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.
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.”