Text: Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Introduction,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. i-iii (This material is protected by copyright)


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The Shadow of Poe

The essays gathered here support a single major theme, the considerable influence of Edgar Allan Poe upon literary culture from his day to our own. Considering that Poe might have lived into this century, and that Killis Campbell and Edith Wharton, to be mentioned subsequently in connection with him, were born in the 1860s, “our times” is a defining phrase of fair magnitude. Furthermore, and in despite of relentless attempts to discredit him and his work, when so populara medium as the poster recently prepared to advertise Stroh’s beer bodies forth a Poe, most likely bibulous, with sufficient exaggeration in the accompanying imagery from his writings to make the whole funny, we can not deny that he “has arrived.” We also can not seem to lay to rest, however, an all-too-easily assumed mode of thought, or lack of thought, regarding our authors much-bedevilled reputation. That he was a habitual drunkard, not to mention a drug addict and debaucher of ingenuous women, many will unquestioningly affirm. Many in this camp will as adamantly argue that Poe and his narrators are interchangeable. Such affirmations reveal how strongly a body of ill-informed notions will persist, and in the face of solid demonstrations to the contrary. Nevertheless, a Poe who comes before us amidst comic and alcoholic trappings is altogether understandable. After better than a century of neglect, and, somewhat later, a deploring of his humor (that nevertheless elicited ready responses from his contemporaries), a major revaluation of Poe’s workings in comedy has occurred during our times.(1) That increased breadth in viewpoints in no way negates perceptions of a decidedly serious, many-layered texture within his literary productions. Instead, many have come to understand how the tales in particular may yield simultaneously a multeity of surfaces, “edges,” suggestions, call them what you will, each plausible and capable of coalescing with others in no jarring manner, for readers who come to these writings with varied attitudes.

A many-sided Poe is strongly attested in the following pages. His image, his mirth, his metaphysics, his crime and detective ventures, and much more, receive careful attention. Since the French response to Poe has for so long been open-minded and favorable, the collection opens appropriately with two studies covering Poe’s French devotees through recent times. A similar survey of critical import underlies the thinking of John E. Reilly and Bruce I. Weiner, respectively on Poe’s image among American playwrights and his place in mystery-detective writing. Just and exceptionally personable reminiscences pay tribute to Killis Campbell and Thomas Ollive Mabbott, without doubt a pair who labored mightily in contributing to a “Poe in our times,” in [page ii:] contrast to the figure conjured up by Griswold and his witting or unwitting followers. Modern writers have also tapped the well-springs of the Gothic, of fantasy literature, and of folk myth, as they devolve from Poe, traits evident in the essays by Dwight, Menides, Ljungquist, Bennett, Peirce, McDaniel, Werner, and Fisher.

These studies present no isolated cases of influence and affinities. Poe’s links with Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wright, Robert Frost, Vladimir Nabokov — to skim the readiest cream from vast quantities of such interconnections — have been astutely assessed, as have others.(2) Many more like studies will follow. Consequently we must realize that Poe’s shadow, as it hovers above much artistic inspiration, extends to great length. We observe the continuing interest about Poe in editions of his works now in progress, in a spate of recent biographies, and in quantities of critiques coming out each year. Two organizations provide supportive functions to Poe’s causes, as does a professional journal devoted entirely to him and his work. Films, tee-shirts, key-chains, comic books as well herald him.

Two writers, years ago, furnish what may be unintentional but significant perspectives on Poe’s case today. H. L. Mencken touches sensitive chords in opining: “Americans, obsessed by the problem of conduct, usually judge their authors, not as artists, but as citizens . . . Edgar Allan Poe, I daresay, will never live down the fact that he was a periodic drunkard, and that he died in an alcoholic ward.”(3) Vintage Mencken we encounter here, to be sure; and just as sure, like much else thought and published about Poe, it lands somewhat off the mark. Second, in the centennial year of Poe’s birth, another voice spoke words that still ring true: “But POE is hard to stop talking about. Everything said about him seems to provoke a reply, and every reply a rejoinder. He is eminently debatable. That may be one source of his fame.”(4) The essays in Poe and Our Times witness the pertinence of these opinions, even after many years, as does the greater panorama of Poe scholarship. They are true measures of Poe’s magnetism.

Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV


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1.  Merely one example, and many more could be marshalled, appears in the Charleston, SC, Courier for 2 January 1836: There Poe is characterized as “equally ripe in graphic humor and various Lore” (p. 138). I thank David K. Jackson for this item. See also Mary E. Phillips, Edgar Allan Poe, The Man (Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, 1926),1.427. She notes that plays based on Poe’s writings, to be performed in New York [page iii:] during 1919-1920, would bring forth his “very distinct and well-developed sense of humor, not always fathomed by Dr. Griswold and some others.” Other, more recent and extended, commentary about the comic in Poe may be found in Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, The Very Spirit of Cordiality: The Literary Uses of Alcohol and Alcoholism in the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (Baltimore, 1978); Donald Barlow Stauffer, The Merry Mood: Poe’s Uses of Humor (Baltimore, 1982); and [what stands as a sourcebook for the subject] The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe’s Satiric Hoaxing, ed. Dennis W. Eddings (Port Washington, 1983), which collects fifteen important essays and an excellent bibliography relevant to the topic. I acknowledge much assistance from Professor William J. Zimmer, in my work.

2.  John Cook Wyllie also sheds interesting light on the similarities of Madison Jones’s novel, The Innocent (1957), to “Metzengerstein”: “Guilt-ridden Dixie,” Saturday Review, 23 February 1957, p.18.

3.  Prejudices, First Series (New York, 1919), p. 52.

4.  S., “Personal,” Harper’s Weekly, 30 January 1909, p. 6.






[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - Introduction (Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, 1986)