Last June in this space I wrote about a great poem for campfire raconteurs, “The Conqueror Worm,” by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). We can put another log on the fire now. On July 4, John Batchelor, of the John Batchelor Show (WABC-AM, New York, as well as other stations) posted a podcast of a radio show in which he interviewed Paul Collins, author of a 2014 book entitled Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living.
I started off the week enjoying that podcast, so I might as well end the week with some more Poe appreciation. Come to think of it, Saipan’s dilapidated old structures can be pretty spooky, so there’s no need to let the Atlantic side of the world monopolize the Gothic gig.
Poe is an intriguing figure, sort of a mad genius. His life opened, and closed, in gloomy ways. What came in the middle was no picnic, either.
The year after Poe was born his dad abandoned the family. The year after that, his mother died of tuberculosis.
Poe was adopted, more or less, by a wealthy merchant. Poe spent some years of his youth in England where he was receptive to classic literature, Latin, and that sort of fancy stuff.
He went to the University of Virginia but he had gambling debts. He was so broke he had to give up on college.
In those days, being a deadbeat on a debt could land you in prison. Poe, being dogged by debt collectors, took up a phony name for awhile. Meanwhile, it seems that gambling wasn’t his only problem, as Poe’s struggles with the bottle cast shadows over his life and career.
He eventually enlisted in the Army. Although he might not sound like the ideal candidate for military life, he did very well in the Army. After five years he was given a slot in West Point.
Alas, West Point didn’t work out for Poe. He found himself back on the streets as a struggling writer and broke civilian. He then held a succession of literary jobs for magazines and such, but apparently never kept one very long.
If Poe seemed a bit droll, he confirmed these credentials when he married his 13-year-old cousin. This made for a three-person household including her mother.
Tuberculosis, having taken Poe’s mother, once again came calling. It claimed his wife. She died after a long and painful struggle when she was 24.
Poe himself died at age 40 in Baltimore. History seems to have specified an unspecified illness as the likely cause, while holding open the possibility that something else might have been at work. Poe’s death, like his life, seems to have largely occurred under a mysterious pall.
Well, so much for Poe, the writer. As for his writing, it enjoys success for popular consumption and is also fare for intellectuals to discuss whatever it is they discuss.
He is often credited with establishing the short story as a popular device. He’s also said to have invented the detective genre. But more than anything, he’s known for his creepy and macabre material.
Some of his writing is so over-the-top Gothic that I don’t know if he’s being sarcastic or not, but, for me at least, that’s part of the fun of reading Poe. I don’t know if I’m being let in on a joke or if the joke is on me.
Since much of his fare was short stories, often with a lot of first-person narration and not a lot of dialog, Poe’s works have proven well suited to being read aloud for the audio format.
For example, in 2000, HarperCollins released a five-CD collection called “The Edgar Allan Poe audio collection.” This offers a selection of stories and poems read by Basil Rathbone and by Vincent Price. Both of these guys were famous actors back in the day.
As for Price, a Yale graduate, much of his career was, in fact, based on doing movie renditions of Poe stories. As for Rathbone, he served in the British army in WWI, and is known largely for his movie portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. As for the audio collection I mentioned, Rathbone’s reading of “The Fall of the House of Usher” makes for an engrossing 23 minutes.
And as much as I like short stories, including “The Fall of the House of Usher,” I probably have a tin ear for poetry. So with the exception of a few favorites, I’ll admit I haven’t given Poe’s poems much attention.
The world abounds with affordable books offering collections of Poe’s stories and poems. The Web has all sorts of material, too, so this is one writer who is accessible to everyone. Although he was born over 200 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe is famous in modern times.