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The enduring influence and genius of Edgar Allan Poe

By Paul Lewis
January 11, 2009
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Born 200 years ago on Jan. 19, 1809, in Boston, Edgar Allan Poe, like his raven, his most famous character, hovers over American culture: brooding, scowling, and winking. Poe is arguably the most influential of our great writers, but that never stopped highbrow authors from condescending to him. Emerson called Poe the "jingle man." Eliot said he had a prepubescent intellect. Yeats saw him as "vulgar and commonplace." With detractors like these, no wonder his stories are so much fun.

Best known for a few images - a dead man's still-beating heart, a decaying mansion falling into its reflecting tarn, a bricked-up and corpse-concealing wall, and a black cat - Poe's work is about far more than terror.

Poe was our first great critic. In an age of pious reform, he insisted that the main purpose of literature was to move readers, not inculcate truths. The author of political and social satires, hoaxes and parodies, a long nonfiction study of cosmology, and a short novel about polar exploration, he ranged across genres, created the modern detective story, and greatly enriched what the gothic could achieve.

By relying not on ruined castles and disreputable aristocrats but on characters rendered unreliable by their distorted sensations and implausible assumptions, he crafted nightmares worthy of a new land. Part charlatan and part magician, he took readers to moments of frightening confusion and then, from behind the curtain, provided just enough information to sustain ambiguity about the sources of fear: Were they internal or external, psychological or demonic?

Poe showed the importance of doubt in maintaining terror, showing that the gothic will live as long as its questions are unanswered. When the narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) wonders "What was it that so unnerved me?" he opens a door to madness. When the student in "The Raven" (1845) addresses his tormentor as "bird or fiend," he creates unending confusion.

For information about Poe bicentennial events at Boston College, see "Shelf Life," Page C6.

Many of Poe's contemporaries Americanized their stories by situating characters in familiar landscapes and historical contexts. Cooper set his warriors loose in the forests of New York. Hawthorne wrote about the world he knew in Boston and Salem. Melville launched his great sea tale from Nantucket. Thoreau "traveled much in Concord." And even Whitman, who peered around the planet and out into space, was mostly interested in the new nation as a source of democratic vistas.

Although it often can be difficult to see where Poe's stories are set, their place in the formation of an American mythos is clear. From the start Poe had in mind something like Tocqueville's observation that democracy focuses attention on the individual. Though some of the dark tales are set in named places (London, the Hudson River Valley), many exist in the mind.

A difficult childhood left Poe with a sense of life as random and cruel but also absurdly comic. Moving beyond the predictability of mind-numbing fear, his genius flashes in moments when responses to the unknown collide and something terrifying suddenly seems funny or vice versa. The speaker's shifting moods in "The Raven" are typical. Brooding and isolated when the creature knocks, he moves through denial to attempts to laugh off his concern to an effort to explain what is happening rationally to mournful despair.

Though he never achieved the commercial success he sought, Poe understood what audiences desire. The father of the psychological thriller, he has influenced every writer in the genre from Bram Stoker to Stephen King and Anne Rice. Every pre-human creature H. P. Lovecraft kept in shadow, every inexplicable disruption that detached Hitchcock's heroes from their normal lives, every debate between Scully and Mulder, every monster seen through the shaking lens of a camcorder, owes a debt to Poe.

Though born here, Boston was not his favorite place. He returned in 1827 to join the Army and was stationed at Fort Independence on Castle Island, and that year used the tagline "By a Bostonian" on his work "Tamerlane and Other Poems." But the relationship eventually soured. In 1845, Poe published articles arguing that Longfellow was a plagiarist. The same year, he had a speaking engagement at the Boston Lyceum. Kept waiting more than two hours, he read not a new poem, as requested, but the interminable "Al Aaraff," written in his adolescence. When his performance was panned in local papers, he assailed Boston's "Frogpondians."

In the end, then, the question arises: How should we celebrate his birthday? We could raise a glass to the master of mystery, but, given his misuse of alcohol, that might be inappropriate. We could remember the first time a Poe story made us shudder or laugh. Or we could go down to our basements - to the darkened cellars in our houses and our minds - and take a look around.

Paul Lewis teaches American literature at Boston College.

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