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What I’m Reading (No. 92): an ode to Poe
If you read this newsletter on the regular, you’ll know I’m working on an article about classic scary short stories. Easily my favorite author to explore has been the one and only Edgar Allan Poe. You know his name, you know the cultural references to his most famous works (the NFL’s Ravens are in fact named after the poem); you probably don’t know much about the man himself, and it’s quite possible you haven’t actually read the original pieces from which all those cultural references emerged. I was in that boat just a few weeks ago.
In this week’s long newsletter (sorry!), I’ll give you a small intro to Poe’s utterly fascinating life, as well as a quick primer on his works. So instead of my standard weekly list, I’ll give you a list of my favorite tales of his.
I also have to give some space to the death of America’s — and the Western canon’s — preeminent literary critic.
Let’s do it.
Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd (2009, 226 pages)
I was amazed at the dearth of major biographies of the man who many literary scholars call the most influential American writer in our nation’s history. There were two published in the early ‘90s by renowned biographers and then this shortie published about 10 years ago by the legendary Ackroyd.
While the tone wasn’t always to my liking, this brief biography of Poe satisfied my need for pure fact accumulation. I wanted to know more about Poe, and this book did it in manner that wasn’t terribly memorable, but was very readable (a big-time bonus in some cases, depending on what you’re looking for). It’s a good enough book, but I’m looking forward to whenever it may be that a new biography comes out; again, I can’t believe it hasn’t been sooner.
Now, a quick look at Poe’s crazy life story:
He was born in 1809 in Boston, the second child of a couple of amateur actors. So a flair for the dramatic was in his blood. Papa Poe disappeared in 1810, and Mama Poe died of tuberculosis the year after that (death by TB would be a common theme in his life), making young Eddie an orphan.
At 18, having failed at college and instead enlisting in the army, Poe published his first collection of poems. His military career quickly fizzled, and he decided to try to make a go of things as a full-time poet and author. So he wrote poems and stories, along with taking odd jobs doing reporting and editing and book reviewing. His creative works were rather well-reviewed, but there just wasn’t much money in authorship 200 years ago.
He also quickly developed a penchant for booze, regularly losing jobs because he couldn’t stay sober enough to work. In spite of that, at age 26 he did manage to find some version of love by marrying his 13-year-old cousin Virginia. It was odd, even back then, to marry someone so young. Not out of the realm of possibility, but certainly a little strange. She died of TB 11 years later, leaving Poe heartbroken.
Here’s the really juicy part: at just 40 years old, Edgar Allan Poe died mysteriously in Baltimore. To this day, nobody knows the truth of how or why he died. He had been found wandering the streets and muttering incoherently, was brought to a hospital, and though he lingered for a few days, ultimately succumbed on October 7, 1849. It could’ve been a stroke, alcohol poisoning, some form of suicide, TB, maybe even rabies. For such a significant figure in American history, it’s remarkable that we’ll never know more about his death. More on his works below.
A Quick Word on the Late Harold Bloom
To an incurable list-aholic like myself, Harold Bloom’s work is a national treasure. He was known for vigorously defending the Western Canon and writing a number of books in that vein. He put Shakespeare at the center of world literature and (in)famously listed 25 other authors whose works would stand the test of bookish time — from Dante and Chaucer to Dickinson and Tolstoy. That argument and list is found in 1994’s The Western Canon. (There is a list of over 1,000 books in the appendix to that book, but Bloom later disavowed it, only claiming he included it at the publisher’s behest.)
He also wrote about the American canon, lionizing 12 authors who, in his not-so-humble opinion, reign supreme. That book is called The Daemon Knows, and includes a fellow named Hart Crane, who I’ve never heard of. I’m very curious to at least browse both of those works, as well as Bloom’s massive collection of essays, his work on Shakespeare, and his numerous other books.
While Edgar Allan Poe is obviously best known for his stories of the macabre, he dabbled in numerous genres.
The works of his that should be more famous are, without a doubt, the detective stories. He wrote three of them:
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
“The Mystery of Marie Roget”
“The Purloined Letter”
It’s impossible to ignore the direct line from these tales to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes. Poe is in fact credited with creating the detective story (and Doyle indeed gives Poe credit, even within his Holmes stories). Armchair sleuth C. Auguste Dupin uses his powers of observation and pure deduction to unravel the mysteries that Parisian police haven’t been able to figure out. As a reader, you can’t quite follow Dupin’s line of thought in its entirety (and neither can the stories’ narrator), but you can catch enough to play along to the big reveal at the end. These stories are great fun, and I subsequently bought the complete Sherlock Holmes stories too.
Onto the tales of terror. My five favorites:
“The Tell-Tale Heart” — my favorite of the bunch. The writing in this story has an irresistible manic energy.
“The Masque of the Red Death” — a hair odd, but with a killer ending.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” — I didn’t love the ending, but the rest of the story is delightfully unsettling.
“The Cask of Amontillado” — revenge, wine, a dank cellar, and a couple of sloppy old drunks. Could it get more fun?
“The Black Cat” — shares some themes with “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but in a most disturbing package. Don’t read this if you’re into cats.
Bonus: “The Raven” — to be honest, I wasn’t a huge fun of the poem which Poe is most famous for, but it has such cultural weight that you should read it.
These can all be read online for free and they’re all rather short. While shared themes and tone are evident, the style of writing remains unique to each tale, which makes it all the more incredible that they were penned by one man.
One could go on and on about Poe’s influence on American literature, but I’ve run out of space. Just know that he’s possibly the most consequential author in our canon, and you should take some time to read his works; autumn is a great time of year to do it.
That’s all for me this week. Let me know what you’re reading, and as always, thank you for the time and inbox space.