The Uniqueness and Greatness of Poe

(the haunting 1919 Harry Clarke illustrations are well-worth seeking out; Franklin has an excellent, recommended 1979 collection of Poe’s tales)

It’s hard to find any other writer who compares with the depth and breadth of Edgar Allan Poe’s moribund imagination and atmospheric writing talents. (Was watching the latest documentary on him shown on PBS this week.)

I spent a lot of time in his world around 1972-73, teaching “The Tell-Tale Heart,”, “The Black Cat”, “The Casque of Amontillado”, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, “Annabel Lee”, and “The Raven” to high-school English students. As an educational editor, I later anthologized “Annabel Lee”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and “The Masque of the Red Death”. And in my final years teaching, I showed grade 12s Roger Corman’s excellent movie The Fall of the House of Usher, one of several Poes Roger Corman adapted and directed in the 1960s for American International.

Well, what was there about Poe that students and adolescents have always liked? The violence, the deaths, the horror, the psychological extremes, the madness, the severity of the crimes, the atmosphere, and the powerful, memorable story endings, as well as the romanticness of the poetry. Above all, no one has ever written short stories as powerful as Poe’s since 1849, the year of his death. He is a Master, big-time.

I think, on reflection, though, one finds much that is, strangely enough, recognizable human behaviors, realistic attitudes, and powerful states of mind, to say nothing of unstable characters and entertaining narrators.

There was, of course, much of Poe’s life and conflicts embedded in every work which give an added poignancy and realism to what goes on there. He was often depressed, disappointed, down on his luck, and his own death remains the biggest mystery of all.
Worth seeking out are the gems like “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (about mesmerism and death), “The Gold Bug” ( a quirky, funny treasure-hunt tale), “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (with Auguste Dupin, the Sherlock Holmes detective predecessor that kickstarted whodunits), “The Premature Burial” (about being buried alive), “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (a metaphorical tale about experiencing natural chaos in great detail), and “Eureka”–a remarkable essay on the nature of the cosmic material and spiritual universe.

Going back to Poe after all these years, I am more impressed than ever at the body, depth, and range of his work. He remains an accessible, relevant literary touchstone, and, in my opinion, the fountainhead of 19th century American literature. And he is still more read than other 19th century writers including Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, and Twain, continuing to make new fans in the digital age. A major one-man literary legacy. Therein, the greatness of Poe.

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