In his latest (and excellent, I might add) online article, “Poe at 200,” Nick Mamatas turns his attention to the mercurial Edgar Allan Poe. Here’s a snip:
Despite his occasional runs at the big-time during his life, Poe was often his own best market. He launched the mystery genre with “Rue Morgue” while an editor at Graham’s Magazine; it’s easy enough to get published when you’re in the office a few days a week. When his work didn’t get the attention he thought it deserved, Poe would often review it himself, either using a pseudonym or leaving off a byline completely. These reviews were among the few positive ones Poe ever wrote — he was a legendary scrapper and hatchet man, and eager to punch above his weight class by taking on Longfellow. Today Poe would be a blogger with a handful of publications in saddle-stitched rags and the occasional Webzine. Amoral fiction is relegated to the underground these days. Poe’s genius simply happened to resonate with the historical moment in which he wrote, those decades when urbanism bred unparalleled crime and intimate violence (and an endless appetite for texts about the same); this is what saved him from obscurity.
In the opening salvo of my own fiction writing workshops, I always make sure to keep this context in mind. Poe has cast a long shadow over the American short story, and his “single effect” theory is something I routinely introduce to my own students as an interesting notion to consider, but one that is also deeply flawed because of Poe’s tyranny as an author. His famous review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales is undoubtedly a defining critical text for the American short story, but it’s also an incredibly self-serving and myopic piece of writing. That Poe denigrates the novel as “objectionable” because it cannot be read in one sitting is perhaps an interesting place to begin an earnest discussion, but as Mamatas reminds us, Poe was far from an earnest man. His only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, was published in 1838 and widely panned by critics and contemporaries; Poe himself would later refer to his one and only novel as his “silly little book” and apparently never made another attempt at long-form fiction.
Again, this context is important to keep in mind, but not because it reveals Poe as a hypocrite and offers up the proverbial feet of clay. Mamatas argues that Poe’s work is still worth reading and serious study *in spite of* its visage reflected in the funhouse mirror of grade school assignments that have us memorizing fragments of his Gothic work without so much as a clue as to what’s imperative about the Gothic in the first place. Here’s the money graf:
Poe’s triumph is that he portrayed evil without finally blinking and cobbling together some minor moral triumph or life lesson at the end of his tales. His stuff is the scream of the Gothicist still echoing throughout our culture. But we can’t live with his reminders 24 hours a day; hell, we can’t live with his reminders across the course of a grade school language arts “unit” on Poe, so we do our best to protect ourselves with banality. Perhaps it’s no surprise that kids shoot up a school when the tolerance quizzes don’t have the desired positive effect on interpersonal relations in the classroom. After all, ain’t we evil monkeys, far worse than an orang with a razor? And no, not all of us are. But enough of us are, and Poe’s fiction lets us live in their heads for a little while. Live there and like it.
Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing already, whydontcha?