As we inch deeper into autumn, we expect to see certain imagery decorating the world around us — everything from creatively carved pumpkins to drawn-out spider webs and black ravens perched on tombstones. Naturally, this season seeps into our literature, and we begin favoring classics like “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, “Dracula” by Bram Stoker and almost anything by Edgar Allan Poe.
From “The Raven” to “The Cask of Amontillado,” Poe is known for his love of the macabre, exploring topics of mortality, mental illness and the human condition through an often horrific perspective. However, the public fascination with Poe extends far beyond his work, resulting in lots of speculation about the man behind the page.
Edgar Allan Poe led a life full of unfortunate events. Orphaned by the age of three, he was taken in by John and Frances Allan. Unfortunately, his relationship with his foster father was fraught with difficulty, and Poe found himself disowned by the Allans by the time he was 22. Struggling financially for the better part of his life, he also lost his first wife, Virginia, to tuberculosis. After her death, Poe became increasingly erratic, and he was found two years later in a semi-lucid state wearing clothes that were not his own. Unable to regain consciousness, he died four days later, with the true circumstances of his death shrouded in mystery.
But Poe’s story, dear reader, is more than just the tale of an unlucky author. It also reveals our society’s morbid obsession with pain and suffering. We’d all like to believe we are good people — that we do our best to carry out our moral obligation to our community. And yet we cannot tear our eyes away from a dramatic trainwreck. We find ourselves drawn to darkness and when we read the tale of someone like Poe, we begin to wonder, “How can so many terrible things happen to one person?”
After his death, Poe’s literary rival Rufus W. Griswold made it his mission to destroy Poe’s legacy. Later on, gaining the rights to Poe’s posthumous work, he compiled an obituary that framed Poe as a troubled drunkard and madman, going as far as to forge letters from Poe to complete the tale. And so the image of the miserable and eternally troubled Poe was born, becoming a symbol of the unfortunate, depraved individual. Poe had been reduced to something less like a man and more like a character out of one of his stories.
A quick google search of Poe will quickly reveal some of his most popular work. “The Tell-Tale Heart” opens with a question. “…[W]hy will you say that I am mad?” detailing a man’s descent into madness culminating in the murder of an old man. “The Oval Portrait” describes an obsessive artist who, while painting a portrait of his beloved, unknowingly drains her life force, killing her. Even “The Cask of Amontillado” chronicles the depths of human wickedness as the spiteful Montresor imprisons Fortunato alive within Italian catacombs. Though they cover a variety of topics, Poe’s stories have one thing in common – they leave us overwhelmed with a confusing sense of dread and wonder.
With unsettled protagonists and dark narratives, one might wonder if the derangement is not only to be found within the characters but also within the author. The image of the mad and miserable Poe is too tempting to reject and even more alluring to embrace. However, the issue with choosing bits and pieces of people to immortalize is that it’s not honest — especially when it is nothing more than a Frankensteined persona by either the public or the artist themselves.
Yes, Poe led a curious life, but the situations he experienced are in themselves not incredibly unique. Many of us have or will deal with the grief of losing a loved one. One in five people struggle with mental illness and substance abuse issues. While not negating the tragedy of such events in one’s life, pathologizing such ultimately human experiences because it’s a more compelling story does a moral wrong to the implicated individual.
The transformation of public figures from real life people to caricatures also makes it easier to dehumanize the figure at the center of it all, which Poe is a great example of. During Halloween, his quotes are displayed on banners, his poems and stories are read as tales of woe and horror and even his last words have been put up on Goodreads as a “horror” quote. But such marketing makes us lazy. We don’t desire to dig further. We accept the stories we are being told without ever checking to ascertain their truth.
It is important to note that this is not a defense of Poe. He is guilty of a wide range of offenses from marrying his teenage cousin to the undivorcible racism found in some of his work. Rather, I ask that we question our societal impulse to whittle people down to a singular aspect of themselves and rebuild them in that image. How do we reconcile the act of turning someone into a scapegoat for public speculation if it denies their humanity? The next time you see a raven during Halloween, or a tombstone with a Poe quote, take a moment to pause and perhaps remember the person behind the gothic revelry.
Tomi Oyedeji-Olaniyan CM ’23 is a dual neuroscience and literature major. If you need her, say her name in the mirror three times, and legend says she will appear to give you the perfect book recommendation.