Monday, December 28, 2009

Absolute idiosyncrasy

Poe's works published in December are very representative of his overall bibliography. They include his mournful, sound-focused poem "Ulalume" (December 1847 issue of the American Whig Review), for example, as well as several tales:

• "Bon-Bon," featuring a devil who eats philosophers' souls like chocolates (December 1, 1832 issue of the Philadelphia Saturday Courier)
• "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion," considered one of the first apocalyptic future stories (December 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine)
• "The Man of the Crowd," a strange urban tale of identity or the lack thereof and secret sin (December 1840 issue of Graham's Magazine)
•one of the installments to the real-life crime story "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (second part in the December 1842 Snowden's Ladies' Companion)
• the humorous "The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq." (December 1844 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger)
• the grotesque hoax-like "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (December 1845 issue of the American Review)
• the critical theory essay "The Poetic Principle" (December 1848 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger)
• the first installment of his only play Politian, though he never completed it (December 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger).

In this snapshot of Poe's works, you see it all: poetry, horror, hoax, humor, science fiction, detective stories, literary theory, experimental works and even ones that defy a single identifiable genre (I'm thinking of "The Man of the Crowd" in particular here). It goes to show that Poe was not only a horror writer in fact, he wasn't even primarily a horror writer. We should have the same problem categorizing Poe as the narrator in "The Man of the Crowd" has with defining the title character.

I've hoped that the way we define Poe as a writer can be broadened. Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with labeling him primarily for his horror works but it's also very important that we look beyond it. The problem I have as a Poeist is people that judge Poe solely for a couple of works which, ultimately, are not representative of his whole body of works. And, unfortunately, we don't just define him as a writer by these few works, but as a man as well.

What makes a man write a story about a man who goes crazy and kills an old man just because of a weird eye before chopping up the body parts to conceal his crime? What kind of man writes a revenge tale where a character lures another into a wine cellar to brick him in alive? How does someone write about a tormented narrator whose obsession over his lost love manifests as a lost, ominous black bird? The definition readers often have of Poe are based on those three works ("The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Raven").

It might be just as useless to ask these questions: What makes a man write a humor story about a man so full of himself that he dares to engage the devil in a debate about philosophy, only to learn the philosophers he mentions have been taken by the devil? What kind of man writes a tale about how urbanization causes us to feel alone while crowded by hundreds of thousands of strangers? How does someone write about how modern technology or techniques can attempt to defy death but ultimately leave us punished for this challenge to God? There is no commonality that generally expressed all of Poe's writing. He should be honored for the "absolute idiosyncrasy" of his wide range of works, the same type of idiosyncrasy which distinguishes the man of the crowd.

Poe was, in case you can't tell, exploring the minds of his readers, not himself. He dove into pop culture, emerging science, and postulated about the future. He found common fears and exploited them just as often as he heightened humor to the level of absurdity. He knew the difference between high quality writing and "just for fun" reading.

It would be nice to see Poe studied, particularly at a younger reading level, identifying all of this. Poe wasn't crazy, he wasn't obsessed with death, he was just a mirror of his own times — and he happened to write really, really well. He is part of his time, his cultural context — and yet, he stands out somehow. He is the man of the crowd.

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