As I was joy scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning, basking in what I fear will be short-lived solace, I ran across this tweet from Lapham’s Quarterly regarding the death of Edgar Allan Poe, my first literary hero.
I’ve written elsewhere about my discovery of Poe when I was a small boy trespassing in a sequestered library. A few years later, Mrs. Morgan, my seventh-grade teacher, read out loud “The Tell Tale Heart. ” As she mimicked the madman narrator’s voice, she began pounding her palm on her desk to approximate the sound of the beating heart the narrator imagines he hears beneath the floorboard where he has deposited the remains of his murder victim. It was out-of-character for Mrs. Morgan to read a complete story out loud, but it certainly held our attention.
The first paragraph of that story, which as a child astonished me, now produces a wry smile:
True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
Throughout the tale Poe cultivates dramatic irony through the raving narrator’s insistence that he’s perfectly sane, demonstrated in the special care he took in suffocating the old man (whom he claims he loved) and the rational steps he took in dealing with the corpse.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs. I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings.
Rereading it just now for the first time in a half-century produced a chuckle, not, I suspect, the effect Poe was seeking.
Anyway, I became a Poe aficionado, devouring all of his short stories and most of his poems, reveling in the dead weight of distracting details that characterize his tales, his Latinate diction and erudite references, the creepy Freudian obsessions of tubercular lovers and diabolical murderers.
In fact, when I began teaching Poe, I used his work to introduce students to psychoanalytical criticism, demonstrating how “The Fall of the House of Usher” could be read as an allegory of Freudian repression as Frederick Usher buries his sister (hints of incest) in the crypt beneath his house only to have her break from her casket with superhuman strength, crashing forth to clasp him in her deathly embrace. Also, we analyzed Poe’s story “William Wilson” through the lens of Jungian criticism, with the mysterious other William Wilson, the narrator’s nemesis, representing the doppelgänger archetype, a sort of superego that unconsciously undermines the narrator’s attempts at perpetrating crimes. In doing so, we looked at his biography to see how life events creep their way into his fictions.
Alas, poor Poe, the victim of “coopering,” an unwitting pawn of election fraud in those halcyon days when you didn’t need doctored software or mail-in ballots or dead Venezuelan politicians to steal an election. You could just ply a toper with demon rum or laudanum, change his clothes, drag him from polling place to polling place, a sad end to a consistently sad existence: an orphan whose father flew the coop before his son’s mother became consumptive and died; an orphan adopted by a cruel – in this case – stepfather who tried to mold the sensitive child into someone he wasn’t; an orphan whose child bride cousin, like his mother, also wasted away with tuberculosis; an orphan who was his own worst enemy, whose panning of an anthology edited by a friend led to a literary feud that resulted in the former friend’s writing a scurrilous biography that depicted Poe as an opium addled madman, a legacy that still lives on.
Meanwhile, 170 years later, we still have our madmen and women, confabulating about pedophiliac Democratic cabals devoted to Satan worship, evangelical in their quest to disseminate their fever dreams to the masses.
And today’s the day when what has been a pro forma constitutional rite will be transformed into a circus while Proud Boys and Lizard Squads and other fringe groups take to the streets, a slightly more sophisticated attempt at undermining an election than dragging an impoverished writer through the alleyways of Baltimore. Today’s madcap spectacle might make an entertaining action-packed novel or movie – or perhaps a cynical dark comedy like Dr. Strangelove.
This brand of madness and mayhem, however, doesn’t suit Poe’s talents as a storyteller. I’m thinking Dickens or Twain would be better able to do justice to the likes of Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, and Rudy Giuliani, or maybe a movie directed by Robert Altman or Quentin Tarantino might be the way to go..
Anyway, fun ahoy. The let the games begin.
 I love the sound of astonished, which originally meant to turn to stone, an ear-pleasing blend of an Anglo-Saxon prefix, root, and suffix.