You’ve edited and written books about Edgar Allan Poe. Please introduce him to readers who may not be familiar with him and make the case that Poe deserves a central place in the pantheon of nineteenth century American writers.
I’d start with the fact that he’s unquestionably the most influential American writer ever, bar none. He invented detective fiction and most of its subgenres – the locked-room mystery, the ratiocinative detective story (think Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes), as well as true crime. He was one of the first writers of speculative and science fiction. He deeply influenced horror fiction, not only directly, but through his effect on writers like H.P. Lovecraft and directors like Alfred Hitchcock. He was a pioneer of the literary hoax. In short, you can’t turn on television or pass an airport bookstore without encountering Poe’s work everywhere.
What’s also important is the fact that Poe lived by his literary work as a writer and editor, at a time when doing so was almost impossible. He had to craft a living out of nothing but his wits and industry. He was absolutely an aesthete—he more or less coined the phrase “art for art’s sake”—but he was also deeply attuned to the market. He had to be. His aestheticism and his commercial intelligence came together in his belief that the proper work of fiction isn’t to construct a well-made realist world, but to create an intense effect in readers – to do something to them. Sensation was his primary goal, and if it meant writing about lurid subjects—murderous orangutans, bodies walled up alive, spiritual possession—he was fine with that, though it set the teeth of many American critics on edge. Abroad it was a different story – Poe has always been enormously popular, and he deeply influenced writers as different as Arthur Conan Doyle, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Baudelaire. There are probably 40 books just on Poe’s influence on different national literatures, but at home, in America, he was often seen as something of an embarrassment. But his interest in effect is one of the things that makes Poe so modern.
Poe was a cryptic writer and also a cryptologist. Can you please brief us on this aspect of his legacy, which you explored in your book, The Cryptographic Imagination?
Poe invented detective fiction in 1841, with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Since then, detective stories have colonized the world. They became popular partly because they provided a way for readers to negotiate the dangers and pleasures of cities, which, beginning in the early 19th century, became larger, denser, and filled with immigrants – in short, they became socially illegible to a much greater degree.
“Poe often pitches his stories between terror and absurdity”
And detective fiction, in ways that I show in the book, depends on Poe’s study of cryptography. Poe became a celebrated amateur cryptographer and through his writings figured out that language doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning. Language was just a system, an elaborate code. There’s nothing doglike about the words for “dog”: chien, hund, perro. We’ve recognized that for the last century, but that insight was very unusual in Poe’s day. One could say that Poe used cryptography to invent detective fiction, which takes place in a world in which everything is a sign, and in which power comes not from physical strength but from the ability to decode those signs – to become what Poe called “the king of secret readers.” Versions of this fantasy also structure spy novels, adventure stories like Treasure Island, and, more recently, stories that turn on computer codes or genetic algorithms (William Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy, Richard Powers’s The Goldbug Variations).
Turning to the books, you first recommendation is Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays. Why is the Library of America collection the right place to start?
It’s a beautifully made book—well-bound with lovely paper. The editorial choices are smart. And in one volume you get most of what Poe wrote: all the poetry, all the stories, his sole novel (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) and much of his criticism and essays. Which is great, because readers can dip in wherever they like, and watch as Poe takes an idea and works it through different genres, shifting from, say, gothic romance to satire to speculative fiction. The book captures the restlessness of his invention.
Please describe a few of your favorites from this collection.
Maybe the key thing Poe offers is how much pleasure there can be in the deep absorption produced by reading a sonically dense, image-rich story or poem – and how that pleasure can be doubled by a style that leads us up to the very edge of disbelief. It’s there in the first line spoken by the unreliable narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart”: “TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Well, maybe because you murdered an old man for no particular reason, hid his dismembered body under the floorboards, and now are so tortured by the sound of his still-beating heart that you’re about to confess to the police. Is this horror or humor? Poe often pitches his stories between terror and absurdity. The real interest is less the crime itself than the contest between how the arrogant, erudite narrator wants to present himself, and what readers can see despite his best efforts.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
“The Facts in the Case of Monsieur Valdemar” pretends to be a dry, factual report about a person who has been left in suspended animation, after having been hypnotized at the moment of death. It ends, though, like a B-horror movie. Once taken out of hypnosis, Monsieur Valdemar’s tongue begins shrieking “dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!” even as his body dissolves into a “nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity.” How should we take this? Poe’s asking us to consider our own reactions as readers. What are we hungry for?
Next, you’ve chosen a capsule collection from Soft Skull. Please tell me about The Detective Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: Three Tales Featuring C. Auguste Dupin
It contains three stories, and each of them represents what is possible to do in the genre.
The first is “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first detective story ever. It establishes the convention of the reclusive but brilliant detective along with his sidekick who narrates the story. It’s the first locked-room mystery. Two bodies are found stuffed into a chimney in a locked apartment in Paris and nobody can figure out how it happened. It sets up so many of the tropes that are now familiar from detective fiction. Although Dupin is physically unprepossessing, he decodes the crime scene like a mind reader.
“The Purloined Letter” concerns a missing piece of royal correspondence whose contents, if publicized, will be disastrous to the regime. So the detective sets out to find the letter. It’s the forerunner of postmodern detective fiction by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges or Paul Auster, where the mysteries are metaphysical puzzles about language and thought as much as they’re attempts to solve a crime.
“Sensation was his primary goal”
The third story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” is the first murder mystery to be based on a real case – the story of Mary Rogers, a Broadway salesgirl whose strangled body washed up along the Hudson. Poe transposes the story to Paris, but Poe quotes at great length from actual newspaper articles, assuming that he’s smart enough to figure out what actually happened. In fact, he gets it wrong – Rogers died of a botched abortion, not of murder – but the disturbing pattern of the hyperrational male obsessively inspecting a dead female body sets the pattern still followed by shows like CSI today.
Sirs Arthur Conan Doyle and Alfred Hitchcock are both blurbed on the back of this book. You sketched Poe’s imprint on detective stories. Say a few more words about his impact on film?
There have been well over a hundred film adaptations of Poe’s stories, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s, when Roger Corman made a series of movies starring Vincent Price. But Poe’s real influence has less to do with his plots than with his emphasis on creating intense sensations in his audience. In that sense, Hitchcock’s most Poe-like work is Psycho: it’s a completely lurid story, shot on a tiny budget with Hitchcock’s television crew. And it was, dollar for dollar, the most commercially successful film of Hitch’s career. Poe’s mix of sensational subject matter with carefully controlled narration isn’t at all far from the game that Hitchcock played for most of his career.
Turning to nonfiction, you recommend Arthur Hobson Quinn’s Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Please tell me about it.
It’s an older biography, but it’s the best. Most recent biographies overemphasize the gothic elements in Poe’s life, making him out to be a version of his obsessive characters. That’s an injustice. Poe certainly could be melancholic, and he had a terrible problem with drinking. But he was also a very canny, extremely hardworking writer. There were very few American writers in Poe’s time who could support themselves through literature alone, partly because there were no international copyright agreements, and publishers could pirate Dickens, etc., for free. So Melville became a customs agent. Hawthorne became a diplomat. But Poe hustled and hustled, working as an editor, an exacting critic, and writer for his entire life. At a time when literary criticism was mostly puffery—praising writers who could help your career—Poe actually offered sophisticated insights into American writing. Quinn details Poe’s professional and personal life in a way that makes him real.
For a long time, Poe had bad luck in his biographers. His first biographer was his literary executor, Rufus Griswold. But Griswold hated Poe. He wrote a biography full of lies and exaggerations. For a long time, those lies served as the conventional wisdom about Poe. Quinn details the difference between what Griswold alleged and what the records show in very revealing ways.
If Poe wrote his own life of Poe, he surely would’ve focused on the lurid details of his own life. What were the sensational details that could be plucked out of the story of the hardworking writer’s life? What were the sensational aspects of his biography that made him subject to this misinterpretation?
Well, he married his cousin Virginia when she was 13. It wasn’t as aberrant then, but it was still unusual and remarked on. They seem to have been very happy together until she contracted tuberculosis – one of the reasons the disease is so common in his writing. For years, she would oscillate between near-death sickness and apparent health. That oscillation tortured Poe, who couldn’t help but imagine that she was recovering, even as he carried the lurking knowledge of the truth.
I’d also mention Poe’s strange relationship with alcohol. He wouldn’t drink for long periods, but when he did, it completely disrupted his life. He got in fights, lost friendships, was fired from jobs. And then the fit would pass, and he’d be left picking up the pieces.
Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe by poet Daniel Hoffman is your next choice.
Hoffman is a very talented poet and critic who brings the right spirit to his project by making his own relationship with Poe’s writing a part of his study. He’s full of sharp insights, but his voice is engaging and human. The poet James Russell Lowell has a great line about Poe: “Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.” Poe is an erratic writer: some of his writing is juvenile, or just plain whacked. That’s partly because Poe was often writing under economic pressure but, also, as Hoffman shows, because Poe was such an experimentalist. He was always exploring new ways to influence his readers.
Hoffman gets at the fact that Poe creates incredibly absorptive stories and poems. If you like them, you disappear into them, they become their own world. Poe stories aren’t aimed at illuminating the real world in a literal way, they create an alternative experience. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe is a lot of fun to read. It’s playful and experimental, providing an account of the ways that Poe shaped Hoffman’s sense of his own possibilities as a writer.
What should we know about Poe’s poetry?
Poe’s poetry is extremely musical. It’s full of complicated rhymes and intricate sound patterns. Since about 1900, American poetry has moved toward a more vernacular free verse that usually does away with rhyme. Poe explores the pleasure of repetition and pattern in extravagant ways. His poems are intricate ornaments for your ears, as well as for your mind.
“He had to craft a living out of nothing but his wits and industry”
Poe’s most famous poem is “The Raven,” which became such an enormous hit that he toured the US reading it at theaters. “The Raven” is about this bird that appears one stormy night in the room of a man who just lost his love. The raven comes in and says one word: “nevermore.” The narrator poses a series of questions for the raven, “Will I see my love again?” and “Will there be any hope for me in heaven?” Each question gets more dire, and the answer is always “nevermore.” That kind of self-vexing pleasure is at the core of many Poe poems and romantic tales. We turn to Poe’s poems about loss not just for comfort but to wiggle the tooth that aches us.
Finally, you recommend Pym: A Novel, by contemporary novelist Mat Johnson. This is a satirical fantasy story that made countless best of the year lists back in 2011.
Poe only wrote one novel—The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym—and even that breaks off suddenly, with no proper ending. Pym: A Novel is a comic satire that uses Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket to engage the blinding and destructive effects of whiteness in American culture.
Pym starts out as an adventure at sea, with shipwrecks and mutinies and cannibalism. Eventually, Pym arrives at an island called Tsalal, where the inhabitants are entirely black – even their teeth are black – and are terrified of whiteness. The black-skinned figures attack the crew, and Pym and his racially-mixed companion Dirk Peters hide out in enormous Hebrew hieroglyphs cut a hundred feet into the ground. Once they escape, they sail toward the South Pole. The water turns warm, and then hot; ash falls from the sky; and then, as a huge white figure emerges from the ocean mist, the novel ends. It’s a crazy book, but influential. Toni Morrison recommends it as a way to illuminate the structural heart of American racism.
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
Mat Johnson, a Black graphic novelist and critic, rewrites Poe’s story today. Now the main character is a Black professor of literature who pursues the story of Pym to Antarctica, where he finds a tribe of savage white creatures, a biosphere built by a character modeled on the painter Thomas Kincaid, and storerooms full of Little Debbie snack cakes. Johnson’s satire takes on many of the absurdities in American attitudes toward race, but it’s also an extremely smart reading of Arthur Gordon Pym, which Johnson quotes from and parodies at length. In Johnson’s hands, Poe’s racism becomes a resource for understanding how America’s caste system developed – in particular, how it relied on an unmarked invisibility around whiteness that locked in forms of domination and control. Johnson is also alive to the instability of Poe’s racism, as ambivalent figures like Peters turn out to be stronger, smarter and more poised than the ostensible hero. Opening up the perversity of racial ideologies is an essential part of destroying their social power, and Johnson’s satire does that in provocative, often hilarious ways.
You mentioned that Verne wrote a book inspired by Poe. H. G. Wells also acknowledged Poe as an influence. How does Poe continue to influence fantasy?
Elements of his plots, bits of his poetry, characters borrowed from his works continue to show up in weirdly diverse places – Lovecraft Country is an interesting example, because it reworks Lovecraft, and by implication Poe, partly to wrestle with the racism of the original works. At other times, Poe becomes an icon for the kind of intensity the filmmakers or writers want to achieve – again, in works as different as Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Lost Boys, or Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, where the central character chooses to save and memorize Poe’s Tales of Mystery & Imagination rather than burn it.
So, the most macabre of writers is the one whose influence is most immortal?
Just so. In large part, that’s because we now live in a world where Poe’s aesthetics of intensity have carried the day. I’m still astonished to see the range of people who have a vital relation to Poe – often people you’d never suspect of reading 19th century literature. Unlike Hawthorne, say, Poe doesn’t rely on English professors for his continued success.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at email@example.com