Faithful commenter Todd C. Murry calls me out on my last post:
I can’t believe you would call Lovecraft one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but give an “undisputed” list of the greatest of the 19th that leaves off Poe. Anything bad you can hurl at Poe that would dock him off the list is 10 times as true of HP, and he was undoubtely more influentual in that inescapably broad power-of-ideas way.
Please reconsider Poe (I’ll let someone else like David Fiore defend Hawthorne).
I don’t disagree– although it wasn’t my intent to call Lovecraft one of the Greatest Writers of the 20th century. It was more like trying to figure out how these figures which I consider very significant will eventually be incorporated into the Canon. (If any of the three writers that I mentioned will end up being one of the True Greats, I presume it would be Hammett over either Lovecraft or Dick.)
It’s interesting that I, like almost everyone compiling their arbitrary list of the 19th Century American True Greats, forgot about Poe.
I think Poe gets left off these lists for two reasons: #1 is that he was, above all else, dear Edgar Allen, a creature so weird that it’s often hard to consider him as anything other than a being emerged fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. Even when writing about his contemporary period, Poe is always there in his own mind– he seems far more concerned with his own inner landscape and surrounding circle than his exterior world. In short, it’s hard to imagine Poe being of any century, let alone his own. (This is not to reinforce unjust and negative images of Poe as a delusional dipsomaniac; merely to say that, some people, by their natures, are more insular than others.)
The second reason, and one to which I alluded yesterday, is that Great American Literature of the 19th Century can almost be viewed as a genre centered around the unfathomable turmoil of the 1850s and the American Civil War. Seemingly it took a while for this critical opinion to form, but once it did form, it hardened and stuck. Personally, I’m not in disagreement. I recognize that prior to this 15 year period there is work of great quality and significance, but none of it can stand up to the writers trying to hold together a country ripping itself apart. Or trying to piece that country back together with the impotent tool of literature. Sometimes the world does end with a bang.
Poe, not insignificantly, died in 1849. Having missed out on this period of our history, his works, already detached, only seem more so by comparison. One of my favorite Poe stories is “The Murder in the Rue Morgue.” Both the setting of the story– a locked room in Paris– and its conclusion (NO SPOILERS) seem astonishingly disconnected from anything other than Poe’s world of himself. Even its sequel, the Marie Roget story, based on the famous Mary Rogers case– an actual event in New York history– seems somehow of another place. This says nothing of the more fantastic pieces. This is, of course, opinion. No doubt many fine theses have been written making excellent cases for the exact opposite.
Incidentally, compared with Lovecraft, I think there’s no doubt whatsoever that technically, and aesthetically, Poe was the far, far superior writer. Good ol’ HPL himself would have been the first to admit it. However, good ol’ JK would argue that a lot of Lovecraft’s significance comes not from his technical construction but from his distinct, and often prescient, awareness of his period’s big issues. Yes, there’s a lot of crap in there about monsters, but Lovecraft was riding early waves (and was very often on the wrong side) of issues that would come to dominate the 20th Century: racism, class warfare, sexuality and its malcontents, the failure of religion in the face of expanding scientific discovery, paranoia, and the profound alienation of the individual through modernity. These are the Lovecraftian bread and butter.
I would further argue that what I consider to be Lovecraft’s most realized work– The Case of Charles Dexter Ward– has as much insight on the awful influence of money, status and family over a child’s development as any other work of fiction. Again, Lovecraft ends up seeming really of his time and exceptionally prescient of things to come. I’m not being glib when I say this: if you want to know about what creates something like Paris Hilton, you only have to look at Charles Dexter Ward, take account of how little his family even notices what’s happening to him as the novel progresses and ask why.
Okay, that’s enough of this!
Incidentally, the main site of KOBEK.COM has two Poe related PDF files:
The first is Poe’s Helen by Caroline Ticknor, a biography of Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe’s Providence girlfriend, all around interesting lady of the 19th & a poet in her own right.
The second is the 1853 edition of Hours of Life, a book of poetry by the very same Sarah Helen Whitman. Caveat emptor on this one– some of it is a little dreadful.
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