Edgar Allan Poe. His name immediately calls to mind images: a black raven haunting one’s thought, the beating of a heart driving one mad, gruesome, macabre deaths. It also brings to mind thoughts on the man himself: twisted, slightly mad, alcoholic, broken.
Are these images of the man’s work and life accurate? Harry Lee Poe (a cousin of Poe’s) argues that they are not. Instead, this kind of imagery is a result of both the popularization and the character assassination of one of the great American literary giants.
Harry Lee Poe’s work, Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe is a fascinating journey into the mind, times, and works of Edgar Allan Poe.
The Myth of Edgar Allan Poe
It is interesting to note that from the time he died, Edgar Allan Poe’s person was the target of a character assassination which would give rise to the popular portrayal of him as a dark, haunted drunkard. Rufus Griswold, a man who portrayed himself as a minister despite having never been ordained, published a work which has remained in the popular consciousness through the present day. In it, he falsified information about Poe and heavily edited a number of letters from the author in order to portray him as the dark, fearsome man he is often imagined even today. Harry Lee Poe exposes this mythos by noting the work of Arthur Hobson Quinn, who in 1942 published the letters Poe wrote alongside the altered letters Griswold used to make the image he created.
Thankfully, Edgar Allan Poe’s (hereafter EAP) image has been recovering in scholarship, but the damage at a popular level continues to be seemingly ubiquitous. The image of Poe as a brooding man matches what people wish to see when they read his works of horror and thrills. However, Harry Lee Poe (hereafter HLP) notes that there is much more to EAP’s body of work than is often known.
The Broader Poe
EAP’s body of work had its share of horror and mystery, but it also featured humor and satire, science fiction, and beauty. Remarkably, EAP contributed to the formation and even creation of entire genres which are extremely popular today. His science fiction was, at the time, known as “hoaxes” because no actual genre existed in order to encompass them. He also wrote the first detective mystery works to be known in literature. He was innovative and unique in his contributions to literature. He truly stands easily among the literary giants of all time.
The distribution of his works is also worth noting. EAP intentionally wrote in a number of different ways about a number of different things. HLP documents his major tales, numbering each under headings of genre. The results are surprising: EAP wrote more humor and satire than he did horror. Yet he is largely known today only for the latter (24-27). It is worth looking at Poe’s entire body of work in order to understand the man.
Mystery and Reality
One of the central parts of Poe’s work involves the writing of mystery stories. As has been noted, EAP was the first to write in the specific genre of detective mystery stories. EAP’s use of the mystery story shows that he assumed the problem of evil as a very real difficulty. However, the concept of a detective mystery story, in which the reader, through the characters, seeks to solve the mystery and find the one who committed the crime. In short, there is a broader concept of justice involved in a mystery story. Unless there is justice in the universe, the problem of evil cannot present a difficulty for one’s worldview, for evil could just be a given.
EAP, who had written horror stories already, moved the blood and gore from the climax of the story (horror) to the beginning (mystery). The rest of the story would not be about the blood and gore, but about righting a wrong: “injustice cannot be allowed to continue… the sense of justice assumes the basica rationality and order of the universe so that Truth may be discovered. The reader wants to know the truth” (115).
Beauty and Love
The concept of beauty was central to EAP’s work. He used the concept to evoke a particular feeling related to the injustice of crime, but he also saw beauty as a way to point beyond the mundane. “Beauty constituted to Poe evidence that human experience is not bound by time but belongs to eternity” (83).
The different varieties of love are exemplified throughout Poe’s works. Affection, friendship, and passion are developed by HLP to explain EAP’s concepts of how these related to the world at large. Each of these concepts could be forces for the positive or for ill. Affection, friendship, and passion could each become corrupted, and each would lead to devastating results if one allowed this to happen (86ff). Love provided a difficulty for EAP, for he saw that it may tell us about something beyond the world: it may inform us about God. But if it could be perverted, does that suggest an outside source from which love sprang, which we corrupted (107-108).
Perhaps the most interesting portion of Evermore is the discussion of EAP’s own views as he expounded them in his work, Eureka. In this work, Poe examined the mystery of the universe. He held that the universe had a beginning and was actually expanding. He argued that light and electricity belonged “to the same continuum.” His view was close to the modern theory of the Big Bang. Yet EAP thought of this around a century before the latter came into vogue. Because the universe began, “Poe concluded that a God exists who created the universe for his pleasure. Love and Beauty provide a glimpse of God… Pain, suffering, evil, and death are the contingencies of physical existence that are left behind” (55). EAP saw the universe as a grand story, which was “the plot of God” (ibid).
The reasoning behind EAP’s amazingly prophetic vision of cosmology was found in his own observations. He noted the difficulties presented by the notion of an infinite universe, including the fact that the night sky had places where there were no stars to be seen (known as “Olber’s Paradox”).
In Eureka, EAP postulated a deity. It seemed intuitively obvious to him that if the universe began to exist, God must exist. Given that his own observational evidence led him to the conclusion that the universe began, he concluded that God exists. Moreover, he posited that this deity would have to design the universe and guide its expansion from a primordial particle (152). However, this deity was essentially pantheistic, which was his solution to the problem of evil. Each individual person would become Spirit individualized. God would become all-in-all, thus bringing holiness to all.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Beliefs?
HLP argues that EAP may indeed have become an orthodox believer late in life. Having already come to the conclusion that God exists and that the universe had a beginning (itself something EAP noted matched remarkably with the Biblical account), Poe would come forward at a Sons of Temperance meeting. HLP notes that such a move cannot be abstracted purely as coming out against alcoholism (something EAP struggled with himself). Instead, the group was explicitly evangelical in nature. Coming forward would be similar to someone today coming forward at a Billy Graham meeting (166). Those interested in Poe’s beliefs must therefore come to one of two conclusions: either he was “the charlatan and scoundrel that Griswold said he was” or “he had a conversion experience.” The Sons of Temperance taught explicitly evangelical Christianity, which would suggest that if EAP was genuine, he had come to accept a more evangelical, orthodox faith before he died.
Few works have intrigued me as much as Evermore has. Edgar Allan Poe has been a favorite of mine for some time, but I admit that I had bought into the stereotypical picture of the man as much as anyone else. Having only really read his horror and some poems, I have not had a complete vision of his actual body of work. Harry Lee Poe does an exemplary job of showing how EAP explicitly viewed his works as a growing body of interconnected themes, seeking to find the mysteries of the universe.
Edgar Allan Poe was a visionary. He was a great American author whose writings paved the way for hundreds of years to come. He was also well ahead of the science of his day, and similarly had already deduced the theological conclusions well before others had attempted to do so. Harry Lee Poe has presented a convincing, thorough look at EAP’s entire body of work. Having done so, he makes the man even more interesting than the myth. Edgar Allan Poe’s explorations of the mysteries of the universe leaves me profoundly interested in the man and his body of work. I highly recommend Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe to you.
Harry Lee Poe, Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2012).
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