Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Passion of St. Edgar

with 3 comments

It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, the patron saint of all those who write for a living. More than two centuries after his birth, Poe remains a fascinating figure, largely because few authors have presented us with so stark a contrast between the rational and irrational sides of a writer’s personality. When we think of Poe, we tend to think of the obsessive, alcoholic, manic-depressive eccentric, but he was also deeply learned, an ingenious plotmaker, and a talented cryptologist who challenged readers to submit ciphers for him to solve. Poe was arguably the first professional American writer of lasting interest, at a time when he had few, if any, models for such a career. As such, he could hardly have been anything less than prodigiously hardworking and talented. He remains the epitome of the popular writer, and the model for all those who followed: clever, opportunistic, but with more than a touch of madness to be writing for a living at all.

Every critic knows that Poe was a prolific inventor of genres, above all that of the detective story, but not everyone understands why. Genre, as I’ve said before, is the result of a sort of dialogue between an author and his audience, a process of trial and error as writers figure out what elements get the best response. Because Poe was among the first writers whose survival depended entirely on a popular readership, he embodied that process singlehandedly: while he was undoubtedly driven by his own obsessions, he was also willing to try anything once. Browsing in Poe’s collected stories is like watching natural selection at work, with successful innovations alternating with wild shots in the dark. It’s no accident that of the three short stories featuring the detective Dupin, the first and last, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” have become classics, while the second, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” survives, if at all, as a weird, basically unreadable experiment. Here as elsewhere, Poe tried something new, checked to see if it worked, and if it didn’t, he moved on. And that’s how genres are made.

Earlier this week, I mentioned Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which nicely sums up the two halves of his, or any writer’s, creative personality. In it, he makes a show of breaking down “The Raven” into its constituent parts, claiming that every choice he made was the result of a rational process—that he chose to write about the death of a beautiful woman, for instance, because it is unquestionably “the most poetical topic in the world,” and selected the refrain “Nevermore” because of “the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.” Critics tend to believe that the essay is a parody of close literary analysis, and indeed, Poe often seems to be winking slyly at the reader. Yet I have the feeling that what Poe describes is not entirely removed from his real creative process. It seems quite likely that Poe initially conceived of a poem with the refrain “Nevermore,” then worked it out forward and backward, proceeding with the intuition of the craftsman, not the mystic. And the result is a poem that produces its uncanny effects in unexpectedly rational ways.

Poe’s influence is incalculable—”He is never wrong,” as Paul Valéry said—but these days, it’s easier to admire him for his plots and originality than for the actual experience of reading his fiction. The core of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is an astonishingly modern detective story, at least in terms of its red herrings and high-concept solution, but it takes a long time to get there, opening with an interminable two-page essay on the nature of analysis before introducing the characters themselves. A few decades later, Arthur Conan Doyle would refine and perfect this model to the point where we can still read his stories with undiminished delight, but even he acknowledged that he wouldn’t be anywhere without Poe. Nor would any of us. In mystery, in horror, in science fiction, in suspense: in the end, we’re all working from the example left for us by Poe, the great original, who knew what it meant to write like your life depended on it.

Written by nevalalee

January 19, 2012 at 10:12 am

3 Responses

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  1. The first e-book I got on my ipad was Poe’s collected works. My thoughts as I went through the collection were, as follows:
    -he did science fiction?! That wasn’t invented yet!
    -this Dupin guy is sure a lot like Sherlock Holmes.
    -These nautical adventure stories are pretty good.
    -what is his obsession with the south pole??
    -The Black Cat is just plain wrong, but…doesn’t it speak more honestly about human perversity and the nature of evil than almost anything else in print?


    January 19, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  2. I love “The Black Cat.” That and “The Cask of Amontillado” are probably my favorites.


    January 19, 2012 at 8:34 pm

  3. Twisted, twisted, twisted.


    January 19, 2012 at 9:26 pm

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