Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe and literary legacies more broadly: How did Poe, whose tales and poems were comparatively unpopular during his lifetime, come to have such a profound impact on literary and popular culture? And, generalizing from Poe, is there a single technique for carrying on literary legacies, or are they best continued through a combination of techniques (e.g., new editions and adaptations)? Editions, such as Kevin J. Hayes’ The Annotated Poe, help modern readers to understand obscure or antiquated references and posit interpretations about aspects of the text, while adaptations, such as Dan Whitehead’s Nevermore, transform an author’s premises into standalone creations that appeal to today’s readers and facilitate new conversations about his or her works. I believe that both editions and adaptations are vitally important to continuing literary legacies like Poe’s; in fact, I’m not sure that a literary legacy can exist one without the other.
We might look to The Annotated Poe (front cover pictured above) to get a feel for the kinds of decisions with which an editor might grapple in compiling a new edition of a celebrated author’s works. These include choosing a base-text, format (i.e., print or digital), and layout, and producing a headnote and annotations. The annotations may be targeted toward a specific audience—a teacher’s edition of Poe, for instance, or an edition for middle-school students—to direct readers to relevant passages and inform their experience of the text. More generally, though, annotations help to cultivate a relationship between reader and author. For instance, Poe often incorporates foreign words or phrases in his tales and poems, which gives the narrator a sense of erudition, but which can be off-putting for readers unfamiliar with these references. If I don’t know what Poe means by “the ignes fatui of superstition (and I most certainly didn’t, when I first encountered “Manuscript Found in a Bottle”!), I might feel distanced and discouraged from trying his other tales (Poe, 36). But because Hayes kindly defines it for me, that deepens my understanding of the text, almost as if I am in on a joke with Poe himself. In this sense, I think, the role of the editor is to extend one hand into the past and one into the present, to facilitate a connection between cultures and across time periods.
For an example of an adaptation, we might turn to Nevermore, a collection of comic-style interpretations of Poe’s most famous tales and poems. While I enjoyed all of the pieces in Nevermore, the one that struck me most was “The Pit and the Pendulum,” written by Jamie Delano and illustrated by Steve Pugh, which bears resemblance to Poe’s version only in name and theme. This one doesn’t take place during the Spanish Inquisition and doesn’t feature the oversized rats that gnaw through the narrator’s bonds, effectively saving him from the steadily lowering, axe-like pendulum—in fact, there isn’t one of those, either. Instead, it follows an incarcerated man as he attempts to escape his cell, only to fall into an execution chamber, where white-coated and masked figures await with noxious gas. Familiarity with the original “The Pit and the Pendulum” isn’t a requisite for reading this version. Anyone can find in the narrative and illustrations a compelling commentary on torture and the treatment of criminals in society. Furthermore, for readers new to Poe, the adaptation might inspire them to check out the original version or some of his other tales and poems, and for Poe fanatics, it might help them to see the relevance of “The Pit and the Pendulum” in modern times. Adaptors such as Delano and Pugh can then be said to breathe new life into an old work.
The role of the adaptor is different from that of the editor. Where the editor reaches into the past to bridge the gap between time periods, the adaptor pushes a work into the present and future. Where the editor interprets aspects of the author’s writing, the adaptor uses the author’s premises to facilitate new and relevant conversations. I am convinced that long-lasting literary legacies cannot exist without both editions and adaptations. Without understanding the historical and cultural implications of a work at the time that it was written, how can we fully appreciate it in the present, and without making it accessible to a contemporary audience, how can we propel it into the future, for generations of readers to come?
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Manuscript Found in a Bottle.” The Annotated Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, Belknap Press, 2015, pp. 36-48.