(Photo: Edwin H. Manchester)
There’s a common sentiment that the cost of being a good artist can be measured in pain. That is to say, if you don’t understand what it means to struggle, how can you ever hope to convey anything meaningful?
If this is true, then Edgar Allan Poe is probably one of classic American literature’s most naturally gifted writers. Poe lived a short and unhappy life, plagued by failures, rejections, and the death of his first wife*. His experience through depression was also marred by alcohol and drug addiction, and he died at the age of 40, his famous last words being, ‘Lord help my poor soul!’
(*It’s well-known that Poe married Virginia Clemm, his 13 year old wife, at the age of 26. Old marital conventions aside, it is obviously problematic to paint Poe as this tragic character while ignoring the pains of a 13 year old girl married to a 26 year old man. The problematic nature of the people we look up to is something that has recently come to light, given the rise of victims coming forward speaking about abuse they endured years ago at the hands of such people. The only way around this is to try our hardest not to idolise our heroes. I might write about this in the future, but in the meantime, this is a great article about the issue).
While I don’t care for the romanticisation of addiction, depression, and pain, there is certainly an argument that can be made for Poe’s troubles being reflected in his works. Many of Poe’s characters are afflicted with some kind of mental illness, which often dictates their morally bereft behaviour and seals their doom. The Tell-Tale Heart is the most famous of these, in which the highly-attuned (or highly-strung) narrator kills an old man because of his ‘evil eye’, and then confesses to his murder because he can hear the dead man’s heartbeat beneath the floorboards. The Tell-Tale Heart is an interesting read because of its narrator, who insists that he is sane. The lengths he goes to in order to convince us of this are completely at odds with his motive for the murder.
“Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded – with what caution – with what foresight – with what dissimulation I went to work! … And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously – oh, so cautiously – cautiously (for the hinges creaked) – I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights – every night just at midnight – but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but this Evil Eye.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart
While the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart is the most well-known of these mentally unstable characters, there are many others, including Roderick Usher of The Fall of the House of Usher, and Prince Prospero of The Masque of the Red Death. All three are excellent short stories that highlight the crippling effects of acute anxiety and paranoia.
At the same time, it’s not all macabre tales of death and devastation. While we are thrust into the mind of a killer in The Tell-Tale Heart, we also experience the just perspective of those working on the side of the law when it comes to the world of the astute C. Auguste Dupin. With this character, Poe established many conventions of the now popular genre of detective fiction, and paved the way for Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. If you love Holmes, give Dupin a try. I’ve read a lot of detective fiction and to this day, the twist that that has blindsided me the most has to be the one in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. I guarantee you won’t guess the conclusion to the case in this story.
I wonder whether the gulf between these two types of character in Poe’s fiction was one he struggled to bridge in his own life. He clearly had some kind of heightened sensitivity; whether that was simply an awareness of his deteriorating psyche, or an actual physiological defect, I’m not sure. But perhaps there was a battle that took place behind the curtains of storytelling, beneath the floorboards of poetry. I think writing allowed Poe to express his fears of becoming a monster, and also his hopes of becoming a hero. If he could see his own curse as a potential blessing, maybe others could too.