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Mind Over Pop Culture: The Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
October 31, 2013
Happy Halloween, readers! Today’s topic is Edgar Allan Poe, the famous writer of dark tales and stories. With his own lived experiences with addiction, and his interest in science, psychology is all over his work in very exciting ways.
Edgar Allan Poe was an author and literary critic in the early 1800s. His parents died when he was young, and he was adopted by the Allan family in Richmond. He dropped out of the University of Virginia due to gambling debts, enrolled in the army and went to West Point Military Academy, though he was discharged before graduation. He published his first book of poems under the pseudonym “A Bostonian” in 1827, and continued to publish poems, short stories, literary criticism and a single novel throughout his life. He was engaged three times, but only married once, to his 13 year old cousin Virginia Clemm, who died five years later of tuberculosis. His death was mysterious, and after it, a rival published a biography of him that was mostly false, but very popular. Now, his work is considered some of the finest early American writing, and he is credited with creating the mystery genre and helping popularize gothic literature in America. (For a much better story of his life, visit his Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe.)
Poe is best known for his gothic writings, despite writing satires, humorous stories, science fiction and mysteries. His gothic tales are full of young women dying, people losing their grip on reality and short violent episodes. They are a fascinating early look at what having a mental illness looks like from the point of view of the sick person. Most of his narrators don’t identify as having a specific illness, though many say that they lost their mind or lost control of themselves. In particular, the narrator of The Black Cat says that the reader would have to be “Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence.” But in the next sentence, he says “Yet, mad am I not - and very surely do I not dream,” before telling a story about murdering his pet cat, who returns from the dead (or does he?) and helps police find his murdered wife’s body. Many of his stories have a dream-like quality to them that separates the reader from reality and often the narrator as well. Many have drug or alcohol addiction problems, and many tell their stories under the influence of one or the other.
He also writes a lot about memory, and how little was understood about it. In the story Ligeia, his narrator notes “There is no point, among the many incomprehensible anomalies of the science of mind, more thrillingly exciting than the fact --never, I believe, noticed in the schools --that, in our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.” Many of his stories, among them The Final Narrative of Gordon Pym, The Tell-Tale Heart and Ms. Found in a Bottle, all feature unreliable narrators that either can’t remember something, or refuse to believe what they remember. This unreliability helps contribute to that dream-like quality, which makes them more unsettling. Poe was very interested in science, and some of his work is classified as science fiction today. (To learn more about Poe’s interest in science, take a look at Georgia Tech’s Earth and Atmospheric Science and Poe website: http://iron.lmc.gatech.edu/~skoshy6/poe/.)
Poe didn’t necessarily set out to discuss mental health in his work, but his interest in science, coupled with his own experiences with addiction, meant that it appeared in his writings. His stories are wonderful to read, still poetic and vibrant. The stories are definitely worth reading, especially knowing how his lived experiences influenced his work.
Next week, we’ll take a look at The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s book about depression in New York City. Have you read Poe’s stories? What do you think of them? Do you have any recommendations for something we should be reading?