The great bad writer

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The great bad writer

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Self-indulgent, vulgar, borderline insane—Edgar Allan Poe was the most influential American author of the 19th century

John Cusack in The Raven: One of Poe’s gifts was to create small, imperishable images that have wormed their way into our collective psyche


Thirty-odd years ago, the American beer company Stroh advertised its product with a cartoon poster depicting a gloomy, black-clad fellow in early middle age, surrounded by ghouls, bells and a ghastly raven with a wicked grin. The caption: “Edgar Allan Stroh.” Evidently, Poe’s presence in American culture is so deeply rooted that even Joe Sixpack can be trusted to spot allusions to the man and his work. There are countless similar proofs of Poe’s near-universal familiarity: the adaptation of his poem “The Raven” for a Halloween episode of The Simpsons, in which the ebony bird has Bart’s face and, instead of “Nevermore!” chirps “Eat My Shorts!”; Poe’s appearance as a character in a Batman comic (Batman: Nevermore) and as a wild biker with a raven on his handlebars in the 1970 Roger Corman exploitation flick Gas-s-s-s. And then there is John Lennon’s line in “I Am The Walrus”: “Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.”

So when, in March, Universal Pictures releases The Raven, a serial-killer romp with John Cusack playing the author as an amateur detective, it should not expect any problems with brand recognition. Even in a post-literate climate, just about everyone knows their Poe. Why? Well, the answer to that question depends on where you were born. In the English-speaking world, Poe is often treated with a hint of condescension and a splash of pity somewhere in the mix. Those who read him are usually in their teens, either because his stories are short and easy and interesting enough to be taught in classrooms, or because they pander to the kind of sullen morbidity that flourishes in late childhood or early adolescence. But elsewhere, and especially in France, he is taken far more seriously, and continues to occupy much the same secure place in high culture that he has enjoyed for a century and a half.  “Quaint and curious,” as Poe wrote in “The Raven.”

American literature came of age in the 19th century, and quite soon produced a remarkable crop of masters. Hawthorne and Melville; Emerson and Thoreau; Longfellow and Whitman; Twain… and very much the odd man out, Poe. Though many of them met with neglect and incomprehension in their lifetimes (Melville’s almost complete lapse into obscurity throughout his later life is the most notorious tale), their posthumous reputations have proved pretty sturdy. Yet one could reasonably argue that none of them has had such a far-reaching and protean influence as Poe—and not just the murky waters of mass culture, but also amid the loftier, more rarefied heights of elite culture.

This dual triumph is all the more improbable when you reflect that, by most standards, Poe was not a very good writer. The historian and critic Owen Dudley Edwards once drew up a list of routine accusations. Poe, he noted, was guilty of “endless self-indulgence, wallowing in atmosphere, incessant lecturing, ruthless discourse on whatever took the writer’s fancy, longueurs, trivialisations, telegraphing of punch-lines, loss of plot in effect, loss of effect in plot… In sum, what Poe lacked above all was a sense of his reader.”

Aldous Huxley pronounced Poe “vulgar,” with a show-off manner he likened to wearing a gaudy ring on every finger. Kingsley Amis admitted to enjoying some of the screen adaptations from the short stories, but thought Poe an execrable stylist. George Orwell acknowledged Poe’s acuity in the depiction of deranged characters  but summed him up as “at worst… not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense.” So: a poseur, a poetaster, a borderline lunatic? There is surely some justice in these dismissals. One might go so far as to say that Poe is the worst writer ever to have had any claim to greatness.

Some of that claim rests in his sheer fertility as an innovator. He is rightly credited with having invented the modern detective story, with his tales of the reclusive poet-scientist-genius C Auguste Dupin, hero of “The Purloined Letter,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” Dupin is pretty obviously Poe’s wish-fulfilment version of himself; he is also a prototype of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes. In the early pages of A Study in Scarlet Holmes is keen to distance himself from his predecessor. Watson, impressed for the first of many times by Holmes’s apparent ability to read minds, says: “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin.” Holmes is dismissive: ¨in my opinion Dupin was a very inferior fellow… He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”

It would be wrong to infer from this that Conan Doyle thought himself greatly superior to Poe. “As the creator, I’ve praised to satiety/ Poe’s Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety…” he wrote, in a piece of doggerel composed to quell rumours that he was not merely a plagiarist of Poe but an ungrateful one. On the contrary: Conan Doyle admitted only two masters in the genre of the short story, Maupassant and Poe; and at least one of his Holmes stories, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” is a direct homage to Poe’s tale “The Gold-Bug.”

Poe is also, with Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, one of the progenitors of horror fiction, and thus of the horror movie; writers from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King have paid tribute to Poe as a founding genius. He is the grandfather of Goth. And his legacy can be felt in other mass genres. Some of his writings, including “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” his incomparably weird colloquies of immortal souls, his novel-length adventure The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and his “visionary” (read: “barking mad”) prose-poem about the creation of the universe, Eureka, have been taken as some of the earliest examples of science fiction. His stories of cryptograms, notably “The Gold Bug”, have similarly launched a minor genre of code-breaking yarns. Only his would-be humorous writings have found no notable imitators; a mercy.

Baudelaire was so obsessed with Poe that he prayed to the dead author’s spirit

Poe worried a great deal about what happens to your body and soul after you die, as is evident from any number of his stories about being buried alive, or of corpses coming back to life, or being kept artificially animate under hypnosis. Would he have been gratified to learn that his literary afterlife had been so spirited? On the whole, probably not. Poe was an unabashed snob, both social and intellectual—he loved to pose as an aristocrat—so the thought of being a Halloween entertainer for the great unwashed rather than an immortal poet would have stung his would-be-noble heart.  His corny image in modern America would have seemed a kind of damnation to the poor fellow. To give the story a happier ending, we must now turn to France, and the towering figure of Charles Baudelaire.

The story of Baudelaire’s Poe infatuation—no weaker word would do justice to the intensity of the French poet’s feelings—is probably the most extreme case of hero-worship in the history of western literature. By the end of his life, Baudelaire was actually praying to Poe’s spirit as an intercessor with the Almighty. In the final pages of his Intimate Journals, he instructed himself in the path of salvation: “To pray every morning to God, the source of all power and all justice… and to Poe…” This adulation seems all the stranger when one reflects that Baudelaire is perhaps the greatest French poet of the 19th century, while Poe is, well, Poe.

Thanks mainly to Baudelaire, Poe’s reputation in France, and then in other European nations, took on a grandeur that would have astonished the few American contemporaries who paid him any attention at all. It continues to astonish and perplex those who care about such matters. What on earth did Baudelaire see in the American? Why on earth did Baudelaire’s successors come to regard Poe as a titan of Shakespearian dimensions rather than a poor, overworked hack? (The query anticipates a more recent conundrum: why did highbrow French film critics come to regard Jerry Lewis, director and star of The Nutty Professor, as a major artist?)

No one has ever settled the question for good. Most of the people who comment on the matter note that Baudelaire’s grasp of English was not all that good when he first read Poe, and that he saw marble Bernini sculptures where Anglophone readers saw shoddy plasterwork. (True enough; but Baudelaire, though plagued with neurotic idleness, worked immensely hard at improving his English simply so that he could read Poe properly.) Others have suggested that it was a strange kind of projected narcissism: in idolising Poe, Baudelaire was idolising himself as he would have liked to have been.

The most satisfying account of the Poe/Baudelaire case to date can be found in Histoire Extraordinare (1961; trans. 1969) by the French novelist Michel Butor. This unusually deft and subtle piece of psychoanalytic criticism concedes that projected narcissism did play a large part in Baudelaire’s literary crush, and cites a well-known letter in which the French poet said that when he first read Poe, “I found… believe it or not, poems and tales which I myself had vaguely thought of writing, and which Poe had been able to work out to perfection.” As the years went by, Baudelaire retold the story in stronger terms, to convey his belief that this was not a mere case of finding an earlier writer who had coincidentally been working along the same lines as himself, but quite literally a supernatural encounter: “The first time I opened one of [Poe’s] books, I saw, with terror and delight, not only subjects I had dreamed of, but sentences I had conceived, which were written by him twenty years before…”

Butor goes on to show how Poe came to be a kind of saviour for Baudelaire—a figure who helped him clarify, analyse and then briefly overcome all of his many emotional and intellectual pains, from his vexed and pathetic relationship with his mother (Baudelaire looked on Poe’s mother as a saint) to his disillusion with democratic politics and growing respect for aristocracy and reaction. Before he learned the harsh truths about Poe’s life—his poverty, loneliness, failure and early death—Baudelaire had imagined the American as a rich, carefree young blood, effortlessly dashing off works of genius in the intervals between cotillions, hunts and lavish dinners. When Baudelaire found out that Poe’s circumstances were much like his own—poverty and tatters—he was all the more inspired.

Baudelaire was not the only French writer to translate Poe, nor even the earliest, but his translations became bestsellers—the only publications which ever brought him a modest steady income. In the wake of Baudelaire’s advocacy, Poe became a kind of honorary French classic author.  Stéphane Mallarmé, one of the greatest French poets to follow Baudelaire, almost rivalled him as a Poe disciple; Mallarmé wrote a very fine sonnet about Poe’s tomb and also translated some of his work, notably a version of “The Raven” with fine illustrations by Manet, no less.

The rollcall continues. One of the greatest poets to follow Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, took up the Poe baton. After that Symbolist trio, the fans and analysts are legion. The renegade psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan delivered a celebrated lecture on “The Purloined Letter”; Jean-Luc Godard incorporated “The Oval Portrait” into his film Vivre Sa Vie; and if you look at Magritte’s famous painting of a man, seen from behind, looking into a mirror which shows not the front but the back of his head, you will note that the book on the shelf is a work by Poe.

There is plainly more going on here than a chance over-estimation by non-Americans of a minor American talent. One of the gifts Poe had was the creation of small, imperishable images that have wormed their way into our collective psyche. Just as there are millions of people who know something about Oliver Twist and Fagin without having read a word of Dickens, so there are millions who have at least some memory of a sinister raven, a man buried prematurely, a dead heart that will not stop beating, a pit and a pendulum, a house owned by the Ushers that falls.

As a prose stylist, as a writer with a vast perspective across societies, as a superb comic, as a psychologist of the normal soul as well as the diseased ones, Dickens is incomparably the greater artist. But Poe does have something of Dickens’s capacity for the creation of enduring mini-myths. And to that degree, the poor, vain, self-destructive fellow really was some kind of genius. The evidence of his Dupin stories also suggests that he might truly have had the kind of analytical, deductive brilliance that would have made him a very good detective. So whatever liberties the new film of The Raven may take, it will have at least some basic fidelity to the Facts in the Case of Mr Poe.

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  1. March 10, 2012

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    By which mental sickness Edger Allan Poe was suffering we don’t know.He was unfortunate he did got Freud who can psychoanalyze him just like Dostoevsky so we can understand plight of Poe.Recent research show that neurotic person can be greatest artist and his contribution in art and sciences can be extraordinary.Anthony Stor wrote a one book and show us abnormal behavour of Newton,Einstein and many others and with help of psychology brought new light on these giant personality.I don’t know this kind of study done on Nietzsche,Kafka, Beethoven,Van gogh, any many other abnormal great personalities

  2. March 13, 2012

    Ted Fontenot

    Funny, but not only do the French think more highly of Poe than we Americans (and other English-speaking cultures, like the English), and have elevated Jerry Lewis to a god, but they also thought more of the great Hollywood movie directors of the classic/golden age–Hitchcock, Hawks, to name two of the most prominent–than almost all American critics/scholars/fans did. They took them seriously as artists long before it became mainstream in America to do so. And they were indubitably right on that score. Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford are great.

    Why is that? I don’t want to fob it off as it just being the French, but I do think that they aren’t bound by seeing Poe, Lewis, and the great Hollywood directors in terms of an English-speaking culture. There may be some value in that that should be looked into.

  3. March 13, 2012

    Scott Loar

    Poe, a bad writer imposed upon many a callow American schoolboy. Poe, inexplicably adored by the French. Poe, died drunk.

    Well, there is something to be said for that last.

  4. March 13, 2012

    Peter Dreyer

    “By the end of his life, Baudelaire was actually praying to Poe’s spirit as an intercessor with the Almighty.”
    Baudelaire smoked opium and drank heavily. During the last two years of his life, he was semi-paralyzed. Most probably he suffered from what used to be called GPI–”general paresis of the insane,” a manifestation of syphylis.
    Enough said?

  5. March 13, 2012

    Gene S.

    My guess is that Poe will be remembered long after Kevin Jackson is forgotten.

  6. March 13, 2012

    Aldebaran

    *Yawns* Yet another tired, patronizing denigration of Poe by a non-entity.

    That the French might simply be more perspicuous and, pace Huxley (who could teach any number of writers a thing or two about vulgarity by his own example) have better taste with respect to Poe’s work than Americans never seems to occur to the writer of this piece.

    As an example, Poe was a tremendous influence on the writing of Julien Gracq, who is without question one of the finest prose and most elegant stylists of the 20th Century in any language. Call me vulgar, too, but I value Gracq’s appraisal of Poe far more than I do Kevin Jackson’s (or, for that matter, Emerson’s, Whitman’s, or Huxley’s). *De gustibus* (as usual).

  7. March 13, 2012

    Aldebaran

    Correction:

    one of the finest and most elegant prose stylists of the 20th Century in any language.

  8. March 13, 2012

    Jeff Burton

    Poe had the great misfortune to write things people actually want to read.

  9. March 13, 2012

    Richard

    Kevin Jackson would easily beat Poe for the title if only he had the least bit acclaim.

  10. March 13, 2012

    C Koonce

    Poe is not the worst writer to have a good
    reputation. That dubious honor belongs to
    Henry James, who should have taken lessons
    in writing from his brother.

    • January 1, 2013

      P_Henry

      Hear! Hear!
      William James is one of the finest essayists I have read, and I have a hard time plowing through anything the self-enraptured Henry James has written. The best thing Henry James did was provide the plot for Britten’s opera, “The Turn of the Screw.”
      But I am not so sure I would bestow this honor on Henry James. I believe it belongs to the nonpareil of overrated novellists, James Fenimore Cooper.

  11. March 13, 2012

    Matthew S.

    A minor quibble here: While Poe did popularize the detective story to the English speaking world, he certainly was not its sole inventor. There were major forerunners, most notably ETA Hoffmann with his novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi. If any one person invented the detective genre, it’s Hoffmann.

  12. March 13, 2012

    Dave Khan

    A no-name fifth-rate hack says that Poe was a bad writer? That’s rather like the village idiot claiming he’s proven Isaac Newton got his sums wrong.

  13. March 13, 2012

    ddfaj

    I believe that Frenchman Vladimir Nabokov was an admirer of Poe as well. Have you heard of “Lolita”? It was some smutty romance novel, clearly not serious literature, but it’s fun and there are two film adaptations of it! Anyway, he’s not a serious writer like…Huxley.

    Seriously though, I hope you were just trying to be controversial so as to attract readers, and that you don’t actually believe half the @%$@ you wrote, because if that were the case…

  14. March 13, 2012

    Greg McColm

    It is my impression that articles like this – like lists of the top hundred (or bottom hundred) painters / poets / statesmen reveal more about the author or listmaker than about the painters / poets / statesmen.

    I could just as well write an article about James Joyce, the most over-rated scribbler of the twentieth century, and back it with a wealth of detail and (unlike Jackson) list of crimes (beginning with that literary junkyard called \Ulysses\). But I think we can all agree that any such indictment would reveal more about me than Joyce.

    So maybe the last word should go to Voltaire, who observed that everybody praised Dante’s Divine Comedy, but no one read it, while people could not agree on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which everybody read. Now, what does that tell you about those two works?

  15. March 14, 2012

    Frank Gado

    Baudelaire’s admiration, raised to the power of Mallarme’s, still doesn’t make Poe a great writer. There are several greater and some at least as influential, who have been overshadowed. William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving, for instance. And there are those who are more interesting — such as James K. Paulding.

    Anyone interested in piublishing an article of Poe’s real biological father?

  16. March 14, 2012

    a

    Haters gonna hate.

  17. March 14, 2012

    M. L. Beinfeld

    With articles like this, I hope they do not pay this person much for writing on literature. It’s just a shame they bother to post such pointless commentary at all. Thankfully, all one has to do is read something written by Poe, anything, to see how utterly wrong this article is concerning the subject of his worth or value as a writer. The only thing I can think is that to not appreciate Poe is to miss the point of much of modern literature, not to mention humor, horror, suspense, melancholy and irony as they have been exhibited in radio, film and popular music over the course of the 20th century as well.

  18. March 14, 2012

    Chris Jennings

    I appreciate the care Jackson’s taken to carve out a very particular position. To call someone the worst writer with a claim to greatness is still to acknowledge that he has a claim. Poe’s adoption by the morbid and the gothic makes it difficult, sometimes, to appreciate him in serious terms. Jackson acknowledges that. Why tear into him for it?

    The one thing “flaw” in reading Poe I think Jackson does perpetuate is tying him largely to novelists and not story writers. Another comment mentions Hoffmann, and that’s a good start. Poe gave some thought to genre, and his exploration of atmosphere, tone and mood had much to do with the idea of creating a single effect to be consumed in a single sitting.

  19. March 14, 2012

    adam

    1. poe was so fascinatingly twisted, one has to attribute the psychological thriller to his macabre sensibilities. “william wilson” and “ligeia” are sublime accounts of cracked minds at work.

    2. does the writer have any proof to offer that poe was a snob? “house of usher” and “dance of the red death” are anti-aristocratic in their politics, and what did poe, the adopted college-dropout alcoholic, have to be snobbish _about_?

    3. the country couldn’t really a sustain a literature yet during his time period, and the lack of international copyright law meant everything was pirated immediately. publishing, republishing, editing, and supposed hackwork were simply writers’ survival strategies. let’s not hold that against poe, nor forget those circumstances in bashing his work.

    thanks for the thoughts, kevin jackson, but i persist in reading poe, undeterred.

  20. March 14, 2012

    Robert

    We all have that Pantheon author we just don’t get. An article like this is so healthy, and my approval of its tenor has nothing to do with my opinion of Poe. (I don’t mind Pym, for some reason, but can’t read the rest.)

    The “great” writer who leaves me open-mouthed at his awfulness is Hemingway. The drab grocery-listing of inconsequential details, the stilted dialogue, the lumpish descriptions without smell or flavour, the self-conscious staccato, the affected, adverb-avoiding “honesty”…You can tell I don’t like Papa! For me, every paragraph of Hemingway is a mounting horror.

    Look, I know most won’t agree, but it’s such a relief to let these things out.

  21. March 14, 2012

    Aldebaran

    Chris Jennings:

    “Poe’s adoption by the morbid and the gothic makes it difficult, sometimes, to appreciate him in serious terms. Jackson acknowledges that. Why tear into him for it?”

    For one thing, because some of us think that horror and the Gothic are serious genres that are no less intrinsically worthwhile than any other, and we are tired of having ACTUAL snobs, such as Jackson, condescend to Poe, and to us, because we hold that view.

    P.S. Additional erratum to my first post: I meant to type “perspicacious”, and not “perspicuous”. Haste does make waste.

  22. March 14, 2012

    John Stewart

    The list of Poe’s accomplishments, in so many different fields, is evidence enough of his greatness. These include not only novelties, but also excellently-executed novelities: “The Imp of the Perverse,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Man of the Crowd,” as well as the supernatural tales and the detective stories. I think his talent probably lies in creating new molds, not improving old ones. Also, the author of the article seemed to back off his premise toward the end.

  23. March 14, 2012

    Chris Roberts

    Frost best captures Poe as an inanimate object: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” EAP is indeed lovely in his talent and dark and deep in subject matter.

    What Edgar Allan Poe left behind is the prototype for the mad, drunk poet. I am aware, of course, of his short stories and other such. Poe takes the madness one step further as a walking suicide who rattles the bars of Hell and taunts Satan by throwing rot-gut whiskey in his face. Poe would not let top shelf liquor be wasted so.

    Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest legacy in his work and personal life is a blank check to poets especially to live and fly about a madman or woman, but make sure you put pen to paper and record it.

    Chris Roberts

  24. March 14, 2012

    Todd Vaneick

    The greatness of an author (not importance) lays solely with the reader, never the critic.

  25. March 14, 2012

    jm1978

    “Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.” -Ezra Pound

  26. March 14, 2012

    Chris Marlowe

    Anyone who doubts that Poe is pretty bad should re-read “The Raven”. However, anyone who believes that Poe is our worst famous poet should have another try at “The Song of Hiawatha”.
    Longfellow runs away with the prize.

  27. March 14, 2012

    Brazilianfriend

    Agree with every claim, except the dubious one about Poe being a worse writer than, say, Baudelaire. His poetry is always music to my ears.

  28. March 16, 2012

    Karl Weber

    My favorite illustration of the degree to which Poe has penetrated American mass consciousness is the fact that only one NFL team has a name derived from a poem–the Baltimore Ravens.

  29. March 17, 2012

    Andrew Levin

    i think for creative genius, poe is hard to beat !

    small

    minds

    attempt

    to

    defrock!

  30. March 19, 2012

    michael roloff

    This is a very odd piece, Kevin Jackson seems to take it for granted that Poe is a strinkingly bad writer, qua writer, and cites several writers who thought so, but fail to offer citational proof of any kind, whereas his citations of Poe’s genius in getting under our skin, might give him pause to regard him as a writer sui generis, and then describe that.

  31. March 27, 2012

    max

    I think that a great part of the admiration that the French have for Poe, is that they don’t read Poe. They read Baudelaire for the fiction, and Mallarmé’s prose translations of Poe’s poetry. The translations of both the fiction and poetry are magnificent and hugely improve Poe’s style/language while keeping, of course, the content intact. No wonder francophones love his work way more than anglophones do.

  32. March 31, 2012

    Joe

    Some find it frightfully easy to denigrate the works of those who produce. Granted, Poe has certain weak areas in his writing. I would say this is highly symptomatic of one forced to write to pay the bills. But he also manages sparks of genius. Take the 1st half of Tell tale heart, a simple tale of course, but the imagery of a man taking an hour to sneak into an old mans room, not even to kill him yet, but just to see if he could….that’s pure genius! Also favoring Poe with the label of “grandfather of Goth” is not that accurate, maybe “son of goth”. Grandfather of the American Pulp would be more apt in my eyes.

  33. August 31, 2013

    Paul

    Max, Poe’s language and style were his strengths. I doubt the translations improved upon the original. Some influential critic of the past made that assertion and those WHO DON’T EVEN READ FRENCH have repeated it ever since.

    Poe was a master of style, a superb technician. It was his subject matter that was often criticised.

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