Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

Reading Edgar Allan Poe


Edgar Allan Poe., Digital ID 483670, New York Public LibraryIn his essay “King Weirdo,” anthologized in the collection Now Dig This, the American humorist Terry Southern writes about his first encounter with Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.

As a seventh grader in a Dallas junior high school, Southern is sent to the library for a two part assignment, “a bit of horror-show wretchedness called 'Getting to Know Your Public Library'" that also required reading a Poe story (Southern’s teacher calls this killing “two buhds with one numbah-six shot…twelve-gauge.”)  Southern, responding to a grim scene in the novel where a guilty party heaves a body overboard, reacts:

Holy Mack! What manner of weirdness was here. The idea of hassling a corpse overboard is perhaps commonplace enough, but to have an “entire leg” come off in your grasp… far out. But what really nailed it down for me was the imagery, “…the mass of putrefaction SLIPPED over the side”! Christ you could practically taste it! UGH! ACCHH!” 

The scene also struck the late Poe scholar Burton Pollin, whose annotated copy of volume three of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe containing Pym, is now housed in The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. Why his leg, Pollin wonders, when it’s his arm that’s infected? On a side note: marginalia by Pollin on the same page comments on Poe’s frequent usage of the word “phosphoric” in conjunction with corpses, leading him to conclude that Poe believes that all decayed organic material glows in the dark. For this reader, thanks to Pollin, the healthy dose of organs scattered throughout Poe's work and found pulsing behind walls and under floorboards will forever forwards glow like Kryptonite.
But back to Southern. The young Texan was hooked by Poe’s high yuck quotient, and found in Pym an opportunity to test his own satirical chops. At age 12 he rewrote the novel, transposing his school’s players into the grotesque roles. In an interview among his papers in The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, Southern talks about how his early exposure to Pym informed the casual, confessional tone of his narrative journalism for the rest of his career. The Southern papers in the Berg Collection also include the manuscript of “King Weirdo,” anthologized in the collection Now Dig This (the collection will soon be available to the public; for access, please e-mail
T.S. Eliot credited Poe’s appeal to the young by attributing it to Poe’s own Peter Pan qualities. In a manuscript in the Berg Collection, “From Poe to Valery,” published in the Hudson Review in 1948, Eliot reflects on Poe’s arrested intellectual development. Poe’s intellect is that of “a highly sighted young person before puberty.” George Bernard Shaw also alludes to Poe’s childish preoccupations in an undated Berg Collection manuscript, “Edgar Allan Poe.” Unlike other American and English authors of the period who are overly concerned with the sensual, Poe delights in fairy tales and the supernatural. His work is peppered with a boy’s flights of fancy, but realistically narrated. As Shaw writes:
...grotesques, negroes, madmen with delerium tremens, even gorillas take the place of ordinary peasants and courtiers, citizens and soldiers, in his theatre. His houses are haunted houses, his woods enchanted woods; and he makes them so real that reality itself cannot sustain the comparison. His kingdom is not of this world.  
The raven on the bust of Pallas., Digital ID 483660, New York Public Library
However fanciful and childlike Poe’s work may have seemed, it was grounded in a realism that produced palpable chills. Southern writes of Poe’s use of clever framing devices in Pym, describing his inclusion of strange and sometimes seemingly insignificant details that lend his accounts verisimilitude. A letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Poe in the Berg Collection attests to the effect even his most fantastical poetry had on his readers. In April 1846, she writes Poe that a friend, who owned a bust of Athena similar to the one Poe describes in “The Raven,” could no longer look at it in the twilight. Barrett Browning reports in this same letter that “The Raven," which the author had dedicated to her, had produced a “fit horror” in England.
Poe himself was critical of his own abilities. Just as he does in Pym, Poe adopts a fictional conceit as a framework for another Berg Collection item, “A Reviewer Reviewed.” Here he writes under the name “Walter G. Bowen,” and undertakes a review of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. About “The Raven” he writes that he doesn’t think so well of it “as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or as Mr. Poe himself does.” Later in the review, Bowen provides numerous examples of how Poe has borrowed too exactly from the work of other poets, excoriating Poe for accusing others of plagiarism when he himself is guilty in so many instances of his poetry.
How serious is Poe, writing as Bowen here? Is Poe really insinuating that he knowingly plagiarized other poets? More likely, he’s poking holes in the act of criticism itself. Bowen writes in the same essay that Poe’s “critical judgments are of little value,” a statement that runs the risk of cancelling out the review in its entirety. But the arguments of “A Reviewer Reviewed” are also thoughtful and carefully considered. “A Reviewer Reviewed” is a curious blend of seriousness and parody. Just as in his fiction, Poe throws his voice here convincingly, in order to tell his own version of the truth.
Among the Berg Collection’s Poe highlights are not one but two copies of the first edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems. Only 12 copies are known to exist of the original 50 print run. A facsimile of this edition can be found in the Library's Rare Books Division. View a 2009 New York Times slide show of Poe material in the Berg Collection.


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Poe's almost complete

Poe's almost complete avoidance of sex -- why which I mean adult women, more specifically, live women -- is a part of this noted adolescent perspective. Still, who doesn't love the weirdo?

The Very Human Side of Edgar Allan Poe

February 7, 2012 In the film called "The Black Cat," Edgar Allan Poe is depicted as a man obsessed by his ethereal,young wife. He treated her like a goddess, yet because of his alcohol/drug problems he was unable to support her, and blamed himself for the fact that she succumbed to tuberculosis. He raged over her attempts to sell their piano, as he loved to listen to her very angelic singing, as she played. If Poe was accused of being adolescent in his thought processes it was sometimes apparent in his sudden rages, his obliviousness of others around him, his foot stamping when things did not go his way! A good example in the film "The Black Cat," was portrayed when he was literally thrown out of a pub by the proprietor whom he had insulted, belittled and ultimately injured. This scene was quite comical, as Poe seemed to assume the role of a clown, and did his best to entertain all those witnessed what occurred. Poe, who seemed to appear as an actor who played himself in "The Black Cat", stalked the unfortunate cat with devastating results when his beautiful wife tried to get between him and the cat. The story of the black cat appeared to be derived from one of his hallucinations when he was in a state of delerium tremins. In a later scene, he was in a state of despair at the wake of his wife, while interlopers whispered accusations of how he had neglected her, and how their poverty caused her demise. What made Edar Allan Poe a great writer was his clear and magical view of the universe which he perceived as a magical kingdom in which all that he loved was pure. He also succumbed in times of great anguish and sadness to imagining the world as a dark place of Gothic horror in which he was a pawn without any control over his destiny. If he was childlike it was probably because of his vulnerability. Although he was extremely gifted, he was not successful in his finding a livelihood. He got involved with a publisher who was like the personification of Ebenezer Schrooge who was always trying to get him to work for much less than he should have received. For anyone who is interested in Edgar Allan Poe, seeing the film "The Black Cat," is a real revelation.

Post new comment