Friday, January 20, 2017


From Michael Dirda's review of The Annotated Poe, in the Weekly Standard:

France's three greatest poets of the 19th and early-20th centuries revered him: Baudelaire translated his stories; MallarmĂ© composed one of his best poems, "Le Tombeau d'Edgar Poe," for the dedication of the writer's memorial in Baltimore; and ValĂ©ry insisted that the American was "the only impeccable writer." Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym—a combination of nautical adventure story, racial allegory, and fictionalized speculations about the Antarctic, as well as his only novel—so impressed Jules Verne that he produced a sequel to it: The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.

In fact, Poe's admirers were legion. Many scholars speculate that Pym influenced Moby-Dick. Abraham Lincoln, it was once reported, "suffers no year to pass without a perusal of this author." Dostoyevsky himself introduced Russian translations of "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," and "The Devil in the Belfry"—and surely, his Underground Man is a cousin to Poe's soul-baring monomaniacs. To the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Poe was nothing less than "the supreme original short story writer of all time." The usually prickly Bernard Shaw agreed with Conan Doyle, adding, "The story of the Lady Ligeia is not merely one of the wonders of literature; it is unparalleled and unapproached. There is really nothing to be said about it: we others simply take off our hats and let Mr. Poe go first." Tennyson, Hardy, and Yeats regarded that same Mr. Poe as the finest of American poets.

By the same token, H. P. Lovecraft deemed Poe the premier exponent of the modern weird tale, the first writer to understand perfectly "the very mechanics and physiology of fear and strangeness." Reconfiguring the trappings of the Gothic romance—the crumbling Bavarian castle, the insidious villain, the frightened heroine—Poe asserted that "terror is not of Germany but of the soul." In their turn, his five "tales of ratiocination"—the three investigations featuring Dupin but also, to some extent, the cryptographic treasure story "The Gold Bug" and the ballistics-oriented "Thou Art the Man"—established virtually all the elements of the classic detective story.

As Howard Haycraft observed in Murder for Pleasure, Poe more or less invented "the transcendent and eccentric detective; the admiring and slightly stupid foil; the well-intentioned blundering and unimaginativeness of the official guardians of the law; the locked-room convention; the pointing finger of unjust suspicion; the solution by surprise"—and much else. In effect, he turned reasoning into a source of narrative excitement.

If, in the weird tale and the detective story, Poe is both pioneering and exemplary, he is only slightly less so in science fiction. His sense of wonder led him to extrapolate (some would say fool the public) with "The Balloon-Hoax," a proto-Verne voyage extraordinaire about the supposed crossing of the Atlantic, and "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," a significant contribution to the long literature of journeys to the moon. In "The Man That Was Used Up," Poe describes a steampunk version of a cyborg, half-human, half-machine, while "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" focuses on a corpse preserved and kept sentient through the power of mesmerism. Even the innocuous-sounding "Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" relates Earth's collision with a comet, leading to fiery global apocalypse: "For a moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and penetrating all things. Then . . . the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame. .  .  . Thus ended all."

Though "The Raven" did make him famous—the poem was quickly reprinted in 11 different periodicals—Poe was best known in his lifetime as a literary journalist. He began his career by submitting "Metzengerstein"—a gothicky revenge tale, featuring a spectral horse—for a prize awarded by the Saturday Courier of Philadelphia.

Edmund Wilson contended that Poe's was "the most remarkable body of criticism ever produced in the United States." Wilson added that, with his knowledge of Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, and German, and possibly a smattering of Hebrew, Poe stood intellectually "on higher ground than any other American writer of his time."

No comments: