Poe’s literacy legacy has run rampant in the century after his death, creating a commercialized character, with a reputation larger than Poe could have imagined and in many ways quite different than Poe himself. More so than any other writer, Poe’s afterlife has become a whirlwind of dark, brooding, raven iconography, large pale foreheads, and eye bags, emphasizing only one aspect of Poe’s mortal life and playing up only that one dimension of his literary works.
While Poe wrote many genres of literature: from scientific essays, to detective stories, to love poems, his darker Gothic works pervade the characteristics of his posthumous existence. Those in modern day society who do not know Poe well may only know him for his gruesome, spooky works; they could be missing out on all the other influential facets of his work.
My first encounter with Poe was in middle school; we read Annabel Lee. I remember being in awe of how much he played with language and sounds in the poem. I greeted Poe as a beautiful poet who portrayed his grief and love through melodious language, and it was not until later that I met the Poe who writes spine-chilling short stories or the Poe who is knowledgeable in literary criticism and cryptology. The Poe I met in high school who wrote critical analyses of books and language, such as the “Philosophy of Composition,” solved language puzzles in weekly magazines and newspaper, is a Poe that is not well-known to most people. I think the clever way in which Poe manipulates language in The Raven is often lost on many of his modern day readers, since many people know the poem merely for its eerie refrain ‘Nevermore’ and its tale of a grieving lover.
I think the commercialization of Poe’s works in his literary legacy is problematic in some ways. In my opinion, it trivializes the content of his work into more comedic and frivolous popular culture objects and references. A lot of Poe’s work, especially many of his poems and tales, deals with darker themes of anger, obsession, and death, which were cultivated by the turmoil of Poe’s own life and his personal struggles with addiction and grief. By creating superficial, commercial exploits of his work, it undermines the effort and skill he put into creating it, as well as the struggle he endured.
Baltimore has taken ownership of Poe, more so than any other city. While it is nice that the city claimed him as their own, I think it is damaging to Poe’s historical biography and his reputation, since he lived and wrote in other cities as well. The idea of Poe’s persona has been condensed into an abridged, not as complex version of himself. I think the Baltimore Poe House and Museum does a great job of displaying Poe in his original context and the museum works to maintain all aspects of his literary corpus as relevant, yet the bobble-head figures, secular saint candles, and other frivolous paraphernalia seem to distance the well-known literary figure from his facetious, commercialized afterlife. And these commercialized objects are present not just in Baltimore, but across America, contributing to Poe’s literary fame and keeping his legacy alive.
On the other hand, commercializing Poe’s literature allows his work to be more accessible to a larger audience who may not have read it otherwise. Poe’s works may not have been as accessible to young children and adults not well-versed in literature, but with the widespread appeal of Poe in popular culture, it is now likely that most people now have at least heard of Poe and are familiar with the plot of his most famous works like The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart and Annabel Lee, even if they have not read them personally.
I think Poe’s literary afterlife can thus be beneficial in educating others about Poe’s life and works, making him more well-known and popular. However, this leads to the issue that the general public now may have a potentially skewed perception of who Poe was and what type of literature he wrote, seeing him only as a brooding, mentally deranged alcoholic from Baltimore and not as the educated (yet troubled) literary scholar he was known as across America. As someone who has a decent amount of background in Poe’s works and his life, I can appreciate something light-hearted such as ‘Poe-lka dot’ socks, but I don’t wish that to be the only exposure that people have to Poe.