Edgar Allan Poe is less a man of mystery and more a man of mysteries—from the ones that fired from the tip of his pen to start-gun the detective genre to the ones surrounding his life that feed our fascination with him. What happened in those last days in Baltimore before his strange death? How was he able to invent or advance so many different literary genres? How closely does the figure we know today match the historical one? How does he pull off a mustache so damned well? To me, there’s an even bigger Edgar Allan Poe mystery than all of those:
Why is Edgar Allan Poe so cool?
This author was born 206 years ago. He lived a scant four decades in poverty and relative obscurity. Maybe ten people attended his funeral. His headstone didn’t even show up for it. The body of work that he eventually became widely acclaimed for is small.
Today, in 2015, you’ll find his face on T-shirts in mall stores as often as on book covers in bookstores. You’ll find more movies that feature him as a character than feature the characters from his stories. You’ll see his face tattooed on flesh as often as his name is mentioned in academic journals. He’s a Halloween tradition more than a book club one. A meme as much as a class assignment. I know of eight different Poe-themed restaurants on the East Coast. You could go as broke as Poe collecting Poe merchandise.
Why is Edgar Allan Poe so cool?
In a Google News search in the month of January alone, I found reviews of a new off-Broadway musical based on his life. An article on his work in The New York Times Book Review was sparking blog posts reacting to the idea that he propounded the Big Bang Theory long before we had a name for it. There was Hollywood scuttlebutt about a new trilogy of movies being produced by actor Idris Elba that pits Poe against magic-wielding devil-worshippers. An NFL playoff game between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens—sites of Poe’s birth and death, respectively, and the latter team astoundingly named after his most famous poem—stoked a good-natured feud involving the Poe statues in each of those places. And, sure, January is Poe’s birth month, but that kind of relevance is typical for the poet, regardless of the month.
“Why is Edgar Allan Poe so cool?” is the central mystery of my book Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe. It propelled me to travel to monuments, museums, artifacts, and historical sites related to the author everywhere he lived—Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and across the Atlantic in London—and where he still lives thanks to museum curators, docents, collectors, artists, professors, and fans who actively maintain his legacy.
The answers I found were diverse, nuanced, vague, simplistic, complex. But one idea in particular that appeared multiple times stuck with me long past publication. A man who was responsible for a small stone monument in a Boston suburb commemorating a locale Poe visited summarized it this way: Poe was “a mystery writing about mystery.” In other words, Poe’s work seems entangled with his life. The genius on the page appears to reflect a genuineness in the poet. We like that in an artist.
We’re a strange lot when it comes to stories. We applaud the imagination of our storytellers but find ourselves more compelled by firsthand accounts. We like our war stories told by those who fought, our adventure stories by those who dared. We want to read about heartache from those who have experienced it, poverty from those who have suffered it—as opposed to those who have merely imagined it. Further, when the work and the personal life of the author are far enough distant—don’t match, so to speak—we can feel betrayed, as if to use the imagination too much is to be a fake. As movie marketers long ago discovered, we find ourselves drawn to films “based on a true story” rather than “based on a figment.”
Edgar Allan Poe never lets us down in that way—at least his myth doesn’t. After all, the Poe whose caricature is on those lunchboxes and dolls isn’t necessarily the Poe whose name can be found on the title pages of “The Purloined Letter” or “The Mystery of Marie Roget” or that one story about a sprite with a German accent made out of liquor bottles. But that’s a separate topic. It’s enough here that the popular perception of his life dovetails with the popular perception of his writing.
He obsessed over the horrors of death in his stories and obsessed over the death of his mother and his wife in real life. He wrote about the mental torments of homicidal madmen while hallucinating in prison about the dismemberment of his mother-in-law. He wrote about mysteries solvable only by characters of genius and then gave us his greatest one with his death after being found incoherent and strangely clothed in a city he wasn’t scheduled to be in.
It’s not just that Poe’s work seems to intersect with his life. It’s exactly where it intersects—at the mysterious. And that’s a rare pleasure. Especially today.
Thanks to the Internet and social media, we know everything about our authors, down to the daily minutiae of their lives. We know what book John Grisham is reading right now. What Neil Gaiman ate for lunch three weeks ago. What Joyce Carol Oates thinks about that one Doritos commercial. Being able to access a mysterious literary figure through his work without destroying that mystery is extremely appealing and, these days, refreshing. That figure, whether he’s represented by the book in our hands or the face on our T-shirts, can symbolize whatever it is we need him to symbolize in our own personal lives because he is so mysterious.
We all get to have our own Poe—the teenager dozing through English class, the intrepid traveler with the whole world beneath his shoe soles, the academic chasing her third degree, the pop culture fanatic, the writer looking for a voice, the morbidly inclined, the millionaire software prodigy, the circus clown escaping from the doldrums of work. Like an unsolvable mystery, we all get to have our own personal theory that can never be disproven.
And because we’ll never lose the Edgar Allan Poe in each of us, Edgar Allan Poe will always be relevant.
And that’s why Poe’s so cool. I think.
- W. Ocker is the author of two award-winning macabre travelogues, The New England Grimpendiumand The New York Grimpendium. His third book, Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe, was recently nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He runs the website OTIS: Odd Things I've Seen (oddthingsiveseen.com) on which he chronicles his visits to oddities of nature, history, art, and culture.