::Literate Blather::
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Poe: The Mad and Bad Writings of a Genius
On dull, dark, dreary evenings, when the black rain taps at my opaque window, and the street lights create hideous black shapes on my carpet, I enjoy settling by the fire to read the strange, grotesque tales of Edgar Allan Poe. While thumbing through the worn pages of my tome, there is always a moment – like a sudden clarity of vision – when I pause and ask myself:

“Is Poe even a good writer?”

Is there a more polarizing figure in American literature than Edgar Allan Poe? He is either despised (Mark Twain dismissed him) or beloved (George Bernard Shaw was a fan).

His defenders point to his originality – his voice – his imaginative force that created new genres of literature such as detective fiction and science fiction. He greatly influenced horror and gothic fiction and tales of the grotesque.

But his critics can rightly point to his dense, wooden prose – and his almost laughable, emotive poetry. There is ample evidence that Poe is a hackneyed writer. Take this passage from his short story “The Black Cat” (1845):

“From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and, in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.

It’s difficult to plow through paragraphs like this. Poe is like a writer obsessed with his thesaurus. He always seems to choose the next best word for his purposes. Thus he uses “humanity” rather than “kindness” to describe the narrator’s disposition. He oddly selects the word “sagacious” (which means acutely insightful and wise) to describe a dog and pushes the envelope by using “gossamer” to modify fidelity. Is he trying to convey a “wispy” fidelity?

Poe has an unhealthy fondness for adjectives. Why use one when two or even three can do the trick? That’s why he uses “unselfish” and “self-sacrificing” to modify love – both adjectives having nearly identical meanings. It’s like saying a character is “mean” and “cruel.”

And don’t get me started on the phrase “This peculiarity of character grew with my growth.” And can Poe please elaborate on what is so peculiar about a man liking pets?

“The Black Cat” isn’t the exception – it’s the rule. Poe could write brazenly bad prose. His stories are filled with clunky construction, impassive language, and labored metaphors and imagery. In his collection of poetry called “The Best Poems of the English Language,” literary critic Harold Bloom writes: “Poe is a bad poet, a poor critic, and a dreadful prose stylist in his celebrated tales. Poe is also inescapable.”

And that’s why Poe is so polarizing. He is both bad writer and genius at the same time – which is why no conversation about American literature can avoid him. Poe is larger than life – a writer that transcends his meager talents and vaults into legend. Few American writers can claim this mantle (although Hemingway, a far superior writer, may come the closest).

I fall victim to the mythology of Poe every time. I want to love him – in fact, I often think I do love Poe, but not when I’m reading him.

What I’m intoxicated by is this legend. His personal story is enough of a hook: His descent into madness, his battles with alcohol and drugs, his wife's tuberculosis, his bizarre marriage to his teenage cousin, his bankruptcy and poverty, and, of course, the mystery of his death at age 40 (the day before he died in 1849, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a delirious state and wearing clothes belonging to someone else).

When I do pick up his work (and I own at least two collections of his stories and several poetry anthologies that include his work), I struggle with it. Poe’s style is agonizing and you wish you could dive into stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) or “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), but you can’t. The language prohibits you from fully entering Poe’s world and instead you wish you could start marking them up with an editor’s red pencil.

But while I can criticize Poe for his writing, the real reason that he’s “inescapable” has less to do with language and everything to do with imagination. This rich imagination what Poet T.S. Eliot meant when he said: “That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty.”

In other words Poe’s mind – his glorious vision – is genius, but his maturity as a writer leaves much to be desired.

There is little doubt of Poe’s Herculean stamp on literature. He did invent the detective story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, cited Poe as one of his influences and made this incredible statement: “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Poe’s tales of the macabre still resonate today. His story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1850) was the grandfather of Stephen King’s “The Stand” and Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” His character Luchresi in “The Cask of the Amontillado” (1846) was the seed of serial killer fiction and the great-great-grandfather of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector.

He was innovative in science fiction with his only novel “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). The novel influenced Jules Verne and H.P. Lovecraft. Poe also inspired an entire generation of French writers; including Paul Valery and Marcel Proust.

Poe – dark, brooding, troubled Poe – wasn’t a good writer. But he did possess one of the most limitless and breathtakingly original imaginations in literature.

Read our Literary Sketch on Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death"

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
Having read almost everything Poe ever wrote (down to his critical essays, scientific conjectures and marginal scribblings) I can't find a word to disagree with here. Poe was a miserably bad writer, and an insufferable egoist who believed he was God's gift to literature and that those who disagreed were philistines and nincompoops.

He was however a savant in many ways. He was wildly intelligent, imaginative and had a depth and breadth of literary knowledge that is astonishing. He just had very little talent for prose. Indeed IMHO he blew almost his entire writing wad on "The Raven."

Anonymous Anonymous said...
As you say, you have fallen victim to the mythology. Poe did not descend into madness, was not a drug user, did not have tuberculosis, and his marriage to his cousin was not bizarre. Despite what you say here, he was not found wandering the streets of Baltimore the day before his death in 1849. I hope you would consider checking into his biography before you try to recount it!

Blogger GFS3 said...
You need to read up on Poe's life, my friend. He did, indeed, die in Baltimore after being found intoxicated and in someone else's clothing. He also experimented with drugs and was a heavy drinker.

But you're right: he didn't have tuberculosis. His wife did. I'll fix that oversight in the text.

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