Poe: American Literature’s Bitter Uncle

Ladies and Gentlemen! There has been a palace coup in the We Happy Few Managerial Hierarchy! I have been deposed as Production Manager by the altogether-more-competent Kiernan McGowan, who, I promise, will live to rue the day he dared step to me. I shall engineer such a revenge that the ill-gotten fruits of his underhanded betrayal will turn to ashes in his mouth, and he will weep for a death which will not come will do a much better job in the role than Yours Truly. I, for my sins, have been given the title of Literary Director and was graciously allowed to keep the title of Blogslave after I told them that they could have the password to this WordPress account when they pried it from my cold dead hands. “But what does this mean for me, the loyal follower of WHF?” I hear you asking, and the answer is: literally nothing. Unless you are a member of the organization this change will impact you not even the tiniest bit, except that our names will be labelled differently in the programs of future shows. So I encourage you to put it out of your mind and come with me into today’s blog post.

In celebration of our new organizational structure, in recognition of my sexy new title, and in anticipation of some very exciting upcoming performances of ours, I would like to offer you some thoughts on American writing’s mopey godfather: Edgar Allan Poe. I personally regard Poe as the father of horror. Others call him the father of the detective story and of science fiction, and even of the American short story. Indeed, with so many literary children to take care of it is small wonder that he drank himself to death! [rimshot] But I am not here to tell you about his drinking problem (…yet), I want to talk to you about his legacy and how his stories, for all their influence, never earned him the title that would seem to be rightfully his: the Father of American Literature.

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Before we really get into that a brief biographical sketch is necessary. Edgar Poe was born in 1809 in Boston to an actress named Elizabeth Poe, whose husband David either died or disappeared at some point in 1810. In 1811 Elizabeth moved to Richmond and then died in her turn, leaving Edgar too far from his paternal grandfather to be brought up with him and therefore at the mercy of the people of Richmond. He was taken in (but not adopted; he retained the name ‘Poe’) by wealthy merchant John Allan and his wife Fanny. Fanny seems to have cared more for the boy than John, with whom Edgar did not get along. Allan was not a member of the landed Virginia gentry, but rather a first-generation Scots trader who had made good, and it is likely that his neighbors did not let him forget it. Poe was betrothed to a woman named Sarah Elmira Royster, with whom he exchanged letters for some time despite her father’s disapproval of the match. Poe attended the University of Virginia but was forced to withdraw after a year due to financial difficulties (Allan had provided Poe with not quite enough money for both classes and rent, and Poe was forced to borrow and gamble in an ill-conceived attempt to make it up). Upon returning to Richmond he discovered that Sarah Royster had married someone else, doubtless under pressure from her father. After a series of arguments with Allan, Poe ran away to Boston where he published his first collection of poetry. It did not make any money and he was forced to join the Army to make ends meet. After some time in the Army, and with the aid of Fanny on her deathbed, Poe was able to convince Allan to support his bid to enter West Point. Unfortunately bad luck conspired to delay his entry until 1830, by which time Fanny Allan had died. Some of Poe’s debts caught up to his foster father in this time period and Allan severed all communication with Poe around the same time as he was expelled from West Point in 1831. Poe moved to Baltimore and lived with his paternal Aunt Maria Clemm and his 9-year-old cousin and future wife Virginia Clemm (they would marry when she was 13. Not as unusual for the time as you might think, but certainly…off-putting).

From this point until his death in 1849 he worked as a professional writer and lecturer, as well as an editor and critic for literary magazines. He regarded it as his mission as a critic to improve the quality of American writing and make it competitive with the writers of Europe, especially England and France (where he was always more popular than America), and as such he made powerful foes of a clique of New York writers, centered on the Knickerbocker magazine and led by the hilariously-named twin editors Lewis and Willis Gaylord Clark, for their propensity to “puff”, or uncritically endorse, each other’s pieces in reviews. He achieved widespread fame upon the publication of “The Raven” in 1845 but was unable to parley even that into financial security, often moving between Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City as work and finances dictated. Virginia died in 1847 after fighting tuberculosis for some time, and Poe himself died under somewhat mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk and wearing someone else’s clothes) in Baltimore some two years later. For a number of years his reputation in America was damaged by the actions of his literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had (unbeknownst to Poe) hated him and spread rumors of infidelity and drug abuse after his death, but his legacy had been salvaged by the end of the 19th century.

You may have noticed that my biography seems to lean very heavily on his early years, before he became one of America’s first professional writers. I assure you that this is by design; it is my belief that Poe’s writing was more shaped by the first half of his life than the second. Poe learned at a young age what it was to be alone, to be outside of the norm, and it seems that he may never have truly learned what it was like to be otherwise. The lessons of Poe’s childhood were cruel and thorough, as I hope I have demonstrated above. He learned how it felt to lose a loved one, to disappoint a friend, to be hungry and cold for want of money, to desire a thing he could not attain, and above all, to be neither welcome nor wanted by those around him. Though Poe did happily marry, and his later life was as full of bosom friends as with rivals, he would never reach a financial level that one might call “stable”, let alone comfortable, despite his fame, and he still struggled with bouts of depression, which were doubtless exacerbated by his financial instability and his wife’s untimely demise. It should come as no surprise that his writing should tend toward the macabre and Gothic, into the dark and brooding half of Romanticism and away from the nationalist Romanticism of his fellows.

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Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. This picture is pretty much all you need to know about Romanticism.

Poe seems to have projected this psychological isolation and half-imagined social exile onto his characters. Contrary to the now-traditional American protagonist of the cunning and self-made frontiersman, popularized by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and inspired by outdoorsy American heroes such as Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Andrew Jackson, Poe created elegant, aristocratic protagonists. Prince Prospero, Roderick Usher, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, Montresor, and his many nameless narrators of such pieces as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Black Cat”: these are men of property and education. They are aristocrats, similar to Poe’s classmates at the University of Virginia or West Point, or his childhood friends in Richmond. But (excepting Mssr. Dupin) their education and breeding boots them naught. Poe’s characters are almost universally undone or driven mad by their own obsessions, by their isolation, their superiority, their overwhelming desire for the unattainable, and above all by their arrogance. His characters are blind to their faults, assuming that their superior intelligence and class will keep them safe, that they are too clever and important to suffer any consequences. Poe inverted the American Dream, before we even really knew what that meant. His characters start with everything and then lose it all.

squandered-resources

Squandered Resources, Visions, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Romas Kukalis

Even more striking than Poe’s choice of characters is his choice of settings and subjects. Poe’s contemporaries, Longfellow, Whitman, Whittier, Cooper, Hawthorne, Irving, positively reveled in writing about the the rough, vast new country in which they found themselves. Longfellow, a member of the adversarial Knickerbocker clique and Your Humble Narrator’s favorite poet, is best known for the thoroughly American poems Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Hawthorne rooted himself so inextricably to colonial Massachusetts that I had to read The Scarlet Letter twice in high school, first to learn about Puritans and then again to learn about Transcendentalism. Cooper’s Leatherstocking stories may be poorly written drivel, but they were indisputably American drivel. Whitman even wrote a poem titled “I Hear America Singing”, for God’s sake! The American frontier and our brief but vibrant history offers an infinity of stories to American writers.

But Poe was not seduced by the Great Wide Open or America’s heroic past. Poe’s stories are set in crowded cities, where people get too close and drive one another mad, where apes escape from their owners and commit grisly murders, where science, blindly pursued, visits horrific consequences on its practitioners. They take place in crumbling manors and castles, where mad kings die at their own hideous parties and where long-sought vengeance is planned. They take place in richly appointed rooms where men may be alone with their grief and their wine. They take place in nightmares and prison cells, museums and graveyards, hurricanes and catacombs. Poe didn’t completely ignore America, “The Gold-Bug” is set on an island where he was stationed in the Army and Arthur Gordon Pym is from Nantucket, but he did not feel the urge to tell ‘American’ stories in the way that his colleagues did. Maybe his melancholia simply found better purchase in the foggy Gothic settings favored by his colleagues in Europe than the bright sun of the American frontier, though I think the answer is more complicated than that. Poe, perhaps, did not have the same unblemished view of his country as his fellows. His experience with America had shown him many more unfriendly faces, closed doors, and cold, dark city streets than welcoming arms and sun-dappled meadows. Moreover, he did not feel himself to be a member of the community of American writers which he had worked so strenuously to create, and which had consistently shunned and maligned him, even after he was in the grave.

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“A Descent Into the Maelstrom”. Illustration by Harry Clarke, for Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.

For these reasons I find it difficult to either grant or rescind Poe the title of Father of American Literature. He was among the first and greatest writers in American history and he dedicated his life to improving America’s writing profile on the world stage.  But at the same time his stories, for all of his being one of America’s finest writers, are not American. They are horror stories, detective stories, adventure stories, melancholy poems, introspective poems, the origins of science fiction, but not a one of them is an American story in the way that Tom Sawyer or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby is. Poe’s writing lacks the setting and the spirit that sets The Great American Novel apart from other genres. It is impossible to ignore his role in American literature but his own actions disqualify him from the title. It’s all right, though. Horror is a better genre than Americana.

If you agree with me that horror is great, and you also think that drinking is great, keep a weather eye on this space as well as the We Happy Few emails, websitetwitter, and facebook; however you keep track of our comings and goings. We will have some Poe-related things coming up  soon that you will be VERY excited to attend. Remember THIS THING I told you about last year? Think bigger, and keep your eyes open for more details! Until next time, I am (and always have been) your friend Keith Hock.

[editor’s note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that, in addition to Wikipedia for quick fact-checking, I relied heavily upon Nigel Barnes’ “A Dream Within a Dream: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe” (Peter Owen Publishers, 2009) and Edward H. Davidson’s “Poe: A Critical Study” (Harvard University Press, 1957) while writing this blog post. KH]