In the early hours of January 19, a shadowy figure glides into the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground through a side-gate and makes his way to a cenotaph. In the biting Baltimore night, the black-clad stranger — in wide-brimmed hat and a long scarf obscuring his face — stands staring at the raven engraved upon the cenotaph. He pours himself a glass of cognac and raises a toast. He bends down, places three roses and the unfinished bottle by the monument, and wafts softly away into the fog.
No one knows who he is or was (we do know that it is a he), or even if it’s more than one person, perhaps a tradition passed down from father to son or sons. But, for over seven decades, since sometime in the early 1930s to 2009, when he was last seen, the Poe Toaster would show up at Edgar Allan Poe’s original grave on the author’s birthday, to pay tribute to America’s great literary architect of Weird Modernity. In 1990, Life magazine was even allowed to take a picture, from a grainy distance, and the Toaster passed into pop culture lore.
What is it about Poe that grips the popular imagination so, like the medieval Iron Shroud shrinking inward and threatening to crush the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum”? Who was he, and what strange Romantic resonances does he emit that continue to fascinate us?
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” wrote that other fantasist H. P. Lovecraft. In his stories — and even his poems — Poe brings forth, as if out of thin air, a grotesque world fully crystallized. It is utterly self-contained and frequently terrifying, a radical break from our mundane realities (also self-contained and terrifying, but in less unknowable ways). Reading Poe, we learn remarkably little of the New World in the middle of the 19th century — no Mexican-American War, no California Gold Rush, no westward ho!, no rumblings over slavery. “Byronic heroes sequestered in British and continental locales,” as Robert Bloch called Poe’s protagonists, do not make for topical social realism. In being the very antithesis of such writing, however, Poe transports us into a world that is frighteningly his own, into which we are allowed on his terms and entirely at our own peril.
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, to two moderately well-known actors who were passing through on tour. His biological father abandoned the family when Edgar was one, and his mother died soon after, leaving the orphan to be adopted (though never officially) by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. The Allans (hence the middle name) were wealthy; John dealt in everything from tombstones to human beings and was an overbearing foster father whose relationship with his son grew increasingly fraught. When he refused to settle his son’s gambling debts at the University of Virginia, Poe dropped out, lied about his age and joined the army — and published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, of which only a dozen copies are rumored to be in existence, making it possibly the rarest first edition in American literature. He then got an early discharge, reconciled with his father, and eventually joined the military academy at West Point. It was during his tenure here, once again cut short when he got himself court-martialed, that his relationship with his father broke down completely and he was disowned. One wonders whether this is why there are never any fathers or father figures in Poe’s tales — the closest he comes is in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, with its “old man” who has a pale blue “vulture eye,” and whom the narrator smothers, dismembers and conceals under the floorboards. Psychic revenge for Freudian wounds, perhaps?
Soon after, Poe bucks another trend and becomes a writer by trade. He is possibly the first American author to make a living exclusively by creative work. For the next 15 years or so, till his mysterious death in 1849, he becomes an editor of various periodicals and churns out dozens of short stories, poems, critical essays, and reviews (his final published short story, “Hop-Frog”, came out a few months before he died). It is to this period — the mid-1830s to the mid-’40s — that his most famous works belong, and they elaborate a series of obsessions that remain with him till the end of his life — guilty crimes (“The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat”), allegory and symbolism (“The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “William Wilson”), sheer psychological torture (“The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Premature Burial”), catalepsy (“Usher”, “Burial”, “Berenice”), monomania (“Berenice”, “The Man of the Crowd”, “The Oval Portrait” and many, many others), the eternal threat of immurement that runs like slime through most of his writing, and, of course, dentition (the gnashing of teeth as a portent of doom in “Hop-Frog”, Egaeus’s ghastly obsession with his cousin’s teeth in “Berenice”, the mesmerically undead Valdemar’s gaping teeth in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”). Indeed, in Poe’s imagination, the pearly whites function as a symbol of mortality, their ability to survive decay a powerful counterpoint to what the narrator of “Valdemar” calls the “detestable putrescence” of death.
Poe’s fetish objects point towards a larger tradition of objectifying the terrors of the soul in Gothic literature. Old stone walls, devices of torture, evil eyes, casks of Amontillado, tufts of hair, purloined letters, and, above all, the ancient entanglement of death and beauty. “The death of a beautiful woman,” he says in “The Philosophy of Composition”, his 1846 essay on how good writers write, “is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Poe is besotted with the gradual dissolution of female beauty. For him, the fair maiden of old Gothic fiction begins to slowly waste away into a hideous ideal of modernity.
This might be a consequence of the seemingly unshakeable presence of consumption in the women in his life. His mother and his beloved wife Virginia — a first cousin whom he married when she was 13 and he 26 — both died of tuberculosis (as, incidentally, did his biological father and brother). In “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “the lady Madeline” suffers from catalepsy, falls into deathlike trances, and is buried alive. Berenice, once “agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy,” gradually loses her vitality “in the singular and most appalling distortion of her personal identity,” her bodily fate culminating in the horrifying act of having all her teeth extracted. The woman in the oval portrait, once a “maiden of rarest beauty,” sits as a model for her painter husband and grows “daily more dispirited and weak” even as her beauty is gradually captured in art. Ultimately, she has to die of waste because of her beauty.
We can see a model for the twinning of beauty and disgust that pervades these stories in Virginia’s protracted suffering. Sometime in 1842, while singing at the piano, Poe’s young wife starts to bleed from the mouth — a symptom of her untreated disease — and the hideous images of ooze and bodily slime find their most poetic descriptions in the stories. The Red Death brings upon its victims “sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores,” and Valdemar’s eyes leak a “profuse out-flowing of a yellowish ichor . . . of a pungent and highly offensive odor.” These are images that have percolated into the literature of horror since, and numerous writers, including H.P. Lovecraft, have been influenced by these incursions and excursions of hideousness. Poe, perhaps singlehandedly, managed to create an aesthetics of disgust that persists to this day, in everything from slasher films to our inability to turn away from the spectacle of a gut-wrenching accident.
Yet, for all its connections to traditional Gothic fantasy, Poe’s is also a uniquely American East Coast form of the genre. Much of his work is connected to Philadelphia, where he lived for some time because it was the magazine and periodical capital of the country at the time, and most of his stories come out in Philly-based publications. Philadelphia is the birthplace of America’s homegrown Gothic, spawning a literary tradition of lurid and sensational literature — crime, horror, and the supernatural. While many of his earlier macabre stories, including “Usher”, are closer to the older European Gothic, they begin to develop into something else as they get more urban and connected to the greater community.
The bibliographer Frederick Frank once suggested that “the individual potential for evil in a new society” was the primal threat in American Gothic, and many of Poe’s stories are ultimately about this potential for evil. “William Wilson”, for instance, obsessively tackles the theme of the double and the title character’s struggle with his own evil doppelgänger, blurring the lines between self and other. In many of the other stories, the evil no longer dwells in age-old castles and ruined abbeys, but in dense urban agglomerations, out on the streets around us, and, more frighteningly, inside our own bourgeois homes.
Which brings us to his tales of abrupt modernity. Widely recognized as the creator of the literary detective, Poe sets his tales of detection (or “pure ratiocination”, as he would have called them) in the Paris of the Second Empire; quite possibly because France was the first country with what we would now call a detective bureau, and because Poe had almost certainly read the memoirs of Eugene Vidocq, the infamous criminal-turned-detective who was the first head of the Sûreté. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, we are introduced to le Chevalier Auguste Dupin, the first — and first great — detective in all of fiction, the progenitor to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and, indeed, every single trenchcoated, pipe-smoking, armchair-cogitating character in subsequent literature. Poe very neatly sets up all the major conventions of detective fiction, that arch genre of modernity, in this and the two subsequent Dupin tales, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”. Here we find the birth of the locked-room mystery, the superhuman detective and his trusty sidekick narrator, the object hidden in plain sight, the final unraveling of the mystery and an explanation of the chain of logic leading up to it, the worthy nemesis, and the practice of reading symbols and signs as clues.
In fact, in the very act of creating the detective story, Poe also inscribes the conditions for its subversion. Every one of those tropes mentioned above is inverted and denied — the locked room isn’t really a locked room, the criminal unveiled in the final act isn’t really a criminal, and so on. In this, Poe is as postmodern as the best of them. Dupin is infatuated with text and textuality, preferring to glean the details of a case from written newspaper reports rather than trust the Prefect’s oral testimony (in “Marie Roget”). It is little wonder that, a hundred years later, Jorge Luis Borges chooses to call Erik Lonnrot, the detective in his own postmodern “Death and the Compass”, “a reasoning machine, an Auguste Dupin.” In his detective stories, Poe lays bare the textual nature of modernity. Word and world mingle much too close for comfort.
So it goes with this great purveyor of the midnight dreary. His words bleed like acid rain into America’s cultural imaginarium, cloaking entire cities in faux-respectable discomfort and Gothic chintz. In Baltimore — the city where he met his wife, launched his literary career, and died in appropriately mysterious circumstances — they named their football team after what is arguably his most famous work, “The Raven”. The Horse You Came In On, a bar in the Fell’s Point neighborhood that claims to be America’s oldest continually operated saloon still trades on the legend of Poe’s death; last seen drinking there, he was later found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a delirium. (Theories of the cause of death include everything from syphilis and rabies to cooping, a form of electoral fraud where voters would be kidnapped, plied with booze, and coerced into voting for a particular candidate). In October 2009, 160 years after he died, the city gave him a second funeral attended by thousands. His service took place twice because of high demand. His first funeral had had a handful of mourners and a service that lasted all of three minutes.
In some ways, even modern Baltimore classics — The Wire most famously, but there are others, like Norman Jewison’s courtroom noir …And Justice for All and John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs (“raucously disgusting,” The New York Times) — are soaked in Poe’s detestable putrescences. Residential redlining from the 1930s, riots in the ’60s, the eruption of violence after Freddie Gray’s homicide by the Baltimore PD in 2015; these are signposts of the cruel racial turbulence that has marked the modern history of Baltimore, and it is tempting to find strands of Poe’s Dark Romanticism eternally entwined with the city’s DNA.
Even his awkward classic of surveillance, “The Man of the Crowd”, published in 1840, resonates with 21st-century Baltimore. In 2016, the city started a secret aerial surveillance program that was soon halted due to public backlash. In March 2020, as the pandemic started tearing through America and the CDC was struggling to ramp up contact tracing, the program was restarted under a new name — Aerial Investigation Research.
“Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul,” begins Poe’s story, quoting Jean de La Bruyère. Such a great misfortune, not to be able to be alone. As the German philosopher Walter Benjamin indicated, the mention of gas lamps lighting the hitherto mysterious London night ushers in a stark image of the modern, where it is possible to roam the streets after sunset. It is “something like the X-ray picture of a detective story,” Benjamin wrote. “In it, the drapery represented by crime has disappeared. The mere armature has remained: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who arranges his walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.”
This is the true condition of modernity, this anonymity within a multitude, one more tweet on your feed, one more meme lost in the abyss of cyberspace mere hours post-virality. Edgar Allan Poe feeds the desire for solitude amid a crowd. Wallow in his stories at desolate malls, on locked-down streets, and in quarantined bathrooms. And don’t forget to tip the doorman, for you never know when you may have to run screaming away. •