The Edgar Allan Poe You Never Knew: Professor Hal Poe On His Distant Cousin
Written by Karen Brewer
Dr. Hal Poe, Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and an authority on the life and works of writer Edgar Allan Poe, shares about his distant cousin. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Dr. Hal Poe, Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and an authority on the life and works of writer Edgar Allan Poe, recently shared about his distant cousin.
The more than 250 film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s works or of his life are overdone, said Hal Poe. “They hype Poe,” he said. “But Poe understates everything. He intimates. He infers. Part of the key to his success is he draws the reader into the story, so that the reader’s imagination is at work. And he doesn’t give vivid descriptions visually of what is happening. Instead, it is the reader who is tricked into providing all of that drama and visual dynamic. So, most of the movies are overdone rather than understated. And, of course, the movies are all horrors movies, and we think of Poe with horror. Poe had one great horror in his life — to become typecast as a horror story writer, when, in fact, Poe hated horror stories. He thought they were ghastly, dreadful things. So why do we associate Poe with horror? It was a time when that’s what everyone was turning out, by the bucket load. American magazines were full of horror stories, and that’s what everybody wrote.”
Poe pointed out that Louisa May Alcott, well known author of the book Little Women, actually wrote most of her work, horror stories, under a pseudonym.
Edgar Allan Poe’s favorite kind of story, on the other hand, was comedy. “He wrote 75 stories, and a third of those stories were comedies,” he said. “He loved to laugh. He loved a funny tale. That’s what he preferred to write.
“After the humor stories, he loved a new kind of fiction. It was brand new when he was writing it. There were only a couple of other people who had attempted it. One was Mary Shelley. This kind of story didn’t have a name until after World War I. So, for 100 years, people who wrote these kinds of stories didn’t have a name for it. The newspapers called them hoaxes. Today, we call them science fiction. So “Frankenstein” was that kind of story. Poe could write that sort of story in a variety of ways. He could write a science fiction story as a comedy. He could write one as a romantic comedy. He could write one as a horror or as a suspense. There is a difference between the tale of terror and a tale of horror. Poe said that the real purpose of art, or what the artist should aim at, whether it’s a musician, a painter, a poet, is creating an effect in the audience — creating an effect, not teaching a lesson. The lecture is for teaching a lesson. The sermon is for teaching a moral. But art is to create an effect in the audience. And so the effect of a horror story is for the audience to feel horrible about something that has happened. And you don’t add a little moral lesson at the end. The story itself must lead the audience to feel a certain way toward what has happened. The terror story, on the other hand, is for you to feel terrible or full of terror. And the title has gone from terror to suspense. This is what Alfred Hitchcock did. Alfred Hitchcock said, ‘All I want to do is what Edgar Allan Poe did.’ He would write a story that is completely improbable and yet make the reader believe that it could happen to them on any Tuesday afternoon. That’s the tale of suspense. And this tale of terror grips you with fear, not that it’s happening to them, but that it might happen to me.
“So, he was experimenting with different kinds of stories. But he was also asking questions, questions that really go back to his childhood. Both of his parents died by the time he was two years old. His foster mother died when he was a teenager. The woman who inspired him to write poetry died while he was a teenager. He wrote a poem for her. It’s one of his greatest poems. It’s entitled, “To Helen.” Helen was not her name, but he thought of her as Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, and he thought she was absolutely wonderful. She was his best friend’s mother. And she said, ‘Oh, Edgar, you write so well; you need to write poetry.’ And so he did, for her. She died while he was a teenager. Most everybody he knew just died. His older brother, William, died when he was 24 of tuberculosis. They called it consumption then. His child bride, Virginia, died of tuberculosis when she was 25.
“So here is the problem. If there is a good, all powerful God, why did my mother die? Why did my wife die? Why do bad things happen? That’s a common question that almost everybody in the world asks at some time or another. Most people just ask that question. They don’t ask the other, obvious questions. But Poe was not most people. Poe also noticed the other questions. And so, that question, the problem of evil, is a difficult question for people who believe in God.
“But suppose you don’t believe in God. It’s just a brute universe, just matter. Here’s the problem. Why is there beauty? And contrary to popular belief, Poe was not obsessed with death. He was obsessed with beauty, and he saw a glorious world. He loved every aspect of it, and he wrote a number of stories just about the beauty of nature. It was a real problem. He was gripped by it. If there’s just a brute world, there shouldn’t be beauty. There should just be what is. He had another problem — the problem of love. In just a brute universe, where survival is the issue, and where you’re merely driven toward reproduction, and continuity of the life form, where genes are the driving force, love is a huge problem. It doesn’t fit in. In fact, it gets in the way. Then, he had another problem — the problem of justice. Another way of stating it is the problem of right and wrong. In a brute material universe, there is no good, there is no evil, there is no right, there is no wrong. There is just what is. To have the idea that some things are wrong, and it is wrong to do something to someone, when we are merely competing for resources for survival, doesn’t make sense, and yet there is this universal issue of justice, right and wrong, of fairness. And then his final problem is the universe. Why is there something rather than nothing? These are huge philosophical questions that Poe is asking. And he is dealing with them in every story and poem he writes.
“So let’s go to a horror story like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” That’s the most familiar of his stories to most Americans, because it’s the shortest one he wrote. Therefore, the 11th grade textbook publishing company, interested in cramming as much as they can into the book for as cheaply as possible, prints only that story of Poe’s, and that increases this typecasting of Poe, that he just does horror stories. But note, in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, he’s gotten away with it. He’s gotten away with murder, and the police don’t suspect, yet he gets caught. He is snagged by the universe. The universe, itself, indicts him. He confesses to the crime. The same thing happens in “The Black Cat.” There is no suspicion. There is no evidence. It is the universe itself that comes down on him with justice. And Poe has this profound sense of justice behind the universe. Now, how do you account for that? I mentioned that he didn’t care for the horror story — heads rolling down the street, blood everywhere, gratuitous violence, meaninglessness. He looked at these things, and he just groaned. But here’s the dilemma. You want to be a poet. Poetry doesn’t sell. You have to have some way to earn a living. And the public loves violence. Not much has changed. So, he had to write them. We remember him because he was good. And they’ve been in print ever since they were first written. You can’t say that about many American authors.
“He had finally had it with the horror story, and when he became Editor of Graham’s magazine, in 1841, he decided to do something different. Poe was a highly competent editor. And he was a practical man of business. He took Graham’s magazine. They had 5,000 subscribers in the winter of 1841. By the winter of 1842, they had 50,000 subscribers. He was a very able editor. But he decided that, to kick off his new job as Editor, he was going to come up with something different. In his modesty, he said he’d come up with a story in a new key. That’s a poetic allusion to music. Poe loved music. Here’s what he did. He took the horror story. In the horror story, the excitement builds and builds and builds and builds until the end, and there’s the gore. There’s no meaning to it, but it’s intense. He turns the story around. The murder happens at the very beginning, before anything else has happened, before the stage is set. Word comes, there’s a murder. There’s been screaming from the upstairs apartment in a certain corner of Paris, and the neighbors all hear it, and they rush to the apartment, and they batter down the door, because it’s locked from the inside. And there they find the bodies, blood everywhere. And the question is raised – Who ‘done’ it? And with that, Poe invented the mystery story. So what do you do if you’ve already got the climax to the story at the beginning? Well, the rest of the story is designed to pursue — is there order and meaning to the universe? Every mystery story depends upon that — the orderly universe in which meaning can be found. And so he creates an eccentric detective, of course, who baffles the police, because the police can’t figure out the crime. After all, the door was locked from the inside. And the detective has a sidekick. The sidekick is very important, because the sidekick is the one who narrates the story. And, if you don’t have that sidekick, you don’t know what’s going on inside the mind of the detective, because the detective explains to the sidekick how he figured out the mystery. And these are conventions that you see in virtually every mystery story popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who took Poe’s detective and translated it to London. In 1909, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a huge dinner in London for Poe’s centennial, and, in his toast, he reminded all of the detective writers there that, if we gave just a penance of our income to the man who made it possible for us to earn our living, Poe would have been a wealthy man. So, when the detective writers of the United States decided to organize into a society, they called it The Mystery Writers of America. They give an award every year — it is the Edgar Award, a little bust of Poe, because he has provided them with a living, the mystery story. So, that first mystery, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” has a few conventions to it. The second mystery story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” continues with the same detective, the chevalier Auguste Dupin, an impoverished aristocrat. But he wrote this story for a specific purpose. The young woman Mary Rogers has been murdered in New York, and the police were ignoring it because Mary was of questionable reputation. Poe’s sense of justice was highly offended. It does not matter what her background. This young woman has been murdered, and the perpetrator must be brought to trial. Here’s the trick about the mystery story. The mystery story works only if the audience brings to the story the idea of justice. The audience must prove who ‘done’ it. The audience must want an innocent person set free. The audience must want to know the truth. And so, you have this interesting thing in our post-modern world of relativism. The mystery story reminds us that there is such a thing as truth. The mystery story is one of the most popular stories told in America on evening television.
Edgar Allan Poe
“Poe is dealing with this whole issue of justice. In our culture, we think it is the person who calculates or the scientist with their observations that is the person of true genius. But, he said, that’s not really true. The true genius is the person of imagination who knows how to calculate and observe. These are merely tools. What the philosophers/scientists refer to as empiricism — that kind of knowledge you have through seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, sensory knowledge — well, we all have that. What do you do with your observations? In the mystery story, the police don’t know what to do with the observations. They’ve got all of the clues, but they don’t know how to sift them. Or they think about them in the conventional way. But Poe tells us that every great scientific discovery has come along because someone saw the world in a different way. They did not have new evidence. They simply saw that the sun doesn’t travel around the earth, the earth travels around the sun. And that conclusion did not come from any new observation. It came from imagination. And so it is with all of the great scientific discoveries. So, Poe, in all of these mystery stories, says a little bit more about imagination than science and what it can tell us and the connection between the human mind and the universe. This is a huge problem. Why does science work? What is the connection between the human mind and our ability to discern laws of nature?
“All of this came to a conclusion the year after Poe’s wife died. She died in January of 1847. And Poe, in a few weeks after her death, won a major lawsuit. He had been accused of drunkenness and dissipation, and he sued the journal that had accused him of that and won a huge settlement, enough to live on for a year. He took the year off, because he wanted to figure something out. Poe spent 1847 writing a book about God, the universe, and everything. It’s entitled Eureka. It was a thorny problem in astronomy and physics. It had been a thorny problem for centuries. Every person of science ‘knew’ that the universe had existed forever, that it is eternal, that the universe is infinite in size and has an infinite number of stars, because Aristotle said so. That idea was still governing science when Poe wrote. It was still governing science (at the time of) Einstein. When I was in the 7th grade, my 7th grade science textbook described infinity — there is a finite number of grains of sand in the oceans, but there is an infinite number of stars in the heavens. And so here is the thorny problem — why is the night sky dark? If you take a black ink pen and a white piece of paper and put an infinite number of dots on the white piece of paper, the white piece of paper is going to be black. Let’s do it the other way. If you take the night sky and put an infinite number of points of light, then there should be a dull luminous glow for the night sky, because every point in the sky would be filled with a point of light. It made sense to the scientists for centuries. This is known as Olbers’ paradox, and there was no solution to it — until Edgar Allan Poe said, ‘The reason the night sky is dark is because there is not an infinite number of stars.’ Instead, what you see is a general distribution of points of light. It’s the same effect you get if you take birdshot and shoot it at the side of a barn. As the birdshot leaves the barrel of the shotgun, it begins to spread out into a general distribution. Poe said that, therefore, what we see in the night sky is the result of a general distribution of stars across the heavens. If you wind it up backwards, they came from one common point. He called it the Primordial Particle. His conclusion was that the universe is the result of all matter expanding outward from this dense original Primordial Particle. Today, we call this ’The Big Bang Theory.’ It was not formally accepted as a theory until the 1920’s. It was not generally accepted as the explanation of the universe until the 1970’s. Poe said it’s his greatest contribution to the world — not simply that the universe expanded, but the problem of: where did it come from? And his conclusion was there is a Creator. Poe’s conclusion to his observation of the universe is that there is someone who caused it to happen. And, in describing all of this, it’s not just that he came up with the Big Bang theory, but, in order to describe the Big Bang, and all of the details of the expanding universe, he also had to come up with basic principles of relativity. At that time, we only knew of two fundamental forces, gravity and electromagnetism. Poe said there must be other forces at work, binding the universe together, binding matter together. We don’t know what they are at this point. We don’t have the means to experiment. But, when we discover what they are, what we will discover is that they can be described in terms of attraction and repulsion. We know that these other two forces are the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force. But as he described it, he shifted from positive/negative to simply talk about attraction and repulsion, and what must happen in the universe. Also, something that he had been thinking about for about a decade, another shocking idea, is the relativity of time and space, the idea that there is no privileged time in the universe. He first wrote about this in a comic, romantic science-fiction story.
Edgar Allan Poe
“But here’s the point. In the early 1840’s, he’s describing the kind of universe that Einstein would describe in 1905 in his ‘Theory of Relativity.’ It is a universe in which space is curved rather than linear. It is a universe in which life is an extension of electromagnetism. And it came about, all of this, through an exercise of imagination. Now, when he came up with this, of course they thought he was crazy, because the universe ‘has always existed’ and ‘it’s infinite in size. We know this. Aristotle said so.’
“In the 20th century, Poe’s biographers followed through the tradition that Eureka is evidence of a deranged mind. Physicists since the 1990’s, when it became known again in the scientific community, were absolutely baffled by it. And it raised questions about the importance of imagination in scientific discoveries. Poe was a French major. He was dealing with things that physicists did not have access to at that time. But it is the power of the imagination to perceive the kind of universe in which we live.”
Dr. Hal Poe spoke of Edgar Allan Poe’s educational and military career. “Poe left home because his foster father, Mr. Allan, would not pay his tuition to the University of Virginia,” Poe said. “Allan spread the rumor that Poe was kicked out for gambling. No. The University of Virginia keeps very good records, and they usually have that book open. They’re very proud of Poe. No, he wasn’t kicked out for gambling. Mr. Allan wouldn’t pay his fees. So, he was ashamed, but he also wanted nothing more to do with Mr. Allan because Mr. Allan had been running around, on the side, on Mrs. Allan, and Poe thought that Mr. Allan should be more faithful to Mrs. Allan. So, they fell out. And he went and joined the Army.
“He was in the Army for about 18 months, during which time he rose in the ranks from enlisted man, the very bottom of the rank, to Sergeant Major. Normally, it takes 20 or 30 years to rise in the ranks. So he had an immaculate record in the Army. He was in the artillery, the Coast artillery. He started in Boston. Then, he sailed down to Sullivan’s Island and was there for a year. Then, he went up to Fort Monroe, Virginia, and that’s where he got word that Mrs. Allan had died. His officers wanted him to become an officer, but you couldn’t go from being Sgt. Major to being an officer. You had to go to West Point.
Edgar Allan Poe
“He went to West Point. He did very well. But, in those days, the Army did not provide your books or your instruments. Mr. Allan wouldn’t pay for books. He had to leave, but you can’t leave West Point, any more than you can leave Fort Jackson, because you’re in the Army. He conspired with the Commandant to do enough to be dismissed but not so much as to get shot. So, after having an immaculate record, being at the top of his class, in January of 1829, suddenly, his shirt’s untucked, his belt’s unbuttoned, his right shoe is unpolished, and he gets a demerit every day for something, and finally the great offense — he was ordered to go to church, and he refused a direct order. And so, they could then court-martial him, and he could leave the Army. However, the degree to which the Commandant was complicit is demonstrated in the fact that the Commandant let Poe stay there until he could decide where he wanted to go. So, he stayed on for a few weeks, and, when he left, he published a book of poetry, and it was paid for by the cadets at West Point, to whom he dedicated it.”
Edgar Allan Poe
Dr. Hal Poe discussed the leading theory of the more than 40 theories of the cause of Poe’s death. “Poe died of heart failure,” he said. “If you know mystery stories, they will always say, ‘Oh, he died of heart failure.’ Only the detective says, ‘Everybody dies of heart failure.’ When he was going from Richmond to New York, to bring Mrs. Clemm back to Richmond for the wedding, on his way through Baltimore, he disappeared, and he showed up several days later. By the way, he was fastidious in his appearance. He was always immaculate. He took great pride. And (when he showed up after his disappearance) he was wearing second-hand clothes and a beat-up straw hat. He was not Edgar Allan Poe. He was delirious. He was found in the middle of a vicious election campaign. If you’ve seen Gangs of New York, you understand what politics was like in Baltimore, which was much more vicious than New York. They would kidnap people and force them with laudanum to go from polling place to polling place. That’s the way you did elections in those days. Poe wasn’t really an alcoholic. He had an intolerance of alcohol, so that he could not drink. If he had communion wine, he would go into delirium and pass out. He could not take wine. So, he avoided alcohol as much as he possibly could. So, here he is, in this delirious state. They take him to the hospital, and he dies a few days later. That was 1849. In 1875, they wanted a big new monument to Poe. He was now very well known, internationally acclaimed, so they dug up the coffin, moved it across the churchyard, to where this big monument was going to be. When they dug up the coffin, the coffin had collapsed and cracked the skull. The newspaper account said, ‘We were able to glimpse the great man’s brain.’ Now, that is, inside the skull, they could see ‘the shriveled brain.’ The brain is the first thing to go. So, it was not the shriveled brain they saw 25 years later. On the other hand, a brain tumor calcifies and looks like a shriveled brain. Poe had a number of medical complaints in the year leading up to his death that are consistent with brain cancer. In the winter of 1831, he had a violent fever, probably scarlet fever, and he was very sickly from then on. His heart was very weak from then on. He probably had a heart murmur. He was not healthy. (Until then, he was known as an athlete. He swam six miles down the James River against the tide and set a record, and he was hailed as a local hero in Richmond. He was known for his running, his jumping, his swimming. Those were the sorts of things you excelled at in those days.) I think that, what we have at his death, is a perfect storm of things coming together. I think it was just coinciding, all of those things together, resulting in his death.”
Dr. Hal Poe explained that, more than any biography on the life of Edgar Allan Poe, a fictional novel by one of his contemporaries, his friend, gives a more accurate description of Poe’s life, in the tale of one of literature’s most beloved figures. “If you want a good fictional account of the life of Edgar Allan Poe, it was written by one of his friends the year he died,” said Poe. “His friend Charles Dickens came to the United States in 1842. They had several long discussions in Philadelphia. They were agreed that we needed international copyright law, because, in those days, as soon as you had a story in print, another newspaper or magazine would print it. There was no such thing as intellectual property. And Dickens once said that the only person he ever helped to get published was Edgar Allan Poe. At the end of his life, Dickens made a return trip to the United States. By then, he was a very famous man. He visited Poe’s mother-in-law. Mrs. Clemm was living in abject poverty in Baltimore, in the county poor house. He visited her and took her a stack of gold. Poe was special to Dickens, and, in that story that he wrote in 1849, he tells about a little boy whose parents were both dead in his childhood. He had a foster father who sent him off to a dreadful school and then put him to work in a factory. But he left there and went on and found his maternal aunt, and he lived with her, and then he went on to become a writer. He married a child bride. He loved her desperately, but she died of tuberculosis. And then, at the end of the story, after he is in despair and goes on a drunken rampage, he finally pulls himself together, goes back to his home, and there he sees the girl he had been in love with in childhood. In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe returned to Richmond, Virginia, and there, his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Shelton, he discovered, was a widow. They fell in love again and were engaged. And so, your best picture of Edgar Allan Poe is not found in the biographies. It’s found in the story of David Copperfield. If you know David Copperfield, you know Edgar Allan Poe.”