What English teacher hasn’t cursed Edgar Allan Poe? Isn’t he responsible for all those cheesy revenge plots and creepy sex-death fantasies that teenagers (mostly male) insist on writing? Can you really quarrel with T.S. Eliot’s observation that Poe had “the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty” (though going through puberty seems more apt) — or with Edmund Wilson’s indictment of Poe’s “awful diction”?
Still, for all the harm he has done in the junior high school classroom, Poe has had an outsized positive effect on English literature. One can decide if the influence was worth it by visiting the Morgan Library exhibit, Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul (through January 26).
Poe’s first passion was poetry; his first hero, predictably, Byron. He was precocious in his literary output, and the exhibit features three copies of his first publication, Tamberlane and Other Poems, most of which was written before he was 15. Only 12 copies exist, and it is considered one of the rarest books in American literature.
After failing to make a living as a poet, Poe turned to journalism and short story writing, where he managed to do better. Indeed, he is said to one of the first American writers to make a living strictly by his pen. He did not make a good living, but then, he was an alcoholic and terrible with money, which made it hard for him to keep out of debt. His general debauchery and fecklessness seems to have been a central part of his persona even in his own lifetime. The journalist Horace Greeley wrote in 1846 that Poe “is a brilliant writer when neither too drunk nor too sober — and might be somebody if he were not an incorrigible rascal and vagabond.” It’s the sort of derogatory comment that helps create a mystique.
Poe did well enough with his prose to return eventually to poetry, writing, among others, “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” two poems that have done their share of damage to male adolescent imagination. He died at the age of 40, possibly of a brain aneurysm, possibly of alcoholism, and was found wearing someone else’s clothes and referring, unaccountably, to someone named Reynolds. It sounds like a case for Poe’s creation, detective Auguste Dupin.
As it happens, despite his erratic and illogical behavior, Poe was a pioneer of detective fiction and created the first literary detective in Dupin, a forerunner of Sherlock Holmes, who also seems to have been more logical and deliberate than his creator (Conan Doyle was a fervent believer in Spiritualism, a movement that Holmes would surely have dismissed as nonsense).
Also at odds with Poe’s more adolescent tendencies was his literary criticism, which is often cogent and thoughtful. Many of these manuscripts are on display and we read, for example, reasoned indictments of the cliqueiness of the literary world and the dominance of the Northeastern literary establishment over “Southern and Western talent, which upon the whole is greater, more vivid, fresher, than that of the North, less conventional, less conservative.” He also lambasts a tendency among his countrymen to be uncritically patriotic: “we do our Literature grosser wrong in over-praising our authors… we should drop this gross folly of forcing our readers to relish a stupid book the better because sure enough its stupidity was American.” These are the words of a grown-up.
In short, the exhibit seems to indicate that there were two Poes: one, level-headed and logical; the other, erratic and childish. But isn’t this also the hallmark of the adolescent, who swings from being mature to being infantile, having yet to achieve a grounded self? The lack of cohesion that characterizes Poe, and that is underlined in this exhibit, may be behind Greeley’s view that Poe needed to be neither too drunk nor too sober — i.e., to balance the logical thinker with the eccentric genius. It seems in keeping with this idea that even in his criticism, which is generally sober enough (or, if you will, not too drunk), he could devolve into childish snarkiness or high-mindedness run amok — as when he accuses William Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarizing from the revered Alfred Lord Tennyson. It’s the sort of accusation that could not be proven and could only win him enemies.
The most illuminating part of the exhibit deals with Poe’s posthumous reputation. A third of the space is devoted to the many figures who were influenced by him: Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Stephen King, unsurprisingly; Henry James and George Bernard Shaw, more so. Burroughs, Genet, and Dylan were acolytes. So was Nabokov, until, as the commentary notes, he outgrew him. Jack Kerouac could recite “Annabel Lee” by heart. Oscar Wilde called him the “lord of Romance.” Allen Ginsburg proclaimed that “everything leads to Poe.” He was translated by Mallarme and Baudelaire, and illustrated by Manet, Dore, Beardsley, and Rackham.
There is always a certain fascination attached to seeing the work of an important writer in his own hand. The original manuscripts on display in this exhibit provide a special thrill in that they are exactly what one expects. Poe’s handwriting is small, precise, cramped, just the sort of hand that Montresor of “The Cask of Amontillado” might have had. In several of the manuscripts, the note to the editor at the top of the page is in this handwriting while the story under it, is in another: a block script with a gothic angularity. Sometimes, Poe decides to paste the pages together and make a scroll.
Poe was an orphan and a West Point dropout. He was interested in cryptography and phrenology. He married his 13-year old first cousin who died young and whom he mourned extravagantly. He attempted suicide with laudanum, but failed to die. He drank too much, promised to reform, but didn’t. His imagination was extreme; he liked simple, bold ideas and preferred tales to novels because they delivered immediate gratification. He appears to have had little patience for revision or for anything else. He may have had OCD, bipolar disorder, or ADD. In short, he had all the hallmarks of the volatile, erratic, inventive adolescent — even down to the fact that he could be analytical and sententious at times.
This explains his influence on so many young men who then annoy their English teachers with their attempts to duplicate his style and co-opt his themes. They find in Poe the scenarios that intrigue them: of revenge, gruesome death, and perverse sexuality — but also of authoritativeness with regard to larger issues of literature and life. One thing an adolescent always has is opinions.
But while large numbers of these young readers have had their writing disfigured as a result of Poe’s influence, there are, as this exhibit demonstrates, a notable contingent who assimilated him into a more mature vision. Even those of us who are not fans of Poe’s overheated prose can be grateful to him for that. • 25 October 2013