Happy 200th Birthday Edgar

Submitted by ljhg on Sat, 01/17/2009 - 09:15.

Poe at 200 -- Eerie After All These Years


Edgar Allan Poe

On a snowy night toward the end of his life, Edgar Allan Poe delivered a lecture on the origins of the universe. It was an unusual topic -- Poe was always more interested in death than birth -- and the reviews were mixed. Frustrated by the response, Poe announced that 2,000 years would pass before his work was properly admired.His remarks were soon published as "Eureka: A Prose Poem." The book sold a few hundred copies and then slipped into obscurity, forgotten except for the fact that its author went on to become a giant of American literature in something less than two millennia.It remains to be seen whether anyone will read Poe in the distant future. As we approach the bicentennial of his birth on Jan. 19, however, it's obvious that Poe is far from "nameless here for evermore."Hardly anyone escapes from high-school English without bumping into at least a little Poe. "The Raven" remains one of the world's most popular poems as well as the inspiration for the name of Baltimore's professional football team. "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Black Cat," and a number of other short stories are among the most anthologized tales ever written.An awful lot of Poe looms on the horizon. On Jan. 16, the Postal Service will issue a stamp in his honor. Historic sites in Baltimore, the Bronx, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va., are kicking off year-long celebrations. Publishers plan to take advantage of the bicentennial, too. In October, Doubleday put out "Poe's Children," a collection of horror stories by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. The Mystery Writers of America has just released two additional volumes: "In the Shadow of the Master" includes 16 of Poe's greatest hits, plus commentaries by best-selling novelists such as Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh; "On a Raven's Wing" features original tales by Mary Higgins Clark and others, each inspired by Poe.Praise for Poe is by no means universal. The reviews always have been mixed, even on large questions about his legacy. "Enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection," sniffed Henry James.Yet there can be no doubt that Poe left a deep mark on literature. He invented both the detective story ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue") and the sequel to the detective story ("The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter"). An attraction to new technologies and cutting-edge ideas such as hot-air balloons, mesmerism, and cryptography made him a pioneer of science fiction. He could be a savage critic: "I intend to put up with nothing I can put down," he boasted.Most important, Poe reshaped the horror story into a tool for probing the darkest corners of human psychology and his own disturbing obsession with death. Early detractors failed to share his vision and accused him of merely aping Gothic thrillers penned by German authors. Poe would have none of it: "I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul -- that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results," he replied, in a line that neatly sums up his philosophy of fiction.In the popular imagination, Poe is the dreary, unsmiling, black-clad bard of diabolism. This is the guy, after all, who reveled in themes of torture ("The Pit and the Pendulum"), pestilence ("The Masque of the Red Death"), and premature burial ("Berenice"). Two of his best-known stories are told from the perspective of murderers -- one a cold-blooded killer ("The Cask of Amontillado"), the other a madman who dismembers his victim ("The Tell-Tale Heart"). Poe seemed to relish the deaths of beautiful women, especially when he could also describe their morbid resurrections ("Ligeia" and "Morella"). Sometimes it's impossible to know whether he's portraying supernatural events or the ravings of lunatics. His corpse-filled corpus is both engrossing and grotesque.His biography was a weird tale in its own right. He was born in Boston as Edgar Poe, abandoned by a reckless father at the age of 2, and orphaned by his mother's death when he was 3. The Allans of Richmond took him in, giving their young charge a home and a middle name. As a boy, Poe began his lifelong habit of frequenting cemeteries and concocting elaborate lies. Gambling forced him out of the University of Virginia, defiance drove him from West Point, and the lure of alcohol became a constant curse. He married his 13-year-old cousin when he was more than twice her age. It's not clear whether this odd union was ever consummated.Just about every biographer has pondered unanswerable questions about Poe's mental health. The latest, Peter Ackroyd in "Poe: A Life Cut Short," highlights the comment of a young woman Poe courted in his 20s: "He was not well balanced; he had too much brain. . . . He said often that there was a mystery hanging over him he never could fathom."His death at 40 is itself shrouded in a fog that only heightens his enigmatic reputation. Poe had planned a business trip from Virginia to New York and promptly vanished. He eventually turned up drunk in a Baltimore tavern, possibly after participating as a pawn in a vote-fraud scheme, and died shortly thereafter. His lost week has become the stuff of literary legend. Whole books have been written about it, both fiction and nonfiction, and his tombstone is now the site of a strange annual ritual. On Poe's birthday, scores of devotees gather in the cold night to watch a shadowy figure known as the "Poe Toaster" leave three red roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at the author's final resting place. This performance has survived for more than half a century, appears to have been passed on from one generation of visitant to the next, and shows no sign of letting up.Around the time the original Poe Toaster appeared, Allen Tate made a famous observation: "Everything in Poe is dead." That's true to a point. Much of Poe's fascination with death actually grew from a desire to understand it as a member of the living. In "A Descent Into the Maelstrom," the narrator, a Norwegian fisherman, finds himself sucked into a violent whirlpool and worries that he'll drown in the vortex. "I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God's power," he says. "I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see."Poe can't reveal what, if anything, he has learned from beyond the grave. But he did leave behind a handful of poems and stories whose eerie splendor continues to haunt us.Mr. Miller writes for National Review.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2009 page D7