This essay highlighting the influence that Edgar Allan Poe had on American literature is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Everything Leads Back to Poe
I’ve always felt Edgar Allan Poe got a bad rap so the irony in the fact I didn’t hesitate to equate the weather with the bitterness that had infiltrated the author’s life on a frigid January night in New York City wasn’t lost on me. I pulled open the doors of The Morgan Library and Museum wondering if my fingers would ever bend again. They did begin to warm up as I toured the exhibition devoted to all things Poe before finding a seat in the lecture hall. I was surprised to see an animated Allen Ginsberg among the artifacts—a comment by him etched on a placard declaring “Everything leads back to Poe” placed beside a black-and-white photo of the Beat Poet reading Howl at Columbia University on November 14, 1981.
“You can trace all literary art to Poe’s influence,” the text declared: “Burroughs, Baudelaire, Genet, Dylan. It all leads back to Poe.” This list also includes the author Paul Auster, who was speaking that evening. He explained, “Poe didn’t write like twentieth-century writers; his work is a rolling narrative. Most of my work is also a rolling narrative.” Auster calls his introduction to Poe at nine years old an initial confrontation. “The first book I ever bought with my own money was a Modern Library edition of the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe,” he explained. “I paid $3.95 for it in 1956. The pleasure I found in the writing in it was enormous.”
That evening, Auster read from his book City of Glass to illustrate how details from Poe’s story had infiltrated his fiction. As his book was breathed to life by his voice, my attention was drawn to the grainy image above Auster’s head, the larger-than-life projected visage of Poe reproduced from the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype. Given the writer’s pained expression, I was not surprised to learn the portrait was taken four days after he had attempted suicide by overdosing on laudanum. While Auster and a moderator, in miniature below, jovially discussed the dead man’s influence, Poe’s anguished gaze haunted the space.
His broad forehead above a crimped brow gleamed while his sunken eye sockets filled with dark, tormented irises were cloaked in shadow. The bags beneath them and the ragged mustache scrabbling his top lip seemed to say a conversation about his frame of mind when he was alive was the ultimate absurdity at this point in time. Along with his propensity for angst, the men flanking the portrait spoke of Poe’s once-maligned position in the American literary canon. “The place to begin to explore Poe’s ‘Americanness’ is in his criticism,” Auster said. “He was a journalist, and the bulk of what he wrote was about American writers, many of them obscure now. He was arguing to get rid of the British and European models, and to have a new type of literature for this new place, America.”
Auster noted that he doesn’t agree with T.S. Eliot, who claimed Poe was “a kind of displaced European.” Instead, he believes William Carlos Williams got it right in his book In the American Grain when he wrote that Poe was “a genius intimately shaped by his locality and his time.” He added, “Poe gives the sense for the first time in America, that literature is serious, not a matter of courtesy but of truth.” Auster then drew parallels between Poe and Baudelaire, both of whom he deems outsiders in their own societies. Raising a spate of laughter, Auster remarked, “One reason Americans hated Poe is because the French loved him so much!”
Pointing out that Poe deserves credit for the detective genre, which has continued to flourish since he spawned it, Auster said literary achievements such as Sherlock Holmes would not have been possible without the ground Poe paved by being the first mystery writer and a creator of poetic masterpieces. “But we have to think of him as a humorist, too,” he added. “How this man managed to create all he did in his short life while packing away as much alcohol as he did is remarkable!”
I was so inspired by Auster’s enthusiasm and passion, I decided to take a pilgrimage a few days later—one that formed in my mind as he was reading from City of Glass. In the excerpt, the main character Quinn mentioned Mount Tom in Riverside Park, telling his companion that Poe loved to go there and sit atop the knobby rock to look out over the Hudson River. When I lived on the Upper West Side, my first New York City neighborhood, I would powerwalk along the stretch of pavement looping below the striated black bulge in the hillside set within its tangle of trees. This made my literary adventure a bit of a homecoming as well as a writer’s homage to Poe.
I decided to make my way there by following Edgar Allan Poe Street, the stretch of 84th Street leading to the Park. It was a gray day and as I walked the first block heading west from Broadway, cornstarch snow began to fall. I noticed how the asphalt was ripped to pieces by snowplows on the quiet succession of blocks, not a surprise given the nasty winter we were having that year. The townhouses along the narrow lane, gracious and well appointed, were counter opposites to the rugged roadbed, and I thought it ironic that these residences on a street bearing his name would have been so far beyond Poe’s means.
When I stepped into the Park, the wind from the river blasted up the hillside with an increased vigor and the petulant weather seemed so marvelously perfect for channeling the despondent author’s spirit. As I picked my way along the flagstone-dotted path to Mount Tom’s summit, I thought about Auster’s remark that Poe had a complex mind. “Poe was an artist and he was fighting deep within his own subconscious,” he had said. “I’m not even sure he knew what he was doing. Some of it, like The Black Cat, was pure madness.”
The word madness reverberated in the auditorium at The Morgan that night, drawing my gaze to Poe’s sunken eyes once again. Half-moons of white sclera cupping the bottom of his dark irises made the fringe of his lower lashes seem as if they were drawn in Goth-like swaths of eyeliner. The author’s mouth, had it been relieved of its place beneath the very long, straight shaft of his nose, was sensual—I might even call it friendly. But set within the composition of his pained face, the secrets it might have whispered if he could have spoken that evening seemed certain to hold the internal terror of “the luckless, misunderstood Edgar Allan Poe, the man who never managed to fit in—but an American just the same.”
I stood atop the massive rock and mouthed these words, which Auster had written in the exhibition catalog. It seemed the perfect silent tribute to the man who managed to leave such a remarkable literary legacy given the destitution of his beleaguered life. When I turned to leave the hillside, the snow stopped suddenly, and the wind gusted nastily, sending a bone-rattling shiver through me. Bitter. Bleak. Biting. I thought as I hurried back toward Broadway, not surprised that even the weather on a day so far removed from his time seemed to be leading back to Poe.
It All Leads Back to Poe © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.