A Holiday for a Genius
By Michael Hoffman • www.revisionisthistory.org
Published annually on January 19.
Copyright ©1993 and 2016
There is one whose name is a synonym for genius and whose life was dedicated to honor and the exposure of fraud and imbecility. In one of those masterpieces of serendipity that Providence occasionally bestows upon us, the artist in mind was born on the same day and two years after another inestimable American luminary, Confederate General Robert E. Lee. On January 19, in the year 1809, Edgar Allan Poe (or Edgar A. Poe as he signed himself and preferred to be known), was born in Boston.
“Eddie” was not just a master of the short story. He invented the detective genre and its principles of ratiocination, with the debut of The Murders in the Rue Morgue. His detective fiction was more than entertainment; it was the training of the intellect in those powers necessary for apprehending the illusion and masquerade in life itself.
Poe was his own Dupin, in real life a cryptographer and in so far as we know, there was no code he was unable to break. He held a contest in a national magazine in which he challenged military men, diplomats and mathematicians to send in any coded message. He broke every one of the hundreds submitted. He also debunked Maelzel’s automaton and by reading the first seven pages of the initial installment of Charles Dickens immense, serialized novel Barnaby Rudge, Poe correctly predicted the entire plot and the solution to the riddle of Rudge’s identity, which Dickens, in flabbergasted amazement, confirmed as correct.
He is now regarded as not only the finest horror writer but the 19th century’s most astute literary critic, book-reviewer, and editor. He was also a philosopher, being the author of the magisterial treatise on the cosmos, Eureka.
If poetry is considered the highest of all the literary arts then Poe is the greatest of all such wordsmiths because he is our best American poet.
Any one of these achievements would merit for Poe the acclaim of his country but that all these were combined in one man whose birthdate in January is now mostly forgotten is our national disgrace.
Poe styled himself a ‘‘magazinist” for it was in magazines (what we today would term journals — thick, book-length publications consisting in hundreds of pages), that most of his writing first appeared.
He lived in an America bursting with youth and vitality. Coincidental with this was the astonishing literacy of Americans (almost all of whom were products of one-room school houses or educated by their parents at home), and their commensurate ravenous hunger for the printed word.
In Philadelphia in 1850, where Poe resided for a time, that city alone supported seven daily morning newspapers, two evening daily newspapers and several weekly ones. In addition, those who could afford it usually subscribed to several literary, scientific and domestic magazines.
Our hero served as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger; Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine. He wrote for dozens of others. He was paid virtually nothing for his work and the Poe household, which included his child-cousin bride Virginia and her beloved mother, Maria (“Muddy”), existed in poverty for most of their lives.
Though his writing caused Graham’s Magazine to increase in circulation from 5,500 to 50,000, Poe’s income was measured in pennies. For Ligeia, the first science fiction story ever written, Poe was paid 50 cents a page. From January of 1837 to the summer of 1839 he averaged 16 cents a day for his writing.
He was forced to bear, in his words, the “sad poverty and the thousand consequent ills and contumelies which the condition of the mere magazinist entails upon him in America—where, more than in any other region upon the face of the globe, to be poor is to be despised.”
As one might sense from this snippet, Poe had his caustic side. It was said that he mistook his ink well for a bottle of prussic acid. He was no Shrine-hall booster of the American Republic. Though poverty-stricken, he was part of this country’s natural aristocracy. He absolutely repudiated democracy. In Mellonta Tauta, he described the notion that all men are created equal as “the queerest idea conceivable” and he termed democracy, “a very admirable form of government — for dogs.” He had only scorn for what he saw as America’s foolish millennial enthusiasm for the products of technology and its “money-grubbing, democratic rabble.” In The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade, he mocked the belief that technological progress can improve the human condition. He observed that in America, “a man of large purse has usually a very little soul he keeps it in. The corruption of taste is a portion and a pendant of the dollar-manufacture.”
Despite his extreme candor and contempt for the mob, Poe never sought to confine the experience of beauty to a social or intellectual elite. He did not talk down to his readers, but offered them genuine training in aesthetic judgment and principles.
The cultivation of love and beauty was his alpha and omega. His devotion to the dead who he had loved was termed by a biographer, “mournful and never-ending remembrance.” Beauty was so important to him that he even wrote The Philosophy of Furniture and ranked it on par with his renowned critical poetic dicta, The Rationale of Verse. He worshiped at this shrine with every breath he took and fashioned a spirituality out of death or more accurately, from the characteristics of supernal beauty which he identified with another world beyond the material. This was most exquisitely realized in the feminine form and manifested, in Poe’s aesthetic, in the whitest of white skin and large-orbed eyes; in women possessed of an ethereal beauty: Madeline in The House of Usher and the eponymous Ligeia.
He was an amateur astronomer (as well as a skilled lithographer, carpenter and gardener), and highly conscious of the position of celestial objects (his favorite star was Arcturus). There are scenes from his life in which he is found under the evening sky in situations where young women and his poetry would soon adorn and complete the tableau.
When Poe is presented in academic course work in our citadels of ignorance, his views on politics and the American system are generally avoided. It is often assumed that Poe was something of a conservative adjunct of that system. He was in fact a terrible enemy of the Establishment, a man of implacable resentments, sarcasm and rage, as anyone who has read, Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences, or Hop Frog, will attest.
Poe was in combat at one time or another with half the literary and social establishment of his day. Many of his stories are from the point of view of persons of prodigious intellectual power who reverence beauty, build monuments to their own inordinate self-esteem and are profoundly contemptuous of the “paltry commendations of mankind.”
In his nonfiction, and critical and journalistic writing, Poe used tactics of masquerade, self-debate and a type of literary ventriloquism to bitterly confound, harass and mock those he viewed as his tormentors. He had a passionate desire to hoax, mystify and sarcastically laugh at his enemies and would go to considerable lengths to achieve these ends. In this vein, Hop Frog and especially Diddling are largely autobiographical.
Poe paid the swindling overlords in kind. His was not the suicidal frontal charge of Pickett, but the savage jesting-justice of Montressor. In the Poesque, victory is inextricably bound to a final and private entertainment, “the grin.” With a Southerner’s gothic eye, he despised America’s democratic conceit because he foresaw in its earliest stirrings, the making of an easily manipulated mobocracy harnessed by secret societies to destructive ends.
His ideal, like that of many of the American patricians of his day, was Periclean antiquity, “the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome.” Poe was hailing not the democracy of the polis but the rigor of the Greek aesthetic. Politically he would have been more in line with classic Rome, like his friend Junius Brutus Booth.
He attacked Freemasonry subtly and symbolically in The Cask of Amontillado and Never Bet the Devil Your Head (in which the devil is depicted wearing a masonic apron). Like Roderick in The House of Usher, Poe viewed the modern world through the eyes of ancient lineage and tradition. He was descended of an old Norman family, the Le Poers; his grandfather was George Washington’s Quartermaster General during the American Revolution; his mother Eliza, who died of tuberculosis when he was not quite two-years-of-age, was a celebrated and beloved classical actress and singer.
Poe derided his birthplace, Boston, as the headquarters of the “Humanity Clique,” and intensely disliked New England abolitionism, optimism and belief in social progress. He took a dim view of minorities. In a parody of Longfellow’s awkward attempt to imitate Greek hexameters in English verse, he jeered at Judaics: “Why ask/who ever yet saw money made/ out of a fat old Jew or/ downright upright nutmegs/ out of a/ pine nut.” His Tale of Jerusalem depicts Judaic zealots in a fortress besieged by the Romans who are pulling up a desperately needed basket of what they think are provisions, only to discover a pig inside.
Poe’s adopted father who treated him cruelly, was the Freemason John Allan; a confidant of Judaic merchants. Legend has it that during an evening on the town in the company of Junius Booth, he and Poe played a cruel prank on a Judaic man and hung him from a spiked fence by “his breeches.”
He was not overly fond of the “American Negro.” In The Gold Bug, Legrand’s manumitted black servant Jupiter can’t tell his left eye from his right and is shown to be a superstitious moron. In The Journal of Julius Rodman, a black man is “ugly with swollen lips...protruding eyes, flat nose...double head.” Poe’s prejudice was of the equal opportunity type: according to his friend Mary Starr, he “didn’t like dark-skinned people” in general and that included swarthy whites.
His spirit was not very dissimilar from the arch-sensitive, highly strung, neurasthenic Roderick Usher, though in other respects he belied that caricature (his athleticism for instance — he was a powerful swimmer).
There is some likelihood that Poe was assassinated. At the very least his death should be regarded as suspicious, rather than a result of drink or exposure, which is the general conclusion advanced by the Establishment. He was in good health and not alcoholic in the early autumn of 1849. The esteemed engraver John Sartain testified that Poe was sober and well-dressed in this period. Poe repeatedly told Sartain in the months before his death that men were plotting to kill him. Nothing is known of the period from Sept. 26, when Poe boarded a steamship in Richmond for the trip to Maryland, to Oct 3. a week later, when he was discovered in Baltimore, semi-conscious and “strangely dressed.” His mother-in-law believed he had been severely beaten. On Oct. 7, 1849 at Baltimore’s Washington Medical College, Edgar A. Poe made his final journey, to the “Al Aaraaf” he had dreamed of and written about since a schoolboy in England.
If you visit his tomb in the Westminster Presbyterian churchyard at Fayette and Green streets in Baltimore you will not be alone. Many dozens gather there every January 19. Yet his former house in that city is in decay and museums dedicated to his legacy are seriously underfunded. In our high schools, if he is taught at all, he is presented as a horror story auteur. Teachers often assign students typical entries in his oeuvre, such as The Pit and the Pendulum, and delve no deeper into his darker, more complex and troubled tales.
Edgar A. Poe was not a “nice guy.” It’s unlikely he would have received a clean bill of mental health from any modern psychologist or yoga teacher, and our equality police (better known as the media) would have found some way to demonize or even jail him. As it is his image is pickled and mummified out of all recognition, consigned to a stereotype as a horror story writer who the masses think they know. In truth he little resembles this pop culture brand, a fact discerned by radical black writer Ishmael Reed. Though he smeared him by placing him inside a kind of “Knights of the Golden Circle” secret society that Poe abominated, Reed intuited (and sarcastically applauded) a sense that Edgar A. Poe was our nation’s terminal man: a pale aesthete haunting a House of Usher America where whites form an ever-shrinking minority, destined to act out the ultimate horror tale as specimens of an ever smaller Brahmin-like aristocracy, amid an alien diversity zoo.
And yet, even in the darkest penal hole there is always something to celebrate. In that spirit we lift a glass this day, commemorating the birth of our visionary kinsman; the extraordinary soul who wrote, “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
Recommended for further research
Non-Fiction: Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (Library of America).
Fiction: Stephen Peithman, The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance.
Recordings of Poe’s poetry and prose:
The Black Cat, read by Diamanda Galas (on the CD “Closed on Account of Rabies”).
The Masque of Red Death, read by Basil Rathbone (available on various CD compilations).
The Cask of Amontillado, and The Raven, read by Michael Hoffman (on the CD “Hoffman Reads Poe”).
“A Holiday for a Genius” is published annually on January 19 as a public service.
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