Thursday, January 15, 2009

Poe gains respect in time for his 200th birthday

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe died too soon and under mysterious circumstances, a sad yet somehow fitting end for America’s master of the macabre.

He died Oct. 7, 1849, four days after being discovered delirious and “in great distress” on the streets of Baltimore. Poe never regained his senses, so he never said how he came to be wandering the streets alone. He was 40 years old, and his cause of death remains mostly speculation. Newspaper reports at the time attributed it, more or less, to alcoholism. Thus began the legend of Poe — the tortured, self-destructive, unfairly maligned and often misunderstood artist.

Poe himself, however, began 200 years ago Monday.

He was born Jan. 19, 1809, in Boston. His parents died when he was young, and John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Va., took him in. The couple never adopted him, but they did give him his middle name, and because of his time growing up in Virginia, Poe always thought of himself as a Southern gentleman. The Southern literary establishment reciprocated by claiming Poe as one of its own.

While some critics debate just how Southern Poe was, there seems little question that the bleak, gothic style of Poe’s poems and stories fits well with the Southern mindset after the Civil War. The crumbling castles and corrupt bloodlines of Poe are a non-regional counterpart to the wrecked plantations and ruined families of the South. Obvious comparisons between Poe and William

Faulkner are the stuff of which college and high school term papers are made.
But it was much later before the rest of America’s literary establishment — the critics and the college professors — would give Poe his due.

Poe did himself no favors. He disliked most of the powerful and influential literary figures of his day, except Nathaniel Hawthorne. He practically dared later critics to take sides against him.
Sure, the French have always loved Poe, but they also think Jerry Lewis is a comic genius. So, what do they know?

Stephen King counts Poe as an influence. So did H.P. Lovecraft, the early 20th century pulp writer who admired Poe above all other American writers.

King won a National Book Award in 2003, which dismayed self-appointed keepers of the American literary canon like Yale professor Harold Bloom. Meanwhile, the Library of America recently published a collection of Lovecraft’s stories, admitting Lovecraft into that canon that Bloom so loves to defend.

In the 1960s, director Roger Corman made a series of films loosely based on Poe’s stories and starring Vincent Price. Some critics now rank Corman and Price’s Poe adaptations — considered cheap, drive-in fare at the time — among the finest horror films ever produced.

Poe’s own reputation has undergone a similar rehabilitation, and perhaps it’s because his critics have finally caught up to him. They now have a healthy appreciation for a finely crafted weird tale filled with horror and despair.

But Poe has never needed the appreciation of the literary gatekeepers to capture his readers’ imaginations. And even some people who have never read his poems can quote the first lines of his most famous work, “The Raven.”

“Once upon a midnight dreary…”

So, on Monday, the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, a 60-year-old ritual will continue. A person concealed beneath a heavy coat and hat will visit Poe’s grave in Baltimore and leave three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac. It’s a ritual begun by one of Poe’s admirers and carried on still, supposedly as a family tradition.

Few people have ever tried to discover the mysterious mourner’s identity. Knowing would spoil the mystery, and mystery has been part of Poe’s legend since the day he was laid to rest.

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