The great bad writer

Self-indulgent, vulgar, borderline insane—Edgar Allan Poe was the most influential American author of the 19th century
February 22, 2012
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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