Why Poe Matters: Examining the legacy and longevity of a misunderstood writer

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • January 29, 2015

Edgar Allan Poe’s 206th birthday passed earlier this month, and with the statue of him that now stands at the end of our block on Boylston Street, it’s hard not to marvel at how thoroughly his work still pervades American culture. His vision has transcended the limitations of the written word to find an afterlife in such pop culture staples as The Simpsons and the NFL. 

Poe was also the first 19th-century American writer that I read as a child, and almost everyone who went to public school will have probably encountered “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or “The Masque of the Red Death,” among other classics.

Yet the nature of Poe’s legacy has always been a matter of dispute. Of course his influence on genre fiction cannot be overstated; he is one of the prime progenitors of the detective story and the adventure story. 

Most notably, Poe inaugurated a particularly American strain of gothic horror, which runs through the work of H. P. Lovecraft in the early 20th century and the fiction of Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates in our own time. 

But writers and critics of such eminence as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Butler Yeats, and Harold Bloom have dismissed Poe as lowbrow and derivative, and his reputation remains unsteady in conventionally “literary” circles.

It’s not hard to see where these critics are coming from. While reading “The Fall of the House of Usher” during my sophomore year of college for the first time since my early teens, I was struck by how poorly written much of the story is. Prose that seemed merely antiquated to my adolescent self now seemed overwrought. 

The attentive reader is soon distracted by the story’s onslaught of ominous adjectives, Poe’s go-to words for inspiring a sense of dread: oppressive, phantasmagorical, sulphureous, gloomy, ghastly, morbid, cadaverous, unendurable, and their variants. Embedded in a string of long and meandering sentences, these descriptors can become almost intolerable, even over the course of just fifteen pages.

Why, then, does “The Fall of the House of Usher” remain an American classic? For all of the shortcomings of Poe’s style, there is a real emotional core and authentically original sensibility in his best stories and poems. 

It remains difficult for me to walk away from works like “Ulalume,” a chilling lament whose hypnotic rhythms capture the mind’s tendency to numb the pain of trauma, or “The Black Cat,” a tale of insanity and homicide, without feeling unsettled.

Poe’s uncanny ability to map the darker regions of the human mind has also resonated with writers situated firmly in the canon of American literature. 

His geography of gloom seems especially to have permeated the bleak visions of the Modernists and their precursors. Stephen Crane’s 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a starkly realistic depiction of life in the slums of New York City that still has the power to shock, concludes with a haunting personification of urban architecture, which may well have its roots in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

William Faulkner also succeeded in translating Poe’s gothic sensationalism into his own bleak vision of the modern condition. As Joyce Carol Oates notes in her introduction to American Gothic Tales, there is “no mistaking” Poe’s influence on Faulkner’s 1924  masterpiece “A Rose for Emily.” The story’s anthropomorphic house, “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps,” is another descendant of the House of Usher.

American poetry, as well, has benefited from Poe’s influence. “One goes back to Poe, and to Whitman—and always my beloved Melville—with renewed appreciation of what America really is, or could be,”  Hart Crane wrote in a 1926 letter to Yvor Winters, and indeed, Poe plays a key role in Crane’s masterwork, The Bridge (1930). 

In the penultimate section of the poem “The Tunnel,” Crane shows us a hellish New York with clear debts to Poe’s lyric “The City in the Sea.” Poe himself makes an appearance as a specter with “eyes like agate lanterns” whose body “smokes along the bitten rails” of the subway train.

Successive generations of poets have also channeled Poe’s vision into their own. The eponymous protagonist of Elizabeth Bishop’s 1936 poem “The Man-Moth,” who “must / be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams,” is also a child of Poe. Bishop’s sense of humor makes her New York subway poem much less harrowing than Crane’s, yet her description of the Man-Moth’s eye as “all dark pupil, / an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens / as he stares back” conveys a terror all its own.

It is a testament to the singularity of Poe’s conceptual imagination that so many writers whose stylistic achievements outmatch anything that he ever produced have nonetheless been inspired by his work. We can criticize Poe’s bad technique, repetitious themes, and sensationalism, but serious readers must take stock of his triumphs as well, or risk overlooking a powerful strain of the urban gothic that has become a touchstone of America’s literary heritage.