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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Very interesting review, J.W.! I have to confess, I’ve only ever really known the caricature of Poe. This is fascinating to read, particularly the possibility that he eventually came to faith.
My favorite Poe work has always been “The Casque of Amontillado.” I don’t know why – it isn’t especially uplifting or anything! Maybe because I was the only kid in my 11th grade English class who thought it possible an author might write a viewpoint character without thereby automatically endorsing everything the viewpoint character does. My classmates had a low view of authorship and literature in general… Oh, that Montresor!
A great recommendation for reading, especially as we draw close to the spooky season again. 🙂 Thanks!
It’s great to see that there is more to Poe than meets the eye, isn’t it?
Wonderful post J. W.
Having lived in Richmond, VA, I kept hearing more and more about Poe, and it all ran counter to the popular myths. He was an astonishing literary talent, and a genius in so many ways. It’s so good to see this book, and your review was well done. Thank you.
BTW, I very much enjoy your blog. Always worth reading.
–Wm.Francis Brown MD
Thanks for your very kind words! Poe is an astonishingly complex figure and, like many others, deserves a deeper than surface-level look. It would be awesome to hear about him where you live. I never recall having anything he wrote assigned. I just read things by him in my free time on occasion.
I agree. “Evermore” is definitely the best book about Poe to come out in recent years.
Thanks for this. I, too, am a lifelong Poe fan (“The Raven” remains one of few poems I can still recite from memory), and I’ve long wanted to see an erudite discussion of “Eureka” that takes it seriously. Incidentally, have you read any of the author’s other works?
Thanks for the comment! I definitely think you’d enjoy the discussion of Eureka that Harry Lee Poe presents in the work. He is very insightful and a determined interpreter. I have started reading it recently. As far as works of Poe I have read, I honestly don’t remember which all I have read, but I know I read “The Raven” and several of his horror stories. I recall enjoying everything I wrote. Fortunately, it is easy to find his works free on kindle, so I downloaded several.
Actually I was asking if you’d read any of Harry Lee Poe’s other stuff; some of it looks interesting. Sorry that wasn’t clear.
Ah, my apologies! I have the book “God and the Cosmos” which I hope to read soon… once schoolwork slows down.
I’m currently reading “The Inklings” by Humphrey Carpenter, and I just noticed that Harry Lee Poe has also written a book on this subject: “The Inklings of Oxford: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Their Friends”…………
It’s all rather coincidental.
I will definitely be reading more by Harry Poe.
This is very well written. I love how you bring out the good side of EAP. He was a great poet and short story writer. Do you think he was this strange twisted person because of the childhood he had? Or do you think he just made bad decisions?
Thanks for the comment. I would personally dispute the notion that Poe was a “strange twisted person” for the reasons I briefly touched on in this post. Specifically, it seems that the portrayal of Poe as strange and twisted is a fiction largely invented by a man who disliked Poe. The book delves into the history a bit more and explores why Poe was attacked in the way he was by his critics. So in answer to your questions, I would say that I am not convinced that Poe really was all that strange and twisted. I think that is how he is viewed by most people, but when one investigates his life and the distortions made by his early biographers, it seems to me to become clear that he experienced both good and evil throughout his life, as do we all.
I thought this was very interesting, i never thought of Poe as an orthodox believer or even that he wrote things other than horror. I’m not too terribly big on reading but this appears to be definitely worth the read. I notice how this does not deny that Poe was an alcoholic or drug abuser, just much less of one he was perceived as. I can understand why people buy into this image of him, his works are creepy and his childhood was rough. Though this review has really made me think and I’d like to thank you personally for opening my eyes to this subject.
Thanks for stopping by. I read the book some time ago now but I’m fairly sure that it never addresses the issue of drug abuse. As far as alcohol goes, it seems Poe was trying to work against it. It is very easy to buy into the popular image of Poe, particularly due to the emphasis on his horror works. Thanks for your comment.
We banish him because the work we know reflects the madness within, whether it came from a troubled childhood, bad family relationships, etc. Although, this new perspective does show the humanity, I will still hold him in my thoughts as the mad genius behind darker writings such as “Masque of the Red Death”, or “The Casque of Amontillado”. You know the saying, ‘Stereotypes exist for a reason’. We see Edgar Allen Poe as dark because, well, he was dark.
Thanks for the comment! Do you think the saying “Stereotypes exist for a reason” is itself accurate, or could it be an excuse to perpetuate stereotyping?
It is my personal belief that they are only true to a certain extent. Using this logic to justify personal convictions has been known to be used by a variety of people from deep south racists, to Catholics. It’s inaccurate to point at people and say “They are stupid”, because we don’t know anything about that person. But at the same time, Poe’s inner demons are reflected in his writings and readers can generally get a sense of what emotions Poe was feeling at the time. If an author were to write a poem with deep insight into depression, one could assume that the author has a personal relationship with depression. Likewise, Poe wrote about what he knew best and that’s where this image of darkness comes from.
I think this post is incredible. I personally am a big fan of EAP and I have never really thought about him writing things other than horror. The fact that he wrote humor amazes me. You’re a very good writer, and I do like how you used his cousin as a reference to explain more about him rather than other sources. Since you seem to be a pretty big fan of him yourself, if you could go back in time, would you like to meet him and hear things from him personal life? If so, would you have any questions for him?
Thanks for the compliments. I would absolutely love to talk to Edgar Allan Poe if I could go back in time. I would think he’d be an incredible conversationalist, and the fact that he was so diverse in his writings would, I think, lead to all kinds of conversations on different topics. I’d love to talk to him about how he came up with the works of his that essentially invented science fiction. His work, “Eureka” is particularly interesting and anticipated later scientific discoveries as well.
What kind of questions might you ask?
That was very interesting. I haven’t read very many of EAP’s books but after what you just said I might have to give it a try. How much of an influence do you think HLP had on EAP and also vice versa? What is your favorite book by EAP or what would you recommend to a high school student? Thanks!
Harry Lee Poe was born about 100 years after Edgar Allan Poe died, so he couldn’t have influenced the latter, but it is clear that HLP has been heavily influenced by EAP (love the shorthand). HLP is the president of the Poe Foundation, a group that is dedicated to the study of ELP’s life and writings, and has written more than one book related to EAP’s work. He is an indirect descendant of EAP (EAP had no children), and I’m sure that has influenced his life in many ways, as well.
My favorite book by EAP? That’s really hard to pick, and it’s been a while since I’ve read his stories. I suppose that I lean towards his mysteries the most, but none are really book-length on their own. I would recommend diving into some of his poetry first (“The Raven” is an obvious choice) and following that up with a smattering of his science fiction and mysteries to round out the picture of Poe.
How do you feel on the accusations about Poe? There are other articles stating he had gambling problems, refused to pay his debt, he broke off an engagement, and he rebelled in college and was expelled for disobedience. How do you feel about the not so great side of Poe? I mean you have to admit has was a little bit crazy. How would you defined you case that he is still great for his writing when he treated other people the way he did?
But I did enjoy the essay, you have fabulous passion.
Thanks for the interesting question. It’s clear that Poe had some problems in his life, and whether that was due to some undiagnosed mental illness (as I suspect) or some other difficulty is unclear. It is easy to write off something like a gambling problem as a vice (and it is), but we also tend to downplay the problems of addiction and mental illness that go along with such things. Edgar Allan Poe was not a perfect human being, but none of us are. His life was one of a journey that, I think, ultimately led him to faithful belief, even in the midst of despair.
If you had not read this book would you still think that Edgar Allen Poe is dark and twisted? There are other sources that do show his exactly as dark and twisted. Also what was the main factor that made you consider that EAP was a different man?
I think that with any figure in history we need to look at contemporary opinions with a strong dose of skepticism. Our vision of Poe was largely colored by some of his enemies during his life who denigrated him afterwards. Another historical example would be two prominent Union Civil War Generals, Grant and Sherman, each of whom were portrayed as drunkards by many of their political enemies, yet when one examines their life more closely, one finds that this was likely untrue. So would I have thought differently about Poe specifically? I don’t think so, but that is the value of having such a historical inquiry–to unearth perceived bias as well as blatant falsifications about someone’s character.
In a way this is shocking to me, that yes he did write a lot more humor and comedy than he did horror, but its also quite interesting on how popular he got for horror by only a few peoples perspectives on a guy, and the changing of some words in his poems, in a way is unbelieveable how someone could change something so popular and publish it without maybe feeling guilt. In a way does this shock you? like what is your opinion on that whole situation going on with that.
I guess I’m not too surprised by this because of the timeline in which it happened. There are any number of stories in which people in the past changed others’ words or even works to suit their own ends. Similarly, international copyright didn’t exist. Jane Austen, author of such great works as “Pride and Prejudice,” did not see much if any money for her works being published in the United States because publishing houses shamelessly stole the work and printed it without paying her for it. We should be careful in our own time as we find that it is easy to jump at the first impression of someone or something, only to have that be completely mistaken later.
I can see what you are saying, we just need to watch what we think, and actually experience something, instead of saying something that could turn out to be completely wrong, which in instance kind of happened with this. !
EAP has really been intriguing for some time. I first read a Tell Tale Heart in 8th grade and from there his work has always stood out to me. I love how in this article you just throw everything that I once thought about EAP out the window and you show me the real Poe. I had thought of EAP as a poet who wrote dark and very detailed horror poems and stories and I never would’ve thought once that he had written other genres. It really interested me when you stated that he wrote some of the first Sci-Fi because I love the Sci-Fi genre and I will have to search for some work by EAP because they really interests me.