October 30, 2007
As Halloween is the antithesis of All Saints’ Day (November 1), kindly allow me to beat John Zmirak to the punch-bowl and reverse his custom (or “motsuc sih esrever”) of supplying booze recipes at the end of each of his delightful Holy Feast Day articles. Tonight is an occasion to celebrate Edgar Allen Poe, the secular patron saint of American Gothic Horror, and when we’re talking about Poe, the drinks should come first:
CELEBRATE LIKE POE:
1. Gulp a double shot of the cheapest rotgut available.
2. Fall down because your body can’t handle it.
3. Suffer posthumous defamation by an envious hack journalist.
Well, all right, there is some evidence that Poe sporadically had more than just two drinks. What is less well known is that he had very low tolerance for alcohol and usually drank less in a year than the likes of Taki or I do in a week. Poe’s posthumous reputation for chronic drunkenness and for other reprobate habits, and for a disagreeable temperament with possible sadistic or Satanic inclinations, originated in a smear-job obituary by one Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a frustrated envious hack who was a forerunner of today’s Christopher Hitchens. Consider, if you will, how a talentless vulture like Hitchens has to some extent successfully – and profitably – defamed the discarnate spirits of Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul the Great, and all three persons of the Holy Trinity, and then you’ll understand Griswold’s defamation of a beautiful soul like Poe.
Allow me, then, to introduce you to “My Own Private Idol, Poe”. (He would have appreciated that pun on a ridiculous Homintern movie’s title.) Several American cities have claimed him as their own, due to his peripatetic poverty – he lived, at various times, in Richmond, New York, and Baltimore – but he spent his most productive years (1838- 1844) in my own home town, America’s most Gothic city: Philadelphia,.
“What’s so Gothic about Philadelphia,” you ask? Alas, not so much as there used to be, now that the formerly oh so peculiar, so quietly eccentric Philadelphia has fallen prey to the general flattening out of American culture, including the preternatural flattening of accent into Californianised, palatalized pabulum.
But it was not always so. The typical Anglo-American Philadelphia gentleman of 1840 (and almost all of them were Anglo, then) spoke a kind of English and deported himself with manners similar to those of gentlemen of antebellum Maryland or Tidewater Virginia. Some vestiges of those old voices and manners survived in the semirural counties adjacent to Philadelphia, including parts of my native Montgomery County, as late as my childhood in the 1970s. But suburban “development” and the cultural viruses of Hollywood and TV have finally extinguished most of those remnants.
Poe’s gentle, chivalrous Virginian manners and words would have made him almost indistinguishable from his Philadelphian neighbours, and as a Virginian he shared another peculiar patrimony with them: He was, for the most part, a pre-modern man, whose mind and spiritual inclinations were informed more by the late Middle Ages than by modernity.
What’s that, you say? Philadelphia, the birthplace of America’s Enlightenment-Age Constitution, the city of the original publicity hound Ben Franklin – was that old Philadelphia a transplanted remnant of Medievalism?
For the most part, yes it was. Throughout Philadelphia’s history there has been a duality in its soul, between the conflicting dreams of the romantic, melancholy aristocratic Quaker William Penn – who in his own way personified American Chivalry – and those of Ben Franklin, the callow, populist progenitor of “America the Abstraction.” Or should I say “the Advertisement”: Franklin affected a “pioneer” furskin cap in Paris, which he’d never donned in America. Franklin was the first American publicity hound.
But the Quakerism of William Penn – the father of Philadelphia’s soul – was one of the last gasps of Medievalism, of the late Gothic Age, transplanted to America. The romantic, aristocratic, humble Quaker William Penn was in his own way an early-modern English analogue of St. Francis of Assisi—just as Ben Franklin was an intelligent 18th century version of Rupert Murdoch.
Into antebellum Philadelphia, the offspring of a shotgun marriage between mechanistic, populist modernity and romantic medieval chivalry, Poe settled during his most productive years. And in that city, behind the thin veneer of Quaker reserve, the externally humble and internally voluptuous small redbrick townhouses of respectable Philadelphians were inhabited by many wild eccentrics and their covert friends and admirers – like the mad young Gothic-horror writer George Lippard and his absinthe-addicted friend Henry Hirst, a lawyer-cum-poet who spent more time collecting birds’ nests than trying cases. These two friends of Poe would inspire themselves to write horror stories by lying awake all night in unlit, abandoned buildings, or dancing on rooftops shouting “WOE UNTO SODOM” at the Quakers below. It’s not recorded how many of those respectable Philadelphians practiced sodomy, but we do know that a fair number were slave-traders. In any case, a lynch mob drove Lippard out of town for his nocturnal jeremiads.
Such were the bosom buddies of Edgar Allen Poe: drunken, drug-abusing romantics who spoke their minds and were scapegoated for it. Their persecutors were the progenitors of today’s “country club Republicans.” While the tinder of the American Civil War was being lit—to be fanned by the bellows of Bostonian Yankee hypocrisy—Poe and his honest, albeit dissolute, friends had been striving to examine, and to diagnose, the darker angels of America’s, and of Man’s, nature. And their reward, within their lifetimes, was poverty and obscurity.
But Poe in fact, was by no means so dissolute as his gifted friends. Poe’s principal crime as the worst crime anyone can commit in America: Having no money, and being unwilling to whore his talents for it.
He had soft, gentle hands, and a Virginian gentleman’s voice intoning the reassurance of spiritual constancy – so he has been described in letters and other memoria by those who met him in person, especially the many ladies whom he charmed without specific intention. Take another look at his face. Those eyes are not the eyes of Satanic malice, but of melancholic longing for the Divine – the very quality without which the American spirit transforms itself into its Satanic aspect.
Over 160 years ago, Poe understood the dark underbelly of America – and of Man – in a way we need to be reminded of today. See his “Words With A Mummy” in which he satirises the American illusion of “progress”— in 1845! And his poem, “El Dorado,” a reminder that there is no Utopia except in Hell.
And please don’t ignore Poe’s talent for comedy! He had a wicked (or I would say, “divine”) sense of humour. My favourite is his surreal extravaganza, “The Angel of the Odd.” It’s all the more proof of Poe’s inspired sense of humour, that the funniest character he ever created – the Angel of the Odd – was a German robot, who is all the more funny BECAUSE he has no sense of humour! Pure genius – seventy years before 1914, mind you. Poe was a Germanophile, and his loving caricature of Germans was all the more hilarious for that.
Before we close, let me tell you a secret I know about Poe. When I was a boy, in 1975, Poe’s house in Philadelphia (at around 6th and Spring Garden) was owned privately, by a lovely old lady who made it a private museum, furnished just as it had been in Poe’s time. She knew more about Poe than any Ph.D. of today. Alas, some 20 years ago, the federal government took possession (demonically, I would say) of Poe’s house, and under federal law a “national historic site” can have nothing in it which cannot be identified as “original”—and so Poe’s house has been stripped, and all that remains of it are the walls and floors. Bloody stupid Feds. But I can tell you two secrets about Poe’s Philadelphia house, and I learned them from the old lady who owned it and hosted me there in 1975:
1. As you enter the house, you’ll turn left, and then in the first room you enter, you’ll face another doorway. Just to the right of that doorway, around four feet above the floor, you will see a rough inscription carved into the wall: “DEATH TO THE”….
Poe wrote that. He carved it into the wall on one of his bad nights. I have pointed it out to the Federal National Park Service, but they refuse to put a plaque over it, because of Federal law. But now you know where to find it. And what did Poe mean by “Death to the?” I take it as a Halloween gift from him, for us to fill in the blank – or even better, just to leave it blank.
2. In the room just beyond that one, look to your left and you will see a door with an old, oval-shaped doorknob. The lady who owned the house in 1975 told me, “That doorknob is the only one that goes back to Poe’s time. His hand touched it. Now, Vincent Price often visits here, and he always rubs that same doorknob so that some of Poe’s genius will touch him.” And she asked me, “What do you want to be?” I said, “I want to be a writer.” Then she beamed, and she said, “Well, Honey, just rub that doorknob!”
Poe’s cause of death seems fitting somehow: In Baltimore, some party hacks got him drunk and took him to vote in myriad polling places until he collapsed. Poe was killed by a lethal combination of democracy and booze.
Now I have my reservations about democracy, if not about booze. Myself, I’m now four years older than Poe was when he died –so I’ll outlive Poe, though I surely won’t outwrite him. But then maybe that’s an unsought for blessing, because in America, isn’t genuine literary talent – or unpopular intellectual honesty – a temporal curse?
The American cult of publicity and popularity was instrumental in Poe’s poverty, obscurity and posthumous defamation. Maybe, among American writers, Poe is a kind of patron saint – a martyred one after all – ruined in his lifetime and for some years after by the publicity hounds of Hell, who hated him for contemplating sin in a country which believes itself to be sinless.
So, on this Halloween, on the eve of All Saints’ Day, let’s remember all those who, like Poe, have been equated in popular imagination with evil only because, like Poe, they discomfited others by naming Evil for what it is. They, and all obscure and forgotten and unknown saints—and other merely decent sinners who name evil for what it is—are anathema to the Publicity Hounds of Hell.
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