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Edgar Allan Poe: Yesterday and Today

Updated on October 1, 2020
Poe's "The Raven" as illustrated by Édouard Manet.
Poe's "The Raven" as illustrated by Édouard Manet.

To say Edgar Allan Poe was troubled would be akin to calling a tornado a light breeze. Scholars have studied the man for decades, analyzed his works and found a common thread: madness and the death of a beautiful woman. Now, to be fair, this is hardly unique to Poe's work. Madness has often been explored in literature, and he's not the first author to subject a beautiful woman to a painful, lingering illness from which death is the only relief. Yet to me, your humble narrator, something about Poe stuck out to me enough to write an entire essay about him in college. You might say I was fascinated by the man's fascination.

The proper name of the trope is Author Appeal, and it's everywhere. A lot of writers, directors, artists and other creators can't resist going back to what they know and love best. For Seth McFarlane it's pop culture and musicals, for V.C. Andrews it was twisted family trees and incest. For anime director Kuniko Ikuhara it's complex symbolism and lesbians, and for Catherine Anderson it's city girls charmed by handsome country boys and their horses. Every author has something they can't help falling back on, myself included. And for Poe, it was madness and suffering.

As a child, Poe watched his mother die of a long illness; this led to an obsession with mother-figures to the point where his first love was a friend's mother. But when he married his 13-year-old cousin, he valued her innocence to the point where rumors circulated that he never consummated the marriage, though other reports claim he merely waited until she was 16. Either way, Poe loved her with a passion, more than he'd ever loved any other woman in his life. Sadly, Virginia grew sick with tuberculosis and suffered for five years before her death, which rattled Poe's already fragile mental state. It's said that it was his love for Virginia that influenced the deluge of beautiful dying women in his writings.

It's not uncommon for life to imitate art. The loss of his birth mother and later his first love to illness, his own mental illness and alcoholism as an adult, the loss of Virginia? It seemed natural that he would write about these things. It can be a form of catharsis to write fiction based on difficult life experiences, and indeed, Poe's work seemed to be a series of small autobiographies. Now that I'm older and wiser, I understand these. Taking more lit classes than any other kind at college helped me along the way, yet in 2004 my essay made it sound like the concepts were such a shock, so revolutionary. While Poe is still a fascinating figure, he's hardly alone in a sea of authors who write what they know and love.

Values Dissonance

Another thing that's often attributed to Poe is the image of the mad, suffering artist who creates brilliant pieces. In today's society, opinions on this concept are...divided, to put it safely. I have a lot of personal feelings on the issue I won't go into here. But Poe is among many creators who suffered from some form of madness and still managed to create iconic works of art. Vincent van Goh and "Starry Night", Sylvia Plath's poetry and single novel The Bell Jar. The question "where is the line between creativity and insanity?" pops up now and then in response to more controversial and outlandish works. Some of the more outlandish creations have their own category of Outsider Art. Studies have shown that yes, there does tend to be a correlation between mental illness and creativity.

But as mental illness becomes more widely recognized and easily treatable, the concept of the brilliant mad artist is slowly dying out, proven correlation aside. Some find it to be a harmful myth that mental illnesses can enhance creativity, citing that they themselves find their ability to create is depleted by spells of depression or anxiety. Others have said they find themselves producing more during the "manic" phases, spurred by sudden bursts of energy and the need to do something. And still, others look at the mad artists of yesteryear and wonder, for all they produced back then would they have been able to do more, to do better had help been available?

Had Poe lived in this day and age, would he be one to resist treatment or seek it? Would he still employ madness and the death of a beautiful woman as he did, or think twice as he remembered how painful such subjects could be? Would he embrace his madness and insist it fed his art, or realize that he might produce even better work if he were in a better place mentally?

And then, of course, there's the question of each era's standards. Some point out that while Poe, Plath and van Goh's works are legends today they weren't as well-received at the time of their creation. We may see Starry Night and think "what a beautiful painting" or praise "The Telltale Heart" as a brilliant psychological horror story today, but standards were different back then. As Lisa Simpson pointed out after her reading of "The Raven" failed to scare Bart, "it was written in 1845, maybe people were easier to scare back then". Standards of beauty, horror, comedy-they all change. Just like what was funny in the 1920s may seem ridiculous now, what's considered a classic now may have been considered in poor taste back then.

Which brings me to another thought, tying both of these things together: Had Poe been mentally sound and chosen to write these things anyway, he'd go down in history as a rebel. For his time, he'd be a revolutionary who dared to defy convention and shake up the literary world just a bit. Would he have attracted even more controversy in doing this? Would his mental health be called into question?

Some say you can't apply modern values to past creators and their work, that media of the past should stay where it is. A relic of days gone by. At times I'm inclined to agree, but at other times I admit taking past creators in a modern context can pave the way for some interesting questions. Ones that really make you think.


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