Poe: America’s “Artificer”

Many view Edgar Allen Poe as a uniquely gloomy, mad writer. But what if Poe was normal, simply representative of a gloomy, mad era?

In 2011, Universal Studios in Florida erected “Nevermore: The Madness of Poe,” a haunted house attraction in which, we are told, Edgar Allan Poe’s tales “come to life”—which really means that they attack the guests. As described on the “Halloween Horror Nights” Wiki: “Following is a scene from ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, where the main character is seen on a table getting sliced in half by the pendulum as the Spanish Inquisitors attack guests, holding severed body parts from victims.” Poe’s biography is just another horror show for “Nevermore: The Madness of Poe”: “In the next scene, guests enter into Poe’s portrait gallery, and see Poe calling out to his late wife and cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, as she and multiple other women from Poe’s life attack guests throughout the room.”

Poe is arguably more of a brand than a writer, and his brand is the idea of a certain kind of writer: gloomy, poor, drunk, outcast, prey to violent fantasies, on the edge of madness. Biographers generally try to separate their subjects from the myths and distortions that have accumulated around them.1 But this is more than usually difficult in the case of Poe, since the myths and distortions about him were already so deeply embedded in his life as he lived it.

Still, two superb new biographies of Poe—Scott Peeples’s The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City and John Tresch’s The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science—manage to give us a clearer view of Poe as a man and an artist, while at the same time showing how the myth mill about him was busy from the start, forming and deforming his choices, and creating the brand of Poe we know today.

In other words, Tresch and Peeples not only find the man behind the brand, they illuminate the world in which he moved. In their hands, Poe is not a uniquely troubled outcast but something far more representative of his age.

Like the madly peripatetic title character of Poe’s tale “The Man of the Crowd,” Poe moved a lot. This was not because of some special psychic alienation, Peeples contends, but rather reflected a condition of the age: “Poe was not so much uprooted as unrooted.” Peeples’s deeper point is that a lot of people moved a lot in antebellum America, and, like the old man desperately seeking new throngs when the old ones thinned out, they did so because they could not survive without everything the urban milieu made available—magazines, salons, visual spectacles, scientific lectures, and so on.

Poe needed the world of magazines, above all, if he was to make a living. By approaching Poe via the question of his mobility and city savvy, Peeples can see Poe as representative rather than anomalous and “counter an old but still pervasive impression of Poe as an isolated figure, a ‘nowhere man’ who lived somewhere in America but perhaps did not belong there, who was oblivious to his surroundings.”

John Tresch’s astonishing book also makes Poe exemplary rather than exceptional: “With the frantic, grotesque juxtapositions of his work, he is also perhaps the most American of authors. Observing the national experiment from high and low, from positions of both extreme privilege and extreme deprivation, Poe was a seismograph registering the volatility of his place and time.” The seismograph here is a carefully chosen metaphor, for the “forging of American science” is for Tresch what urbanism is for Peeples: the context in which Poe makes most sense.

Peeples and Tresch are both scholars and academics, and their books are informed by a very detailed understanding of Poe’s life, his milieu, and his published work. But both books are addressed to a general, nonspecialist readership. Peeples’s book has endnotes but “is not a work of academic criticism,” we are told. It is remarkably concise, coming in at only 180 pages. This in itself is an impressive writerly accomplishment, inasmuch as Peeples is trying not just to touch the main points of Poe’s checkered and itinerant career but also to sketch the urban worlds he inhabited—in Richmond, London, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore.

If Peeples’s signal virtue is concision, Tresch’s is pace. Nearly double the length of The Man of the Crowd, Tresch’s The Reason for the Darkness of the Night feels nevertheless like a quick read. The scholarly knowledge that lies behind both is top of the line, but never intrusive.

Will these books find a nonspecialist readership? I suspect so: Poe is not a figure that has been cordoned off behind the velvet rope of the canon keepers. He belongs to all.


How to Fake a 19th-Century Novel

By Martin Paul Eve

In a lecture at the Library of Congress in 1948, T. S. Eliot famously judged, even mocked, Poe.2 But now—with the help of Peeples and Tresch—we can see how Eliot was wrong in almost every particular. Poe revealed, according to Eliot, the “provinciality of the person who is not at home where he belongs, but cannot get to anywhere else.” But if Poe was “unrooted” rather than merely “uprooted”—and if he typifies his world in this respect—then it is the archaic value harbored in Eliot’s phrase “where he belongs” that sends him so far off the mark in his assessment of Poe. Eliot wants groundedness: to be “where he belongs.” He wants “a consistent view of life,” that gives “dignity to the mature man.” He wants ideas to be “believed” rather than “entertained.”

Now, it is difficult to maintain one’s dignity, I admit, when members of the Spanish Inquisition—nobody expected them!—come at you with severed body parts. But I suppose you park your dignity at the door of “Nevermore: The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe.” This is not literature, after all, it is a theme-park attraction. But that last word is a clue: attractions deliver thrills, they do not provoke reflections. Emerging from amusing parks and especially the early cinema, as Tom Gunning has demonstrated, the “attraction” could plausibly be traced back to Poe’s poetics of “effect” and forward to the avant-garde aesthetics of Sergei Eisenstein. “An attraction … is any aggressive aspect [or] element of the theatre that subjects the spectator to a sensual or psychological impact, experimentally regulated and mathematically calculated to produce in him certain emotional shocks.”3

Eliot also misunderstood Poe’s interest in science and technology. “Wonders of nature and of mechanics and of the supernatural, cryptograms and ciphers, puzzles and labyrinths, mechanical chess-players and wild flights of speculation”—all this Eliot thought childish. But Poe was not any more childish than Charles Babbage or Alexander Dallas Bache, or any number of the vast array of colorful characters Tresch introduces to make sense of this antebellum world. Science, technology, and art were much more intertwined during this period than they are today.

Tresch and Peeples illuminate the world in which Poe moved. In their hands, he is not a uniquely troubled outcast but something far more representative of his age.

Poe was a networker, as one had to be to survive in the savage world of mass publishing in the 1840s. But what the network gives, the network can take away. Both Peeples and Tresch are terrific at painting this world of reviewing and puffing and socializing and gossiping that enabled and constrained Poe’s work as a writer, and that did him in in the end. It is not as if Poe was first a man, and only after death acquired a reputation.

Consider in this regard Poe’s drinking. He drank—no doubt about it. And both Peeples and Tresch recount various anecdotes in which Poe’s immoderate behavior cost him friends and his reputation. At the same time, we can see how Poe got caught up in a virtue-signaling dynamic that could not help amplifying his faults. Although average consumption of alcohol in America during Poe’s life was mind-boggling, Peeples notes that, by the 1840s, temperance campaigns had much reduced alcohol sales while also making both drinking and abstaining frequent topics of public comment. Peeples offers a judicious conclusion: “This is not to say that [William Evans] Burton or [Thomas Dunn] English exaggerated Poe’s drinking problem; rather, that, as temperance men, they judged him for it and had no compunction about publicly shaming him.”

It is Tresch’s great accomplishment to have given us our fullest contextualization of Poe’s technoaesthetics, its deep roots in the science of his day. This will seem surprising to many, but Tresch is utterly convincing. Poe wrote about science all his life, both in his fictions and his journalism, and he was quite well informed, though never a practicing “scientist”—a word only coined in his lifetime. From his education at West Point (where he was a classmate of Alexander Dallas Bache, a central figure in the professionalization of science in America, and in Tresch’s book) to his last great work, the cosmological treatise Eureka (1848), Poe’s aesthetic and his scientific understanding ran on the same track.

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night, by the way, is a title of genius. The phrase refers to the puzzle as to why we see darkness between stars, if the universe is as full of matter as the theories say. The answer is that the universe, as unimaginably vast as it is, is nevertheless finite. (In making this point, as Tresch observes, Poe anticipated 20th-century cosmology.) But as a poetic phrase it brilliantly sums up Poe, an artist dedicated to applying reason to darkness. As Tresch notes in the final words of his book: “Poe sharpened the piercing light of reason—and deepened the darkness in its wake.”

Science in antebellum America was still speculative even as it was becoming more methodical. If Poe was often speculative, he was even more often methodical. Tresch writes that “Poe treated literary ‘genres’ as a form of mass production. Applying the habits of his engineering training to the writing of fiction, Poe surveyed the field, analyzed the construction of earlier products, and applied these formulas in a series of works of his own. … Poe optimized his formulas, magnifying them into ‘grotesques,’ or rarefying them into more concentrated forms.”


The Indifference Engine

By Elyse Graham

A story or a poem is not an outpouring from the soul, and it is not a kind of instruction—it is what Tresch calls an “aesthetic experiment.” Experiments need multiple trials: Put the corpse beneath the floorboards, behind a wall, in a crypt, in a ship’s bunk. Have the tale explode with a cat’s cry, a beating heart, a tinkling bell, a “glutinous” voice that becomes a decomposed corpse of “detestable putridity.” Play around with codes and ciphers—as a clue to buried treasure, as mysterious glyphs on cavern walls, as a blizzard of printing errors. Set the drama of detection in a blood-smeared apartment or an elegant royal chamber.

When artists in other media take up Poe—and do they ever!—one often feels the experimental character of his writing. This is why his works seem modular and mashable. You can drop details from one story into your treatment of another, you can grab and go. Poe’s poems and tales are simultaneously indelible and provisional: you never forget them, but you can always change them. They retain a very tight link to the name of Poe, but a much weaker link to the texts of Poe. This is the essence of why he is a brand and not merely an author.

F. O. Matthiessen sidelined Poe to a footnote in his field-defining American Renaissance (1941) on account of the latter’s “factitiousness.” But what Tresch has allowed us to see is that this aspect of Poe’s work—its artifice, its factitiousness—is deeply embedded in the technoaesthetic world he lived in and helped to pass along. He’s not a 14-year-old tinkerer, as Eliot would have him; rather, “the poet labored not like a spirit or a God but as an artificer, a craftsman, perhaps a mechanic; assembling concrete materials into novel arrangements.” Both Tresch and Peeples remark on the fact that when Poe was briefly in the army, he was an “artificer,” that is, a fabricator of explosive devices. That’s a pretty good way to understand much of his literary work. His tales are fabricated, they flaunt their artifice, and they blow up.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

  1. Edgar Allan Poe had quite a few daguerreotypes taken of him. By far the best known is the very gloomy one from late in his life, after he had tried to commit suicide with an overdose of laudanum. It’s called the “Ultima Thule” image, in reference to Poe’s poem “Dream-Land”: “I have reached these lands but newly/From an ultimate dim Thule.” The picture is used on the cover of The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—and on any number of tchotchkes and T-shirts at Etsy.
  2. T. S. Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry,” Hudson Review, vol. 2, no. 3 (1949).
  3. Sergei Eisenstein, “Montage of Attractions,” Drama Review, vol. 18, no. 1 (1974), p. 78. When Eisenstein invokes the “experimentally regulated and mathematically calculated,” he is writing in the wake of Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” and its hyperrational approach to the writing of a poem.
Featured image: Edgar Allan Poe Graffiti in Yerevan, Armenia. Photograph by User Rs4815 / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)