Text: Jeffrey A. Savoye, “The Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe”, January 2009


The Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

How is it that so many are gathered here on this occasion? How is it that someone who was born two centuries passed, and died over 150 years ago, actively speaks to us today? How is it that he still makes us laugh, or ponder — makes us feel sadness or a sense of wonder? How do his ideas on the nature of thought still seem strange and new to us? How are his tales of terror still relevant in a modern era, when the fear of a shadow can be dispelled by the mere flicking on of a light switch?

It has been noted that Poe’s tales and poems frequently take place in no particular time, and no particular place. The house of the Ushers has roots too ancient to be in the United States, but only a close reading will assign the geography of its surroundings. Annabel Lee and her unnamed lover live in a glorious “kingdom by the sea.” (Whether or not this is a real, or an imaginary “kingdom” is open to interpretation.) Such a tendency gives many of Poe’s writings the sense of a fairy tale, at once odd and yet familiar, distant and yet as close as our own childhood. Although much in the characters and circumstances may be curious and wonderful, the moods and feelings that are the essence of the works are universal. And this, perhaps, is at least one key. Who has not felt a moment of terror or a touch of depression, of loss or a desire for revenge? Who has never felt the shadowy presence of Fate in events which may overwhelm our best efforts or intentions? We may read some of Poe’s more famous works, close the book and feel that we are safe. But there is sometimes a taste of darkness which cannot be pushed away even in the brightest sunshine. Did not Poe himself call “The Raven” the embodiment of “mournful and never-ending remembrance”? What is “A Dream within a Dream” but a prayer of despair?

Poe is the writer for those who find life too often tedious — and who, at least at times, feel that all our efforts are ultimately rendered useless by death, in the face of which we are powerless. Life might well be fundamentally absurd, but for the brief moments which are ours, it is all we have. What purpose we can find is in what we create, although that too may or may not outlast us (and will ultimately be ground to dust in the relentless millwheels of centuries). And yet Poe does not leave us alone in the dark, as H. P. Lovecraft might. Even hand in hand with a sense of gloom or the delicate wistfulness of melancholy, he gives us beauty — and beauty, in the face and bearing of a lovely young woman, or in music, in a painting or a sculpture, or in poetry, is a respite from a hostile world with few lasting comforts. And Poe also gives us the unusual and the fantastic, which cast bright flashes of light to temporarily dispel dull reality.

We can see that his writings still work their magic on succeeding generations of readers, and yet Poe’s secrets remain distinctively his own. We can ape and parody the form, but legions of would-be disciples have too often created mostly pale imitations, and scholars have laid waste to forests of trees in printing articles and books that attempt to explain the essence of his genius. Yet, traces of Poe’s influence can be seen in the writings of such diverse authors as Jules Verne and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ray Bradbury, Charles Baudelaire and Allen Ginsberg. (His writings have also been translated into every major language. One Japanese author and critic so greatly admired Poe that he changed his own name from Tarö Hirai to Edogawa Rampo.) And this influence has not been limited to the written word. Such artists as Gustave Doré, Arthur Rackham, and Édouard Manet have illustrated his works. Sergei Rachmaninov, Leonard Slatkin, Philip Glass, and many others have composed musical tributes. In an interview published in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock, the great movie director, commented that “It’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films.”

The list of Poe’s most memorable works is long — “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and many others — indeed, much too long to give here in full. Some critics may have tried to push him to the side, but Poe is firmly ensconced in the canon of American Literature. William Carlos Williams has been more prophetic in proclaiming proudly, “In him [Poe] American literature is anchored, in him alone, on solid ground.” A hundred years hence, on the tricentennial of Poe’s birth, another group will almost certainly gather in honor of his memory. They may well ask the same questions, and offer the same unsatisfactory answers, but they will still be reading Poe — and, in being read, Poe will, in a sense, still live on.

Jeffrey A. Savoye (Secretary/Treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore)



This brief item is reprinted here with the permission of the author. It was written for the program commemorating the bicentennial of Poe’s birth, as part of the ceremonies enacted in Baltimore in January 2009.


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