Why Should You Read Edgar Allan Poe? An Animated Video Explains

His gloomy, haunt­ed vis­age adorns the cov­ers of col­lect­ed works, pub­li­ca­tions of whose like he would nev­er see in his life­time. Edgar Allan Poe died in penury and near-obscu­ri­ty, and might have been for­got­ten had his work not been turned into sen­sa­tion­al­ized, abridged, adap­ta­tions posthu­mous­ly, a fate he might not have wished on his most hat­ed lit­er­ary rival.

But Poe sur­vived car­i­ca­ture to become known as one of the great­est of Amer­i­can writ­ers in any genre. A pio­neer of psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror and sci­ence fic­tion, founder of the detec­tive sto­ry, poet of loss and mourn­ing, and inci­sive lit­er­ary crit­ic whose prin­ci­ples informed his own work so close­ly that we can use essays like his 1846 “The Phi­los­o­phy of Com­po­si­tion” as keys to unlock the for­mal prop­er­ties of his sto­ries and nar­ra­tive poems.

In the short TED-Ed video above, script­ed by Poe schol­ar Scott Peeples of the Col­lege of Charleston, we are intro­duced to many of the qual­i­ties of form and style that make Poe dis­tinc­tive, and that made him stand out among a crowd of pop­u­lar hor­ror writ­ers of the time. There are his prin­ci­ples, elab­o­rat­ed in his essay, which state that one should be able to read a sto­ry in one sit­ting, and that every word in the sto­ry must count.

These rules pro­duced what Poe called the “Uni­ty of Effect,” which “goes far beyond fear. Poe’s sto­ries use vio­lence and hor­ror to explore the para­dox­es and mys­ter­ies of love, grief, and guilt, while resist­ing sim­ple inter­pre­ta­tions or clear moral mes­sages. And while they often hint at super­nat­ur­al ele­ments, the true dark­ness they explore is the human mind.”

This obser­va­tion leads to an analy­sis of Poe’s unre­li­able nar­ra­tors, par­tic­u­lar­ly in sto­ries like The Tell-Tale Heart. But there is anoth­er aspect to Poe—one which makes his unre­li­able voic­es so com­pelling. Even when the sto­ries seem incred­i­ble, the events bizarre, the nar­ra­tors mani­a­cal, we believe them whole­heart­ed­ly. And this has much to do with the fram­ing con­ven­tions Poe uses to draw read­ers in and impli­cate them, forc­ing them to iden­ti­fy with the sto­ries’ tellers.

For exam­ple, “Ms. Found in a Bot­tle,” the very first sto­ry in Poe’s posthu­mous col­lec­tion, Tales of Mys­tery and Imag­i­na­tion, opens with an epi­graph from French libret­tist Quinault’s opera Atys, an adap­tion of one of Ovid’s sto­ries. The lines trans­late to “He who has but a moment to live has no longer any­thing to dis­sem­ble.”

We are invit­ed into a con­fi­dence through the door­way of this device—a clas­si­cal, and neo­clas­si­cal, ref­er­ence to truth-telling, a sober, learned lit­er­ary stamp of author­i­ty. As the name­less nar­ra­tor intro­duces him­self, he makes sure to place him­self in anoth­er ancient tra­di­tion, Pyrrhon­ism, a skep­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy con­cerned with epis­te­mol­o­gy, or how it is we can know what we know.

The nar­ra­tor assures us that “no per­son could be less liable than myself to be led away from the severe precincts of truth by the ignes fatui of super­sti­tion.” Though we may doubt this bold asser­tion, and the per­son mak­ing it, we might also be con­vinced of our own unshake­able ratio­nal­i­ty and skep­ti­cism. These are the moves, to put it plain­ly, of stage magi­cians, moun­te­banks, and con­fi­dence men, and Poe was one of the great­est of them all.

He flat­ters his read­ers’ intel­li­gence, draws them close enough to see his hands mov­ing, then picks their com­fort­able assump­tions from their pock­ets. Poe under­stood what many of his peers did not: read­ers love to be conned by a juicy yarn, but it must be real­ly good—it must show us some­thing we did not see before, and that we could, per­haps, only look at it indi­rect­ly, through a pleas­ing act of aes­thet­ic (self) decep­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load The Com­plete Works of Edgar Allan Poe on His Birth­day

7 Tips from Edgar Allan Poe on How to Write Vivid Sto­ries and Poems

Edgar Allan Poe’s the Raven: Watch an Award-Win­ning Short Film That Mod­ern­izes Poe’s Clas­sic Tale

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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