Lynn Cullen first made us swoon with her novel MRS. POE, in which she showed us the famous Father of the Detective Story in a new and romantic light. October is Poe Month, and today is the anniversary of his death, so we thought our readers would enjoy this repost…or should that be “Re-Poe-st”?
Close your eyes and think, “Edgar Allan Poe.”
Did the image of a gloomy, possibly deranged, definitely unattractive, individual float through your mind? With an industrial-strength forehead and baggy, mismatched eyes, maybe? A face that would make you scurry for the “not now” button if attached to a friend request on Facebook?
You can thank Poe’s archenemy in real-life, Rufus Griswold, for planting that unsavory picture in your head. As Poe’s literary executor, he waged a smear campaign against Poe that started the day Poe died. He lovingly crafted a venomous portrait of his rival that was so effective that we believe it to this day. It fits the daguerreotypes that we so often associate with Poe, pictures which were taken when he was unwell, in the last days of his life.
Let me replace that image.
This lithograph shows Poe as viewed while he was in his prime. Far from being thought of as creepy, the ladies swooned over him. This was how he was described by his contemporaries:
“His face is a fine one, and well gifted with intellectual beauty” (Thomas Dunn English, The Aristidean, April, 1845.)
“Poe, himself, is a very good looking fellow” (William Gilmore Simms to the Southern Patriot, July 15, 1846.)
“Poe had a remarkably pleasing and prepossessing countenance, what the ladies would call decidedly handsome” (William Gowan)
“I distinctly recall his face, with its ample forehead, brilliant eyes, and narrowness of nose and chin; an essentially ideal face, not noble, yet anything but coarse, with the look of oversensitiveness which when uncontrolled may prove more debasing that coarseness. It was a face to rivet one’s attention in any crowd; yet a face that no one would feel safe in loving. . . .” (Thomas Wentworth Higginson)
I think this last description goes straight to the core of his appeal. Sure, Poe was conventionally attractive, but what made him irresistible was that he seemed to be just barely controlling a volcano of emotions that was always threatening to erupt.
It didn’t hurt his dangerous image that he wrote coldly cruel reviews of work that he didn’t respect. And he respected little. He carried himself with an air of mystery that was only deepened by his darkly emotional stories and poems. He radiated his powerful need to be loved–a need that grew from being orphaned and then rejected by his foster family from early childhood, a need that was only underscored by his efforts to control it—yet he stood firmly aloof. He was, as Margaret Fuller says in Mrs. Poe, “cool and hard and smart, with a river of passion running underneath. Women just want to dig down to that river.”
In short, Edgar Allan Poe was a nineteenth-century Bad Boy heartthrob.
So where did I look for inspiration as I wrote about him? I didn’t have to search far. I drew from my own favorite nineteenth-century Bad Boy: Heathcliff, in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. (A book written and published, coincidentally, in the years during which Mrs. Poe takes place—1845-1847.)
Heathcliff, too, was orphaned and later rejected by his foster family. Heathcliff was also driven to prove himself, in his case, by becoming the richest man in the district. Heathcliff, too, became cold and hard to overcompensate for being too loving and vulnerable in his center. He had been crushed; now he’d do the crushing, lashing out like the wounded animal that he was.
Enhancing my vision was Ralph Fiennes’s Heathcliff in the 1992 BBC version of Wuthering Heights.
I enjoyed this vision. A lot. I rounded it out with Colin Firth in the roles in which he struggles under great self control, with a dollop of Johnny Depp’s cool glibness in The Pirates of the Caribbean, and then filled it in with my own observations of real-life men whom I find inexplicably appealing. Not all research for a novel is unpleasant.
So now we have our sexy Poe, who was much more like the real Poe than the eerie figure that has come down to us through time. No wonder he was a celebrity heartthrob in his day. A wounded bad boy is always in vogue.
LYNN CULLEN is an avid traveler and historian, and the author of numerous award-winning children’s books and adult novels, including The Creation of Eve and Reign of Madness, and the highly acclaimed young adult novel, I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter. Visit her at www.lynncullen.com