Sunday, October 26, 2014

Homage to Edgar Poe

I don't name him Edgar Allan Poe for what I consider to be good reason.  The "Allan" is taken from his stepfather (and stepmother too, I suppose), and Poe despised the man, who in turn thought Poe a degenerate gambler and all around wastrel; which I suppose he was by the standards of the time.  In paying homage, it's right I should avoid the name he is said to have hated.

It is, for good or ill, that time of the year where it's considered appropriate to think of Poe, or read or listen to some of his work at least.  Sometimes, alas, they're almost unrecognizable.  I listened to what was said to be a version of his The Tell-Tale Heart  broadcast by the Radio Classics channel while driving the other day and was amazed by its lack of resemblance to the story I recall reading.  Boris Karloff played one of the characters and someone else, whose name I can't recall, played the part of someone who it seems to be does not figure in the story at all; at least as a living, talking, acting agent.

But this is not unusual in the efforts which have been made to translate his work for radio, television or films.  There have been several of such efforts, for the most part involving actors like Karloff (Peter Loree and Vincent Price for example).  Very often, only the titles of these productions bear any relation to Poe's work, and often enough we're told that whatever it is we're watching or listening to is "from the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe!"  Or words to that effect.  That way, it was apparently believed, we'd spend our money to hear, see.  Poe is associated with what is now called horror.  I wonder if he would be pleased by that association.

Well, I suppose it may be said that we of the United States don't take a great deal of pride in our artists as a rule, and so feel no obligation to treat them with great respect.  But for my money (which I wouldn't spend except perhaps in acquiring his actual work, not what has so curiously come of it) Poe was the first great American writer.  For me, Hawthorne, Melville, Irving, Fenimore Cooper, Longfellow simply don't compare to Poe, who it seems had an analytic mind but was masterful in evoking emotions, and who was the first original artist in our history.  He was, I think, something entirely new.

I speak of his prose, not his poetry.  I don't much like his poetry.  I'm fond of The  Conqueror Worm because it is so odd, and have memorized most of The Raven for some reason, but it seems to me that it is in his poetry that Poe is most clearly a Romantic, and I don't like the Romantics.  I prefer Poe the literary critic and author of short stories.  Perhaps we Americans are best at writing shorter works; we tend to get carried away in our novels.  If so, it was Poe who first pioneered this region of literature with any success and rigor.

It seems Poe is considered Romantic, though.  This is somewhat odd, I think, as in his works involving the detective Dupin and his"science-fiction" work, as in his literary criticism, he demonstrated a real respect for analytic and critical thinking and used them to good effect.  But it would be inappropriate to think of him as a Realist, given the fundamental role of fantasy in so many of his stories.

He was above all a great storyteller, and his talent had an immense scope, from detective (or mystery) stories, to what would be called science-fiction stories, to horror, and adventure, even in comic writing, for which he is not known--he was remarkable in each.  He died at age 40, and we can only speculate about what he could have written had he lived longer.  It seems to me that given the extent and scope of his work, it is difficult to characterize him as lazy or undisciplined in his art if not in his life.

His life was sad, undoubtedly.  He might be a character in a Dickens novel given the tragedies with which he had to cope.  But there was no happy ending for Poe; no clear reason for his ending, either.   Much of that remains a mystery.  He was found incoherent, wearing clothes which were not his own, may have had cholera, or been poisoned by alcohol, may have been mugged.  A sad end for a man who wrote much of sadness.

We can only wonder what it was like to be a highly intelligent, sensitive and talented person in Poe's time in the U.S.  Death was more prevalent and more a part of life then, sickness, often deadly like tuberculosis common, communication slow and sporadic, cities filthy; premature burial was a real possibility, not just a product of a feverish imagination, little was known for certain, money was no easier to obtain, and may have been largely unobtainable to someone like Poe.

Because of the scope of his work, it's unfortunate he's remembered to any real degree only at this time of year.  But I may be being unfair.  He's certainly remembered and read by many, more so than many he criticized, like Longfellow, and probably always will be, due to our continuing fascination with death and the occult.  That fascination won't leave us until we stop dying.

Part of his continuing appeal may be the fact that in his writing he was not didactic, unlike so many who wrote at that time.  For many years now, writers of literature have had little interest in teaching us anything.  But the purveyors of other art forms, particularly movies and television shows to the extent they can be considered art, seem increasingly intent on teaching, or perhaps preaching, so the moralists among us need not feel deprived.

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