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The character assassination of Edgar Allan Poe

“Poe is one of the writers who make us who we are,” wrote E. L. Doctorow. So how is it that Poe’s countrymen could be so hostile to the man? As it turns out, there was villainy at work. 

Photo source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“Nowhere else in world literature, so far as I know, has a writer been so scorned by the literati of his own language and so celebrated by the best minds of another culture and language.” This observation was made by the literary theorist Jonathan Culler, and the writer he was referring to was Edgar Allan Poe. While neglected in the U.S., Poe’s short stories, essays and poems were hailed by French writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valéry, and Stéphane Mallarmé.

Was there some deep and uncanny relationship between Poe’s writing and French readers? Culler calls this a tantalizing problem for literary history.

But what does this say about American readers?

“Poe is one of the writers who make us who we are,” wrote E. L. Doctorow. So how is it that Poe’s countrymen could be so hostile to the man? As it turns out, there was villainy at work.

While Poe was a versatile writer – he discoursed on Newtonian physics, edited a number of literary journals and invented the modern detective story – today he is best known, and closely associated with, the Gothic genre. According to the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, “the name Poe brings to mind images of murderers and madmen, premature burials, and mysterious women who return from the dead.”

This Halloween, it is tempting to celebrate this version of Poe, the author of such Gothic classics as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” And why not? Have at them. But keep in mind that these macabre tales were written as crowd-pleasers and do not represent the full legacy of one of the first Americans to emerge as a figure in world literature.

Despite the commercial ambitions of his Gothic tales, it was evidently Poe’s lack of commercial success that earned him the ire and scorn of his American detractors. Baudelaire summarizes this view as such: Poe’s genius was never regulated in a way “more appropriate to the American soil.” In other words, to become a money-making author it would have been better for Poe “to have possessed only talent, since talent can pile up a banker’s balance much more readily than genius.”

Poe’s detractors also shaped the image of Poe, the man, as someone who is still commonly thought of today as some kind of drunken morbid vagabond.

To quote the Poe Museum again:

“Just as the bizarre characters in Poe’s stories have captured the public imagination so too has Poe himself. He is seen as a morbid, mysterious figure lurking in the shadows of moonlit cemeteries or crumbling castles. This is the Poe of legend. But much of what we know about Poe is wrong, the product of a biography written by one of his enemies in an attempt to defame the author’s name.”

That enemy was Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who wrote Poe’s obituary in the New York Tribune under the pseudonym “Ludwig.” While Griswold disguised his identity, he made no such attempt to hide his scorn. The obituary began:

“Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”

Griswold had a longstanding grudge against Poe, and contrived a plot to capitalize on the author’s body of work and simultaneously sabotage his reputation. Griswold made a sketchy arrangement with Poe’s mother-in-law to edit the first posthumous edition of Poe’s collected writings and also expanded his obituary of Poe into a long-form work of slander entitled “Memoir of the Author.”

Through forged letters and invented details of Poe’s life, Griswold intimated that Poe was guilty of everything from incest to deserting the Army to betraying his friends. These libelous claims would later be exposed, but nonetheless Griswold’s narrative came to shape the public’s perception of Poe. As Poe’s great French admirer and translator Baudelaire remarked, if you talk of Poe with an American, he might somewhat reluctantly confess his genius. This American, however, would also tell you of,

… the poet’s disordered life; of his alcoholized breath, ready to have taken light at any candle-flame; of his vagabond habits; he will reiterate that the poet was an erratic and strange being, an orbit-less planet…

Baudelaire recognized that this perception of Poe was in large part due to the “immortal infamy” of Griswold, a pedagogue vampire who defamed his friend at full length in an enormous article — wearisome and crammed with hatred — which was prefixed to the posthumous edition of Poe’s works; are there then no regulations in America to keep the curs out of the cemeteries?

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Indeed, Baudelaire was so aghast at the treatment of Poe in America that he went on, in the essay Edgar Allan Poe, his Life and Works, to issue a scathing indictment of a barbarous society in which Poe, a poète maudit, was “a singularly solitary brain”:

“All the documents I have read lead me to the conclusion that the United States was nothing but a vast prison house for Poe, within which he moved in a state of feverish agitation, like someone borne to breathe a sweater air – nothing but a gaslit desert of barbarism – and that his inner spiritual life as a poet, or even as a drunkard, was a constant struggle to escape from the influence of this hostile environment.”

A literary legacy is a complicated thing to manage, particularly if your enemy writes your posthumous biography and your savior writes in a different language. It was a misfortune of fate and circumstances, after all, that Poe’s greatest enemy was kept very close while his principal champion lived across the Atlantic. Baudelaire, of course, had his own agenda in promoting certain aspects of Poe’s work that he found most useful. But this story has a happy ending.

Baudelaire crediting Poe with a new way of observing modern life, a sensibility that he found in Poe’s short story The Man of the Crowd, which formed the basis of Baudelaire’s seminal essay on modernity, The Painter of Modern Life.

Baudelaire looked beyond the gloom and found in Poe a vision for a new kind of beauty. This magical encounter, writes Susan Blood, “transforms Baudelaire into himself, as each poet becomes himself through contact with another subject.”


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