Poe’s image and works have been highly commercialized—taken out of their original historical and literary contexts and repackaged to appeal to specific audiences. The commercial or popular Poe is one associated with the macabre, with the gothic, and with “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It is not one that takes into account Poe’s contributions to science writing, his influence on detective fiction, or his proclivity for creating and solving complicated puzzles. Such broad elisions in the popular understanding of Poe leave us wondering whether the commercialization of Poe’s work and image helps or harms his literary legacy. Answering this question requires us to imagine what Poe’s literary legacy should look like: What should people think of when they think of Poe? What might aid this “proper” conceptualization of Poe and what might stand in its way? Does it matter if popular perceptions of Poe are accurate?
On a fundamental level, in my mind, it aids his literary legacy to have any “version” of Poe exist within the American popular literary consciousness. And this necessitates a level of commodification and mythologizing. If Poe—or Twain or Dickinson or David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath—is going to occupy even a small part of the American popular literary consciousness, it’s going to be as a sort of mythology. Though we have the “raw text” of her writings, as we get further and further from a writer herself, both temporally and generationally, representations of her life and work—in television, music, introductions and annotations of new editions—become representations of representations. If we take a look at The Simpsons, for example, we see that Poe’s work is presented in the context of telling scary stories. The Simpsons, I think, invoked Poe in that “scary stories” episode because it was well established that depicting Poe, in a very specific light, would resonate with a broad audience and have comedic effect. It wasn’t exactly a pioneering move. This and other instances of Poe’s popular presence make clear that mythologies and commercialization go hand-in-hand.
What I’m trying to say is this: we need to accept that Poe must be mythologized/commercialized if Americans are going to remember him. And, for me, a mythologized Poe is better than no Poe at all. Americans usually do not have knowledge of the actual work of canonized writers without prominent mythologies and who haven’t been heavily commercialized. We can take as an example T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, another long, iconic poem by a hyper-canonized American writer. Although Eliot has essentially become synonymous with modernist poetry and a substantial proportion of Americans are familiar with his name, I don’t know that the majority can rattle off Prufrock’s iconic opening phrase or “in the room the women…” refrain. But many can tell you a little something about “The Raven,” maybe a reductive version of its narrative or a single refrain, but a little something nonetheless. So the commercialization of authors might actually be linked to wider recognition or knowledge of their works, which certainly aids authors’ literary legacies.
I think it’s worth mentioning, too, that popular representations of Poe could certainly be more inaccurate or outlandish than they are. If we’re thinking about the factuality of Poe’s literary legacy as positive, or aiding a preferred perception of Poe, the morbid and gruesome Poe isn’t such a terrible place to start. Sales, wider recognition, personal resonance—whatever their motivation, there exists quite a significant handful of macabre tales and poems by Poe. And as far as the facts of his literary legacy, Poe was and continues to be incredibly influential within gothic/horror traditions. So that “side” of Poe, represented in however bizarrely abstracted a form, is a perfectly legitimate “side” of Poe nonetheless, arguably one central to his tangible impact on American literature.
If interest in Poe because of his reputation as a dark, brooding figure gets people reading “William Wilson” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” for example, I think that’s a win. My own rather limited knowledge of Poe (which, I remember, was kicked off in ninth grade by an assignment to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” from an anthology of short stories) led me to purchase one volume of his collected works at Baltimore bookstore during my first year of college, because I knew Baltimore claimed Poe and I knew Poe was something of an eccentric. The volume opened with hilarious criticisms of interior design trends, and my knowledge and awareness of Poe broadened from there. So if the commercialization of Poe leads to wider knowledge of his work, I’m all for it—bobbleheads and heinous tattoos and all.