Edgar Allan Poe’s Enduring Fame


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Since 1850, Poe’s writings have passed through hundreds of editions. Indeed, his more popular works have never been out of print. Many of these have been translated into some or all of the world’s major languages, in some cases several times. “The Raven” is certainly Poe’s best known work, arguably the most popular poem ever written. It even has an NFL football team named after it, the Baltimore Ravens.

His tales, particularly the short stories, have spawned a legion of imitators and inspired artists, playwrights, filmmakers and composers. Each year, hundreds of books and articles, some scholarly others in a lighter vein, are written about one of more facets of Poe’s life or works. Such prominent composers as Rachmaninov (the choral symphony “The Bells”) and Debussy (the operas “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Devil in the Belfry”) have created musical tributes evoking his works. Dozens of lesser composers have created musical settings for his poems. The extent of Poe’s appeal, however, has long reached beyond the realms of art and literature. Poe has become a virtual icon. (Modern musical interpretations have been recorded by such diverse performers as the Alan Parson’s Project, Joan Baez and Iron Maiden. Poe even appears on the Beatles’ famous Sgt. Pepper album cover.) Halloween episodes of the popular “The Simpsons” TV show include references to Poe (beginning in October of 1990 with a recitation of “The Raven”). Such noted actors as Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price have recited his words and performed in movies based on his works. (Other classic actors who have recorded readings of some of Poe’s works are Syndey Greenstreet, John Carradine, James Mason and Paul Scofield. More modern interpreters include Christopher Walken, Gabriel Byrne, Deborah Harry and Iggy Pop.) Poe’s image has appeared on coffee mugs, T-shirts, bookmarks, buttons, postcards and refrigerator magnets. Usually, Poe appears in obvious places. The supernatural TV soap opera “Dark Shadows” (1966-1971), for example, based several plots on his short stories. In a more humorous vein, another TV show, “The Munsters” (1964-1966), has a version of a cuckoo clock containing a raven that regularly announces the hours with a rather parrot-like “nevermore.” Sometimes, Poe pops up in unlikely places. In the 1967 movie “El Dorado,” James Caan recites Poe’s poem of the same name to a clearly unappreciative John Wayne. In the 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans,” Poe’s last name was used in place of the hero Hawkeye’s literary name of Bumpo, ironic given Poe’s extreme distaste for the works of James Fenimore Cooper.

Given the fickle nature of popularity, we are left to wonder why we continue to read Poe and why we should we study his works. The answers even to such deceptively simple questions are rather complicated and subject to a great deal of opinion. One reason Poe is read so widely is that there is something in his writings for everyone. His works span the range of human emotions — joy, passion, hope, rage, despair and, of course, fear. Also, he appeals to us on many different levels. His superb control of technique is often the most obvious and the most superficial level, one which the majority of Poe’s readers unfortunately never seem to get beyond. In some ways, particularly in his poetry, the technique is such a strong element that it discourages deeper evaluation. More often, we carelessly think that we have seen all there is to see in Poe and feel at some point that we have outgrown him.

Poe is often first encountered in childhood, usually one’s early teens, when his notions of the imminent nature of death and the sweet and sour of existence are generally outside of the reader’s very narrow set of experiences. At that age, it is the mystery, the adventure and the thrill of a good scare that draw us to Poe. It only takes a few stories, however, to discover that Poe is not easy to read. Indeed, he demands great effort from his reader, particularly today where we are accustomed to having our entertainment spoon-fed to us. Some readers quickly become discouraged by having to look up so many words and because they do not understand all of Poe’s references to classical literature. Others are confused when they discover that Poe’s narrators are not always reliable witnesses to the events they describe — they may be lying, mistaken or even insane. If we stay with Poe or return to his works as adults, our changing perspectives may show us a very different view of the same stories. We begin life full of  hope and expectation — all before us is promise. As we proceed, the bitterness of disappointment grows as many of these promises are not (indeed often cannot) be met. We are somewhat bolstered by the discovery of unexpected pleasures, but inevitably the heavy hand of fate must be apparent. All of this can be found in Poe’s writings.

The purpose, then, of studying Poe and his works (or any writer and his or her works) is not to come to understand the writer, but to understand the reader — to explore what we believe or feel by comparing and contrasting with Poe and his characters. As with any great artist, Poe does not just come out and tell us what he thinks. Instead, he gives us moods and characters, themes and structures. He introduces ideas, but does not heavily argue or debate them. In this approach, the reader becomes not merely an observer but a participant, and the works themselves are reinvented by each of us. Is his raven really a supernatural being with a message from beyond or is it just a lost pet bird trained to say a single word that happens to fit the narrator’s unhappy mood? Does Poe want us to accept “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” as true or is he satirically poking fun at the limitations of science? In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” is Roderick Usher doomed by his own actions or is it his unavoidable fate? How much of our lives are subject to our control and how much is predetermined? Is the real prize in “The Gold Bug” the pirate treasure or is it the intellectual victory of solving the mystery? Which is more true, the optimism of “Israfel” or the pessimism of “The Conqueror Worm”? Look to Poe for these and many other questions. The answers are for us to provide. For the sophisticated reader, each story and poem becomes a puzzle. The challenge is to seek Poe’s hidden meanings, the reward is to find ourselves.

Poe’s reputation is not lightly dismissed. For a man who has been dead for over one hundred years, Poe still manages to inspire remarkably strong feelings. Even those who dislike his writings are apt to respond to his name with a surprising degree of intensity. An injudicious search for “Poe” on the world-wide web will produce thousands of entries. Many are completely or nearly worthless to the researcher. Some are little more than giddy effusions, but most are — each in its own way — sincere appreciations.

First printings of Poe’s books sell for thousands, his manuscripts for tens of thousands. His 1827 Tamerlane and Minor Poems is one of the most valuable books ever printed in the United States. Ironically, in death Poe has magnificently achieved what evaded him during his lifetime — commercial success.



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  • Dameron, J. Lasley, Popular Literature: Poe’s Not-so-soon Forgotten Lore, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1980.
  • Haining, Peter, The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook, New York: Schocken Books, 1978.
  • London, Rose, Cinema of Mystery, Bounty Books, 1975.
  • Reilly, John E., “The Image of Poe in American Poetry,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1976.
  • Reilly, John E., “Poe in Literature and Popular Culture,” in Eric W. Carlson, ed., A Companion to Poe Studies, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 471-493.
  • Smith, Don G., The Poe Cinema: A Critical Filmography of Theatrical Releases Based on the Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999.
  • Werner, Craig, Gold Bugs and the Powers of Blackness: Re-reading Poe, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1996.

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[S:1 - JAS] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - General Topics - Edgar Allan Poe's Enduring Fame