The Magazine

Morbid Visionary

Poe’s tortured soul is exposed at the Morgan Library.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By DANIEL ROSS GOODMAN
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Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) defined the genre of the American macabre, and his name has become synonymous with literary horror. He has had many imitators but few genuine literary successors—only Jorge Luis Borges and H. P. Lovecraft have come close. Cities across the Eastern seaboard, from Boston to Baltimore, claim him as their own. And, given his interlude in Richmond and a (very brief) stopover in Charleston, Southern devotees assert that Poe’s true literary and geographic home lies in the South. 

Morbid Visionary

Joe Queenan recently lodged a complaint in these pages against the overuse of the word “iconic,” and I second his objection. But if there is a figure in American letters to whom this description accurately applies, it is Edgar Allan Poe. His face has become a Kafkaesque symbol of the tormented writer, whose stories transport us to the Styxian realms of existential abyss. Few literary visages—perhaps only Kafka’s, Shakespeare’s, and Twain’s—are more ubiquitous. Even his literary creations have garnered iconic status: Who today can ponder a raven without thinking of “The Raven”? 

For all of his cultural ubiquity, the actual Poe remains elusive. Who was this man, and what drove him to both the peak of the literary sublime and the depths of despair? This edifying exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library attempts to penetrate the mystery of the man himself.

The exhibit’s impressive collection of original Poe manuscripts, photographs, and letters is organized thematically, not chronologically. The disparate sections—Poe the poet, Poe the short-story writer, Poe the critic, Poe the literary influencer—cohere to reveal a man who was not unlike many of us. Nothing came easily for Poe: His life was plagued by financial struggles (antebellum America’s inadequate copyright laws hardly provided the “first American author to live entirely by his pen” with an adequate living) and romantic disappointments, professional shortcomings, depression, and vituperative epistolary wars with writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell. 

He thought of himself, first and foremost, as a poet, and sought to pattern himself after Byron and Coleridge. But because poetry was not a highly remunerative occupation, he was compelled to work as a critic and editor. He excelled in both tasks, especially in his perspicacious literary criticism; indeed, George Bernard Shaw considered Poe to be “the greatest journalistic critic of his time.” With the exception of “The Raven” and several other poems, Poe’s reputation as an accomplished writer of fiction and verse would not be sealed until after his death. 

Poe labored intensely over his creations, and was not even satisfied with the finished form of his first poetic masterpiece. He requested (and received) permission to make revisions after “The Raven” had already gone to print. It is this second edition that we have today; like the first Tablets, the first edition of “The Raven” has been lost, perhaps forever. He remained persistent amidst his creative struggles, stating that he never allowed “a day to pass without writing from a page to three pages.” 

The exhibit is replete with findings that will be new for nonspecialists. We learn that the famous (yes, “iconic”) image of Poe was produced from a daguerreotype taken in Providence, four days after Poe attempted suicide. Contrary to popular belief, the portrait was not the work of Mathew Brady, but of a relatively unknown Rhode Island photographer. Perhaps something of Poe’s melancholic spirit lingered in the Providence atmosphere, to be later imbibed by Poe’s epigone (and Providence native) H. P. Lovecraft? Such is the speculation one entertains in the midst of an exhibit about a writer of supernatural fiction whose central motifs include doppelgängers, spirits, and metempsychosis.  

Several panels discuss the development of his oft-imitated, never duplicated literary style. Poe appropriated the basic tropes of Gothic literature—solitude, madness, terror, and the grotesque—and reconstructed a distinctive genre of fiction clearly distinguishable from its simpler forebear in its psychological complexity, technical sophistication, irony, self-awareness, and profundity. With the creation of this new form of fiction, Poe emphatically demonstrated that the horror story would no longer remain the province of Europe alone. “Terror is not of Germany,” he wrote, “but of the soul.”

The panoply of literary figures Poe influenced is astounding: Jorge Luis Borges, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, Herman Melville, Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Chandler, even Vladimir Nabokov. Wilde considered Poe to be a greater poet than Longfellow, Emerson, and Whitman. Whitman himself at first regarded Poe as a superb technician, but grew to admire him so much that he was the only major literary figure in attendance at Poe’s 1875 reburial in Baltimore.  

Borges, who was perhaps Poe’s true heir—excepting Kafka, no other short stories approach Poe’s sublime existential allegories—echoed Whitman and fellow admirer Alfred, Lord Tennyson by characterizing Poe’s oeuvre as a “work of genius.” Borges credited Poe with inventing the detective procedural and acknowledged Poe as a significant influence on his own fiction. For those who seek to understand American poetry and the modern psychological short story, Borges and Ginsberg both agreed that all roads lead to Poe. 

Even T. S. Eliot, who otherwise was not an ardent admirer of Poe’s work, could not deny his status as the predominant influence behind French Symbolism. Indeed, the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé was so taken with “The Raven” that he translated it into French. The Morgan’s image of the raven is taken from Édouard Manet’s dust-jacket illustration for the Mallarmé translation.

Literary scholars have already identified traces of Poe’s influence in the work of Nabokov, Borges, Wilde, and many others; but the significance of “Terror of the Soul” inheres in its three-dimensional demonstration of this influence, with tangible evidence. Letters and manuscripts—including Nabokov’s screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation of Lolita—detail the extent of Poe’s influence on that writer. Nabokov originally downplayed his affinity for Poe, claiming that he had outgrown his adolescent fixation on the American. But in a revelation sure to provide literary bona fides to Poe lovers everywhere, Nabokov ultimately confessed to an abiding affection. Allusions to Poe abound in Nabokov’s work. He not only borrowed Poe’s doppel-gänger motif, but also fashioned Humbert Humbert’s intimate, confessional narrative style in Lolita after Poe’s narrator in “William Wilson.” Considering the number of authors who have been influenced by the narrative style of Lolita, it is striking to learn that the original source of these authors’ influence is Edgar Allan Poe.  

The Morgan exhibit’s décor is perfectly suited to its subject. The blood-red walls evoke “The Masque of the Red Death,” and the enlarged reproduction of Poe’s signature in bold black ink, along with the wood-panel floors and dim lighting, establish an appropriately morose, nightmarish—and yet nongarish—ambience in which to contemplate Poe’s morbid themes. Strategically positioned in the upper section of one wall is the black-and-white image of Poe, peering down at us just as the raven gazed down on its visitor.  

While the exhibition provides a wealth of information (we even see fragments of his original coffin), it is largely disengaged from the long-running debate regarding the literary quality of Poe’s writing. Harold Bloom famously characterized the diction in “William Wilson” as “awful,” described Poe’s verse as “dreadful,” and deemed Poe (as well as Lovecraft) to be “subliterary.” And the dim lighting, though appropriate to the mood, makes it difficult to read some of the  printed materials. 

Moreover, greater attention might have been paid to exploring the provenance and reception of Poe’s short stories. What prompted him to write such probing, profound, psychologically complex macabre fiction? Considering how instrumental he was in the development of the short story in three different genres, and considering as well the contemporary revival of the short story, Poe’s stories deserve more discussion. Likewise, a special section could have been devoted to a province of the arts in which Poe’s influence reigns supreme: film. In cinematic horror, Poe’s influence is virtually inescapable, and a single movie poster does not do it justice. 

Daniel Goodman is a lawyer and rabbinical student in New York. 

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