Poe’s Legacy: from the historic page to modern adaptations

Edgar Allan Poe: his legacy lives on in the Baltimore Ravens, in specially brewed RavenBeer, in Poe-themed merchandise and even in song and dance. It is difficult to find another American writer who has had as wide an impact in literary circles and in the popular imagination as Poe himself.

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Poe-themed coasters from RavenBeer 

The spring semester course, Edgar Allan Poe and His Afterlives (389.343) at Johns Hopkins University, unravelled the past, present, and future of this mysterious yet iconic writer. Beginning with an overview of his most influential works of literature, criticism, and essays, the course then moved into a comparison across and between his different texts, tracking the trajectory of such works to gauge the extent of their impact. With the added layer of political, social, and cultural contextual background, especially the publication history of a number of his texts, the course allowed students to familiarize themselves with not only Poe’s works and Poe’s legacy as a writer, but also his personal legacy as a prominent figure in American history.

Increasing our awareness of past writers’ afterlives and legacies in such a way allows to understand at a deeper level the works themselves, and it effectively bridges the gap between us, as modern readers, and the writer’s past in any different given context. New editions of a text, adaptations, and exhibitions all work to effectively humanize the text and the writer behind that text, shaping the future legacy of the writer for years to come.

New editions of a text, such as The Annotated Poehelp tailor Poe’s texts to a specific audience. Inevitably, because of the changing historical context, it is difficult for us as modern readers to pull the full extent of intended meaning from the text without the help of any additional guides or footnotes. Annotations help provide the necessary background for the reader to fully grasp the meaning packed into a given text. This is particularly relevant and necessary for Poe, because there are a number of miscellaneous, yet hyper-specific, facts that he embeds in his stories. The annotations help make sense of the underlying meanings Poe intended. Specific annotated editions also have the added benefit of making the given text accessible to a specific audience. For instance, annotated editions tailored towards students, or younger children, will help expose the works to a different group of people than those initially associated with Poe’s texts.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Madness, illustrated by Gris Grimly

However, the downside of annotated editions is the level of experience that is lost when details within the text are over-explained. When annotations are visible on the same page as the text to enhance accessibility, it somewhat detracts from a measure of full immersion in the text itself that is so crucial to the readerly experience. Additionally, having too many aspects of a story explained outright also takes away from an element of the artwork itself – what is intended to be a more personal experience between the reader and the artist is mediated by a set of explanatory notes in between.

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The Annotated Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes 

I personally became most aware of this while working on an annotated edition of Poe’s Letter to B, specifically tailored to high school students. Although I had my audience in mind at all times, it was still difficult to draw the line between over-explaining and under-explaining. There is no clear-cut measure to define all the specific elements of a story that need to be related in order for the reader to enjoy his or her experience. In fact, it may even be argued that art, especially literature, requires part of the work in unpacking and interpreting the text to come from the reader him or herself, without much mediation in between.

An adaptation of a literary text into a different medium can also be useful for shaping the legacy of a given writer. In studying Poe, we examined graphic novel and film adaptations of his works. Because of medium specificity and the commercialization of these different adaptations, once the text is translated into a different medium, it inevitably turns into a work of its own, separate from Poe. Although the initial foundation is built on Poe’s work, the writer, artist, or director of the adaptation takes the work into his or her own hands and produces their own version of Poe’s works. As a result, these varying adaptations do build on Poe’s legacy, even bringing him to a wider audience perhaps, by experimenting with the initial themes and tones that he sets out to convey. However, it does not preserve Poe in himself. Rather, adaptations serve to proliferate the work via commercialization and add new meaning to his works through the next generation of artists’ translations of Poe. For instance, some of the wording in Poe’s original lines is altered in Nevermore, and the film version of The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) adds layers of meaning or new plot lines that are not in the original text.

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Scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

An exhibition is, in my opinion, the most interesting way of preserving a writer’s legacy. Rather than superimposing a direct new layer of meaning onto the original text, exhibits attempt to look back into the writer’s history to draw and imbue meaning onto the text in a modern context. By studying contextual information like the publication history of artifacts and texts, we not only learn a great deal about the writer but also how much of our own reading in the modern context is shaped by the historical trajectory of the text since its initial publication. For instance, the biographical conflation of Poe and William Wilson that many seem to suppose today was hardly in question during Poe’s own lifetime. Thus, an exhibition works to preserve a writer’s legacy through his historical context.

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