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?

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."

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
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Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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