Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Books: "This is Byronic bunk."

For more than a century, Poe has the poster boy for America's homegrown strain of Dark Romanticism and his biography was often spun to fit the image. Heroically gloomy, perfectly doomed, biographers wrote about Poe as if he were one his own fictions. (In fact, the conceit seems irresistible: numerous films, novels, short stories, and comic books have featured Poe as the main character in Poe-like tales of horror and mystery.)

On the bicentennial anniversary, Poe seems to be going through a major revision. Critics and biographers seem determined to exhume Poe from his own legend. Critics are stressing the variety and craft of his works. Others have tried to save him from being cast as an easily-recognizable, but shallow Goth teen icon. Other's have tried to historicize the seemingly otherworldly author.

The New Yorker joins the revision camp with a profile emphasizing Poe the working artists. Ignoring the long history of treating him as a melancholy isolated genius, the article discusses his naked and mercenary drive for success:

Poe didn’t write “The Raven” to answer the exacting demands of a philosophic Art, or not entirely, anyway. He wrote it for the same reason that he wrote tales like “The Gold-Bug”: to stave off starvation. For a long while, Poe lived on bread and molasses; weeks before “The Gold-Bug” was published, he was begging near-strangers on the street for fifty cents to buy something to eat. “ ‘The Raven’ has had a great ‘run,’ ” he wrote to a friend, “but I wrote it for the express purpose of running—just as I did the ‘Gold-Bug,’ you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow.” The public that swallowed that bird and bug Poe strenuously resented. You love Poe or you don’t, but, either way, Poe doesn’t love you. A writer more condescending to more adoring readers would be hard to find. “The nose of a mob is its imagination,” he wrote. “By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.”

Aside from focusing on Poe's tireless hustling for dough (at his lowest point, Poe was "found starving" by one of his first editors), the essayist also suggests that acute megalomania drove the famed author and informed his work:

In 1841, he published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the story of a crime solved by a code-cracking French detective named C. Auguste Dupin. (The murderer turns out to be an orangutan.) Two more Dupin tales, the world’s first detective stories, followed. With Dupin, Poe channelled his desire to write above his readers—to dupe them—into a character much like himself, a man who had once been wealthy but who, “by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it.” Dupin has a very Poe-ish intelligence; he is “fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension praeternatural.” And, like Poe, he gloats about his superior powers of perception, boasting, “with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms.”

If Dupin sounds uncannily familiar, that’s because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like every other author of detective fiction, not to mention the creators of a thousand TV crime shows, is incalculably in Poe’s debt. “The children of Poe” is what Stephen King calls the members of his guild, and with good reason. But horror stories predate Poe, and have many other sources. Not so the literary sleuth. All detective stories and police procedurals begin with the intellectually imperious C. Auguste Dupin: methodical, eccentric, calculating—and insulting. We, mere readers, are so many Watsons, Hastingses, and Goodwins. Poe is the only Holmes.


Sasquatchan said...

Every other detective ? I'm sure Inspector Clouseau would disagree ;)

CRwM said...

Inspector Gadget begs to differ as well.