Journalist and renowned Poe enthusiast Catherine Baab-Muguira talks with non-fiction editor S L Brown about the eternal (“and eternally creepy, in good way”) appeal of Edgar Allan Poe.
SLB: Halloween’s coming! I put a copy of that famous photograph of Edgar Allan Poe on my mantel every October 1. What is it about that picture? It’s the saddest face you can imagine – as if he knows something.
CBM: It is THE saddest face in the world, right? If we’re talking about the 1848 “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, we’re talking about a photo that was taken just a few days after Poe attempted suicide. It’s possible he was still hungover from the laudanum he’d swallowed —he looks it—and clearly, the sadness he was feeling is etched into every millimeter of his face. Almost 200 years after it was taken, the photo still gives off an almost radioactive pulse of despair. And this photo is the one that often appears in all the endless internet memes involving Poe, like so:
You could say we’re all being insensitive to laugh—that it’s deeply insensitive to make up funny memes about the lowest ebb of a man’s life, and yet I think that the chance to laugh at very dark realities is one of Poe’s greatest gifts for us. I love his morbid and so-black-as-to-be-almost-opaque sense of humor. Nearly all his work is balanced on this knife-edge, teetering between the worst human pain and hysterical laughter, as well as the knife-edge of high and low culture, great art and greeting-card copy. It’s all one more reason to admire him, not just as a writer but as a man.
SLB: I always picture him dressed in black as if in mourning.
CBM: The shtick of wearing all black was actually a trick he picked up from Byron, his great anti-hero and hand-picked foil. It’s funny how the style of dress we associate with Poe wasn’t even really his own idea, but this highlights another aspect of Poe we often overlook: He was very deliberate in what he set out to be, in thinking through the place he wanted to occupy in the national literary imagination. Like most of us do, he had some pretty firm (though sometimes delusional) ideas about how he wanted to come across. And he couldn’t always pull off the super dignified pose he so wanted to strike. Maybe I’m a bad person but this is what makes reading about his drunken exploits—these moments when he’d be writing people letters to apologize for his bad behavior, saying like ‘please tell Mrs. Tyler I’m sorry about what I did to her hat’ (i.e., ‘sorry I got too drunk’) –so engaging. Poe was fully human. He made the same stupid mistakes we all make, he had a big ego that definitely comes across, and he grasped after gravitas without ever quite getting purchase on it—not for any length of time, anyway. The myth of Poe (as a perpetually melancholy man in black) was in part conscious marketing, of Poe marketing himself to the world. I think that, in a way, he was seeking to capitalize on his most identifiable and irreducible traits—his tendency to brood, his lonely, lovelorn nature. His marketing-strategy game was pretty dead on, and SHOULD inspire respect in his fellow writers, though it didn’t in his own day and still doesn’t now.
SLB: Reading your Poe articles proved something I’d never considered before: that Poe, the inventor of the detective story, was just like so many of us, a freelancer struggling to feed his family in a gig economy much like our own.
CBM: Oh yes, it’s true. His experience feels so modern—even millennial. He had to drop out of college with mounting debts. He was constantly begging his (adoptive) parents for money. At times, he was buried under the weight of medical bills and unable to make a living, and his friends would organize these proto GoFundMe operations by putting a notice in the newspaper, talking about his indisposition and need for funds. And his freelancing career, the constant hustling for cash and respect, it’s like not a minute has passed. Even the rates that various newspapers and magazines were paying him—they’ve barely budged, on an inflation-adjusted basis. I know this as a freelance journalist myself.
SLB: So how much exactly did Poe earn during the course of his career?
CBM: As John Ward Ostrom very carefully established, Poe earned only about $6200 from his literary efforts in the entire course of his 20-year career. Adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $206,579 (I just checked on in2013dollars.com). $206,579! For 20 years of work! For producing some of the most enduring literature of all time! Poe made a living above today’s federal poverty line maybe only one year out his 20-year career. It’s crazy, but it’s also not at all surprising. Conditions for writers, artists and creative professionals of all stripes are rarely what we hope they would be. It was true in Poe’s era and it’s true in ours.
SLB: But you still think there’s much to learn from him as a kind of antihero?
CBM: Yes, and for all these reasons, not in spite of them. I think Poe was an extraordinarily gifted kid from birth, but that it was the struggle to survive and earn a living that made him great. He probably never would have written for money if he’d had the choice. But writing for the market saw him produce some of the most psychologically profound and massively, wildly popular works in world history. That is the most reassuring life-message I can imagine. It’s like hearing that your own struggles as an artist, writer and human being might all prove to be worth it, too. I see Poe as a deeply inspiring existential anti-hero. Baudelaire viewed him this way, too.
And I don’t know about you, but I love having a personal hero who had a ton of dire personality flaws and who fucked up in a big way from time to time. We all need an anti-hero, just like Poe needed Byron. Having a hero with flaws cuts down the time you spend reeling aghast by like 92%: Reeling aghast at someone else’s flaws, reeling aghast at your own. It’s also a step toward a mature worldview. All of a sudden, you hear about someone accomplishing great things and instead of assuming this person did everything right, you say to yourself, yes, yes, and I expect they were also incredibly fucked-up, what horrendous defects of character did they have? It’s a breath of fresh air. Also, you stop seeing your own flaws as insurmountable obstacles and markers of your unworthiness. They turn back into ordinary problems, things you can manage. Basically I’m saying Edgar Allan Poe can change your life, cheer you up, make you happier, and show you how to better cope with life’s awfulness. In a better world, he would be considered a self-help guru on par with Oprah or Deepak Chopra.
SLB: That last line in Annabel Lee never fails to creep me out. So I have to ask, do you think he really was attracted to death and doom?
CBM: My very best guess is that the timing of Poe’s mother’s death shaped his life in a very specific way. She was in bed, dying of tuberculosis, when Poe was about two and a half years old. He certainly witnessed the physical struggle of her illness, her coughing and gasping for breath. He was probably old enough to perceive the seriousness of what was happening, and to grieve, but crucially, he was too young to articulate his grief. I do not think it is a coincidence he essentially spent his entire adult life coming up with words for pain, for the most intense sorrow. For instance, Poe spent a long time arriving at “nevermore” as the refrain in “The Raven” – he was searching for the right word with the exact right weight and sound – and I think the roots of that quest go back to a tiny little boy who saw the worst thing a kid can see and quite understandably, never got over it. Poor Poe. You read about his toddler years and all you want is to comfort that poor little boy. And yet, such world-changing art came out of his grief. If that’s not a hopeful thing for you and I to ponder, I don’t know what is.
Catherine Baab-Muguira is a writer and journalist who’s contributed to Slate, CNBC, NBC News and New York Magazine’s The Cut, among others. Say hello on Twitter @greedzilla1 or at her website.