Poe as the Artist and Poe as Art

Studying and considering the “afterlives” of writers is crucial to understanding not only the writers’ intentions, but also their legacy. So often in academia, the focus is on who the writers were, what the context of their work was, how the time period factored into their inspiration. This information certainly is crucial – truly great writers deserve to be understood, and their personal lives and intentions are carried through time by continued research, analysis, and appreciation. But another aspect of art – and this is true of any type of art – is that once it has been shared with others, it takes on a life of itself. The less conventional “afterlives” that writers like Edgar Allan Poe carry with their reputations are a result of their art truly doing what art does; once the artist paints his final brush stroke or ends his concluding sentence, their work has transitioned from its role as a product of their imagination to a catalyst for others’.

A natural reaction to this, if writers see it in their lifetime, is often one of outrage. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose detective writing can be said to have mirrored that of Poe, is well known to have hated his character of Sherlock Holmes – even trying to kill him off, only to be forced to bring him back to “life.” This story is an excellent metaphor for the “afterlife” phenomenon. Doyle had a vision on Holmes, he produced it, he published it, and then he lost all control. We still read the original Doyle, like we read the original Poe, with reverence, and often a dedication to context and accuracy. But Holmes, even in Doyle’s lifetime, became an object of others’ imaginations too. I can name at least five Holmes film adaptations off the top of my head and allusions to the character can be seen in everyday life. These inevitable gaps between context and afterlives are just that – inevitable. While Doyle may have hated Holmes, the impact of his character has created a timeline of knowledge, art, and interest that has developed independently, and far outlived him.

This, I think, is similar with Poe, though not quite in such a linear fashion. While Doyle’s afterlife essentially follows on the coattails of his creation, Poe’s afterlives are based primarily on his own image. Part of this, I think, is a result of people’s changing means of access to Poe; part of it is Poe’s content itself; and part of it is the appeal of the fictional character of Poe that his legacy has brought about. We see Poe shirts and shot glasses, Poe graphic novels and films, Poe’s face on almost every item and in almost every medium we can imagine. While the “true” Poe has his own afterlife among scholars and enthusiasts, other, stylized versions of him are what carry his legacy for general readers. First cheaper printing, than the transition to new mediums like film or graphic novels, have allowed Poe to enter communities or “markets” he could not have before; now Poe is accessible and appealing not only to the “general reader,” but also to those who don’t read, but watch television, or like to wear quirky t-shirts. That there exist more “general people” who know of Poe than there are do Poe scholars means that Poe’s image is carried more by the less-informed public than by those who know the contextual truth of the man behind the image, and this is appreciation-without-context is what fuels the stylized afterlife which has grown independent from context or “truth.” While a Poe shot glass may seem gaudy to Poe himself – (and a bit ironic, due to his struggles with alcoholism) – it’s a sign that, in one way or another, he has reached generation after generation of consumers – ones that, without this afterlife of “commercialization,” would not have had any access to Poe at all.

Poe’s distinctive works also carry his legacy as a writer. The concise nature of Poe’s stories – reflecting his belief that a work of fiction should be short enough to read in one sitting – makes his works more accessible. Thinking of the horror genre, particularly Gothic horror, we may think of Frankenstein or Dracula or even Jekyll and Hyde. But with most of these stories – all of which are much longer than Poe’s – the plot or the characters come to mind before the author does; with Poe, a title of one of his works often brings his own face to mind. Perhaps it started with Poe’s literary rival Griswold, and the smear campaign he launched against Poe after his death. Convincing people that Poe was morose, cynical, and cruel – as Griswold succeeded in doing – was perhaps easier because these traits line up with the more somber themes of Poe’s works. This could have been the spark of creation for the caricature of Poe that exists now as perhaps his most prominent afterlife; consumers want an author who embodies his work, and Poe has been consistently presented as the ideal candidate. As time goes on, stories are told and retold. Poe’s famous works may be adapted, but their genre remains consistent; Poe’s own fictionalized character, too, changes over time, but his unique personality “genre” does not change. As a result, the artistic image of Poe, intertwined with but independent of his works, has become its own artistic entity.

The danger here is that Poe gets so drastically misinterpreted. Believing him to be this dour, “creepy” horror writer downplays not only his real character, but also his incredibly diverse and intelligent work as a writer. As Poe’s fictional afterlife takes over, it overshadows his reality – and this is why an accurate, scholarly, contextual afterlife is necessary. I think it’s great that Poe has outlived himself, and that his art and his own being have inspired so much in the world. I don’t think these fictional afterlives, though often severely inaccurate, are particularly harmful – essentially, they’re “all in good fun.” Still, I think great writers – and all writers, for that matter – deserve to be recognized and appreciated as they actually were. For as long as we have an accurate basis of Poe’s own life and the context to his stories to fall back on, these more playful afterlives only serve as a different form of appreciation.

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