I have spent four years studying the canon of English and American literature at Johns Hopkins University and, every so often, I am struck by the unanswerable question of why I am reading one particular text and not another. Of course, there are some common prerequisites for entering the canon. Poe, for example, was a prolific writer who was known during his lifetime. He was also well connected to other authors, such as Longfellow, and publishers through his editorial work. Poe’s works, like almost all works who make “the canon,” fit snuggly within a significant change in literature more generally. Poe was a pioneer of the American Gothic. But so was Charles Brockden Brown, an equally prolific Gothic writer from the turn of the 19th century. I have been exposed to far more Poe than Brown in my education. Going beyond personal experience, only Poe appears in many renditions of the canon: WikiUniveristy Literary Studies Reading List, Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, Perfection Learning’s 100 American Literature Titles…
Looking outside of the academic sphere, Brown disappears to nil and Poe materializes in comics, children’s publications, posters, and t-shirts. These images of Poe as a macabre, death-obsessed loner with an unusually high hairline and baggy eyes cast a particular shadow over his work. Scholarly concern over Poe’s persona is hardly new. Claude Richard phrased this worry succinctly in 1976 when he criticized the way Rufus Griswold’s characterization of Poe was still reiterated in contemporary biographies: “It is the main flaw of his [W.T. Bandy] book: Poe, the man, will be still more of a legendary figure; Poe, the writer, will be more neglected than ever.” However, the importance of these peripheral, often cartoonish, facets of Poe’s legacy becomes clear once one recognizes the economically driven and admittedly arbitrary nature of any literary canon.
The driving forces behind why one author makes it into the canon and another does not are difficult to study. The popularization of a particular author often seems to be spurred by a single event, such as the translations of Poe into French by Charles Baudelaire, which spurred European interest in late 19th century (Coulombe et al.). Oftentimes, the presence of an author in a particular reading list seems to come from force of habit. Poe was completely neglected in F. O. Matthiessen’s 1941 canon, The American Renaissance (Goddu). It was sometime after this point that Poe entered the American canon and became a staple on reading lists inspired in large part by lists already in existence. Authors can enter the canon via a deliberate shift, such as increasing inclusion of female and minority authors in recent decades. Curiously, Poe enters the canon with this similar outsider status, even today. Robert T. Tally’s 2014 book Poe and the Subversion of American Literature: Satire, Fantasy, Critique argues, as the title indicates, that Poe deliberately sent himself against the nation building tendencies of 19th century literature and that even today he represents an alternative to the usual American canon. The paradox of Tally’s book is that while characterizing Poe as an outside, he reinforces exposure to Poe within the realm of American literary studies.
Is Poe’s position as an “outsider” in scholarly works so far from his macabre persona in popular culture? Modern goth culture certainly draws on Poe to reinforce their unorthodox, outsider status. Scholarly editions of Poe’s works do seem to allow themselves more flamboyant covers than the norm. Consider this sampling of recent publications:
From left to right: Oakshot Complete Works (2016), Top Five Classics Complete Tales & Poems (2014), Signet Classics The Complete Poetry (2008), Balknap Press The Annotated Poe (2015)
These covers hint that the fact that an inevitable link between Popular Poe and Scholarly Poe exists, as much as the scholars sometimes wish to distance Poe from something like goth culture. There is also an inevitable economic link between popular demand and publication of the books the ones pictured above.
In trying to find concrete evidence of this link, I looked at the Google Trends for “Edgar Allan Poe”. Rather than finding a significant variation in Poe’s popularity from year to year, I noticed a clear annual cycle with Poe most popular in one particular month. In case you haven’t guessed already, that month is October, specifically in the days leading up to Halloween.
Google Trends graph of interest in Edgar Allan Poe (blue), Charles Dickens (red), and Emily Dickinson (orange) in the United States since 2004, measured by the number of Google searches.
In the graph above, the blue line shows interest in Poe spiking each Halloween. Like the two other authors graphed, interest decreases in the summer months when students are out of school. Poe is not the only author to be somewhat arbitrarily aligned with a modern holiday. The red line, representing interest in Charles Dickens, spikes each year in the Christmas season.
My next task was to find a link between publications and popular interest in Poe. I surveyed the top 40 results of “Edgar Allan Poe” in the Amazon.com bookstore to see in what month these publications were made. The results were not as definitive as I hoped:
While Poe publications spiked in the two months leading up to October, the most populous month was March. Increased publications in August and September may be as easily attributed to the start of the school year as the coming of Halloween.
My perhaps ill-conceived hunt for the link between publications and popularity does not disprove that this link exists. Rather, it serves an an example for how intricately and opaquely popularity, publication, and the literary canon are connected. While attending my school Spring Fair this year, I saw an Edgar Allan Poe shirt being sold. It was a deep purple color, depicting a silhouette of Poe with a raven perched upon his shoulder. This popular depiction of Poe may have inspired a customer unfamiliar with his work to look up who that macabre figure was. Who is to say that customer, by chance a student of literature, was not inspired to buy a Poe anthology and take Poe’s works as objects of serious study? Even a t-shirt can influence a literary canon. If Poe’s sporadic presence in the American canon proves anything, it is that literary canons are not simply lists of the best authors.
Claude Richard, “AidgarPo Once Again,” Poe Studies, June 1976, Vol. IX, No. 1, 9:27-29. https://www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1976109.htm
Coulombe, Domique and Sharon Larson, Jennifer Philips, Pauline de Tholozany. Baudelaire and the Arts. Exhibit at Brown University. Brown University Library and the Dogut Center for the Humanities: Providence, RI. 18 Oct. 2007. http://library.brown.edu/cds/baudelaire/
Goddu, Teresa A. “Placing Poe.” Letter. 1993. Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities Letters. 1st ed. Vol. 2. Nashville: Vanderbilt U Publications, 1993. N. pag. 9 May 2000. Web. 11 May 2017. <http://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/_archived-letters/poe.htm>.