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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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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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