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Edgar Allan Poe: America's misunderstood genius

It was election time and he was found near a polling booth, dressed in clothes that were not his own. There have been various theories as to what had happened. It has been suggested that Poe was drugged by hoods and used as a repeat voter. This illegal political practice, known as “cooping”, was not uncommon at the time. It is possible that he had sustained a brain aneurysm, or an epileptic seizure induced by alcohol or even rabies. The latter theory, which made national headlines in 1996, was widely dismissed by one of the world's most prominent Poe scholars, Professor Burton Pollin, who died on June 30, 2009.

After undergoing several days of delirious episodes Edgar Allan Poe died in the hospital on October 7. It is said that his final words were “God help my poor soul!”

Thank Heaven! The crisis -

The danger is past,

And the lingering illness

Is over at last -

And the fever called “Living”

Is conquered at last.

— "For Annie"

Confusion in America — Fame throughout Europe

The major paradox of Edgar Allan Poe is that the acclaim which he so desperately sought, would not originate in his native America, but rather in Europe, which catapulted him to greatness. The French poet, Charles Baudelaire, felt such a strong kinship with Poe that he viewed him as his literary model and devoted much of his later life to translating his writings. As a result, Poe’s impact upon French literature became immediate. He became a major influence upon Mallarme, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and others of the Symbolist School. In the latter part of the 19th Century, Poe’s influence had spread throughout Europe. Three of Germany’s greatest writers, Nietzsche, Rilke and Kafka were captivated by Poe’s tumultuous life and his explorations into irrational worlds of imagination. In Russia, Poe’s presence impacted greatly on Dostoyevsky. Many of Poe’s characters and themes are found in his great works of fiction. Poe’s influence is evident in the works of many English, Irish and Scottish writers, including Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce and Conan Doyle. In Italy, Poe’s ideas can be found in the plays and novels of D’Annunzio.

The artistic and musical world could not escape the clutches of Edgar Allan Poe. The illustrators who placed Poe’s poems and tales on canvas included Manet, Dore, Redon, Beardsley, Dulac, and Matisse. Poe’s works were set to music by Rachmaninoff and DeBussy. aloneDulac102811_opt

During much of this same period, the appreciation for Poe’s literary talents were astonishingly lacking in America. Many of its early prolific writers have widely disagreed about his talents. He was viewed as being everything from mediocre, to having mere flashes of brilliance, to being a competent hack. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to him as “The Jingle Man”, James Russell Lowell stated that Poe was “three fifths genius and two fifths sheer fudge,” and T.S. Elliot remarked that Poe’s intellect was that of “a highly gifted young person before puberty.”

The tide began to turn in Poe’s favor in America during the early part of the 20th Century, as an incredible amount of scholarship was devoted to re-examining his status as a writer, poet and critic. The breakthrough year occurred in 1941 with the publication of Arthur Hobson Quinn’s richly detailed biography, which in many respects remains today as the definitive work on Poe. Although his ranking in America is still subject to a certain amount of debate, it cannot be disputed that Edgar Allan Poe became the most well known and first widely read American writer to have significantly influenced literary Europe.

No matter what is written about Poe in years to come, it is doubtful that his image as the mysterious, brooding loner, a misunderstood genius, lurking in the shadows of our souls, will ever escape him. The testimony of the poet, Walt Whitman captures the image of Poe that will remain with us forever: “In a dream I once had, I saw a vessel on the sea, at midnight in a storm... On the deck was a slender, slight, beautiful figure, a dim man, apparently enjoying the terror, the murk and the dislocation of which he was the center and the victim. That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes and his poems-themselves all lurid dreams.”

Happy Halloween!

John Esposito is a freelance writer from New Providence, N.J. and regular contributor to NewJerseyNewsroom.com. He is a self-described "student of Poe" since grade school and has written about his life and works for literary magazines and major newspapers.



 
Comments (2)
2 Monday, 31 October 2011 05:37
Bob Sheairs
Very well written article. Even Poe the critic would have a problem finding fault.

For more #poelove, check out www.poehead.com

Happy Halloween!
1 Sunday, 30 October 2011 18:44
Dan Currie
Bravo and thank you, Mr. Esposito!

(Please check out the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston
at www.poeboston.org and www.facebook.com/poeboston.)

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