One of Our Own 
The legacy of Edgar Allan Poe
By Tony Magistrale

From Gadfly October 1998


Romanticism is untidy and imprecise. The concept is almost as difficult to define as the exact dates of its history. Because it was attracted to subjectivity and the unconscious, mystery and the imagination, the Romantic sensibility tended to embrace the contradictions and complications of human nature. Under the Romantic rubric we find art that embodies spiritual tranquillity and inner poetic beauty while also containing elements of distortion and restlessness, a tortured awareness that the quest for tranquillity and beauty was ultimately futile or perhaps forever lost.

It's helpful to keep these dualisms in mind when considering the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe. For while he often yearned to dwell in an ideal sphere, particularly in his poetry, he also understood that, untainted by dream or drug, the world we normally inhabit was a decidedly unpoetic one. Perhaps this explains the nineteenth-century French Symbolist adoration of Poe, the way they rescued him from literary obscurity and defended him against the lies of his first biographer Rufus Griswold. The Symbolists saw in Poe a kindred spirit, a sensitive artist struggling to survive in a merciless, mercantile environment that valued neither art nor the artist. For Poe, art was always connected to the "infinite, pleasurable sadness" he described in "The Poetic Principle," that of a lost or dead love. Poe may have claimed poetry as a vehicle for transcendence to a better place, but in most of his poems this quest was frequently interrupted, leaving the poet-narrator in a state of even greater spiritual torment.

Yet it isn't Baudelaire's Poe or even Poe the poet who has so thoroughly captured the world's imagination for the past century and a half. Ultimately, it's Poe the master of the short story, the genre he helped define and perfect, who continues to exert such a profound influence over both serious readers of literature and nonreaders alike. When we turn to Poe's tales of terror, it isn't merely the sadness of lost love or the abrupt transition from or to a visionary landscape that inspires his deepest contemplation, but the complex spectrum of aberrant psychological motivation which ranges from sadomasochistic representations ("The Pit and the Pendulum" and "Cask of Amontillado") and object fixations ("Berenice," "Ligeia" and "The Black Cat") to delusions of grandeur ("The Tell-Tale Heart") and the perversity of self-loathing ("The Imp of the Perverse").

Poe's dates (1809-1849) place him at a point where he became a direct descendant of the Gothic/Romantic movement which emerged as a dominant literary form in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. But in addition to recycling the paraphernalia of haunted mansions, mysterious ghosts and vampires, chaste maidens and psychosexually obsessed males, how did Poe reconfigure the Gothic for his own purposes? In other words, how did Poe actually advance the form by pushing horror to a higher plane? When the Gothic crossed to American shores in the hands of Poe, it took on a psychological, cerebral slant. Typically, very little action takes place in a Poe story; the real energies are mental: the self-tearing at the self. By depicting unstable minds unable to discipline their darkest urges, his horror tales thrust even the reluctant reader into the demented psyches of his characters. Poe was the first to tell the tale of terror from the monster's perspective, to shift the point of view from victim to victimizer.

Such a significant alteration of narrative perspective forces the reader into an uncomfortable intimacy with his characters that's analogous to the role occupied by the viewer of the modern horror film. Like the horror film, Poe's tales of mystery and suspense inspire contradictory tensions: namely, the desire to watch and participate in unspeakable acts versus the wish to be free from monstrous drives. Aided by his propensity to employ first-person narration, Poe was the first writer to press the relationship between criminal and reader to the point where it became simultaneously unbearable and pleasurable. Maybe this explains why generations of readers continue to react to Poe's characters and their situations with mixed revulsion and secret identification.

One of the most important elements that Poe inherited from his Gothic forefathers, and went on to sharpen to the point of near suffocating exactitude, was an emphasis on the biology of place. Poe's tales and many of his poems are set in architecture that's invigorated with an infernal energy of its own. But in Poe, the machinery of the haunted castle or mansion always becomes a semiotic parallel to the tortured psyche of the main character; place, in other words, becomes personality. The male narrators in many of Poe's stories can't and don't subsist outside the sequestered and perfumed spheres in which they dwell. Cut off from all external reality and menaced by his enclosing mansion, Roderick Usher's psychological deterioration, as well as the dissolution of the Usher lineage, is mirrored by the decaying physical structure of the house itself. When sister falls atop brother at the story's climax, the House of Usher appears to respond directly to their unholy union as its walls crumble and collapse.

In almost every case, these isolatos are in rebellion against the restrictive moral or physical laws, which deny them their high poetic place in the universe. Hence, their rebellions are often concentrated upon a person or object associated with personalized restriction: a black cat, white teeth, a vulture-like eye, a blonde, blue-eyed wife. These icons of propriety must be destroyed if the narrator is to attain the sort of freedom he craves. And midnight is the time at which most acts of criminality occur in Poe's microcosm. It's at the midnight moment, when time itself is literally suspended, that Poe's murderers shelve their own moral prohibitions. They're momentarily free to indulge their darkest instincts, to act as though they were agents ungoverned by forces outside themselves: society, ethics, even time itself.

Poe is America's Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum. He writes of a compressed world populated by psyches out of control. His unprecedented success at evoking conditions of intense psychological obsessiveness yielded a body of fiction that still manages to disconcert modern audiences thoroughly acclimated to audiovisual violence and gore. Most of us come to Poe early in adolescence through a high school assignment or the bedtime reading choice of a warped relative. And this is appropriate. For as scholar Leslie Fiedler reminds us, "adolescence is Poe's true homeland, the imaginary country out of space and in time of which he was, throughout his short life, a secret but loyal citizen." Perhaps the adolescent reader is immediately drawn to Poe because so many of his tales and poems concern themes of lost or unrequited love, a subject that is of immediate relevance to those experiencing such complex and ambivalent emotions for the first time. Bedeviled by questions of authority and identity, anxiety over social acceptance and sexual confusion, young adults can also relate to the violent propensities of such antiheroes as William Wilson or the narrators of "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." The release of repressed energies in the form of antisocial acts underscores the tempestuous nature of adolescence in a high-achievement culture. Deep personal suffering is a trait which all of Poe's protagonists share; as outcasts, they painfully embody the adolescent's nightmare of alienation from a social fabric he simultaneously scorns and desperately yearns to join.

One of the more impressive aspects of Poe's literary legacy is its enormous breadth of influence on the generations of writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists that followed him. Poe's art created a profound effect, for example, upon musical composers as diverse as Claude Debussy, who wrote two operas based on Poe's stories, and Alan Parsons, who, with the assistance of two hundred musicians and the rock group called "the Alan Parsons Project," produced an album entitled Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1975) which consisted of instrumental renditions of several Poe narratives. Within the tormented psyches of Poe's protagonists, Romanticism's emphasis on a contradictory and divided self is omnipresent. Many of the writers who followed Poe were drawn to his portraits of the split self. Dostoevski, for example, who translated Poe into Russian, studied Poe's artful and artless murderers to the degree that his most memorable characters, such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, are Poe-esque portrayals of divided and self-disintegrating personalities. In our own century, Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, to name two of the most obvious of Poe's children, acknowledge a strong fascination with Poe's major themes of perversity, revenge, tormented guilt and psychosexual violence. Both King and Oates often consciously superimpose Poe's plot-lines upon their own material (most notably in King's The Shining and "Dolan's Cadillac," and Oates' tales "The Dungeon," "The White Cat" and "The Premonition").

No other American writer, with the notable exception of Mark Twain, managed to bridge the gap between popular culture and high-brow literature to this degree. Poe was the first American writer profound and gifted enough to impress literary Europe. He stands simultaneously as a figure at the center of Modernism—the line that stretches from Baudelaire and the Symbolist movement to T.S. Eliot and the rise of New Criticism—and as the inventor or innovator of several popular genres, including science fiction, the detective tale (Poe created the world's first literary detective C. August Dupin) and the psychological horror thriller.

Poe remains one of the few artists whose fame somehow managed to transcend the realm of art itself. His melancholic physiognomy is immediately recognizable when it stares out from T-shirts and ceramic coffee mugs available at suburban malls across America. He seems to be one of the few members of the American literati whose name is familiar to people who don't consider themselves serious readers. Even "The Raven," still a perennial favorite for many school children forced to memorize a poem for class recitation, has now been fully immortalized by popular culture in an unforgettable episode of The Simpsons.

All of this posthumous appreciation is highly ironic, of course, given the fact that in his lifetime Poe knew mostly poverty and neglect. Economic desperation, exploitive editors, incessant and inflexible deadlines compounded by domestic crises, the dissipations of alcohol, and intellectual fatigue were among the daily demons that contributed to Poe's early demise. During his lifetime, he achieved only a modicum of the literary fame he so resented in writers such as Longfellow and the Concord transcendentalists whom Poe derisively referred to as "Frogpondians." Writing in an age where America's literary and national voices were shaped by Emersonian transcendentalism and its faith in nature, self-reliance and an expansionist philosophy, Poe offered a constant rebuttal by asserting that we inhabit a universe unfavorably disposed toward humankind, that human nature itself was simply untrustworthy. As the America of the 1840s looked brightly into a future of limitless possibilities, Poe's work counterpointed the general spirit of American optimism by revealing the human propensity to seek pain rather than tranquillity. In the end, his personal torments and aesthetic sacrifices may have made Poe the quintessential nineteenth-century Romantic, but his insight into human nature and its infinite capacity for evil suggest that he's also one of our own.