It is no question that Edgar Allan Poe was a man of intrigue, arousing intense curiosity even centuries after his appropriately mysterious death outside a tavern in Baltimore. From high school teachers to horror fanatics to academics, the world has prescribed a certain identity to Poe given the tragic narrative consistently perpetuated about him. While he was an undeniably dark, brooding man with an affinity for the grotesque, I would argue that his writing, particularly in his trademark genre of horror, was both a tool for him to understand his own identity as well as one used by others to shape their own, perhaps incomplete image of him.
Above are two specific depictions of Poe taken from the Peabody Library Exhibition entitled “The Enigmatic Poe: In Baltimore & Beyond.” The one of the top is a steel engraving of Poe during his lifetime, and on the bottom, a far more modern woodcut produced around 1990. These images, in stark contrast with one another, challenge the popularized perception of him and the friendly, clean-shaven gentleman with whom many are unfamiliar. In the engraving, he is not yet outwardly affected by a life with no secure ties to home or family. With no one by his side for any real significant amount of time, and as the inhabitant of so many cities that he lived in and left, Poe saw writing, I believe, as a means of grounding himself in something meaningful while also proving his worth—perhaps to himself and the world.
The above image is an excerpt from Poe’s manuscript of “Epimanes,” sent for review for publication. In it the letter to the publisher preceding the work, he writes, in this work “originality has been attempted,” and therefore, he implied it should be considered an impressive piece. At the same time, however, there’s an intense sense of vulnerability here, of Poe hoping that his work, and therefore his intelligence and identity, are validated. In this way, his identity belongs to someone else since he binds intelligence, self-worth, and identity to tightly together. This struggle for self-validation and identity also makes his first success—his short story “MS Found in a Bottle” being published in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter—all the more significant (see below).
In addition to desperately trying to understand his own identity, Poe was also consumed with understanding the greater meaning of life–an intense curiosity evidenced by his nonfiction work Eureka: A Prose Poem, published in 1848 where he attempts to make sense of the universe. The copy on display at the the Peabody exhibition (see image below), happened to be left open where both the text and his paragraphical annotations demonstrate his understand of the relationship between intelligence and identity. Perhaps this is an indication of one of his last attempts to understand or justify himself, a life led in the pursuit of intellect and knowledge.
The biggest irony of Poe’s search for identity, however, is that although he was a writer himself, he fell victim to being shaped by the narratives of others, as much as he desperately tried to form his own. His work, especially his obsession with mystery and science, is very much a reflection of his futile attempt to make sense of the world around him, and his stories emulate his pain of being unable to successfully find his own place in an ever-changing world.
Even after his death, his life is a mystery. Do we believe the narrative woven by a vengeful writer who publishes a scathing obituary? In the image below of an 1849 publication of New-York Daily Tribune, Poe’s rival in the literary world, Rufus Griswold wrote an obituary that demolished Poe’s character and essentially claimed no one would care about his death.
However, in another, unidentified newspaper, an anonymous writer defends Poe’s character based on his experience during a bizarre altercation they suffered through together. He claims Poe, accused of being drugged up on laudanum of his own accord, was in fact forcibly drugged instead, thereby defending his character.
So whom do we believe, when Poe’s own life was transformed and immortalized through the words and opinions of others?
The modern image of Poe has been so deeply shaped by the dark, grotesque world he created in his literature, as well as the stories told by others, but behind his words and the legends perpetuated about him, there lies an exposed man who hoped to find meaning in the world with which he tirelessly shared his work.