Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mad Aspiration

Though both Boston (where he was born) and Virginia (where he spent a good portion of his life) probably have a greater claim to him, as a Baltimorean, I've always had an attachment to Edgar Allan Poe, who was born on this day 203 years ago. Poe's last days were in my home town and he's interred there at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, which is now owned by and part of the University of Maryland School of Law. For sixty years, Poe's grave was visited by a mysterious individual known as locally as the "Poe Toaster," who placed three roses and a partially consumed bottle of French cognac on his grave every January 19th. This tradition is one I remember well from my own childhood, though it appears to have ended in 2009, as the Toaster has not appeared since then, including this year.

Poe is not listed in Gary Gygax's Appendix N as an influence on AD&D, which is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, Poe had a profound influence on H.P. Lovecraft, whose works Gygax does cite as among the most influential on the game. In this way, Poe might be deemed a "great-grandfather" of our beloved fantasy game. Lovecraft adored Poe and wrote highly of him in his 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:
It is our good fortune as Americans to be able to claim that dawn as our own, for it came in the person of our most illustrious and unfortunate fellow-countryman Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's fame has been subject to curious undulations, and it is now a fashion amongst the "advanced intelligentsia" to minimize his importance both as an artist and as an influence; but it would be hard for any mature and reflective critic to deny the tremendous value of his work and the persuasive potency of his mind as an opener of artistic vistas. True, his type of outlook may have been anticipated; but it was he who first realized its possibilities and gave it supreme form and systematic expression. True also, that subsequent writers may have produced greater single tales than his; but again we must comprehend that it was only he who taught them by example and precept the art which they, having the way cleared for them and given an explicit guide, were perhaps able to carry to greater lengths. Whatever his limitations, Poe did that which no one else ever did or could have done; and to him we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state.  
High praise indeed, especially from a man who himself has probably contributed more to modern conceptions of horror than almost anyone else. HPL goes on to explain why Poe is so important:
Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or legs of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority's artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove -- good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion. He saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as a subject matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings and frequent happenings which attend pain rather than pleasure, decay rather than growth, terror rather than tranquility, and which are fundamentally either adverse or indifferent to the tastes and traditional outward sentiments of mankind, and to the health, sanity, and normal expansive welfare of the species.  
Lovecraft was particularly awed by "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe's 1839 masterpiece, which is famous for both its descriptive details and its psychological complexity. It is the story of an unnamed narrator's time with Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline, who inhabit a decaying and crumbling mansion which Roderick believes to be "alive." Lovecraft was quite taken with this tale (as were many others):
These bizarre conceptions, so awkward in unskillful hands, become under Poe's spell living and convincing terrors to haunt our nights; and all because the author understood so perfectly the very mechanics and physiology of fear and strangeness -- the essential details to emphasise, the precise incongruities and conceits to select as preliminaries or concomitants to horror, the exact incidents and allusions to throw out innocently in advance as symbols or prefigurings of each major step toward the hideous dénouement to come, the nice adjustments of cumulative force and the unerring accuracy in linkage of parts which make for faultless unity throughout and thunderous effectiveness at the climactic moment, the delicate nuances of scenic and landscape value to select in establishing and sustaining the desired mood and vitalising the desired illusion -- principles of this kind, and dozens of obscurer ones too elusive to be described or even fully comprehended by any ordinary commentator. Melodrama and unsophistication there may be -- we are told of one fastidious Frenchman who could not bear to read Poe except in Baudelaire's urbane and Gallically modulated translation -- but all traces of such things are wholly overshadowed by a potent and inborn sense of the spectral, the morbid, and the horrible which gushed forth from every cell of the artist's creative mentality and stamped his macabre work with the ineffaceable mark of supreme genius. Poe's weird tales are alive in a manner that few others can ever hope to be.  
This is no mere fanboy-ish gushing on Lovecraft's part; Poe's best stories -- of which Usher is a fine example -- do indeed possess this quality of being "alive" and that is a huge part of his continued appeal. Of course, another element of Poe's power is how much of himself can be found in his works. In the words of Lovecraft, Poe "certainly possessed much of the depression, sensitiveness, mad aspiration, loneliness, and extravagant freakishness which he attributes to his haughty and solitary victims of Fate." I think, at one time or another, most of us possess (or imagine ourselves to possess) at least some of these attributes, which is likely another key to understanding why Poe has proven so inspirational to so many for so long.

So, while the tradition of the Poe Toaster may have ended, I'm inaugurating a new one here: to commemorate Edgar Allan Poe's birthday each year on this blog. I doubt I'll still be doing this when I'm 102, or even when I'm 52, but he's an author worth remembering and I intend to do my part.


  1. Nicely put! I was lucky enough to teach a handful of Poe stories last week as part of an online course I'm directing; those stories still have the magic no matter how many times you read them.

  2. And let us not forget his advancement of the mystery genre. The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) is considered to be the first detective novel, and the annual Edgar Awards honors the best in mystery fiction. Poe, an all time great, proves a great writer can write regardless of genre.

  3. My grandfather introduced me to Poe at a young age. My grandfather sat on Poe's cot once, and I touched his chair at the museum in Richmond. I also visited the supposed site of his mother's grave. Poe is the reason I became interested in the written word at all, especially poetry. He remains one of my favorite literary figures, authors, and poets.

  4. I run a Timemaster blog (as well as the Mutant Future one), and I used today to stat him up. Imagine Time Corps agents sent to West Point in 1830 who stumble upon the sullen cadet who aspires to be a writer...

  5. I'm lucky to work at the University of Virginia in Alderman Library, where we have a large bronze bust of Poe in the main hall, as well as being right across the street from the room he used while he was a student here. As a result of his connection to the university, we have a large number of Poe artifacts, manuscripts, and books in the libraries special collections.

    In middle & high school Poe was my favorite author, and he still has a big influence on my reading tastes today. Walking past that bust every day, and occasionally seeing some of the other Poe items that we have, always gives me a thrill.

  6. One of the big differences between Poe and Lovecraft, from what I've read, is that Poe's stories tend to have an unreliable narrator, whereas in Lovecraft stories the world really is 'insane'.