Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Very Black Ink

The New Yorker has a remarkably cynical and unsympathetic portrait of Edgar Allan Poe this week. It's a two pronged attack: first dismissing Poe's gothic persona as a dodge against his own poverty and then criticizing Poe for trying to write his way out of that very dilemma:
Poe’s world was Andrew Jackson’s America, a world of banking collapse, financial panic, and grinding depression that had a particularly devastating effect on the publishing industry, where Poe sought a perch. His biography really is a series of unfortunate events. But two of those events were transatlantic financial crises: the Panic of 1819 and the Panic of 1837, the pit and the pendulum of the antebellum economy. Poe died at the end of a decade known, in Europe, as “the Hungry Forties,” and he wasn’t the only American to fall face down in the gutter during a seven-year-long depression brought on by a credit collapse. He did not live out of time. He lived in hard times, dark times, up-and-down times. Indigence cast a shadow over everything he attempted.
Having established the timeliness of the essay and the economic parallels between then and now, the article turns to Poe's stories, portraying him as a hack and a fraud:
The problem with Poe comes to this: he needed to turn his pen to profit, but he also wanted to signal, as with “Pym,” that he was lowering himself. Look! See? I’m brilliant! Even at writing dreck! In the story “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1838), he tells of an aspiring writer of gothic tales who visits the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, seeking instruction. “Your writer of intensities must have very black ink, and a very big pen, with a very blunt nib,” the editor advises, then offers some examples of recent successes:
Let me see. There was ‘The Dead Alive,’ a capital thing!—the record of a gentleman’s sensations when entombed before the breath was out of his body—full of taste, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and erudition. You would have sworn that the writer had been born and brought up in a coffin. Then we had the ‘Confessions of an Opium-eater’—fine, very fine!—glorious imagination—deep philosophy—acute speculation—plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible. That was a nice bit of flummery, and went down the throats of the people delightfully. They would have it that Coleridge wrote the paper—but not so. It was composed by my pet baboon, Juniper.
Poe calibrated and recalibrated. Just how many ways can a writer insult his readers and get away with it? If you take Poe’s best horror stories at face value, they are wonderfully, flawlessly terrifying; they are also dripping with contempt.
This is unfair. Firstly, because "How To Write A Blackwood Article" is written as a parody, first of the pretensions of gothic writers who style themselves as if they were one of their own characters, and secondly of the jealous and hostile natures of editors who applaud the writer's work while wishing them a hasty death. Secondly, because it is tremendously self-aware and one can see that Poe is having a laugh at himself. And thirdly, because of its humorous tone, we are meant to see that all of Blackwood's advice is bad advice. It is anti-didactic.

But let's suppose that Blackwood is Poe's mouthpiece. If Poe is guilty of anything, it is of highlighting the desperation and artistic despair that can grow out having to sell your art for a living. When art gets mixed up with commerce, it creates a toxic brew of resentments with regard to those who control one's artistic and financial destiny. Moreover, when you're poor, everything is seen to have a price and the value of an object is what someone is willing to pay for it. Even if it's a poem or a story.

What we see in Poe's later manic depressive behavior is not contempt for the audience, but contempt for his life of poverty and compromise. Here is a guy who quite literally survived on nothing but his own wits. No inheritance, no academic post, no day job, a failed military career. That the New Yorker finds something wrong with that says more about their elitist contempt for genre writers and the struggling wannabes who aspire to live within the walled literary city than about the character of Edgar Allan Poe (when Eustace Tilly, or a Yale educated professor tries to tell you it ain't about the money or shouldn't be about the money: it's all about the money).

A more interesting essay might have described the relationship between horror fiction, pulp magazines, and the marginal lives of so many of its finest writers. How does economic despair translate into existential despair and dread? How do our daily fears and anxieties transform themselves into the all-consuming horrors of death-in-life? And finally, what does it mean when we romanticize and identify with the monstrous and the doomed, the gothic poseur, the adolescent rebel in black? Even today the goth and horror subculture is full of many Suky Snobbs' styling themselves as Senora Psyche Zenobia's.

On the other hand, there seems to be a certain tone-deafness in our response to Poe's writing if we insist in only seeing him as a victim of his times. To me, his writing is full of playfulness, sarcasm and dark humor. When he references his the fictional Mr. Blackwood's pet baboon Juniper, or fills the Gold-Bug with bad puns, or takes his knowledge of cryptography and invents the detective story, you see that he's having fun. He's enjoying himself and he's not merely some two-dimensional caricature of the gothic poet weeping at the grave of a lost love. Nor is he Emerson's "jingle-man," willing to do anything for a buck.

And that, in the end, is Poe's great revenge on his contemporaries and circumstances. His stories are fun to read. His genius was for combining all the contradictory impulses of his nature to engage the reader emotionally and intellectually through scares and clever plotting. At the same time he allows us a wink and a playful laugh: scared ya didn't I? And we share in the pleasure -- and relief -- at having survived the whole ordeal.