Was Edgar Allan Poe’s Genius One of His Devising, or Our Own?

 

First, a concession: My dislike of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing style — the visceral, physical cringing I feel when reading his poems and stories — is likely a testament to that style’s phenomenal success. The dreary, gothic, broad strokes that paint each line are to me a cliche, one that hearkens to every bad poem read to me in over-earnest tones by sophomoric students back in the day when I, too, could be counted as one of their kind.

You likely know what I mean.

You’re reading a poem someone you have a crush on wrote, and it’s about a death, and there’s a scary tree, and it’s rather obvious that the tree represents death because the poet you have a crush on lacks the subtlety to do anything but telegraph the allusion with a jackhammer, and then at the very end of the poem the poet you have a crush on inexplicably sees the need to actually switch to dramatic all-caps and announce “AND THEN I KNEW THAT THE TREE ITSELF WAS DEATH!” And then the poet you have a crush on looks at you intensely with slightly tearing eyes, and asks you what you thought, and you concentrate so very hard on your facial muscles not to give away the actual answer to that very question.

We’ve all been there.

Except, of course, that Poe wasn’t really a cliche. He was the river source of all bad gothic poetry cliches, the spring whose waters irrigated countless teens dressed entirely in black.1 And besides, Poe could motherfishing write. So I do recognize that my oppugnation to our nation’s best known Romantic wordsmith is entirely unfair to the man. Still, the heart wants what the heart wants, and at this age of life my heart wants to not ever have to read Poe again.

On the other hand, the book group also wants what the book group wants, and this past month mine wanted very much to read a collection of his works. And while I didn’t enjoy the reading, I was hit with a question that has frankly never occurred to me about all of the classic Poe tales, a question that turned every thing I was taught in school about Poe’s stories on its head.

Take the story you were all likely assigned in junior high school English: The Tell Tale Heart.

As we all know, in this story the narrator kills an old man and shoves the lifeless body under the floorboards of his flat. And then the police show up for no particular reason except to hang out uninvited and shoot the s**t, because who hasn’t had the police just randomly drop in and sit around one’s living room eating all of one’s Oreos? The narrator begins to believe that the police know he has committed murder, and as that belief grows so does his feeling of guilt. He begins to hear the old man’s heart beating beneath the floorboards, and finally he confesses to the crime. The Tell Tale Heart, we were all told, is a Freudian rather than a supernatural story. It is the narrator’s subconscious that provides the eponymous drumming — not the reanimated heart of old man, freshly back from the dead to exact a revenge. Or at least, this is how the story was taught to me when I was young. It was also the way it was taught to everyone in my book group, and indeed everyone I have mentioned it to since rereading it. It is the way it was taught to my kids.

But I am older now and I know more things than I did when I was thirteen.

For example, I know that Poe wrote during the early to mid-part of the 19th century. And I know that Sigmund Freud didn’t begin to publish his works until half a century after Tell Tale Heart was published. Indeed, at the time Poe was himself stuffed beneath the floorboards, metaphorically speaking,2 Freud was still a cigar-shaped glint in his daddy’s eye. I also know that belief in the occult was both fashionable and fairly rampant in New England during the time that Poe was writing.

Which makes me wonder: is everything we are taught about Poe’s works in school incorrect? Is it possible that what we explain to kids to be masterworks of psychology are indeed just mediocre horror stories that we have chosen to go a little overboard analyzing? Has our collective, nationalistic desire to have produced a American Romantic writer on par with Byron or Blake made us attach depth to Poe that would have been quite lost on Poe himself?

Is the Tell Tale Heart at it’s… well, heart, nothing more than the world’s lamest zombie story?

I’m throwing this question out to the Hive’s literary- and history-minded, because it’s way outside of my pay grade.

 

 

Image credits: Rackam’s The Tell Tale Heart, via Wiki commons.


Notes:

  1. In black… LIKE DEATH!!! []
  2. STUFFED BENEATH THE FLOORBOARDS MEANS DEATH!!!! []

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also executive producer and host of the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre. He is  a regular contributor for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter.

9 Comments

  1. Poe was a genius and you are wrong. Sure the Tell Tale Heart might not be his best work but Poe invented the modern detective genre. The Cask of Amontillado is really spooky.

      

  2. He was the river source of all bad gothic poetry cliches, the spring whose waters irrigated countless teens dressed entirely in black.

    I see The Masque of The Red Death and I want it painted black.

      

  3. of course The beating of the heart was in the narrator,s own mind. Poe wrote a similar story The Imp Of The Perverse where he explains the working of perversity in a man´s mind. To do wrong for wrong´s sake only…Fifty years before Freud! Shakespeare much earlier had even more psychological insights. Freud was not the first, only in science where writers anticipated in literature…

      

  4. Calling the story “Freudian” may be anachronistic, but not necessarily wrong if you take Freudian to mean “introspective and psychological, etc.” instead of “drawing on the works of Freud.” But to answer your question, I’d probably have to read the story. Or re-read it. I honestly don’t remember if I’ve read that particular story, although I “knew” it before you summarized it.

    I’m not really a Poe fan, but I do like “The Bells” and “The Raven,” especially “The Bells.”

    That said, you like what you like. I’m kind of the same way about Shakespeare. I just don’t like most of his stuff that I’ve read or seen.* His poems, while technically proficient, just seem like cliches. I get it: he loves his lover so much that he won’t trade his state with kings. His poems and plays strike me mostly as things I’m supposed to like.

    I concede I like the comedies of his I’ve read. I concede that he was a genius, and that he was important for the history of English and literature.** I also realize that I probably don’t know how to appreciate his plays. I take some of them too literally and don’t appreciate the fact that he was writing them for the theatre in the late 1500s. In other words, when some earl puts on a mask, it’s hard for me to believe the other characters don’t recognize him.

    *I mean his actual plays, not the “hey, this movie you enjoyed…..it’s actually based on Shakespeare!” We probably would have had West Side Story even if Romeo and Juliet had never been written.
    **My concession about his importance to English is only partial. I suspect that a lot (not all, but a lot) of the phrases, terms, and expressions he supposedly invented were perhaps already current and he just wrote them down. Still, he did write them down, and that’s something.

      

  5. I’m not much of a Poe fan (though I can recite half a dozen of his poems from memory), and I would highly recommend reading more talented Gothic realists (I love Gothic realism!), but I don’t think he’s bad so much as simple. That makes his poems great for young people, because the thinking required to get them is laid out neatly for us, unlike, say, Whitman or Keats or Yeats or Stevens, the others of the sort of poets we try to get children to read. If you can learn that there is (in Poe’s case barely) hidden meaning within a poem that isn’t literal and on the surface, then you can start learning to think harder and deeper about more complex or complicated poetry.

    And now I shall recite The Conqueror Worm and El Dorado for your listening delight.

      

  6. Mary Roberts Rinehart made “The butler did it” from a violation of detective fiction convention into a trope with her 1930 novel The Door. But she’s not exactly a household name in the world of detective fiction: Agatha Christie is, in part because she tok all the oxygen out of the whodunit-convention-violation thing four years before hand with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But also in part because she was a very talented writer, able to master the end-of-chapter cliffhanger and the memorable detective hero navigating the swirl of intrigue and false leads.

    Poe was both the tropesetter and a talented writer. Yes, some of his stuff shows that he had perhaps a bit too much chemical assistance in unlocking his cabinet of horrors, but he’s eminently readable nevertheless. I agree with Chris that he uses language in a more basic way but that is generally something to strive for, not to escape from. And he incorporates rhythm and onomatopoeia in his writing; perhaps not as obviously as in his poetry (The Bells!) but nevertheless Poe’s are good stories to read out loud.

      

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