An American essayist, editor, literary critic, and short story writer, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) is best known for his dark poems, such as “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” among many others.
Kevin J. Hayes is a historian and author of several books about American literary figures. He is also the winner of the 2018 George Washington Prize, one of the nation’s most prestigious literary awards, which he won for his book, George Washington: A Life in Books.
Simply Charly: Despite more than a century of biographical research that suggests Poe was not a deranged and dissolute madman, that image remains firmly established in the popular consciousness. Why?
Kevin J. Hayes: A few years ago, a student in my Poe seminar was kind enough to read my brief critical biography, Edgar Allan Poe. After finishing it, she told me what she liked most about the book: my characterization of Poe as “the bad boy of American literature.” Poe’s image as a maverick, a renegade, an outlier if not an outlaw, a writer who wrote what he wished to write regardless of what anyone else thought, was appealing in the 19th century to French poet and Poe’s translator Charles Baudelaire, and remains appealing today. Every form of art needs a bad boy, or a bad girl, to challenge the critical standards. The best writers, in retrospect, are those who dare to challenge the aesthetics of their times, to take new approaches in form and content that have never been taken before.
SC: Poe was perhaps known in his time more widely as a critic than a writer of tales and poems. What is Poe’s legacy as a critic?
KH: With the possible exception of Henry James, Poe is the finest critic in the history of 19th-century American literature. Poe’s criticism marked a new departure for his day, when the literary world was largely a good ol’ boy network. One writer would give another writer a book to review with the expectation that he or she, but almost always he, would write a glowing review. Underlying the review would be a tacit agreement that the first writer would reciprocate and write an adulatory review of the second’s next work. Poe largely refused to participate in this tit-for-tat process. Upon receiving a book to review, he would apply his rigorous critical standards. As a result, he created many enemies among his fellow writers. Unlike the all-too-ephemeral reviews written by his contemporaries, Poe’s book reviews are lasting contributions to the history of literary criticism. Indeed, his criticism has significantly influenced later schools of thought. The New Criticism of the mid-20th century, for example, follows Poe’s emphasis on the structural elements of a literary work.
SC: For much of his adult life, Poe’s ambition was to start his own magazine. Despite his high profile as a reviewer and critic, why was he never able to found his own publication?
KH: As Dirty Harry says in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” This reference is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Clint Eastwood is a great Poe enthusiast, who made “Annabel Lee” an integral element of the first feature film he directed, Play Misty for Me. Unlike Eastwood’s character Harry Callahan, Poe never came to understand his limitations. For writers, this lack of understanding can be positive: it lets them experiment and try new ways of writing. For an editor and publisher, it can be disastrous. Poe’s criticism in the Southern Literary Messenger let him establish his reputation as a magazinist. His short fiction furthered that reputation. In fact, Poe developed the aesthetics of the short story to suit the burgeoning magazine press. But great writers do not great businessmen make. The most ambitious career goal Poe set for himself was to edit and publish a highfalutin literary magazine. Given his contentiousness, his enemy-making predilection, not to mention his total lack of business acumen, Poe’s planned magazine was doomed to failure.
SC: You write that “Poe coined many words. Understanding that neologisms could revitalize the language and develop its expressive powers, he never hesitated to invent words whenever necessary.” How did Poe develop such a facility with language?
KH: Though English essayist and critic Walter Pater coined the phrase “art for art’s sake,” Poe adumbrated Pater’s saying when he spoke of a “poem written solely for the poem’s sake.” With this idea, Poe challenged a concept that had held firm since classical times—namely, that literature must both delight and instruct. Stripping away poetry’s moral and didactic functions, Poe let himself concentrate solely on the beauty of a poem. What is even more extraordinary is that he applied this aesthetic to his fiction as well as his verse. Looking at a work of literature solely as a work of art, instead of a didactic exercise, Poe concentrated on the words themselves as elements in his composition. When writing a poem, Coleridge said that every word counts. Poe went Coleridge one better: he said that not only does every word count, but the position of every word matters too. Poe not only sought the right word for the right moment, but he also considered how each word fit with those that surrounded it.
SC: In contemporary culture, the idea of a man marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, would rightly cause outrage among readers and the public in general. How should we feel about his marriage to Virginia?
KH: The first time I taught my Poe seminar, I tried to mitigate Virginia’s youth by telling my students that when Poe married her, she was “almost fourteen.” I didn’t fool anyone. “Almost fourteen” may be older than Chuck Berry’s “minute over thirteen,” but it is still thirteen. Marrying a teenaged cousin was less unusual in the 1830s than it is now, but it was still not common. Here’s one possible explanation to make their marriage more acceptable: Poe really loved her. Herman Melville had the fortune to marry the daughter of the Chief Justice of Massachusetts, who continually bailed his son-in-law out of financial trouble. Poe married a girl as poor as he was. He gained nothing, financially speaking, from the marriage. Poe’s chivalric tendencies may have also motivated their marriage. Foreseeing a brilliant and lucrative literary career for himself, he married his impoverished cousin with the hope of giving her the great life she deserved.
SC: You note that “Poe has exerted an influence on the cinema, providing subjects for filmmakers, but also influencing the development of cinematic theory and technique.” What is it in his works, specifically, that filmmakers responded to, or were inspired by?
KH: Poe has a strange relationship to motion pictures. His life and works have been adapted for the cinema dozens of times, but the results have almost always been cheap and cheesy. There have been a few good adaptations. One thinks of Louis Malle’s short film, William Wilson, with Alain Delon in the double title role, or Taby Dammit, Federico Fellini’s challenging adaptation of “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” Despite the adaptations, Poe has inspired some of the greatest directors in film history. Filmmakers have found his aesthetics appealing. Poe said that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical subject possible. In Vivre sa vie, Jean-Luc Godard has an actor read “The Oval Portrait” to his wife and star, Anna Karina, shortly before her character dies. Though the actor appears reading the text, Godard dubbed the voice himself, essentially recreating afresh Poe’s story about a man who paints his beautiful wife’s picture only to have her perish in the end. Poe’s imagery has appealed to other filmmakers. The closing scene of “Metzengerstein,” for instance, resembles a daringly edited film sequence, switching as it does from a close-up to a long-distance shot to an extreme close-up. Filmmakers have also found Poe’s themes appealing—from his dark-and-scary Gothicism to his nascent modernism. “The Man that Was Used Up,” a story about a military officer consumed by the government and rebuilt with modern technology, looks forward to Robocop.
SC: Several cities have claimed Poe as their own: Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond. Which city has the strongest claim on Poe’s legacy?
KH: By pure chance, Poe was born in Boston. His parents were part of an acting troupe that was there when his mother, who kept acting throughout her pregnancy, gave birth. Poe associated Boston—Frogpondium, he called it—with the staid and stodgy literary establishment, so he always hated his birthplace. His father subsequently abandoned the family, and his mother died when her acting troupe was in Richmond. Poe was then raised by a prominent Richmond couple, John and Frances Allan. Fighting continually with Allan, Poe ran away to Baltimore to live with his Aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter (and his future wife) Virginia, but he left Baltimore as soon as he received an offer of employment from the Southern Literary Messenger, which brought him back to Richmond. Philadelphia and New York were the two largest publishing centers in Poe’s America, so his profession as a magazinist brought him first to Philadelphia and then to New York, where he lived until Virginia died, after which he went back to Richmond, where he hoped to found his ideal magazine. Richmond, more than any other city, deserves recognition as Poe’s true home.
SC: Ralph Waldo Emerson once derisively referred to Poe as “the jingle man.” What was the attitude of the literary community towards Poe’s poetry during his life—and has that reputation changed?
KH: Emerson was in his dotage when he called Poe “the jingle man.” His epithet refers to “The Bells.” Poe was not known as “the jingle man” in his lifetime: “The Bells” appeared posthumously. Poe’s first three books were collections of poetry, but all were published obscurely in small press runs and contributed little to his career. Poe’s reputation as a poet all but disappeared during his days as a critic and short-story writer, but his publication of “The Raven” in 1845 re-established his reputation as a poet. “The Raven” was a sensational work that editors reprinted, people recited and wags parodied. The success of “The Raven” let him publish a new collection of his verse. After his death, Poe remained more respected as a poet in the United States and Great Britain, but in Europe, where Baudelaire translated much of Poe’s fiction into French, Poe became better known for his tales. In the long run, his short stories, more than his poems, are responsible for Poe’s enduring reputation.
SC: History has not been kind to Rufus Griswold, Poe’s literary executor. What motivated Griswold’s negative critique of Poe’s life and work?
KH: Griswold’s animosity toward Poe stems from Poe’s review of his literary history/anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America. Griswold gave Poe a review copy, expecting he would write a good review of it, but Poe savaged the book. In his subsequent critical writings, Poe never let up, critiquing Griswold for his conventional, even superficial literary judgments. Since they frequently crossed swords in their criticism, some have found it difficult to understand why Poe chose Griswold as his literary executor. To me, it does not seem too difficult to understand. Poe may have never said so, but he respected Griswold’s industry. Griswold got things done. Making him literary executor, Poe could be reasonably sure Griswold would edit and publish an edition of his collected works. And he did. Poe may not have anticipated Griswold’s ongoing animosity—but perhaps he did. During his career as a writer and editor, Poe discovered a crucial phenomenon about literary fame: controversy sells books.
SC: Which of Poe’s short stories do you think is his best? Which of his poems?
KH: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is Poe’s single most influential short story. In this, the first detective story in literary history, Poe established the basic conventions of nearly every detective story from Sherlock Holmes to Adrian Monk: the eccentric detective who works as a consultant for the police, the friend and sidekick, the slow-witted policeman who cannot solve the case on his own, and many more. Beyond its contribution to literary history, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a seminal work in the history of forensic science. It presents the earliest example of what would become known as criminal profiling. Furthermore, it inspired French criminologist Edmond Locard to devise the “Locard Exchange Principle,” which set forth the theory of trace evidence. “The Raven” is Poe’s best poem, but my personal favorite is “Ulalume.” Other readers may select other works as Poe’s best. Originality was his watchword: he sought to make his tales and poems as original as possible and, in so doing, created some of the best-loved works in American literature.