I raise the subject of Edgar Allan Poe due to a recent news item concerning a new portait of him that has surfaced.
Most of us recall Poe from his dark short stories and poetry we may have been exposed to in middle school or high school. Among his more famous works, odds are you’ve read “The Masque of Red Death”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and nearly every person that’s gone through the American school system in the past fifty years can finish “Quoth the Raven, ‘_____ ____.'”, the repeated end to his stanzas in his most famous work, “The Raven”. Perhaps you remember James Earl Jones reading it during the first “Treehouse of Horror” episode of “The Simpsons”?
Most of us that have seen a picture of Edgar Allan Poe have probably seen this one, or something very close to it, which I found on the University of Vermont’s website :
His countenance certainly fits the grim, wearied, and forboding atmosphere of some of his greatest fiction.
The picture that surfaced recently shows a less stern, serious side, a youthful Poe brimming with promise and potential. The idea of this is strange to me, as the Penguin anthology of his work that I read last year ( available here ) painted his formative years as filled with strife and a yearning to attain a higher social status, that of a gentleman, that was beyond his economic means.
The story of Poe’s death is also rather infamous. Although I am not a devoted Poe scholar, the work I’ve plugged, as well as the textbok I used during my student teaching, relayed that Poe was popularly perceived as a man who was a tormented genius, and that the bleakness of his work and the morbid, grotesque situations he invented must certainly have stemmed from a life full of wantoness and terrible misfortune, of a mind delusional, drunk, and subject to hallucinations wrought by absinthe.
So the story goes, Poe was hauled in from the gutter after a bender lasting several days, terribly disheveled and raving just before his death. It seems fitting given the nature of his fiction, but I cannot say I’ve explored the matter fully enough to say it is a faithful account, or popular lore that is so plausible we blindly accept it. This is from the same man that was rumored to have married his much younger cousin.
Anyway, the new picture at hand and accompanying story can be found here .
What many people do not know about Poe, and until I had to teach him to high school students I didn’t know either, was that he was a magazine editor. In the Penguin Classics anthology I linked to above, there is a selection of his reviews on short stories, poetry, and plays of his day.
I forget the specific article he penned in which he explained the criteria he used to judge another’s creative work. I want to say it was in “The Philosophy of Composition”, but I have my reservations; I am inclined to say it was in review of a play, but without the book at hand, as it is in Massachusetts and I am in Florida for the time being, it will have to wait. Anyway, I thought the criteria were quite useful, and seem applicable to not only to plays, poems, and short stories, but I’ve found it useful to judge music, films, and television as well.
First, a work must be able to digested in a single setting, or divided into units that fulfill the artist’s aim.
Second, and this seems right at home with the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and our contemporary Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters, nothing should be wasted. By this, every scene in a film, every song on the album, every character on a TV show or film must be so integral to the whole presentation that it wouldn’t work if it were taken out. Cut out the fluff, siphon off the fat. Make it lean, make it mean.
Third, and lastly for now, whatever you’re watching or listening to should affect you emotionally. When discussing poetry, Poe said if it was good, it should uplift the reader’s spirits in a single session. I have found myself using this last maxim often for judging if I like a song or not.