courted were not repulsed by him but actually very attracted to him. Poe was charismatic, a strong athlete, a born leader, a good singer, a kind husband, a hard working employee, a top student, and a great dramatic reader on stage. Yet none of these personal stories are ever recreated in Poe’s works. Art for Poe, was elevated above mere common experience into something supra-mortal.
Returning to the fancy of Edgar A. Poe walking among us in the 21st century, imagine him being awestruck by how successful his works have been for more than 160 years, not only in his homeland but in Canada, France, England, Russia, Germany, Romania and Japan, to name but a few of the Poe-loving nations. Picture him finding out that he has even become a kind of bohemian Che Guevara to the Goth subculture. Would he have been embittered to realize, after all his penury and despair, after all the ill-fated attempts at a fruitful literary career, after all the sorrow of losing his life in his literary prime and leaving his beloved “Muddy” impoverished and alone without his support, that his name is now selling millions of books and movies, and that his countenance is appearing ubiquitously on merchandise such as “Nevermore” T-shirts?
Perhaps for a few moments, the irony and heartbreak of his own personal tragedy would overwhelm him, but then the Poe that friends such as Sarah Helen Whitman described so eloquently in her book, Edgar Poe and His Critics, would probably bear himself up and, quoting from one of his own letters, say, “I have perseveringly struggled against a thousand difficulties, and have succeeded, although not in making money, still in attaining a position in the world of Letters, of which, under the circumstances, I have no reason to be ashamed.”