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Union prof and Edgar Allan Poe descendant hopes to repair author’s tarnished image

JACKSON, Tenn.Oct. 30, 2002 – Edgar Allan Poe. When you think of the name of this literary giant who is considered by many to be the father of mystery and horror, it may conjure up overwhelming images of darkness, mystique and terror. For those who have not studied Poe’s life, but perhaps are familiar with his works like The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart, they know him simply as a great writer with his own demons of opium addiction and alcoholism to name a few. But for those who really knew him – in fact, his direct descendents – they say much of this is simply myth.

Harry L. Poe, the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University, was just appointed president of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation and Museum, the first descendent to hold the position. He says that one person can be blamed for the negative image his ancestor holds – that of one Rufus Griswold, who in Poe’s words, was a “failed Baptist preacher, successful literary editor and jealous poet.” Poe hopes to correct the public’s understanding of E.A. Poe through education, particularly with elementary and junior high-grade students.

Hal Poe speaks with outgoing president Cathy Wright in one of the rooms located in the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Va.

Hal Poe speaks with outgoing president Cathy Wright in one of the rooms located in the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Va.

The relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus Griswold is comparable to the relationship between Mozart and Salieri, portrayed in the movie Amadeus, said Poe.

“Poe thought of Griswold as one of his greatest friends,” explained the scholar. “But in fact, Griswold was extremely jealous of Poe and from the moment of his death, he did everything he could to ruin him.”

Indeed, Griswold’s obituary for Poe paints a bleak, disturbing picture of the author and fellow literary critic. Written on October 9, 1849 and published in the evening edition of the New York Tribune, the announcement is stark, beginning with “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it…”

Even in the memoir Griswold wrote of Poe that was included in the first edited edition after Poe’s death, the jealous poet seeks to disgrace the man he longed to be.

“In that classic way of disparaging him, Griswold talks about what a gifted person Poe was, and how it was such a shame that he was such a drunkard and an opium addict,” chuckles Poe, who pointed out that Poe never was an opium addict and was not the desperate alcoholic that he has been made out to be. Griswold also took all of the profits from sales of that edition, leaving Poe’s mother-in-law quite destitute.

“We know he did have a struggle with alcohol, particularly during the time his wife contracted tuberculosis,” explained Poe, who said that alcoholism has been seen quite frequently within the Poe generations. “In letters from my great-great-grandfather, Poe is warned about ‘the family curse,’ which we know now refers to the struggle that multiple family members had with alcohol.”

It was at a Sons of Temperance meeting, which in the mid-1800s could be compared with a revival or church meeting, that Poe is recorded as “taking the pledge” and having a conversion experience – one month before he died.

“Poe grew up attending church in the home of his foster mother, Mrs. Allan, who was a devout Christian, but his struggle would have been somewhat like C.S. Lewis, whose mother died young and at that point drifted into atheism,” said Poe.

Though Poe was not an atheist, he was deeply concerned about the problem of death. Everyone he cared about, in fact, experienced tragic deaths, says Poe.

“His mother died when he was a tiny child, his foster mother died when he was a teenager,” recalled Poe. “One of his patrons who encouraged him to write poetry died when he was a teenager, and his child bride also died when he would have been 35. But he did experience a conversion, something that made papers all over the country at the time.”

While Poe is considered the father of mystery and suspense, a mystery remains for how he actually died.

“One theory is that he died of rabies,” said Poe. “He loved cats and frequently would take strays home, and his symptoms are comparable to the symptoms of death by rabies. Another widely hailed view is that he was engaged to marry his childhood sweetheart and her enraged son had him hijacked and beaten up.”

However he died, the majority of literary scholars agree that Poe’s works were insightful and 100 years before his time.

“Poe was the first writer to take us inside a character’s head,” said Gene Fant, the chair of Union’s English Department. “He made us see something that a lot of people are uncomfortable with – that man can be evil.”

Beyond being part of the beginning of the short story and the style of science fiction, Poe says that literary criticism owes a lot to his cousin.

“He made literary criticism a respectable art form and helped establish the whole idea of studying literature as part of college credit,” said Poe.

Whatever one’s feeling is of the great author as a person, he is recognized worldwide for his writings of intrigue and hair-raising plots.

“Whether I’m traveling in Russia or Kenya or Germany or England, when I say my name, people invariably say Edgar Allan Poe – his poetry translates so easily to other languages – he’s just internationally known,” says Poe.

The Edgar Allan Poe Museum of which Poe is now president hopes that through their educational programs, specifically for school children, love for Poe’s writings will continue on.

“We think the most important thing for children, especially in elementary school, is to develop a love of reading,” said Poe. “Poe stories become fascinating reading for children.”

While quite a bit is being done locally with nearby school children in Virginia visiting the museum through field trips, plans are underway to create a more national approach which would include writing competitions for school age children.

Poe believes through all of the darkness and gloom of Edgar Allan Poe’s writings, there is a major lesson that can be learned.

“Most of Poe’s writings, whether fiction or poetry, dealt with mystery and death,” said Poe. “One thing that we can we learn from him is the absolute certainty of death and how devastating it is. We may try desperately to deny it and avoid it but it is a certainty.

“We only have this time in life to prepare for it.”

Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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