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.