These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe
Not exactly the boy next door
—from POEtry, a rock opera by Lou Reed and Robert Wilson
Edgar Allan Poe, that strange genius of a hack writer, lived in such a narcissistic cocoon of torment as to be all but blind to the booming American nation around him, and so, perversely, became a mythic presence in the American literary consciousness.
Poe’s life was an unremitting disaster. Orphaned at the age of two, he was the dysfunctional foster child of an unforgiving surrogate father. A gambler and a drinker, he was booted out of the University of Virginia. He took it on himself to drop out of West Point. When he married it was to a cousin, a tubercular child of thirteen. Committing himself to the freelancer’s life, he lived at the edge of poverty. A Southerner, he stood forever outside the ruling literary establishment of New England.
Poe’s baleful yet wary expression in his most famous photo shows a man who believed he was born to suffer. If circumstances in his life were not propitious to suffering he made sure to change them until they were. Deep in his understanding, almost as to be unconscious, was a respect for the driving power of his misery—that it could take manifold forms in ways he didn’t even have to be aware of, as if not he but it could create. That goes well beyond his conscious understanding of what he called the Imp of the Perverse—the force within us that causes us to do just what brings on our destruction.
His fiction can be so spectacularly horror-ridden as to suggest its origin in his dreams. Premature burials, revenge murders, and multiple-personality disorders abound. In proportion to his total output, Poe kills more women than Shakespeare. He kills them and they come back. They haunt, they avenge, they forgive. They are born one from another and merge again in death. Alive they are entombed. Dead, they are dentally abused. Loved or hated, alive or ghostly, they are objects of intense devotion. He would claim, on occasion, to have written some of these pieces with enough distance to make him laugh. Another of his delusions. In his “Philosophy of Composition” he says the supreme subject for a poem is the death of a beautiful woman. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. Another poet could write supremely of the death of a hired man. Another of the death of a civilization. In fact, as a poet, our Edgar is not the poet Melville is, to say nothing of Whitman or Dickinson. He is not a major. He did not produce enough to be a major poet and he may even be too much of a prim prosodist to be considered a minor poet. “The Raven” is to poetry as Ravel’s Boléro is to music: rhythmic and hypnotic on first hearing, a mere novelty ever after. Or evermore. Nowhere in his ravenous mourning for Lenore does Poe come near the simple lines of Wordsworth’s poem about the death of a young woman, “A slumber did my spirit seal”:
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees,
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees.
In those lines the poet does not claim an emotion, he gives us the means to create it in ourselves. Poe is usually a claimer. I have no great regard for his verse, though certainly his personality was that of “a poet to a t.”
We do not move on from other writers of his century—Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville—as we move on from Poe. We read him young, for whom love is death and there is no one without the other, and go on from there. His love fantasies are, in their wild surmise, childlike. (I exempt Poe scholars who have found something the rest of us haven’t. They argue for his work as Poe himself did. They take on his role of outsider. They suffer Henry James’s opinion that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive state of reflection.”)
Our Edgar likes to argue his way into his stories, finding presumably factual certifications for the tale he is about to tell. He does this in “The Premature Burial,” he does this is in the “Imp of the Perverse” and “A Descent into the Maelström.” Usually, he mentions three or more cases to demonstrate that what he is about to tell you can happen in real life, he gives us these certificates of credibility before he gets down to business. This recourse of his not only delays the telling of the story the reader has every right to expect from the very first line, it implicitly admits the storyteller’s weak authority. Of course writers have always used what is to hand to persuade their readers of the factual truth of their fiction. In the Preface to Arthur Gordon Pym Poe clearly has learned from Daniel Defoe the value of denying one’s authorship. Defoe claimed to be only the editor of Robinson Crusoe’s manuscript. Poe’s variation is, as Pym, to speak of himself, Poe, in the third person as a part-of-the-way collaborator. But some ruses are elegant and others are not. I think of Poe’s youth when, in the crises of his gambling debts and academic failures, he attempted with endless letters to persuade his foster father, John Allan, of his merit. His rationalizations and his bitter resentments pathetically alternated with his appeals for understanding (read money); he strove for the lineal credentials denied him, and in the process learned the art of self-justification.
I do not forget Poe wrote for a living. His output was prodigious—fiction, criticism, verse—and he was never unaware of what the market would entertain. (It was his lifelong dream to be the owner/publisher of a magazine.) So he was, even in the steepest, most driven examples of his dark tales, fully cognizant of the Gothic convention he was working. But if he wrote only for the money he would be like so many other hacks. If Poe is a hack he is a genius hack, genius being a kind of helplessness to do anything but flow through the brain circuits it has made for itself. Again and again he invents the imagery for impossible love, for unrelenting hate, for doom and despair. His contributions to the short story are the unmodulated voice—he starts high and ends high—and the embellished situation that serves for a plot. He pours the universal dread of existence into the forms of gothic fiction; that is what he does and it is the deepest source of his literary identity. It is why, when we think of Poe, we think of “Ligeia” or “Usher,” or “William Wilson,” “The Cask of Amontillado” rather than his metaphysical treatise Eureka, or the adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym. He is a test-tube sample of the nature of creativity, if any scientist wanted to boil it down to its salts: how we can be writing with both faculties of the brain, the surface, editorial intellect, and the impulsive, not clearly understood hallucinatory life produced in the brain’s deepest recesses. So Poe knew what he was doing and didn’t know, at the same time. He is an allegory for all literary life.
* * * *
W. H. Auden, in his essay on Poe in The Dyer’s Hand, believes Poe is ill-served by the attention readers give to the Gothic warhorses. He decides the tales of destructive passion, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and the stories of ratiocination, such as “The Purloined Letter,” are of a piece. “The heroes of both exist as unitary states—Roderick Usher reasons as little as Auguste Dupin feels.” And neither has what Auden calls “an historical existence.”
But there is an almost narcotized dream-state imaging in the gothic pieces that even the fustian rhetoric cannot dim. Auden himself would seem to agree when he asserts that the “operatic prose” of Poe’s horror tales is essential for preserving their illusion. All the more reason that readers would imprint on the supernatural stories of hideous passion and do no more than enjoy or admire the feats of ratiocination. We would still have Poe if he never wrote a detective story. But we would not have him without his dead women and rotting manses and vengeful maniacs.
We mark the worst of his writerly sins in the stories that constitute his quintessential achievement. His overwrought style is so filled with an essayist’s rhetorical vines and brambles that you have to slash and hack if you’re to make your way through the story. The verbosity, the undisciplined rhetoric, the drift into haranguing essay, the purple passages—in sum, the grandiosity of his tales—can sometimes seem intended only to assure Poe of his own existence. I write therefore I am. The tales may differ according to the identity of their narrators, or the time that passes within each; there is always a crucial decor, and there is the loneliness of voice of the short story, the automatic circumscription of the surrounding world that comes from the brevity of the piece; and there is the drift to stasis, in a story such as “Usher,” that is basically an elaborated situation. But a Poe production is always unmistakably his. To find a rationale for all his operatics in the so-called Europeanized bias of his writing is to make a mistake: Of a generation slightly in advance of Poe’s own, Heinrich von Kleist in Germany was writing tales that, even in the heavily consonantal and syntactically burdensome German language, raced along from one lean hunting-dog sentence to the next.
* * * *
In contrast to W. H. Auden, another Poe critic, D. H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature, finds the gothic tales central to Poe’s work if only as evidence of his mental deterioration. Poe was “asbsolutely concerned with the disintegration-processes of his own psyche. . . . Doomed to seethe . . . in a great, continuous convulsion of disintegration, and doomed to register the process,” says Lawrence.
But Lawrence, being Lawrence, goes too far. On what grounds is Poe’s psyche presumed to have deteriorated? He was the same Eddie from his first poems to the day he died. Does Lawrence deduce the deterioration from the work? But that would be to deny Poe the capacity of invention, the exercise of artistic choice, the strength of mind that is required to compose pieces from the mists of one’s obsessions, what Poe in Eureka believed to be “the cool exercise of consciousness.” Besides which some of the best work came toward the end of Poe’s life. The truly deteriorating psyche does not turn out hundreds of pages of fiction, verse, literary criticism, aesthetic theory, cosmogony. Poe’s psyche, though in a state of permanent crisis, was stable. It was not my psyche and not yours, but it worked, it functioned. He made a life out of his profound orphanage. He was a strong enough personality to fabricate a family out of his teenage wife, Virginia, and Virginia’s mother whom he called Muddy, so that he had two women to love him in the entire range of a woman’s love as mother, as aunt, as girlchild, as sister, as cousin, as wife. Three hundred and sixty degrees of attention. He could handle things, Edgar A. Poe. His every passing humor was their monumental concern. All together the three of them were a little constellation of misery. It ministered to his aggrieved soul. I know male poets today who arrange the world like that: they have their entourage, their devotees. They move like princes through their castles of suffering, with women strewing flowers before them and tendering hot water bottles at bedtime.
Lawrence’s study of Poe does not bear close reading. He says Poe manifested only the “sloughing of the old consciousness” whereas another American writer of the time, James Fenimore Cooper, had the “two vibrations going on together,” the disintegration of the old consciousness and the “forming of a new consciousness underneath,” because the “two vibrations going on together” are “the rhythm of American art-activity.”
But what exactly is Lawrence talking about? To speak of a deteriorating psyche is to speak clinically. To speak of a new consciousness is to speak philosophically, historically, geographically. A new consciousness is a social event, a revolution in perception. Perhaps Lawrence is thinking of the exotic foreign locales of Poe’s fiction, the airless vaults, the heavy draperies, the crumbling houses. Whereas Fenimore Cooper wrote of the French and Indian War, the great outdoors of the North American woods. But why attribute to one setting the signs of a deteriorating psyche and to the other a new consciousness?
“Poe was going to get the ecstasy [of extreme spiritual love], cost what it might,” says Lawrence. “He went on in a frenzy, as characteristic American women nowadays go on in a frenzy, after the very same thing.” Ah, those American women. “It is love that is the prime cause of tuberculosis,” says D. H. Lawrence. Yes, he actually says that. Poor Poe, beleaguered by poverty, lack of recognition, and a dying young wife—as he wandered like an East Coast Ulysses from Richmond to Baltimore to New York to Philadelphia, to Boston to Lowell, as he tottered back and forth, eternally disenfranchised, embattled, enraged, drunk, was he in danger besides of loving himself into a case of tuberculosis? Perhaps his wife Virginia was the greater lover, the characteristically more extreme and frenzied American female lover, because she did come down with tuberculosis. So Poe may have talked big, but she won the laurels.
Edgar Allan Poe was of the new American consciousness to a far greater extent than Fenimore Cooper. He is as much an exemplar of the new consciousness, as much a formative master of the New World consciousness as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, or Twain. Emotionally solipsistic as Poe was, and with little sympathy for the idea of a democratic republic, he is one of those American writers of the nineteenth century who are de facto prophets created by their new country to speak in its voice. They were not that far removed in time from the impertinent Revolution and the still breathtaking social reality of a land severed from kingship and so from the lineage claimed by kings. They understood freedom as unencumbered though perhaps unblessed by an ecclesiastical culture. Their personalities differed, and in literary address and in what interested them they couldn’t have been more diverse. But each of their minds saw through to the metaphysical disquiet that comes with a secular Democracy, a country written down on paper, a country in a covenant not with God but with itself. And whether in pain, or gloom, or elation or morbidity or bitter satire, they accepted it.
These authors could disdain the democratic mob around them, as did Poe, who given all that room, all that sky and air, sent his words out from the sealed crypt of his own brain; or they could open their arms as rhapsodists, theologically self-infatuated from the use of words, which was the case with Emerson; or they could be self-consecrating, as Walt Whitman certainly was, all his life the singer of himself. Twain, unlike Hawthorne, did not find the tragedy in churchly rectitude; he was a merciless skeptic for whom the ordinary pieties were a form of fraud. Dickinson uses her words as stitches, as if life is a garment that needs mending. And in Herman Melville—well, there the reportage most dramatically enlarges upon Poe and anticipates much of our own. The universe he reports is as amoral and monstrous as the featureless megalithic head of the white whale.
All of these voices together, were they one, would suggest a bipolar mental disorder. Nevertheless they constitute the demanding literary project of a secular nation. Poe’s work no less than the others’ teases out the risky ontological premises of the Enlightenment. Whatever his or any of his fellow authors’ religious hopes or conflicts might have been, as writers they prophesy the modernist future implicit, if not entirely intentional, in the documentations of the Founding Fathers.
The philosopher Richard Rorty has suggested that the metaphysic of the American civil religion is pragmatism. To temporize human affairs, to look not up for some applied celestial accreditation but to look forward, ground level, in the endless journey, to resist any authoritarian restriction on thought—that is the essence of the civil religion, an expansive human inquiry that sees humankind putting all the work and responsibility for the value of life on its own shoulders. Well, what is that idea, what metaphor (for it is more apt), than a son without a father or a mother, the orphan being forever without consolation for his existence, and the only love requisite to his longing beyond his reach? On his own Poe essayed a poetics, a psychology, a cosmology that, altogether, might be viewed as a grandiose attempt to fill in post-Enlightenment meaninglessness. It was irrepressible, wild, excessive, and petrified. His poetics, which anticipated the New Criticism by a century, makes of poetry a humanly made artifice of sounds and rhythms and images. The derived and grandiose boyish cosmology of Eureka is his Bible. And living in the freedom of the happiest and most advanced social constructions, the Democracy that Lincoln would call the last best hope of mankind, Edgar Poe, with his dark tales, laid out its unavoidable nightmares.
These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
Not exactly the boy next door.
“Our Edgar” © 2006 by E. L. Doctorow, is an excerpt from Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993–2006 (Random House, 2006). The essay is adapted from a talk given to the Poe Studies Association on October 5, 2002; passages were incorporated from the essay “Literature As Religion” from Reporting the Universe (Harvard University Press, 2003). Published with the permission of the author.