Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Tale of Poe



Edgar Allan Poe -- born on this day in 1809 in Boston -- considered himself a poet and regarded his supernatural tales as nothing more than scribblings for coal money. After his death, however, 30 years before Edison's carbon-filament lamps would minimize the hours of each day we spend in natural darkness, it would be the soul of Poe's darker works that the 20th century would celebrate and endlessly emulate and explore -- as if our electrified, often shadowless culture had been in search of an elemental condition whose power is felt, if not in its absence at the flick of a switch, at least in its magical simulation. The darker aspects of Poe's own life have become irrevocably entwined with this exploration, its fictionalization rendering him, like so many great authors, an apt character from his own pen.

Although his life had its tragic moments, Poe was much more of a success at the peak of his powers than popular history chooses to recall. His parents were minor Baltimore stage actors, but by the time Edgar was 2 his father had disappeared and his mother had died of tuberculosis in Richmond, Virginia, and he was adopted by a childless Richmond merchant's wife. The merchant, John Allan, kept his distance from this child of disreputable parentage and did not adopt him, but as Edgar grew Allan became proud of his intelligence and good looks. Poe studied in England while Allan was there on business.

Back in Richmond during his teen years, however, the distance between Poe and Allan widened, with Poe embittered by his foster father's coldness and Allan disdainful of the lad's apparent ingratitude. In spite of their distance, Allan was willing to send Poe to the University of Virginia in 1826, for which Poe thanked him by excessive drinking and gambling. By way of response, Allan unceremoniously yanked Poe out of school.

Poe left Richmond for Boston, where he published a pamphlet of his first poems which showed the influence of Byron and the English Romantics, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). Penniless, he joined the Army as "Edgar A. Perry," but eventually he broke down and called for a reconciliation with Allan, who purchased Poe's release from his commission. After unsuccessfully publishing another volume of poems, Al Aaraaf (1829), he entered West Point (George Meade was a contemporary there), but soon grew restless and forced his own expulsion by cutting drills and classes -- causing the final rift between himself and Allan.

Poe moved to Baltimore to live with his impoverished aunt Mary Clemm, and began writing short stories in hopes that they would be easier to sell than his poems. In 1833, his "MS. Found in a Bottle" won the Saturday Visitor $50 prize, which attracted the attention of literary circles and established his reputation as a writer. Two years later he was back in Richmond as the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and soon thereafter he married his 13-year old niece, Virginia Clemm. His work for the Messenger, including his serialized adventure, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (1837), increased circulation 7-fold, but soon Poe was enticed to Philadelphia to become co-editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, for which he began writing some of his more macabre and horrifying tales, eventually collected in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), including "The Fall of the House of Usher."

When Burton's changed ownership, Poe assumed the editorship of its successor, Graham's Magazine, through his efforts making it the most important American magazine of its time. In Graham's, Poe published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), the first piece of detective fiction in American literature, creating the character of detective Dupin, a master of logical deduction who would be the precursor to Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes," among many others. Poe followed this with other "ratiocination" tales, including "The Gold Bug" (1843), which won a $100 prize from the Dollar, as well as additional gothic tales, the most famous of which included "The Masque of Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

In 1844, he moved to New York to work on the Evening Mirror, which published the poem which would bring him his greatest contemporary American fame, "The Raven" (1845), today a favorite for drawing room oral-interp. Despite his successes, alcoholism and the deterioration of his mental health began to emerge in him, leading to outbursts of unreasonable rage, usually reserved for his literary colleagues and not for Virginia or Mrs. Clemm, to whom he was devoted.

One of the finals straws for Poe was undoubtedly the death of his adoring wife at age 24. Afterwords, cared for by Mrs. Clemm and a few loyal groupies, a terminally unstable Poe worked feverishly on the poem "Annabel Lee" (1849), which he addressed to his late wife, and on his final important work, Eureka (1848), then spent his final months wandering, haunting Richmond and Baltimore in an alcoholic stupor. Found seriously ill by an old friend in the streets of Baltimore, Poe died several days later, on October 7, 1849, at the age of 40.

Like Jerry Lewis(!?), Poe's most loyal audience was in France, where Charles Baudelaire translated his work, letting it seep into the consciousness of such writers as Rimbaud, Mallarme and Jules Verne. In film, a medium often preoccupied with horror, Poe's works have often been adapted (or alluded to for effect, as in the series of campy flicks by Roger Corman and Vincent Price during the 1960s which borrowed titles from Poe but little else). Not surprisingly, however, the earliest filmmakers were already transducing Poe's life and work: by 1915, at least two Poe biopics and one version of The Raven with Poe as the main character had already been made; one fairly lugubrious version of his life was made in 1942 as The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, with the far-too-robust Linda Darnell as Virginia.

Sylvester Stallone once said he wanted to play Poe in a film; if that were not preposterous enough, in 1999 it was announced that Michael Jackson would appear in a Canadian film about Poe's life. Thankfully, neither of these projects ever materialized. Oh, the horror, indeed . . .

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