Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy Birthday, Poe

Two hundred years ago today, a child was born who would, in the course of a too short and over troubled life, help spawn the detective story and the science fiction story. One of his stories would generate public interest in cryptography and cryptograms, another would inspire a sequel by Jules Verne. Amazingly enough, these are not what Edgar Allan Poe is best remembered for today.

The macabre was Poe's best remembered milieu. The Raven, an ode to a love lost to death, is Poe's best remembered work and has an football team named in its honor and has inspired a song:

a Simpson's episode:


and innumerable readings.

His other macabre and Gothic stories have been made into films of varying quality, but largely entertaining. My favorite scene being from a portmanteau script of The Black Cat and the Cask of Amontillado in which Peter Lorre, drunken and shabby, has a wine tasting contest with the superbly coiffed and dressed Vincent Price.

To this day, the true cause of Poe's death is not known. His death, after being found collapsed in the streets of Baltimore, dressed in someone else's clothes, was enough to cause the staid citizens to shake their heads. Things were not helped when one of his literary enemies (Rufus Griswold, a name destined to be attached to a villain) managed to, under a pen name and using forged letters as evidence, ascribed his death to alcohol and opium. As Poe's literary executor, he included a libelous "Memoir of the Author" in future editions of Poe's works so that the lies continued to spread and became the accepted version of Poe's life.

Today, his stories can still give chills. Raise a toast (but not an opium pipe, we now know) to a great author, one whose books have long outlived the libels spread about him.

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