Poe the Character

A quick Google search of “Poe merchandise” will give you 4,230,000 results. This list includes t-shirts, lunchboxes, action figures, bobbleheads, mugs, and more. Edgar Allan Poe’s continued popular appeal and frequent commodification are unparalleled among most classic American writers.What makes Poe unique among most writers is his transformation from author to character.

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Edgar Allan Poe Lunch Box, http://www.entertainmentearth.com/prodinfo.asp?number=AU12308. Accessed 15 May 2017.

In the centuries since his death, Poe has become mythologized. Now, he is as much a character as Annabel Lee or William Wilson. This is partly because fans of Poe like to equate Poe’s life with his work. They want to believe that his characters and his stories are to some degree based in fact. Poe fans are not entirely wrong to do so. For example, the frequency of tuberculosis related deaths in both Poe’s life and work may suggest that he occasionally drew from life when writing. However, tuberculosis and early death were realities for many people of the nineteenth century. Poe may have chosen to use tuberculosis in his stories not because of a personal connection, but because it was a common experience of nineteenth century readers.

Regardless of whether Poe fans are reading too far into his works, there is now a common perception of Poe as a dark, melancholic character. This caricature mirrors the grim and sinister texts that we now think of when we imagine Poe. In speaking about his writing, Poe said that he aimed to create a particular mood. The gloomy and sometimes creepy mood evoked by many of Poe’s texts has come to define how we view him. It is an essence that can easily be packaged and sold in the form of catchy bumper stickers and temporary tattoos.

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Edgar Allan Poe Tattoos, https://mcphee.com/products/edgar-allan-poe-tattoos. Accessed 15 May 2017.

Few other writers currently have this kind of popular appeal. One writer who approaches Poe’s status in popular culture, but does not quite reach the same level is Mark Twain. Twain’s popularity can in part be tied to similarities he shares with Poe. First, his works can be seen as mirroring his life. Books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer recall Twain’s own childhood on the Mississippi. It is well known that Twain worked on the riverboats that so frequently appear in his works. His own pseudonym is a riverboat term. Twain fans can easily imagine him alongside the characters of his stories. Second, Twain and his works convey a particular “mood” that can commodified in a similar way to Poe’s. Twain’s “mood” is one of both witt and simple, homespun America. His works incorporate social satire with nostalgic coming of age stories. Beyond his works, Twain is perceived as a clever, but rustic character. This is an essence that fans want to carry on tote bags and wear on t-shirts.

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Mark Twain Tote Bag, http://www.cafepress.com/+mark_twain_tote_bag,696099854?utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=pla-google&utm_campaign=613509529-d-c&utm_content=26220489250-adid-88244031730&utm_term=pla-71889570250-pid-696099854. Accessed 15 May 2017.

Other writers do not have the same quality. Take L. Frank Baum for example. His Oz stories continue to have widespread popular appeal, but the author himself has largely been forgotten. Few people walk around with L. Frank Baum t-shirts or drink out of  L. Frank Baum mugs. Ask the average person who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and they will likely have nothing to say. Baum’s life in no way paralleled his stories — he had never even been to Kansas when he wrote the first Oz book. His identity does not have a “mood” that can be captured on a backpack pin. Baum’s life does not lend itself to popular mythology and so it is forgotten.

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Portrait of L. Frank Baum via Public Domain

However, Baum’s relative obscurity may not entirely be a bad thing. The mythologization and commercialization of Poe’s identity obscures the true scope of Poe’s work and the reality of Poe’s life. Poe is known today for one particular genre. Part of this is due to the sale of products like raven themed Halloween decorations. This image of Poe ignores the fact that most of his work comprised of more mundane texts like reviews. It creates a skewed image of who Poe was and perpetuates a potentially inaccurate legacy. Despite the detriments of Poe’s commercialization, there is one major advantage: Poe’s legacy persists. Without the popular appeal of Poe’s image, people today might not still be reading Poe. In effect, this caricature is preserving Poe for future generations.

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Edgar Allan Poe Action Figure, https://gonereading.com/product/edgar-allan-poe-action-figure/. Accessed 15 May 2017.

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