Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How to Be A Classic: Four or Five Versions of Edgar Allan Poe

Even though the concept of a literary canon has been in tatters for decades, the fact of a literary canon still, for better or for worse, remains.  And one of the names least likely to be dislodged from the de facto canon of American literature in any foreseeable future is that of Edgar Allan Poe.  But why? One answer is simple, or seems to be: that Poe was an inventor, an astonishing inventor.  Indeed, he was the Tesla or Edison of literature, and from the laboratory of his genius came both entirely new modes of writing and crucial refinements upon still-developing genres.  But as any infomercial seen during insomnia-ridden night in a hotel with lousy cable options makes abundantly clear, not all inventions matter.  Many of Poe's did: they had staying power, influenced important writers, and spoke to generations of readers. This, I think, had as much to do with Poe's moment as with the man himself.

When Poe's short writing career began, there was surprisingly little literary infrastructure in America.  Literacy rates were climbing quickly, and the days when an American writer had to send a manuscript off to England to have it printed were long gone, but the landscape was utterly unlike what we know today.  Not only were there no foundations, or grants, or MFA programs—there were very few places to publish, and those tended to reach fairly ill-defined audiences: a century later writers could send science fiction stories to science fiction magazines, adventure stories to magazines sold specifically to boys who dreamed of jungle exploration, stories with literary pretence to stalwart little literary journals, and so forth.  But Poe had to make his way in the dark.  When he came on the scene the number of Americans who had made a living by the pen could be counted on the fingers of one hand (Washington Irving is the only name still recognized) and what the public wanted, what they were willing to pay to read, remained a mystery (Irving tried all kinds of things: pop history, observational letters, hopped-up folktales, you name it).  So Poe tried everything: his story "The Balloon-Hoax" was initially published in a newspaper and passed off as fact; and his proliferation of inventions was in large measure a sounding-out of the public, a matter of throwing all kinds of words at the wall of fame and fortune and hoping something would stick.  His was a time of the open literary frontier, of risky ventures in an unknown landscape with the hope of vast rewards.

When we think of Poe's limited success in his short lifetime, and his posthumous canonical ubiquity, we might remember Gertrude Stein's thoughts about posterity in her essay "Composition as Explanation":
No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept.  The things refused are only important if unexpectedly somebody happens to need them.
Poe's inventions didn't quite take before his death at the age of 40, but they've proved important to a great many readers and writers later—somebody did happen to need them.  In fact, many people did, and for many different reasons: his wild inventiveness, which was a response to the unformed literary landscape of his time, meant that he came, posthumously, to appeal to multiple constituencies—a factor as important to a writers' posterity as it is to a politician's electoral prospects.

One way to think about Poe's different constituencies is to associate them with the important writers who have drawn from one or another side of the Poe legacy.  Four or five such writers (and their four different views of Poe) come to mind:

Ray Bradbury's Poe.  Ray Bradbury's aunt gave him an illustrated edition of Poe's stories when he was a child and he never looked back.  "I am the ghost of Poe resurrected" he once told an interviewer (he also said he was the new Melville, but that he was Poe "above all").  Among the treasures most valued by Bradbury collectors are the letters he sent out with Edgar Allan Poe commemorative stamps, under which Bradbury invariably wrote "My Papa."  But which Poe is his father?  The story "Usher II," included in the American but not the British editions of The Martian Chronicles, explicitly draws on "The Fall of the House of Usher," but the gothic Poe is of secondary importance at best to Bradbury.  His Poe is the early pioneer of science fiction, the technology-obsessed writer of "The Balloon Hoax."  But Bradbury's Poe is also the adventure writer, the minute-by-minute chronicler of struggle and daring: a story like Bradbury's "The Long Rain" from The Illustrated Man may be set on Venus, but it is every bit as much the man-vs.-nature tale as Poe's "Into the Maelstrom," where inventive problem solving and stoic endurance are the primary virtues.  Bradbury's Poe is the grandfather of many pulp magazine writers of the twentieth century, the progenitor of Amazing Stories and Argosy.

H.P. Lovecraft's Poe.  Many people see Poe's influence on Lovecraft's career as confined to his early, pre-Cthulhu period, and there is something to this.  Certainly the Poe who dabbled in the gothic, the Poe of "The Fall of the House of Usher" was a direct influence on the early Lovecraft—and it's true to say that Lovecraft's development of an elaborate fictional mythos has no real precedent in Poe, owing more to Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegāna than any other source.  But it isn't the trappings of gothic horror that really matter in the Poe-Lovecraft connection.  Indeed, Poe himself wasn't the inventor of the long-established machinery of gothic horror, he was the refiner of that tradition.  His greatest refinement is the application of what he called, in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," the literary work's "unity of effect"—the conscious co-ordination of all parts of the story to a single affective end, to produce a single emotion in the reader.  This kind of deliberate orchestration is what early gothic writers like Sheridan Le Fanu or Horace Walpole lack—Poe introduces calculated order into the wild garden of the gothic imagination, and the effect is (and is precisely intended to be) spine chilling.  The way a story like "The Pit and the Pendulum" strives, inch by inch, to creep you the fuck out is Poe's greatest legacy to Lovecraft—who applied the lesson throughout his career—and to the black-garbed, eyeliner wearing multitudes who followed in Lovecraft's baleful wake.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Poe.  Poe is not the inventor of the detective tale, which, like the word "detective" itself, has its origins in France. There's a strong case for Voltaire's Zadig as the ultimate progenitor of the genre, and examples appeared sparsely here and there throughout European literature in the decades that followed, notably in the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Poe once worked for a man named William Evans Burton, who wrote "The Secret Cell," a story of police following procedures to solve crime—but it is what Poe does with the genre that is original.  While Burton's story is all about following rational procedures, Poe's three "tales of ratiocination" insist that one needs not only the tools of the scientist, but of the poet, to see into the heart of things.  Indeed, it is the character he invents, the fallen French aristocrat and bohemian outsider C. Auguste Dupin who represents his real innovation: the detective not only as rational man, but as aloof outsider, as a virtuoso of insight, as the master of inferring a world from a small tic, the way a great poker player reads his opponents by their giveaway 'tells.'  This is the character who inspired Sherlock Holmes, as Arthur Conan Doyle is quick to acknowledge: he even has Watson compare Holmes to Dupin (as well he might: the first Holmes story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" is a scandal indeed, in that much of it is a virtual plagiarism of "The Purloined Letter").  The Byronic detective is Poe's invention, and from Dupin to Holmes it's just a short drive to the vast and shadowy lands of noir.

Jorge Luis Borges' Poe.  Borges mentions Poe up in well over 100 different essays and scores of interviews, and posed for a photograph at Poe's grave.  So deep was his love of Poe that he carries not one, but two versions of Poe close to his heart.  The first is much like Arthur Conan Doyle's Poe, the Poe of Dupin and analytic detection.  Indeed, Borges wrote stories in response to Poe, stories best read in tandem with the Dupin stories.  But Borges' other Poe is my favorite Poe.  The Poe of the Dupin stories is the master of the explicable universe—Dupin sees through surface confusion and grasps the thread connecting and making sense of all things.  But there's another Poe who matters to Borges—the Poe of stories like "MS Found in a Bottle," the Poe devoted to mystery, to meanings always on the verge of coming clear.  I often think of "MS Found in a Bottle" as the antithesis of "Into the Maelstrom"—each story deals with an enormous whirlpool drawing the protagonist in, but where "Into the Maelstrom" deals in physics and rational calculations for survival, "MS Found in a Bottle" offers nothing of the kind.  Instead, we encounter mysteries that can't be solved, unless, perhaps, the moment of revelation comes when we exit the known world and allow ourselves to be taken over the border into something mysterious—perhaps death—at the sublime heart of the whirlpool.  This sense of a great revelation concealed but hovering on the verge of revelation is at the heart of many of Borges' best-known writings: we see it in "The Garden of Forking Paths," for example, and we watch scholars search for it in "The Library of Babel."  "The Lottery of Babylon" hints that there may, just may, be a secret order to the world, but we hover on the brink of knowing, just as Poe's protagonist does in "MS Found in a Bottle." This Poe is the modernist and postmodernist's Poe, a Poe not for the mass market pulp magazines but for the literary quarterlies and the seminar room.

To these four we might consider adding another, Charles Baudelaire's Poe.  Baudelaire's translations of Poe were crucial to establishing Poe's international reputation, but I find it difficult to think of Poe as an influence on Baudelaire so much as a spirit-companion, a courage-giver for a kindred spirit.  Poe's writing mattered to Baudelaire, to be sure, but as Baudelaire's biographer Alex De Jonge put it, "Perhaps more importantly, Baudelaire identified with the man.  Poe was the first modern writer: a desperate loser, haunted by his guignon [his bad luck or fated failure], a man who lived a life of misery and drink, and died in suspect and ignoble circumstances."  This Poe matters too, of course, but less as a writer than as a type, the poète maudit.

Many of the writers who drew from Poe exceeded him in one or another form of excellence.  But it is hard to think of any modern figure who equals him in inventiveness.  We might turn to the evolution of the literary market for explanations: the lack of defined genres, Roberto Bolaño once remarked, is a sign of literary underdevelopment: in advanced economies we find whole arrays of literary niches and sub-niches: hard-boiled detective, young adult fiction, swords and sorcery, historiographic metafiction, you name it.  Specialization is the norm—but this wasn't an option for Poe, who worked in a relative vacuum, and tried in a thousand ways to connect with a readership.

How, then, to be a classic?  Invent, try new things, take a lot of potshots, and—this is the hard part—happen to hit bulls-eyes with all of them.


  1. Excellent post. Thanks.

  2. Baudelaire, Lovecraft and Bradbury - wow.

    3 of my faves. Great post. (I followed from Scarriet).