May 2 2012 2:00pm

You Don’t Know Poe: 10 Weird Things About Edgar Allan Poe

So John Cusack just had his first onscreen turn as Edgar Allan Poe. And while historical figures being liberally interpreted as action-oriented, larger than life figures is common these days (How many vampires did Abraham Lincoln really hunt?), how much do you really know about Edgar Allan Poe?

Here are 10 factoids from the former head docent of the Edgar Allan Poe cottage. Perhaps they will change your view of Poe... evermore.


10.) His war with Boston   

Poe picked a lot of literary fights in his career, but none greater then with “the Humanity clique” of New England, which included Harvard professor Longfellow and Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Lowell. Class resentment drove his hatred of these “elegant men of leisure” and he denounced Beantown while still desiring its acclaim. He despised, as he understood it, the Transcendentalists’ optimism and their belief in social progress. He sued Longfellow for plagiarism, and pulled Andy Kaufman-like stunts by giving boring never-ending lectures to Boston audiences and then claiming they were too stupid to understand his genius. All of this is either bitterly ironic or psychologically understandable given that he was born in the city, and that his first collection did not carry his name. Instead, authorship is credited to “A Bostonian.” The book flopped.

9.) The bloody inspiration for the “The Masque of Red Death.”

It’s fairly well known that Poe married his cousin Virginia and that her subsequent illness inspired much of his work, but perhaps one of the most direct correlations to his work came with the first signs of her tuberculosis. While singing for the family, Virginia’s lungs hemorrhaged and she began bleeding from the mouth. Soon after, in a deep denial about the severity of her illness, Poe wrote the tale of decadent Prince Prospero, locked in his castle and trying, in vain, to keep the specter of pestilence, disease and injury from his doorstep.


8.) He originated body-horror

Detective fiction, American gothic tales, science fiction — Poe is given credit for inventing all these genres, but two of his lesser known tales, “The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case,” and “Hop-Frog” provide good evidence that he cultivated his inner gore-hound; and Virginia’s illness no doubt continued to feed his fear of physical illness. The violence of “Usher,” “Pendulum,” “Tell-Tale Heart,” and “Black Cat” are wrapped in gothic romance, but the deaths in these other two are flat out disgusting. David Cronenberg would be proud.

7.) “Tekeli-li!” (and Poe’s ONLY novel)

Genre fans know that H.P. Lovecraft picked up where Poe left off. Perhaps his most direct homage to the master is the strange cry of “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” first heard at the end of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the story of a strange expedition to Antarctica. Lovecraft incorporated Tekeli-li into his own Arctic novella, “The Mountains of Madness” making it the call of the Elder Ones. He also borrowed Poe’s giant penguins, and made them whisper it, too.

There’s also the 2011 novel Pym by Mat Johnson, which is a full-on Poe homage/satire.


6.) For Most of His Life, the Iconic Mustache Was Absent

We can’t image him without it. (John Cusack gets a devilish goatee in the new movie.) But the handsome devil on the right is the same man who wrote about premature burials and orangutans shoving women up chimneys, and it’s how he looked most of his life. Only in the much darker, desperate, final years did he grow that romantic, brooding facial hair and begin to go mad.


5.) Eureka!

A year after his wife Virginia died, Poe wrote “Eureka: A Prose Poem” a gonzo grab bag of science and mathematics which, he said, would prove Newton, Aristotle, and Bacon to be “intellectual grovellers.” Oh Edgar, you arrogant SOB. What “Eureka” seems to be (if you can get through it) is a mourning husband’s attempt to make sense of his wife’s death. The cosmos of Eureka “presents…an infinitude of pulsating universes alternately willed into orbic systems and reactively condensed into primary particles by an infinitude of gods.” If you can explain that me, I’ll buy you a beer and call you Aristotle.


4.) He joined Alcoholics Anonymous

Or, as it was known in the 19th century, the Sons of Temperance. And it wasn’t anonymous. Members took a public pledge against alcohol and published their intentions in the newspaper. Poe joined a branch in Richmond, VA amid rumors that he might be marrying his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Shelton. Time to get sober. But he died a month later before he could climb the 12 steps to recovery.

3.) The Details of His Death(s) Have Been Greatly Confused

Do you think you know how Poe died? Guess what? So does everyone else. His final days in Baltimore have inspired more hokum and conspiracies then Tupac, JFK, and Elvis combined. (Okay, we really can’t measure that, but it feels this way.) There are over 26 theories including rabies, diabetes, epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcohol dehydrogenase, and cooping. That last one gets my vote. It was a common practice in our young Democracy to abduct isolated people during city elections, ply them with liquor, and then force them to vote multiple times. This would explain Poe’s delirious state when found in a Baltimore tavern — which doubled as a polling site — and the fact that he was wearing clothes that were not his.


2.) Joyce Carol Oates “Completed” A Lost Poe Story

At the time of his death, Poe left behind the enticing remains of an unpublished and unfinished story. The tale concerns a lonely lighthouse keeper who has taken his isolated seaside post in order to finish a book. The scant two pages are written in the form of a diary in which the man — a classic Poe anti-hero trapped in an existential no man’s land — begins to question his emotional health and physical wellbeing. “There is no telling,” he writes, “what may happen to a man all alone as I am — I may get sick or worse…I do believe I am going to get nervous about my insulation.” He inspects the structure of the lighthouse — 180 feet high with 20 feet lying below the sea’s surface — and finds it solid, at first, but then progressively becomes convinced that it will collapse. The final sentence (?) of the story, “The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk,” is all the more eerie since it’s followed by another diary entry, this one blank. Joyce Carol Oates, a modern purveyor of the gothic, wrote her own version and published it in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories under the title, “The Fabled Light-house at Vina del Mar.”


1.)  He loved Cats. Really.

Contrary to the famous and nasty depiction of a man gouging the eye of a poor feline in “The Black Cat,” Poe adored animals. His own kitty’s name was Catterina.


Matthew Mercier is a writer and storyteller whose work has appeared in The Mississippi Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Glimmer Train, and The Raven Chronicles. He currently teaches at Hunter College. He’s worked as a youth hostel manager in New Mexico, packed salmon in Alaska, provided showers for homeless men on the Bowery, and proudly served five years as the caretaker and head docent of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in The Bronx. He’s married to a Norwegian herbalist and lives part time in an octagon.

He has two stories about Edgar Allan Poe in the magazine Rosebud this month.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
N. Mamatas
1. N. Mamatas
Robert Bloch also "completed" Poe's lighthouse fragment, a few decades before Oates did. It's "Horror in the Lighthouse", and was published in the 1970s some time.

There's also an entire anthology of attempts to finish the fragment, called Poe's Lighthouse, edited by Christopher Conlon. (Disclosure: I have a story in it.) It was published by Cemetery Dance in 2006, and is being republished as a trade paperback this year by Wicker Park Press.
N. Mamatas
2. BenjaminJB
Oh, yeah, Poe really had it in for the Transcendentalists of Boston--or Frogpondium as it sometimes shows up in his work. But I wouldn't totally chalk it up to resentment, which makes it sound like Poe would've wanted to be a Transcendentalist of Boston--and he hates those guys for their philosophy. I think it comes out mostly in his landscape stories ("Landscape Garden," "Island of the Fay," "Domain of Arnheim," "Landor's Cottage"--and I forget which one of those is a rewrite of another).

(For a funny/sad allusion to Poe, check out Melville's The Confidence Man where Poe shows up as a poor guy trying to sell poems: "a crazy beggar, asking alms under the form of peddling a rhapsodical tract, composed by himself, and setting forth his claims to some rhapsodical apostle-ship. Though ragged and dirty, there was about him no touch of vulgarity; for, by nature, his manner was not unrefined, his frame slender, and appeared the more so from the broad, untanned frontlet of his brow, tangled over with a disheveled mass of raven curls, throwing a still deeper tinge upon a complexion like that of a shriveled berry. Nothing could exceed his look of picturesque Italian ruin and dethronement, heightened by what seemed just one glimmering peep of reason, insufficient to do him any lasting good, but enough, perhaps, to suggest a torment of latent doubts at times, whether his addled dream of glory were true." (Chapter 36))

Also, don't forget Verne's sequel to Pym, The Sphinx of the Ice Fields or The Mystery of the Antarctic.
Irene Gallo
3. Irene
For Illustration fans, my favorite Poe story:

The artist Michael Deas literally wrote the book on Poe daguerreotypes. One day his phone started ringing off the hook, people telling him to turn on Antiques Road show. Someone had a Poe daguerreotype and Michael knew belonged to the Players Club in NYC.

He called them up to tell them it was missing. They didn't believe him. He then called the FBI who loved the fact that he was handing them a pre-solved case.

They got the photo back to the Players Club who promptly auctioned it off at Christies for a load of money.

A few years later, Michael painted the US postage stamp comemorating Poe:

Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
@3 Irene
Truly, (and this word is overused, but whatever) AMAZING.
Joe Romano
5. Drunes
Not to nitpick, but we're all geeks here, aren't we? The Lovecraft story you refer to in #7 is actually called "At the Mountains of Madness."
N. Mamatas
6. wizard clip
Twelve or thirteen years ago, John Astin played Poe in a one man show called "Nevermore." He did dramatic recitation of "The Raven" interspersed with scenes based on Poe's Life and works. It was fantastic, and Astin was great. He signed autographs afterwards, and I'm delighted to report that that endearing yet disturbing twinkle he has in his eye as Gomez Addams is for real.
Mark Sheets
7. Kaldric
Dude.... If I ever get a female cat, now I'll definitely have to call her Catterina.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
8. Lisamarie
I was a huge Poe fan as a middle/high schooler (well, I still do enjoy him, although I haven't read his works in a while). I did not know a lot of these things though!

I also would like a cat named Catterina now :D

Interesting that he had such a beef with transcendentalism, as I was also quite enamored with that when I was that age :) I guess I am contradictory...
Ellen Datlow
9. datlow
I met John Astin at an event in Baltimore in honor of his Bi-Centenniel. Several actors played different people from Poe's life. Here's a little about it:
here are photos from his "funeral"
Ellen Datlow
10. datlow
Um, I meant Poe's Bicentenniel. Astin was really lovely and seemed delighted to be included in the funeral procession.
Matthew Mercier
11. Matt_Mercier
Thanks for sharing everyone. That Players Club story is amazing.
Apologies to Lovecraft. He'll haunt me for missing that preposition.
Has anyone heard anything about Poe's missing 29 months? Last night a guy was trying to convince me that Edgar was in France, spying for the US. Crazy.
N. Mamatas
12. DarrenJL
Cusack doesn't look much like Poe, in that photo. Get your stache on, Cusack. It's why they pay you the big bucks.
N. Mamatas
13. DarrenJL
Also... going off that stamp, Bill Murray would have been a better choice for the role.
N. Mamatas
14. Cat
Something to tag on to no. 5: In 'Eureka!', Poe was the first known person to solve Olbers's Paradox.
Matthew Mercier
15. Matt_Mercier
Bill Murray did want to play the role once I think...but I always thought Micheal Shannon would be good. And Poe should have a slight southern accent too. Cusack doesn't sound like he has one in the trailer.
N. Mamatas
16. DHMCarver
I have not read "Eureka", but "an infinitude of pulsating universes alternately willed into orbic systems and reactively condensed into primary particles by an infinitude of gods" sounds not unlike Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion cosmos. I'm just sayin'...
N. Mamatas
17. Asche
Eureka is about reincarnation patterns within the universe as a whole, by way of example of all other life/death patterns of living things. If you consider the universe to be alive, then it would follow that it has its own life/death pattern. For example, when an animal dies, its body feeds plants. The plants feed animals, blah blah. When a person dies, their soul feeds the universe in a giant wash of invisible nutrients, and becomes a creative force for the next life cycle of the universe. It's very simple, really.
Matthew Mercier
18. Matt_Mercier
What's your drink Asche? I mean, Aristole. Thanks for the clarification of thought.
N. Mamatas
19. Amanda van Wyk
I don't know if you know, but I feel like I should let you know. "Then" is mainly an adverb, while "than" is a conjunction used for comparison. From what I can tell there are errors in #10 and #3. It's a commom mistake, but it's annoying enough to point out. We are discussing a literary icon, after all. Let's get the grammar in check, shall we?
Also, regarding Poe's alcoholism: According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature, his years spent in Baltimore--1831 to 1835--"were marked by hard work and comparative sobriety" (672). He might have joined this 19th century version of AA, but it certainly wasn't his first attempt at riding the wagon.
N. Mamatas
20. J.Levin
Edgar would be proud to know that we named our black kitty after him! He's Edgar Allan Poe and we call him "Poe-Poe" for short!
N. Mamatas
21. Brittany Walker
im in 8th grade at deltona middle schoola nd well i saw the movie the raven and i have read a bit of a tell-tale heart and what surprises me is that how most websites dont even mention that story. But i have to have a report on him for reading and well i need to do a bio-poem then i have to write 2 paragraphs about him then i have to write 1 paragraph abou this rationele then i have to do a drawling like i have noo artistic ability like at all then i have to prestent it to the class like i am majorly shy in front of people 1 time i did a report and when i was do i was so scaried and nervous that i started crying!!!!!!!!! then aslo have to do a study dictionary with the projet and by th eway nerds r so in now and sorry for saying like alot im in im 8th grade and i m 14 so give em a break!!! ok well bye
N. Mamatas
22. zoey c. vance
at first i did not understand the thought prcess of edgar allan poe until i lived only a small portion of his life. no i didn't lose people to tuberculosis but i have however lost people near and dear to me. friends who i lost from suicide. abuse i had to endore by family..... past of hurt......... still yet to break the cycle. i understand alcoholism fore my family is full of alcoholics such as i. i still can change my course and live by the word of edgar allan poe instead of living like edgar all poe. i am only 15 soon to turn 16 in 10th grade but trust me i understand.
N. Mamatas
23. Alazay Estrada
this was very useful thank you well on my school work :)
N. Mamatas
24. Alazay estrada
N. Mamatas
25. Clayton Culbertson
i can't belive he loved cats.
N. Mamatas
27. Super Sopranoe!
I love edgar allan poe! I think all of his works are interesting to be so dark.
N. Mamatas
28. Giselle
He married his cousin when she was only 13 and he was 27.
N. Mamatas
29. austin berger
hey you should tell me more about him
N. Mamatas
30. JG5112777
thankyou for this information
N. Mamatas
31. JG5112777
this helped me out on my school work why was he so upstest with death

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