The Gloom Within
By Brittany Higdon
Poe's work has endured through marked changes in literary fashion, because he speaks to the darkness in human experience.
As much as I hate to admit it as an avowed book-loving adult, the first time I heard of Edgar Allan Poe was during the 1996 football season. The Cleveland Browns had just been unceremoniously moved to Baltimore by owner Art Moddell and rechristened the Baltimore Ravens. “What’s a raven?” I asked my dad, a die-hard Cleveland sports fan and founder of the very first Raven Haters Club. “An ugly black bird that eats dead things.” It took further research to learn that the bird, while black, does not in fact eat dead things; and the football team that broke my heart was named such because of the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe (whose final resting place is downtown Baltimore), The Raven.
In a major lapse of judgement during my freshman year of high school, this anti-public speaker signed up for a theatrics class. To add insult to injury, it was during first period and I’m not and have never been a morning person. The first assignment? Memorize and perform The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe in any persona you’d like. I chose “nervous” or “scared” or “terrified” because, well, that required precisely zero acting. The poem starts as one of beauty and sentiment, recalling a sleigh ride in the first stanza. (I can still remember practicing the pronunciation of “tintinnabulation.”) The second stanza remains positive—“Hear the mellow wedding bells, Golden bells!” and evokes sweet sounds heard at a wedding. It’s not until the third stanza that the Poe that we know and love starts to show up. “What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!” It’s here that the sound of bells takes on a more sinister idea, one that will carry throughout almost all of Poe’s writings.
While my persona has never been anything anywhere akin to Wednesday Addams, I have always had a bit of a thing for Poe. The darkness of his writing has always spoken to a part of me that, like all of us, has experienced tragedy and loss. Born Edgar Poe in 1809 in Boston, he and his two siblings were orphaned at an early age. Each were sent to live with different families and Edgar was taken in by a couple (last name Allan) in Richmond, Virginia. During his childhood with the Allans, he lived a life of luxury, studying at prestigious boarding schools in England and Scotland. Upon reaching adulthood, he dabbled in gambling and alcoholism, which severed his relationship with his foster father. He studied at the then-new University of Virginia for a year before deciding to try his hand at a military career, which was also a failure. Fortunately, he began writing under a pseudonym during his time in the military, which earned him enough money to get by.
Shortly thereafter, he moved to Baltimore; around the same time, he lost his brother, with whom he had managed to maintain a long-distance relationship. At the age of 26, he married, but his wife died of tuberculosis eleven years later. While premature deaths were certainly more the norm in the 1840s, losing both parents, a sibling, and his wife drove Poe further into his already-problematic alcohol consumption, which he ultimately (most likely) succumbed to at the age of 40. His death certificate has been lost in history but alcohol consumption seems to be the most common theory in his cause of death.
Though he lived for a relatively short amount of time, Poe’s writings have stood the test of time—not only because of their grotesque nature, but also because they speak to a part of us that is rarely acknowledged. For the same reason we can’t seem to stop rubbernecking when we drive past a car accident, we can’t seem to stop reading Poe, particularly in October when the idea of death is all around us, whether it be from the changing trees or rapidly-diminishing daylight. One of Poe’s most famous stories, The Tell-Tale Heart, is about a man who’s driven into madness and kills his own father. While few can relate to quite that level of madness, we can undoubtedly relate the annoyance that occurs when we’re with people we love. As for the football team’s namesake? The Raven is about letting go of things you have lost, similar to Cleveland’s first NFL franchise. The narrator in The Raven is haunted by the memory of love lost and a bird that says precisely one word … Will I ever fully forgive Art Modell? Until we finally have a Super Bowl, “Nevermore.”
If you’ve never read Edgar Allan Poe, I would encourage you to read his texts with a different lens than you would the more light-hearted authors you may be used to. What part of his writings speak to you? If you look close enough, you’re bound to find many.
Brittany L. Higdon is a financial educator for young adults at www.basicbritt.com. A licensed Reading Specialist, she holds an M.Ed from University of Virginia, as well as a B.A. from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Brittany is a proud Cleveland native, currently living outside the nation’s capital with her two little dogs, Cannoli and Frickle.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this, check out some of our posts on “the Great Conversation,” like this one on astronomy or this one on the idea of fate. You may also be interested in some of the books recommended by guests on our weekly education and culture podcast, Anchored.