by Robert WeibezhalFebruary, 2009
Happy 200th, Mr. Poe
January 19 marked the bicentennial of Edgar Allan’s Poe’s birth and, predictably, publishers have observed the occasion with new books honoring the American master.
British biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd offers a scaled-down biography, Poe: A Life Cut Short, the latest in the Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series. Given the book’s concision, Ackroyd does an admirable job touching the highlights of EAP’s life—though perhaps lowlights would be a more apt phrase, since so many of Poe’s 40 years were spent in emotional despair and financial penury.
There have been a lot of Poe biographies, and known details of Poe’s life and death have been well-documented: the desertion by his father and the death of his mother when he was still a boy; his affection for his adopted mother, Fanny Allan, and his fractious relationship with her husband, John; his short stint at West Point; his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, who, like his mother, would suffer from tuberculosis and die at a very early age; his own mysterious death in Baltimore. Ackroyd adds nothing new to the story, but instead contents himself with sketching a portrait of the artist behind some of the most original and influential stories and poems in the American canon.
Poe is thin on literary criticism and heavy on psychology. The study is, by necessity, inconclusive. “What was his character, in the most general sense?” Ackroyd wonders. “He has alternately been described as ambitious and unworldly, jealous and restrained, childlike and theatrical, fearful and vicious, self-confident and wayward, defiant and self-pitying. He was all these and more.”
Mostly, Poe was a writer like none before or since, and while largely underappreciated and financially unrewarded during his lifetime (although Ackroyd reminds us that he had devoted followers and “The Raven” was an instant classic), his reputation started to grow immediately after his death. The tentacles of his influence stretch far and wide, to what we now call horror or gothic fiction, but also to science fiction and mystery (many credit Poe with inventing the detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”) Celebrating this lineage, the Mystery Writers of America, whose annual prizes are named in Poe’s honor, has published two new anthologies that call upon the talents of some of the group’s more prominent members.
In the Shadow of the Master: Classics Tales by Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Michael Connelly, collects 13 of his most famous stories (no surprises here), two poems (“The Raven” and “The Bells”) and a short excerpt from his only novel. Since all of Poe’s work is readily available elsewhere, even for free on the Internet, a new anthology needs a raison d’être, and the draw here—in addition to the attractiveness of the volume, which uses some of Harry Clarke’s 1919 illustrations—are the essays interspersed throughout by such popular writers as Jeffery Deaver and Stephen King. Many of these personal pieces recall the writers’ first discoveries of Poe in adolescence (a remarkable number talk about the Poe-inspired Roger Corman films from the 1960s). Some are touching, some funny (Joseph Wambaugh lampoons “The Raven”), and a few are a bit self-indulgent. Sue Grafton steals the show with her confession that she had nothing nice to say about Poe, and almost gave up, until. . . .
The title of the other anthology, On a Raven’s Wing: New Tales in Honor of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Stuart M. Kaminsky, says it all. The contributors had loose parameters: Poe or his work had to be central to the story. The 20 stories run the gamut from traditional whodunits and puzzles to humor to brooding gothic tales. Peter Lovesey offers an intriguing new twist on Poe’s death and Conan Doyle-biographer Daniel Stashower plots a haunting story of revenge. The book also contains the last story by the prolific Edward D. Hoch, who wrote close to a thousand stories before his death in 2008.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of Poe collections over the years, making money for everyone but the impecunious author himself. As Kaminsky points out, the inflation-adjusted revenue from Poe T-shirts and bobbleheads alone comes to far more than this great writer’s total life earnings. Alas. Happy birthday anyway, Eddie.
Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.