January 19, 2009, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s most celebrated authors, poets, essayists, and editors. I’m lucky enough to be in Richmond, Virginia, today — which, along with Baltimore, serves as Poe Central — and while I’m here for my daughter’s volleyball tournament, I’m hoping our schedule will allow a bit of time for us to catch some of the Poe celebration and a trip to the Poe Museum. (And if you happen to be in the area and are looking for things to do, the State of Virginia has a special website commemorating all things Poe. Or, at least, All Things Poe in Virginia.)
While I’m not what you’d call a Poe Scholar, I’m a huge Poe Fan. His short story “The Black Cat” was the first Poe story I ever read — I think I was 12 — and it scared the daylights out of me. With its unstable narrator — who gouges out the cat’s eye with a pen-knife, then later hangs it from a tree — images of a hanged cat etched into the plaster in the remains of the narrator’s burnt house, and the narrator suddenly burying an axe in his wife’s skull, there’s enough going on to keep you huddled under the covers for weeks. But then add to that Poe’s punchline, the last line of the story — “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!” — and . . . well, it’s a moment in American literature that leaves you feeling deliciously cold, as if you’ve just swallowed an entire Slurpee in one gulp. The brain freeze is totally worth it.
One of the great thrills of Washington Irving was writing those moments when the ambitious and somewhat crafty Edgar Allan Poe entered Irving’s story. Sure it’s non-fiction — but just as fiction writers love to play with great characters, so, too, do we Nonfictionalists. And really, you’d be hard pressed to find a more compelling real-life character to write than Poe.
Irving had actually met Poe in London in 1819, when the ten-year-old Poe was travelling in Europe with his foster father, John Allan, and Irving — basking in the early glow of the success of The Sketch Book but hungry for the company of fellow Americans — dined with Allan and his ward at the York Chop House.
Poe remained an admirer of Irving’s writings — at least for a while — and as a writer for the Southern Literary Messenger, inked one of the many glowing reviews of Irving’s 1835 work, The Crayon Miscellany. As an up-and-coming new writer, Poe was also shrewd enough to recognize that Irving’s endorsement of his work would give him credibility with editors and reviewers, many of whom were baffled by Poe’s markedly dark voice and tone.
In October 1839, Poe — behind flattering cover letters — sent Irving copies of two of his latest stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson,” hoping for a kind word — a usable “cover blurb,” to put it in today’s terms. Though the tone and content of both stories wasn’t really Irving’s cup of tea, he nonetheless read both tales, and wrote Poe with his comments.
Of the two stories, Irving preferred “William Wilson.” “It is managed in a highly picturesque Style and the Singular and Mysterious interest is well sustained throughout,” he told Poe. “Usher,” however, he thought was a bit of a mess. It might be improved, he told Poe, “by relieving the style from some of the epithets.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was enough for the shrewd Poe. “I am sure you will be pleased to hear that Washington Irving has addressed me 2 letters, abounding in high passages of compliment in regard to my Tales—passages which he desires me to make public—if I think benefit may be derived,” Poe wrote to one colleague. “Irving’s name,” he continued, in tones suitable for a Marvel Comics Super Villain, “will afford me a complete triumph over those little critics who would endeavor to put me down by raising hue and cry of exaggeration in style, of Germanism & such twaddle.”
Clearly Poe was not above publicly exploiting Irving’s reputation to further his own career. Privately, though, Poe considered Irving “overrated” and argued that much of his reputation was based solely on the fact that Irving was the first American writer to earn international fame and praise. “A nice distinction might be drawn,” Poe wrote, “between [Irving’s] just and surreptitious and adventitious reputation—between what is due to the pioneer solely, and what to the writer.”
Take a moment today to celebrate the life of America’s first, and still favorite, dark and crafty genius. Despite everything, Washington Irving wouldn’t mind a bit.