Celebrating the death rather than the birthday of the master of the macabre, is only fitting. On this day October 7, 1849 Edgar Allan Poe died at the age of 40 after he was found in a gutter on a side street in Baltimore, Maryland. Some people say he died from an opium overdose, others say it was alcohol poisoning, some believe it was pneumonia, or murder? No one knows. The circumstances surrounding his death intensifies his mystique. It’s eerie and strangely perfect at the same time that a man famous for composing the scariest stories ever would die under a shadow of mystery and suspicion.
I had the fortune of being introduced to Poe when, at 9 years old, I heard a recording of “The Raven” by Christopher Walken. Yes, more cowbell, we get it. I was hooked from “Once upon a midnight dreary…”
Known by his contemporaries as a reckless gambler who had a crippling affinity for alcohol and was rumored to be addicted to opioids, Poe was underappreciated in his own time. Long after his passing, Poe’s work crept into the fabric of American culture. His influences, especially in American fiction, fantasy and film cannot be denied. Find me one horror film that doesn’t pay homage to “The Raven” poet in the last century. You won’t. Even the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens are a tribute to the author.
However, as the years slither on I found it troubling to see that less and less people were reading Poe and just knew of Poe. Much like Prince was remembered less for his musical trailblazing and more as the embodiment of a brand he’d constructed at the time of his death. Instead of reading classic tales like “The Cask of Amontillado” people have taken to flipping through modern classics like The Shining or The Exorcist. While I’m not taking anything away from these books or their like, I find it disturbing less people read the man who made the modern hits possible. To rectify this wrong, or maybe to make myself feel better, I’ve listed points on why Edgar Allan Poe still matters in today’s literary society.
He was the first major American writer to write short stories.
The short story is a genre us bibliophiles take for granted. Many critics believed it was a cheapened form of the novel and didn’t take much thought or effort on the part of the writer. But Poe went and did it anyway because he saw their merit further down the line and went on to publish the thriller “William Wilson” and the drug-induced pulp horror “Ligeia.” Laying the groundwork for the American short story opened the door for literary giants like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, who both cite Poe as a major influence in their science fiction. Let’s not forget to mention his tales are incredible feats of literature on their own merit. I argue that “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the best story written by an American. If you haven’t read it then prepare yourself to be intrigued, frightened and freaked out.
Poe invented detective fiction.
We all think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to be the spark that launched the genre of mystery and detective novels. Not so! Sir Doyle was heavily influenced by three short stories featuring the first fictional detective by Western standards in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The detective in question is Frenchman C. Auguste Dupin. Haven’t heard of him? He’s an eccentric Parisian who solves mysteries for various reasons who possesses a distinct talent for inserting himself into the mind of a criminal with an acute attention to detail. Sound familiar? It’s Sherlock Holmes with a French accent!
He was the first American writer to make a living solely through writing.
Now why would this make him important? Wasn’t he a failure? Didn’t he die in drunken abject poverty? Yes and yes but his choice to be a writer by trade was radical. American authors wrote in their spare time. Clerks stayed up all hours of the night in order to write their novels. Horse buggie drivers took time revising their stanzas in between routes. Writing wasn’t thought to earn a livable wage. Poe took the countercultural route. Living independently, he didn’t spend a single day out of debt. He never recovered on a personal or social level. But with this choice, he showed that being a writer in America wasn’t a hobby, it was a lifestyle. His choice expanded the horizons for literary artistry and hundreds of authors have Poe thank.