Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Was Edgar Allen Poe Just Heckling Us?

Edgar Allan Poe is known as one of the most influential authors of his time in terms of detective fiction (as he practically invented it), science fiction (as it was just on the rise of popularity), and of course, horror, as many of us already know. When his name comes up, people immediately think of stories and poems, such as ‘The Tell Tale Heart,’ ‘The Raven,’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.” There’s no doubt that Poe was a very disturbed man; psychotic even, most likely. Despite all of this, there was more to his writing than just doom and gloom. To anyone who has never really sat down and read all of his works before (and I wouldn’t blame you for this, as there are many), you may be surprised to know that horror actually consists of a very small portion of the tales that Poe crafted. So what then, did Poe write more than anything else, if not horror? Humor and satire get the prize.

This may surprise some, as you wouldn’t normally picture a dark and dreary individual writing about things that make people laugh or think about the society around them. Let it be known that these works were quite Gothic in nature, regardless of the genre that they would later be placed under. What makes all of this so interesting however, is that such a large amount of his storytelling (over 30 short stories) all consisted of the humor/satiric nature, give a much better representation of what Poe was trying to do than any of his more “serious” work. His first ever short story, ‘Metzengerstein,’ was considered to be horror by some; and satire by others. Even with his first story, people were already debating what Poe was trying to accomplish. Do you see where I’m going with this yet? I’d like to present that alternate theory that some people seem too afraid (or in denial) to touch on.

From his first entry into short stories, all the way up to the horror stories considered to be classics by millions, Poe followed certain themes that carried through to each and almost every publication. These included death (the obvious one), irony (usually very cruel), and (dark) romanticism. Once again, no one ever seems to ask the question of why this is; and simply just accepts it instead. Why would he use overly dark themes like this? Some may think it was just to be metaphoric of his own life’s difficulties, but I think it goes much deeper than that. Edgar Allan Poe wanted people to break away from the bonds of conformity in everyday life. This was made apparent after his extreme criticism of didacticism (the notion of something being overly instructive, or educational, sacrificing enjoyment in the process). How did he bring people to do this very act? He put out story after story with completely over-the-top exaggerations of the Gothic genre conventions that we came to know. By being so explicit in his telling, this enabled others to make their own interpretations and break out of their own levels of conformity. This is why it’s possible to debate whether all of his stories were meant to be satire, or if Poe intended to create serious works of horror out of the tales considered as such. It’s still in debate today if many of Poe’s works had actual underlying messages within them, or if he was just “doing it for the sake of doing it.”

One of the biggest hints about Poe’s methods of writing came from a piece he wrote in 1838, called ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article.’ In this, Poe wrote a parody “how to” essay, involving the methods of writing a successful horror story, while also making fun of those very methods at the same time. (Anyone interested can read it here - http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/eapoe/bl-eapoe-howto.htm) The oddity of the whole thing comes from the fact that Poe actually lists examples of the very conventions he himself uses in the works that were considered horror. Some examples include:

“The first thing requisite is to get yourself into such a scrape as no one ever got into before.”

“If you know any big words this is your chance for them. Talk of the Ionic and Eleatic schools- of Archytas, Gorgias, and Alcmaeon. Say something about objectivity and subjectivity.”

“Above all, study innuendo. Hint everything-assert nothing. If you feel inclined to say 'bread and butter,' do not by any means say it outright.”

Are you all ready for the real kicker here? Edgar Allan Poe wrote ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ the year after he wrote this very article. If you go back and read that story, and then compare it to the ‘Blackwood’ piece, I think you’ll find an odd amount of connections between the two in practice. What if Poe released ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ just to point out that these very stereotypes he mocked in his previous work, actually do work on people? What if everything he’s written up to this point (horror included) has all really been pieces of satire all along? While I am not saying this is definitely the case here, I do feel that it’s worth examining, and maybe giving a second look into.

I can almost guarantee that if you now attempt to re-read Poe’s works with this new mindset, you'll be surprised with what you may find. I’m not saying that this is the “be all end all” of answers involving the meaning of Poe’s writings, but I do feel that there are too many connections here for me not to be on to something, and I hope others reading this may find similar discoveries themselves. If you have attempted this, or simply have other thoughts of your own on the topic, I would love to hear them. Thanks for reading, and I hope we can create an excellent discussion out of all this.

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