Jan 19 2014 10:00am

Edgar Allan Poe and the Cult of the Unusual

Portrait by David A. JohnsonEdgar Allan Poe gave American writers permission to plumb the subterranean depths of human depravity and transform it into art. This may sound obvious, but it’s worth remembering—on his 205th birthday—that Poe composed his pioneering gothic stories for a Yankee audience. Europeans already indulged in the profane poetry of Charles Baudelaire (Poe’s French translator) and attended the bloody spectacle of Grand Guignol theater so it’s no wonder they embraced the graveyard poet before America, whose prudish shores had never read anything like him.

Now, of course, his stories and poems are ubiquitous. Roderick Usher and Annabel Lee are as much a part of the American psyche as Tom Sawyer and Hester Prynne. The man himself inspires devotions of all kinds. A Japanese writer gave himself the phonically-symmetrical pen name Edogawa Rampo. (Speak it out loud). The Baltimore football team is named after his most famous piece of verse. And for the last fifty or so years, on January 19, a hooded stranger known as the Poe Toaster has left three roses and a bottle of cognac at his gravesite. (The tradition seemed to end in 2009.) The name Poe is synonymous with ominous corvidae, decaying corpses, murder (both human and feline), slow-boiling revenge, premature burials, and a rampaging orangutan wielding a shaving razor—that last one, fans know, is the culprit (spoiler alert!) of “The Murders in the Rue-Morgue,” one of three tales concerning, what Poe called, ratiocination. The modern world calls it detective fiction. Give thanks to Edgar for his invention of the first literary sleuth, Auguste Dupin; without this Parisian detective, it’s safe to say there might not be a Sherlock Holmes.

But while the invention of Horror and Detective fiction remain the tent-poles of Poe’s reputation, the man’s intellectual scope as a writer stretched far beyond the macabre. One of his primary obsessions was the nature of the self, which he explored in stories such as “William Wilson,” where a man hunts down and kills his doppelganger, and “The Man of the Crowd,” which is about a stranger who can only exist amid a seething urban mass of humanity. He wrote political satire (“Mellonta Tauta”), science fiction (“Hans Phall”—about a trip to the moon in a hot air balloon), and straight-up fantasy (“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”). And a good number of his lesser known tales, such as “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” and “Some Words with a Mummy,” display a bizarre sense humor.

Perhaps the oddest result of his fecund imagination was a late career text entitled Eureka, a homegrown, not-wholly-scientific theory of the universe in which he described—predating Georges Lemaitre—the Big Bang theory. Famously, Poe’s work did not find the wide readership he so desired. Only “The Raven” brought him real fame, a poem of which Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I see nothing in it.” American letters in the 19th century was, it could be argued, a cloistered community of privileged men, and Poe’s poverty and a proclivity for the drink gave him a reputation as a bitter outsider. (Although he won the admiration of Dickens and Hawthorne.) His nasty temper also produced a few hatchet job reviews. He trashed Emerson’s ideas about Nature, accused Longfellow of plagiarism, and dismissed Washington Irving as “much over-rated.”

In the end, Poe was an author saved by his readers, both European and American. What survives is not only his writing, but a cultural idea of the man himself as brooding, tortured romantic. John Allan, Poe’s foster father, perhaps said it best:

“His talents are of an order that can never prove a comfort to their possessor.”

Happy Birthday, Eddie!


This post originally appeared on January 19, 2013.

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.

Beau Williamson
1. BeauW
I first knew Poe as stories told around the campfire. How many authors have entered the oral tradition as thoroughly? (Monty Python is the only rival)
Theresa Wymer
2. Tekalynn
I first found Poe's short stories while listening to CBS Radio Mystery Theater as a kid. Creepy storytelling in the dark, and so effective.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
3. Lisamarie
In middle and high school I was so into Edgar Allan Poe. I remember receiving a collection of his complete works and was a little confused at first that they weren't all horror stories :)
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
4. Lisamarie
I was so into Edgar Allan Poe as a middle and high schooler, especially as I went through some 'akward' phases. I received a collection of his complete works for a birthday one year and was surprised to see they weren't all horror stories.
Ioan Iacob
5. Ioan Iacob
Arc poetic transatlantic : Mihai Eminescu si Edgar Allan Poe (I 6 zile – Arc poetic transatlantic : Mihai Eminescu si Edgar Allan Poe (I) ... nascut in ianuarie (Mihai Eminescu pe 15, iar E. A. Poe pe 19, primul in 1850, ... Mihai Eminescu – Edgar Allan Poe (II) Transatlantic Poetry Arc ... 5 zile – I studied Eminescu when I was student at “Al. I. Cuza” University from Iasi (“ Eminescu's city”) and I had a intuition about his poetry one year ... Transatlantic Poetry Arc EminescuPoe (III)? « Clubul Presei ...Acum 4 zile – 'Interest in Poe in the United States has never been greater', says John Gruesser, The Poe Studies Association President The Poe Studies ... Transatlantic Poetry Arc EminescuPoe (IV) « Clubul Presei ...Acum 3 zile – 'I would be very interested to see a comparative literary treatment of EMINESCU and POE', says Robert T. Tally Jr., Texas State University, USA ... 'Transatlantic Poetry Arc EMINESCUPOE' (V)? « Clubul Presei ...Acum 2 zile – The 19th of January is Edgar Allan Poe's birthday as the 15th of January is Mihai Eminescu's birthday. We have begun this transatlantic poetry
Ioan Iacob
Chris Hawks
6. SaltManZ
"straight-up fantasy (“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains”)"

That one's time-travel fantasy, too, if I recall. Loved that one.
Ioan Iacob
7. Ioan Iacob
Ioan Iacob
8. Great Writing
Edgar Allen Poe is one of America's greatest writers, who certainly holds an important place in early supernatural, horror-story and haunting literature.
Sean Tabor
9. wingracer
I have always found it dificult to enjoy reading anything written before 1950 or so. Yes I have read many a "classic" but I really do not enjoy it. There are just two exceptions:

1. Shakespeare. And even with him, it's just the sonnets I like to read. The plays are much better watched than read.

2. Poe. Even though horror holds little interest for me, Poe's work just stands above everything. Reading his work, it's hard to believe he is 205. His work sounds much more early 20th century to me.
Ioan Iacob
10. JohnnyMac
I think your first paragraph needs some work. You seem to say that the French appreciated Poe's work because they were already enjoying the poetry of Baudelaire and the splatter theater of Grand Guignol.

However, if one looks at the dates involved, this cannot be correct. Poe lived from 1809 to 1847, Baudelaire from 1821 to 1867. Baudelaire began translating Poe into French in the late 1840s. Baudelaire's most famous poetry "Les Fleurs du mal" was not published until 1857. As for the Grand Guignol, that began in the 1890s amost half a century after Poe's death!

If you meant to say that Poe was seen as a great writer in France before he was widely appreciated in America, that might be correct. Though I would want to the evidence supporting such an assertion.
Ioan Iacob
11. JohnnyMac
"Though I would want to 'see' the evidence..."

Nothing like criticizing another's post while leaving an obivious mistake in one's own.
Medi Varic
12. Medivaric
hahahaha i agree with JohnnyMac...
i wanna say that i remeber that the first time that i listen about edgar allan poe was is the school with "extraordinary stories"

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