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. 

"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."

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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