Since attending the 4th International Edgar Allan Poe conference in New York a few weeks ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Poe has become such a cultural icon in recent years.
Yes, Poe was always one of the more important American writers of the 19th century, despite being dismissed from consideration as “serious literature” for so many years. Instead, and somewhat strangely, Poe’s enduring popularity caused him to be classified as juvenile literature, which his work is absolutely not, but along with scaring (and scarring) generations of readers, foisting him off on the young had the somewhat perverse effect of only making Poe more widely influential. Having such a lineage and coming in an era dominated by YA fiction certainly boosts Poe’s current reputation. He offers dark magic for kids schooled with Harry Potter, and grim cultural critique for teens enthralled by the dystopian visions of Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogy. So, that’s probably part of Poe’s secret, but there’s more.
Poe also wrote the very first recognizable detective stories. His trio of Parisian mysteries featuring C. Auguste Dupin and his nameless sidekick who narrates the tales, starts with the locked-room case of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” first published Graham’s Magazine in 1841, these stories introduced the idea of mysteries where the detective (and along with him the reader) encounters a series of clues which he must them assemble into a solution told in the form of a narrative that accounts for each piece of the puzzle.
It’s worth noting that Poe referred to these detective stories as his tales of ratiocination. He always preferred the word “tale” to indicate a short story. Meaning “logical reasoning” and pronounced with a hard T so the first syllable sounds like rat, the word “ratiocination” was cumbersome and unfamiliar even in Poe’s time, so it’s no wonder we’ve shifted over to calling them detective stories or mystery stories; however, these newer descriptions subtly place the focus on the central figure of the detective in the first place or on the puzzle itself in the latter. Poe’s awkward word “ratiocination” still has the advantage of emphasizing the mental thought processes that interpret the story’s clues in order to produce the mystery’s solution, and that’s exactly where Poe wanted to place focus. For Poe, detective stories are always primarily about how we analyze the word around us, reading information in order to deduce hidden truths.
Writing fifty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle followed Poe’s model with his enormously popular and influential Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Conan Doyle was quite open about his debts to Poe, but he cleverly renamed the detective’s process “deduction” which was already familiar from philosophy and has proven a much more manageable term for most people. In the 20th century, writers like Agatha Christie and Rex Stout turned the production of detective novels into a fine cottage industry with a ravenous readership. Interestingly, after the 1930’s most American crime writers veered down the path of detective as action-adventure hero, following Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler down a path that perhaps has as much in common with the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans, etc.) as it does with Poe’s more intellectual tales. In any case, with his three Dupin stories, Poe essentially invented a genre that has become dominant in our times. Every country in the world writes and reads detective stories and novels these days.
The significance of this contribution by Poe cannot be overstated. No one invents a genre! And mystery stories have become one of the main staples of popular entertainment ever since. No wonder the Mystery Writers Association named the award they give out to the best crime fiction every year the Edgars. Imagine a world without Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, without Perry Mason and Columbo, without Law & Order or CSI. It’s nearly impossible to fathom how Poe changed our way of thinking about crime and police work. He not only introduced the figure of the detective to the popular imagination, but by focusing on the details of how detectives think he revealed how virtually every profession had become altered by the rise of the scientific method. Now, now matter what job you do, you probably imagine yourself as something of a detective, at least sometimes.
Only perhaps Mary Shelley can make a similar claim for science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein, and that novel owes as much to its roots in Gothic horror as it does to the rise of modern science.
So, these are both huge reasons for us to admire and respect Poe’s literary achievements, but I’m still not sure they adequately explain why Poe’s face appears among that pantheon of cultural icons featured on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, much less why the Baltimore Ravens would name their team after the title figure from Poe’s 1845 poem “The Raven.” Of course the poem is a masterpiece that was hugely popular when it was first published and it has remained an American favorite every since, but it still seems so culturally improbable that we would have a football team named for it. I mean, what other 19th century American writer gets name checked by the NFL? Or any other writer by any other sport for that matter?
But the current mania for Poe doesn’t end there.
A number of historical crime novels include Poe as a character and countless more mysteries center on the discovery, theft or forgery of rare Poe books and manuscripts. A few years ago, John Cusack played a crime-solving Poe in The Raven. Recent television show The Following focuses on the exploits of a college professor turned serial killer who controls an enthusiastic cult of students obsessed with Poe. One of Lou Reed’s final albums even pays homage to Poe’s work.
Of course there are tee shirts and coffee cups, but everybody who’s anybody has those. Poe has gone even further. Now you can even buy no end of Poe memorabilia from Poe action figures and Poe bobble heads to Poe-ka dotted iPhone covers and book bags. I personally own a few of these items thanks to my lovely wife Petra and to my kind friend Jean, with whom I worked for years at Murder by the Book. Becoming the object of such cultural fixation is usually reserved for movie stars and rock musicians, but Poe’s current popularity is undeniable.
Yet unraveling all the precise reasons for this 21st-century infatuation remains a task worthy of Poe’s own Parisian detective. Fear not! I’m on the case and will reveal more next time.