American Masters


Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive

Best known for his Gothic horror tales and narrative poem “The Raven,” Poe’s stories are the basis of countless films and TV episodes, and have inspired even more, as has his name and image. Determined to re-invent American literature, Poe was an influential – and brutally honest – literary critic and magazine editor, who also invented the detective protagonist with his character C. Auguste Dupin.

AIRED: October 30, 2017 | 1:24:03


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[ Dog barks in distance ]


-When Edgar Allan Poe came to Baltimore,

he was famous.

He was making money off of his lecture tours.

He had found financial backing to establish his magazine,

which was his great dream.

He was about to marry his childhood sweetheart.

-Who is it?

No. No, thank you.

I will be on a train to New York.

I have no need of a room.

[ Dog barks in distance ]


-And he died.

-And who is it that gets the opportunity

to announce to America that Poe has died?

His sometime friend but also literary rival,

the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold,

who wrote the very first obituary of Poe.

-Griswold succeeded in establishing

the modern perception of Poe

really as the same person

as one of the characters in his stories,

as someone who is mentally deranged,

as someone who is homicidal,

a drinking, drug-using, womanizing scoundrel.

-That's an invention of Griswold.

It's a complete fabrication.

-Who was the real Edgar Allan Poe?

I feel like he slips further away from me

the more I know about him.


[ Footsteps approaching ]



[ Clock ticking ]

-In 1843, a hard-working magazine editor,

poet, and writer named Edgar Poe

published one of the most popular horror stories

ever written.


Nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous

I had been and am,

but why will you say that I am mad?

The disease had sharpened my senses --

not destroyed -- not dulled them."

-The narrator grabs you right in the first sentence.

He said something like, "Mad? You think I am mad?" You know?

"People say I'm mad. I'm not mad!"

And then he's clearly mad,

and yet he's telling you this story

that's mad and sane at the same time.

[ Clock ticking ]

-The narrator creeps into an old man's room

and murders him while he's sleeping.

-"You should've seen how wisely I proceeded --

with what caution -- with what foresight --

with what dissimulation I went to work!

I was never kinder to the old man

than during the whole week before I killed him."

-It has the barest elements of a shocking murder story,

and yet he turns it into something that's universal.

-Poe's stories were often set in nameless places,

their time left vague.

But in the 1840s, his themes resonated

in a raw, new nation

that had yet to wrestle with some basic flaws.


-Poe writes about violence and cruelty,

madness and irrationality,

existential doubt and dread.

He wanted Americans to understand

what was strange about their own culture.

He saw that strangeness,

the strangeness that most people didn't see.


-There is so much emotion in those stories

that we sometimes misread

only for horror or for shock.

But really, what it is, is a kind of love.

Throughout his life, he was searching for unequivocal love.


[ Water dripping ]

[ Door creaks ]

[ Woman singing operatically ]

-Poe's mother was an actress who lived in Boston

when she gave birth to her second son in 1809.

[ Singing continues ]

-Eliza Poe was a star of American theater,

especially American musical theater,

especially comedy.

-She also, of course, had a beautiful singing voice.

She was called the nightingale.

-♪ Some tell me I'm pretty and fair ♪

♪ Some call me haughty and shy

♪ Some tell me they'd happily be wed ♪

♪ But nobody...

-In speaking of my mother,

you have touched a string

to which my heart fully responds.

-♪ Oh, what shall I do?

♪ Nobody comes from anything

-It was December of 1811,

and Eliza Poe had been abandoned by her husband.

She was left with three children for which she had the sole care,

and she was dying from tuberculosis.

-With Edgar, his brother, and his sister

about to lose their mother,

a local newspaper printed an appeal.

-"On this night, Mrs. Poe asks your assistance,

perhaps for the last time."


-When Mrs. Poe finally died, she was just 24 years old.

Edgar was just 2.

-Some accounts have him at her death bed.

That would be quite a shocking thing.

[ Woman singing operatically ]

-I myself never knew her,

never knew the affection of a father.

Oh, I have had many occasional dealings with adversity,

but the want of parental affection

has been the heaviest of my trials.

No one was ever prouder than I

of my descent from a woman who gave to the stage

her brief career of genius and beauty.

They said that when she died,

the theater was deprived

of one of its chief ornaments.


-He never really got over her death.

The sense of his early loss stayed with Poe constantly.

I think it appears in many of his works.

Poe was really haunted by it his whole life long.

[ Birds chirping ]


-Edgar, his brother, and sister went to separate homes.

Edgar was taken in by a childless Richmond couple,

John and Frances Allan.

Frances was one of the local women

who had helped Eliza Poe through her final illness.

-Frances Allan had been orphaned herself,

so she could sympathize with Edgar's plight.

She must've thought Edgar was just a perfect little angel.

She dressed him up in little velvet suits and cape,

and he always just worshipped

his foster mother, Frances Allan.

He just thought the world of her.

-But Edgar's relationship with his foster father

would be more complicated.

-John Allan was a merchant,

so he had that kind of bootstraps character about him,

very no-nonsense, very business-oriented.

[ Clock ticking ]

-He was also kind of a hard figure.

His own friends describe him that way,

that he could be very unforgiving.

[ Ticking continues ]

-John Allan never let Edgar forget

that he was not his real son,

that he was a foster son.

And so, Poe grows up feeling like he's both in a family

but not really in a family.

-It's a very tenuous way to live.

I think by becoming a poet,

it was a way of establishing himself.

It was a way of becoming Poe,

because he wasn't really allowed to become an Allan.

[ Birds chirping ]

-We think of Poe often as a frail character.

But, in fact, he was an athlete.

-Running, boxing, swimming --

Edgar seemed driven to outdo his classmates.

-When he was 15 years old,

one of his fellow students bet him

he couldn't swim down the river a couple miles.

So, Poe took that bet,

and he ended up swimming 6 miles.

-Against the tide.

This was no small feat.

It was one way that he was able to prove

that he was the equal of any of his peers.

-I think it's fair to say that

Poe often had a chip on his shoulder.

-Bright, quick-witted, and rebellious,

Edgar deliberately set himself apart.

He became a fan of the popular bad-boy poet of the day.

-George Gordon -- Lord Byron -- was an English poet

who cultivated this image of the isolated artist

at odds with the rest of the world.

Poe consciously adopted that Byronic pose,

even to the point of dressing in black and, you know,

looking in the distance at nothing in particular

and so on.

-The similarity between Poe and Byron is quite remarkable.

They had a similarly very difficult childhood --

abandoned, abused.

It pervades the way they think about the world

and the way they see the world --

loss and fear,

two great subjects in both of their writings.

[ Rain falling ]

-From childhood's hour, I have not been as others were.

I have not seen as others saw.

I could not bring my passions from a common spring.

From the same source, I have not taken my sorrows.

I could not waken my heart to joy at the same tone,

and all I've loved...

I've loved alone.


-The woman who encouraged him to write poetry

was the mother of his best friend.

-When Mr. Allan was arguing with Poe

and telling him not to waste his time

reading this Lord Byron garbage,

she gave him that encouragement that he needed.

-I think Poe had a little schoolboy crush.

She must've reminded him of his own biological mother

in certain ways.

She had that same sort of ethereal look about her.

-Unfortunately, mental illness took her.

We don't know the origins of it,

and then she died.

-[ Gasps ]

-And it affected him profoundly.

-He went to her cemetery at night

and kept a vigil at her grave.

-I can't imagine that he had a profound love relationship

with Jane Stanard,

but he made it into something which had emotional,

romantic, and literary potential

that could be exploited.

-"Helen, thy beauty is to me like those Nicéan barks of yore,

that gently, o'er a perfumed sea,

the weary, way-worn wanderer bore

to his own native shore."

-Some years later, Poe said that he wrote the poem

"To Helen" thinking of her.

-Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

thy Naiad airs have brought me home

to the glory that was Greece,

and the grandeur that was Rome.

[ Birds chirping ]

-Young Edgar was not alone in his experiences of loss.

Early 19th-century America had a mortality rate

more than three times that of today.

-You could have someone who was in apparently good health

carried away very quickly and very tragically.

You could also have someone, because of TB,

slowly dying away.

And childbirth was another great cause of mortality.


-Very elaborate cemeteries

were just becoming popular in America at the time.

-This was a great age of funereal sculpture and mementos.

While it sometimes seems odd to 21st-century readers

that Poe was always writing about death and dying,

it's not at all unusual if you think about

what he was witnessing in the 1820s and 1830s

when he was surrounded by this culture of death.

-And so, being young and dipped in folly,

I fell in love with melancholy

and used to throw my earthly rest

and quiet all the way in jest.

I could not love

except where Death was mingling his with Beauty's breath.


[ Birds chirping ]

-In 1826, John Allan agreed to send 17-year-old Edgar

to the brand-new University of Virginia.

It was his first step toward the creative life

he's beginning to imagine for himself.

-He would evince his versatile talents by sketching

fantastic and grotesque figures with such artistic skill,

as to leave us all in doubt whether in afterlife

Poe would be painter or poet.

-It's the archetypal college experience.

He's in a dorm.

It's kind of a crazy situation, lots of fights going on,

but he's also allowed to excel in these classes,

especially language classes.

He's also able to now spend lots of time reading,

and, in fact, his father started complaining,

"You're spending all your time doing things

like reading 'Don Quixote.'

What are you doing?"

-Unfortunately, John Allan did not pay Poe's fees.

He made a partial payment, did not provide him with money

to buy books and equipment

so that he could actually pursue his studies.

-Poe tries gambling to raise some money,

but by the end of his first semester,

he is deep in debt.

-And then he appeals to Allan, and Allan says,

"Why the hell should I pay your gambling debts?

You know, why don't you come back

and do some decent work and earn a living?"

[ Bell tolling ]

-Hounded by creditors,

Poe is forced to withdraw from the university

and return to the Allan mansion in Richmond.

But his quarrels with his foster father only get worse.

-"Sir, my determination is at length taken,

to leave your house and endeavor

to find some place in this wide world

where I will be treated not as you have treated me."


[ Door creaks ]

-I took lodging at a tavern,

taking with me only the clothing on my back

and barely enough pennies to buy bread.

[ Coins clink ]

-He moved to Boston at the age of 18.

Why would he choose to come to Boston

of all the cities that were possible?

Maybe he remembers that his mother,

in the one gift that she left to him,

a watercolor of Boston Harbor, had written on the back,

"For my little son Edgar.

May he ever love Boston,

the place where his mother found her best

and most sympathetic friends."

-He tries working for a newspaper for a while.

It doesn't go well.

He's nearly getting thrown out by his landlady

because he's out of money.

He's got creditors after him, so Poe joins the Army

because he's got to disappear for a while.

-He actually enlists under the name of Edgar A. Perry.

-The ironic thing is,

Poe actually turns out to be a really good soldier.

-While stationed in Boston,

Poe gathers poems he'd written as a teenager

into a slim collection of verse.

-It's called "Tamerlane and Other Poems."

Probably about 50 copies were self-published.

-He's 18 years old when "Tamerlane" comes out.

Although this was heavily indebted to Byron,

there's something there that is not yet developed

but that over the next decade, certainly,

Poe is going to shine into perfect little gems.

-I was young and was a poet.

If deep worship of all beauty could make me one,

I would've given the world

to embody half the ideas afloat in my imagination.


-While Edgar was in the Army,

his foster mother, Frances Allan,

died after a lingering illness.

-It's said that when he returned to Richmond

a day late for her funeral

and saw how close her grave was to that of Jane Stanard's,

he was just devastated and just wept right on that spot.

-With his mother resting in an unmarked grave

at St. John's Church,

these were Poe's three mothers growing up,

all gone by the time he is 20.


-"Out -- out are the lights -- out all!

And, over each quivering form, the curtain, a funeral pall,

comes down with the rush of a storm,

while the angels, all pallid and wan,

uprising, unveiling,

affirm that the play is the tragedy, 'Man,'

and its hero, the Conqueror Worm."

[ Bell tolling ]

-In the months after Fanny Allan's death,

Edgar prevails on his foster father one more time.

He wants John Allan to help him get into West Point,

perhaps thinking a military career

will provide him the luxury to write poetry.

-But there is a whole level of discipline involved

at West Point that Poe was really not prepared for,

and he started to really resent his instructors,

really resent the routine,

and started writing this really vicious poetry,

actually, about a lot of his instructors,

which is, if anything,

what he became known for at West Point.

-Within a few months of arriving,

Poe tries to leave the military academy.

When he couldn't get an honorable discharge,

he gets himself thrown out.

-He just broke all the rules. He didn't turn up for drill.

He didn't turn up for class.

We're getting to the pattern of

Poe is putting the wrench into his own wheel,

to mix a metaphor, you know.

He's screwing himself up right away.

-Having burnt his bridges with the military

and with his foster father,

Poe starts over once again.

At 22, the young poet moves to the one city

where he has blood relatives.

-It was in Baltimore that he began to cobble together

a sort of family made up of Maria Clemm,

who is his aunt,

and Virginia Clemm, who was his first cousin.

-Edgar moves into his Aunt Maria Clemm's small house,

seeking roots in a family of his own.

-He finally found some sort of stability.

He found a household that he could live in.

-Edgar sets out to pursue a career in literature.

Writing was not a paying job in 1830s America,

but Poe hadn't given up hope of an inheritance.

-Then, his foster father, John Allan, dies in 1834,

and the will leaves Poe nothing.

-John Allan had several illegitimate children,

and even the illegitimate children

were recognized in the will,

but Poe got not a penny.

That's tough.

That was the breaking point

between Poe and his memories

of being part of the Allan family.

Although we think of him today as Edgar Allan Poe,

in his lifetime, Poe almost never used the middle name.

it was always Edgar Poe or Edgar A. Poe.


-In the space of a few years,

Poe has gone from being the scion

of a wealthy Virginia family

to being in a hovel

and having no apparent future in front of him.

-"Dear sir, your kind invitation to dinner today

has wounded me to the quick.

I cannot come, and for reasons

of the most humiliating nature in my personal appearance."

-He has this terrible ability

to write a begging threatening letter,

where the begging doesn't work

and the threatening doesn't work.

-"If you will be my friend so far as to loan me $20,

I will call on you tomorrow.

Otherwise, it will be impossible,

and I must submit to my fate."


-In the early 1830s,

America entered a new age of mass media.

Growing cities and rising literacy rates

created a vast new market of readers.

-There's a huge literary movement going on,

the golden age of periodicals.

You have journals and magazines cropping up all over the place.

Sort of like the blogosphere is now, right?

-Though still a poet at heart,

Edgar realizes the reading public

wants a different kind of writing -- the short story.

At age 24, he wins a local fiction contest

with a strange tale of disaster at sea.

Along with the $50 prize

come enthusiastic reviews and a job offer.


Poe leaves his newfound family,

Maria and young cousin Virginia,

and moves back to Richmond,

the city where he had been disowned.

He will be the editor of TheSouthern Literary Messenger,

a struggling new publication

devoted to elevating the literature of the south.

-Thomas W. White, the owner and publisher,

was someone who frankly understood his limits

in the magazine world

and turned a lot of work over to Poe.

-He'd been thinking of himself as a writer

ever since he was a child.

But now, he's also thinking about himself

as a professional who works with words.

-This is the first chance that he has

to get his foot in the door as an editor,

as a magazinist,

as an American tastemaker.

-Poe's many responsibilities

will include writing book reviews,

and he vows to be a serious literary critic.

He believed it was time his young nation produced work

every bit as sophisticated as British literature.

-A lot of American critics in the early 19th century

have the idea that,

in order to invent an American literature,

we can't afford to denigrate any American writer.

-They called it puffing, you know.

That is just to sort of mindlessly praise anything

that had been written by an American.

-Poe's way of elevating American literature

was by not cutting writers any slack.

-"We see no reason why Colonel Crockett

shouldn't be permitted to expose himself

if he pleases

and to be as much laughed at as he thinks proper."

-Poe earned the reputation and the nickname the "Tomahawk Man."

He was antagonistic. He was hypercritical.

-Work is especially censorable

for the frequent vulgarity of his language.

-But the criticisms that he made were well-deserved.

He was being a responsible reviewer,

and most of the people he reviewed

are deservedly forgotten today.

-It is a mere jumble of absurdities.

-I think he did that because he found,

"Ah, that sets me apart," and people loved it.

You know, people always love dirt.

-I cannot bring myself to feel any goadings of conscience

for undue severity.

I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down.

[ Book slams shut ]

-Poe was writing a kind of literary criticism

that didn't exist in America at the time.

He would do a line-by-line,

word-by-word dissection of the text.


-In addition to that, this is where

he really starts to write stories

that we would recognize as Poe stories.

-Though committed to elevating American literature,

Poe believes he can also feed

the popular appetite for entertainment.

-And "Berenice," which runs in theSouthern Literary Messenger,

is a good example of this.

It's a pretty weird and disturbing piece of work.

-"I slowly raised my eyes to the countenance of the corpse.

There had been a band around the jaws,

but, I know not how, it was broken asunder.

The livid lips were wreathed into a species of smile,

and, through the enveloping gloom,

once again, there glared upon me in too palpable reality,

the white and glistening

and ghastly teeth of Berenice."

-In a fit of madness,

the narrator pulls the teeth from the corpse of his fiancée.

-"With a shriek, I bounded to the table

and grasped the ebony box that lay upon it.

It slipped out of my hands

and fell heavily and burst into pieces,

and from it, with a rattling sound,

there rolled out some instruments

of dental surgery,

intermingled with many white and glistening substances

that were scattered to and fro about the floor."

-Poe was writing in a well-known genre

that had been popular for over 70 years --

the Gothic tale.

-It's dark, and it's spooky, and it involves castles.

And it involves secrets.

But the form, really, by the time

that Poe becomes acquainted with it,

has utterly gone to seed.

I mean, it is actually pretty trashy,

and that is what Poe is both drawn to

and appalled by about it.

-He knew that if he could make these stories thicker,

in terms of psychological complications,

he could, perhaps, reach multiple audiences.

[ Clock ticking ]

-That dark romantic vision,

combined with the repressed sexuality,

the claustrophobia,

the fear that we all have,

all of these things together,

Poe's work is very complex.

-Readers could enjoy them just because they're spooky stories.

Readers could enjoy them as parodies of spooky stories.

And then, readers could enjoy them as,

essentially, poetic essays about the spookiness of stories.


-But Thomas White, his editor,

was a careful businessman

in the business of publishing a magazine.

So a story like "Berenice," that's the sort of thing

that would make Thomas White nervous.

-"Mr. Poe, I have enormous faith

in your literary taste and your attainments."

-Which I trust has been well-rewarded

in the circulation numbers.

-"But I have received complaints about your tale 'Berenice.'"

-Thomas White felt that "Berenice" was vulgar,

was much too sensationalistic.

-Poe felt he needed to defend this

because "Berenice" represented

exactly the kind of story he wanted to write.

-The tale may be in bad taste,

but the history of all magazines plainly shows that

any that have attained celebrity

were indebted to articles in nature similar to "Berenice" --

the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque,

the witty exaggerated into the burlesque,

and the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.

You may say that this is in bad taste,

but whether the article is or is not in bad taste

is little to the point.

To be appreciated, Mr. White, you must be read.

-From the start of his career,

we have, in Poe, two kinds of writers.

We have the producer of popular work

that he knows is going to sell.

And yet, we have this other writer

who has literary aspirations.

He wants to be taken seriously.


-This should be a stable time in his life,

but he's also miserable.

And he's miserable because he's away from Maria Clemm

and he's away from his cousin Virginia.

-While in Richmond, Poe learns

that a wealthy cousin in Baltimore

has offered to take Virginia in and pay for her schooling.

-This would have taken Virginia away from Eddie,

and he panicked.

[ Hand slams on table ]

-I was blinded with tears.

I had no wish to live another hour.

"My dearest Auntie,

I love Virginia..."

"...passionately, devotedly."

"I cannot express in words the fervent devotion

I feel toward my dear little cousin."


-Part of it for Poe was that he had finally found a family

and he wanted to stay in it for good.

-Virginia... love...

...think well

before you break the heart of your cousin.

[ Glass slams on table ]

-His desperate letters convinced Maria and Virginia

to come to Richmond to live with him,

there, as a family.


-She's 13 years old. He's 27.

It's a bit of a mismatch,

but it's not one that was unknown for that time.

-In order to be married, they had to lie about her age,

so it was obviously something

that was disapproved of at the time.

-I think he loved her. I really do think he loved her.

But not in a sexual way, not in a grown-up way.

I think Eddie looked at her as a little sis.

I mean, that's what he called her.

-My own sweetest sissy.

-People around town describe Virginia

as being very cheerful and loving and very childlike.

Even when she was starting to get a little bit older,

she'd rush out into the street and embrace him

when he got home from work.

And they said they were a fairly happy family.

No matter how poor Poe was,

he made sure his wife had tutors

and music instructors.

And he loved to hear her sing and play the piano.

And he would play the flute along with her.

And the mother-in-law, she would sing along.

They have little concerts together at night

while he's writing stories about

burying your wife in the basement

or pulling out her teeth.

So, it was a reasonably normal, happy homelife.

-[ Claps hands ]

[ Drawer opens ]

-"Dear Mr. Kennedy, I know you will be pleased to hear this.

My health is better than for years past.

My pecuniary difficulties have vanished.

In a word, all is right."

-You might think, "Oh! At last, he's arrived.

This is the work that he was meant to do.

It's the source of steady income."

Yet he only holds the job for 15 months.

He said he left because he quarreled with the editor.

He said that he was too good for the magazine.

He wanted to move on, for sure.

Poe didn't get along well with anybody, really, for long.

-Part of Poe's problem with his boss was an issue

that would plague him for the rest of his life.

-Alcoholism has run in the Poe family for 250 years,

that we can document.

My great-great grandfather, William,

wrote to Edgar talking about the family curse.

He could go long periods of time without drinking,

but once he was in a situation where alcohol was present,

it was deadly for him.

[ Waves crashing ]

-By age 28, Poe has begun to build a literary reputation.

He leaves Richmond to try his hand in New York City,

but he arrives on the eve

of one of the worst financial recessions

in American history.

After a year of struggle, he moves on to Philadelphia.

In 1839, Poe lands an editing job

at Burton's Ge ntleman's Magazine,

an up-and-coming periodical.

Maria, Virginia, and Edgar settle in

for what will be their longest stay in one city.

-Life in Philadelphia was really the picture

of middle-class domesticity.

They had a little house. They had a little yard.

You know, I think they had some pets.

Poe was firing on all cylinders

creatively and, also, as a magazine editor.

-Poe joins the busy literary circles of Philadelphia,

making friends despite his often caustic reviews.

Inevitably, he crosses paths

with another ambitious young literary critic.

-Poe meets a person who would become very, very significant

in our understanding of Poe himself,

and that's the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold.

-Rufus Griswold was a reviewer and anthologizer.

Like Poe, he viewed himself as an American tastemaker.

But, unlike Poe, Griswold had no problem

trading positive reviews for favors.

-Griswold was a great puffer.

If you puffed Griswold, Griswold would puff you.

Poe had this kind of piety about it.

Like, he wouldn't puff anybody,

and he didn't expect anybody to puff him

because he thought that there should be real value.


-Poe's only source of steady income is magazine work.

While he's editing one periodical,

he's writing for another.

-Sometimes he was the only one on the staff of the magazine,

commissioning, proofreading, editing,

getting the illustrations, going to the printer,

getting the paper, choosing the type.

You know, there's a lot of things you have to do.

The owner would have another job.

He'd be an actor, he'd be something, and he'd have a business.

He'd go away, and there's Eddie Poe sitting there.

-Given the technology that produced that magazine,

that is exhausting work.

-Poe would go home from the office every evening,

have dinner, and then, he would write.

And he would stay up, you know, late into the night writing.

-Poe could be an extraordinarily

disciplined and productive writer.

It seemed to come out of late nights,

drinking a lot of coffee, and working on a deadline.

-And sometimes, Maria Clemm would sit beside him,

keeping him company while he composed these stories

that were totally unlike what he did during the day.

-In his career, Poe would write nearly 70 stories

in a range of genres,

aiming to reach the widest possible audience.

-A third of his short stories are comedies.

He liked a romantic comedy.

-Only a dozen of Poe's tales are horror stories,

but they remain his most popular...

...among them "The Fall of the House of Usher,"

"The Pit and the Pendulum,"

"The Masque of the Red Death,"

"The Black Cat,"

"The Premature Burial."

Poe was writing in the old-fashioned genre

of the Gothic tale,

but the terrors he was tapping into

were very much of the moment.

-Premature burial was a real fear in the 19th century...

...because people seemed dead,

but they weren't.

-As odd, as bizarre as that seems,

during periods of epidemics --

and there were several during Poe's lifetime --

there were lots of public interments

taking place very hastily

without proper medical examination.

And there were many, many instances

of people actually being buried before they were dead.

-Coffin makers provided gadgets

to allow the victim to ring an alarm on the surface.

Poe devoured this sensational account

and would work the horrifying idea

into several stories.

-Premature internment is the ultimate claustrophobia.

-"The unendurable oppression of the lungs --

the stifling fumes of the damp earth --

the clinging to the death garments --

the rigid embrace of the narrow house --

the blackness of the absolute Night --

the silence like a sea that overwhelms --

the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm..."

-Poe is talking about the subject

that makes him so universally interesting.

Except for sex.

You can't get anything more human

and fundamental than fear.


-Poe developed rules

about how to construct a powerful short story.

-First, the artist must decide,

"Of all the innumerable effects or impressions,

what one shall I select?"

-He sees the author or the poet as being a craftsman

who really has to weed away anything

that doesn't go towards that single effect.

-If the very initial sentence does not bring out this effect,

then he has failed in his first step.

-He has so many famous first lines

that immediately pull you into the setting and the character.

-"The Cask of Amontillado" --

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato

I had borne as I best could;

but when he ventured upon insult,

I vowed revenge."

-"The Pit and the Pendulum" --

"I was sick --

sick unto death with that long agony;

and when at length they unbound me,

and I was permitted to sit,

I felt that my senses were leaving me."

-"The Black Cat" --

"For the most wild,

yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen,

I neither expect nor solicit belief."


-Poe is responding to a new American urban culture

which is very aware of crime.

There was a lot of poverty.

There was a lot of class rivalry and competition.

There was urban violence.

-It was a time of great uncertainty for Americans.

There were great financial panics.

There were poor on the streets. There were immigrants.

What was going to happen to this country?

Nobody knew.

-Anxious and unsettled,

the reading public welcomed reassurance.

-There was a great popular appetite for stories

in which problems or complexities were resolved.

Characters would, through some sort of happenstance or fate,

figure out their problems, resolve their dilemmas.

Justice would be done.

-Ever aware of the public's tastes,

Poe recognized an appetite

for a new kind of fiction.

-What Poe did is he took that desire for rationality

and order imposed upon chaos

and created a form

that could satisfy that in a modern way,

in a way that was plausible to readers.

-With just three short tales,

Poe invented a new genre of literature,

the detective story,

with a new breed of hero.

-"Residing in Paris during the spring

and part of the summer,

I there contracted an intimacy

with a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin."

-In C. Auguste Dupin, Poe invents the detective

that we've been living with ever since.

-"'The police are confounded

by the seeming absence of motive,' said Dupin.

In fact, the facility with which I shall arrive

or have arrived at the solution of this mystery

is in the direct ratio of its apparent insolubility

in the eyes of the police."

-That really eccentric, brilliant, central figure

and the sidekick who's kind of a stand-in for the reader...

-"I stared at the speaker in mute astonishment."

-...and a confrontation of the suspect

at the end of it and false leads,

all the things that we think of as these classic aspects

of a detective story,

they all come together at once

in that first detective story of Poe's.

-If you've never read the Dupin stories

and you just only have read Holmes,

then you know the character

because Holmes is a rip-off of Dupin.

And so is pretty much everybody else.

So is Nero Wolfe.

So is Hercule Poirot.

So is House on television.

-Poe's finally making a name for himself,

but he's not making money.

At the time,

U.S. law provided virtually no copyright protection.

-So, even if you had a successful piece of writing

that was a big hit, a bunch of other people

would run off copies of it without paying you.

-His works could be published in England without paying him,

and English works by people like Dickens

could be published in America without paying Dickens.

So, if you can publish Dickens for free,

why should you pay Poe?

-Looking for an edge in the marketplace,

Poe deliberately crafted an intriguing public persona.

-I am excessively slothful

and wonderfully industrious by fits.

Thus, if I rambled and dreamed away whole months

and awake at last

to a sort of mania for composition,

then I scribble all day and read all night

so long as the disease endures.

-But, despite all his efforts, poverty continued to stalk Poe.

-You see him working 12, 14 hours a day

as an editor or as a hack writer.

I think it almost ruined him as an imaginative writer.

-I've been, so far, essentially,

a magazinist,

bearing not only willingly, but cheerfully,

the sad poverty

that the condition of the mere magazinist

of tales upon him in America,

where, in more than any other region

upon the face of the globe,

to be poor is to be despised.


-Even at his lowest moments,

Poe never lets go of his identity as a poet.

Poetry would always be his first love.

In 1841, he learns that Rufus Griswold

is compiling an authoritative collection

of American poetry.

-Griswold is coming out with this massive anthology called

"The Poets and Poetry of America."

So, of course, Poe is desperate to get himself into this book.

-Griswold does publish a few of Poe's poems.

Then, he asks Poe to return the favor by reviewing the book.

-Poe pointed out what was good about Griswold's anthology,

but then, he said what was bad about it.

-Oh, he has some talents, we allow.

But, as a critic, his judgement is worthless,

simply because reason and thinking

are entirely out of Mr. Griswold's sphere.

-Griswold took great exception to that, was highly offended,

and was an enemy of Poe for the rest of his life.

-Poe really had a knack for making enemies.

You really have to give it to him.


-Though he was often a prickly personality outside the house,

by all accounts, Poe was the opposite at home.

He was devoted to his child bride,

now a young woman,

and visitors noted that Virginia adored her Eddie.

-One afternoon or evening, Virginia was singing,

and she seems to burst a blood vessel.

-And she started coughing up blood.

-[ Coughing ]

-It's the first signs of tuberculosis.

[ Coughing continues ]

-It casts a shadow over Poe that lasted for years,

and, no matter what his successes were,

that was a constant for him,

his worry about his wife's health.

-My dear little wife has been dangerously ill

a fortnight since, while singing,

she ruptured a blood vessel,

and it was only on yesterday that the physicians gave me

any hope of her recovery.

[ Glass slams on table ]

You might imagine the agony I've suffered...

...for you know how devotedly I love her.


-At age 35, Poe decides

to move his family to New York City,

hoping to capitalize on his growing reputation.

[ Clock ticking ]

-"New York, Sunday morning, April 7th -- My dear Muddy,

we have just this minute done breakfast,

and I now sit down to write you about everything."

-Edgar and Virginia go first and report back to Maria Clemm.

-"Last night, we had the nicest tea you ever drank,

strong and hot,

wheat bread and rye bread, cheese, tea cakes.

No fear of starving here. Sis is delighted.

She has coughed hardly any and had no night sweat."

-I feel in excellent spirits and haven't drank a drop,

so that I hope so to get out of trouble.

The very instant I scrape together enough money,

I will send it on.

-1845 proves to be the year of Edgar Allan Poe.

In January, less than a year after arriving in New York,

he publishes the poem

that will make him internationally famous.

-"The Raven" is his breakthrough.

It's the literary work, the poem

that sort of puts him on the literary map

in a way that he had never been before.

-I would imagine that Poe felt like he finally made it

when he was part of Anne Charlotte Lynch's

literary events every Saturday,

because everybody who was anybody came.

They would turn the lights down.

He had to read "The Raven,"

of course, over and over.

Everybody wanted to hear him read "The Raven."

[ Indistinct conversations, applause ]

And he spoke in a very dramatic voice.

It ran in his blood. He was quite the entertainer.

-"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered,

weak and weary,

over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore --

while I nodded, nearly napping,

suddenly there came a tapping,

as of someone gently rapping,

rapping at my chamber door.

'Tis some visitor,' I muttered,

'tapping at my chamber door --

only this and nothing more.'"


-It was a poem about the common plight of people,

where half of all children died before they reached maturity

and everyone understood what it means to grieve.

-"Then, methought, the air grew denser,

perfume from an unseen censer swung by Seraphim,

whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor."

-The silken, sad, uncertain

rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me.

You know, that there's just a lusciousness

about the sonorities and so on

in a line like that that had a great impact on me.

It really did.

-"And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting,

still is sitting

on the pallid bust of Pallas

just above my chamber door.

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's

that is dreaming,

and the lamp-light o'er him streaming

throws his shadow on the floor.

And my soul from out that shadow

that lies floating on the floor

shall be lifted --


[ Blows ]

[ Indistinct conversations, applause ]

-He wanted fame.

And, boy, did he get it with "The Raven."

In fact, he couldn't even walk down the street

without kids following behind flapping their wings

and people calling out, "There's the raven."

-He created a persona that captured the minds of so many.

The way he presented himself in portraiture,

his identification with "The Raven,"

you don't want to say it was a shtick,

but it's one -- it's a shtick that stuck.

-He wasn't just this grim reaper, this man of the night.

He could be tremendously witty.

He was a kind of lady's man.

-Poe became close friends with Frances Sargent Osgood,

a popular poet,

a member of the same literary circles,

and a married woman.

[ Clock ticking ]

-Virginia is at home dying of tuberculosis.

And he's carrying on with this other woman.

-Here, he had this compelling woman

come into his life, Frances,

who could write love poetry.

And I think it turned his head away from poor Virginia.

But everybody at the time was talking about it.

It was such a scandal.

-And it's at this time that he and Griswold crossed paths again

and not in a pleasant way,

because Griswold has well-known affections for Osgood.

-Rufus Griswold must have just been steaming.

Poe was stealing his dream.

Poe was doing everything he wanted,

including taking the girl.

-His new fame allows him to borrow money

and realize his long-held dream.

He buys a magazine.

-So, he had this great success with "The Raven."

And he was finally becoming known.

[ Sighs ] And then, for some completely bizarre reason,

he decides to pick a fight with the most-loved poet

in America at the time -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

-Longfellow would become the most prosperous,

successful, and adored writer in America.

And, of course, he was a professor at Harvard.

He was a Bostonian par excellence.

-The poetical claims of Mr. Longfellow

are vastly overrated.


And that the individual himself

would be little esteemed

without the accessories of wealth and position.

-Longfellow was the person that Poe was supposed to be

if he had stayed in college,

if he'd inherited that money from the Allans.

And when he saw Longfellow, he saw someone that had the life

that he should have had but was denied.

-He accused Longfellow of being a plagiarist.

But he also profoundly disapproved

of the sort of writing that Longfellow was doing.

He could see that Longfellow was a brilliant versifier.

But he thought that Longfellow didn't understand

what poetry was about,

that his poetry had no soul.

-But there was a political dimension

to Poe's attacks on Longfellow --

the slavery debate.

Poe himself never spoke out directly

to defend or condemn slavery.

But he was a loyal son of the south.

-It's not as if Poe just grew up in the south

and there was slavery in the south.

Slaves were imported right down the street

from where Poe was living as a teenager.

They were bought and sold. They were imprisoned there.

Poe, inevitably, would have seen human trafficking

on an almost daily basis.

-But above all, Poe was a purist about literature.

For him, the greater sin may have been that Longfellow

and other New England writers

injected politics into their poetry.

-We despise them and defy them, the transcendental vagabonds.

They may all go to the devil together.

-There's something self-destructive

in Poe's strafings against Longfellow.

What Poe calls, in another context,

the imp of the perverse,

that force inside of us that compels us to our own doom.

-"We have a task before us which must be speedily performed.

We know it will be ruinous to make delay.

It must, it shall be undertaken today.

And yet we put it off until tomorrow.

Now, why?

There is no answer,

except that we feel perverse."

-As Americans, we always want to

think of ourselves as perfectible.

That's the American dream, right?

But Poe sees the dark side of the American dream.

He sees the way that we sometimes do things wrong

almost in spite of ourselves

and almost because we know they're wrong.

So, Poe really prefigures

our understanding of human psychology.

-"There is no passion in nature

so demonically impatient, as him who,

shuddering on the edge of a precipice,

thus meditates a plunge."

-When you have Poe's history --

unwanted, unloved, feeling not important enough --

perhaps that turns you into somebody

who's a bit too careless and reckless

because there's this pervasive,

nagging notion that you will never be good enough.

-In just one year,

the scandalous relationship with Frances Osgood

and Poe's attacks on Longfellow

have undone his accomplishments.

He made practically nothing from "The Raven"

after the first printing

and was forced to shut down his magazine.

[ Birds chirping ]

Poe, Virginia, and Maria escape Manhattan

for a cottage in Fordham, New York.

-He's out in this sort of farmland.

There's apple trees.

He's trying to tame a bird.

It should be a very bucolic scene.

[ Crow caws ]

But what you have is Poe very ill a lot of the time

but trying his hardest to keep writing

and Virginia just declining and declining.

-"The autumn came, and Mrs. Poe sank rapidly in consumption."

[ Virginia coughing ]

"She lay on the straw bed,

wrapped in her husband's greatcoat,

a large tortoiseshell cat on her bosom,

the sufferer's only means of warmth."

[ Virginia coughing ]


-Virginia held on into the winter months.

[ Wind howling ]

Occasional moments of improvement

were followed by inevitable decline.


-It was a never-ending oscillation

between hope and despair which I could no longer tolerate

without loss of reason.

I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity.

During these fits of absolute unconsciousness,

I drank God only knows how much, how often.

A matter of course, my enemies refer the insanity

to the drink

rather the drink to the insanity.

I had, indeed, almost abandoned all hope of a permanent cure

when I found one in the death of my wife.


-The impact of Virginia's death was just devastating.

It nearly undid him altogether.

-Most of the people that Poe loved died of consumption.

If you pay much attention to American history,

though, most of the people that most people loved

died of consumption or childbirth.

It is the sad tragedy of human existence

in a 19th-century city.

-Oh, God.

How melancholy an existence.

[ Wind howling ]

-Poe published very little in 1847.

He was able to do very little.

He focused his attention on writing "Eureka."

-In the depths of his grief,

Poe produces his most eccentric work,

a long essay that attempts to explain

the origins of the universe.

Some interpreters see within it

a glimpse of 20th-century physics.

-Poe develops not only the basic concepts

of relativity theory

but also the big bang theory.

And he expounds on why the universe

has so much empty space.

-One of the things that's remarkable about it

is how modern it is as a cosmology

when you consider he had nothing to work from, really.

-What is it that induces in the poet himself

the poetical effect?

He recognizes the...

-In 1848, he began giving public lectures again,

began traveling again,

began socializing again.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

-He wanted to remarry.

He wanted a rich wife. He needed a rich wife.

If he had a rich wife, he could have his own magazine.

And he would not have to be a Grub Street hack anymore.

-This launched him on a series of near engagements,

all of which turned out very badly.

-While he was courting one, he was courting another.

He was proposing to one, he was seeing another.

-As your eyes rested appealingly for one brief moment upon mine,

I saw that you were Helen, my Helen.

-When you read what he said to the women he was courting,

including falling on his knees and hand over the heart

and four lock down and heavy breathing

and all kinds of promises,

it seems just so over-the-top.

-She tenderly kissed me. She fondly caressed.

And then I fell gently to sleep on her breast.

-The women he was pursuing were not 13-year-old tubercular girls

who were going to be reliant on him.

These were often working poets

who had their own livelihood to protect.

-One of them was a woman named Sarah Helen Whitman.

They had a courtship that had culminated,

Poe thought, in her accepting his proposal of marriage.

When Poe learned that Sarah Whitman

had decided not to marry him,

the wheels really came off.

He tried to commit suicide.

-I procured 2 ounces of laudanum.

My struggles were more than I could bear.

A friend was at hand who aided me

and, if it can be called saving, saved me.

[ Birds chirping ]

-Less than a year later,

his fortunes changed practically overnight.

-He'd found a financial backer

so he could start his own literary magazine,

The Stylus.

-Poe set off on a journey to raise more money.

-"My plan was to take a tour

through the principal states, especially west and south,

lecturing as I went to pay expenses."

...Thoroughly dignified and supremely noble than the poem.

The death, then, of a beautiful woman is,


the most poetical topic in the world.

-The last stop was Richmond,

the city he had left more than a decade earlier.

-When Poe came back to Richmond, he was Edgar "The Raven" Poe.

He was a household name,

and he was a celebrity returning back to his hometown.

He visited old friends. He made new ones.

His sister and her foster family were still living in Richmond,

and they welcomed him into their home.

-This poem, written solely for the poem's sake.

-Poe renewed his friendship

with a childhood flame, Elmira Royster Shelton,

who was now a wealthy widow.

-And he really started courting Elmira seriously.

Elmira might have been skeptical of Poe's motives,

but she finally agreed to marry him.

-Poe wrote to his mother-in-law

that it would clearly be a marriage of convenience.

-"My own darling Muddy,

I confess that my heart sinks

at the idea of this marriage.

I think, however, that it will certainly take place,

and that immediately."

-But before Poe and Elmira could marry,

Edgar had a trip to make.

He would travel to Philadelphia

for a brief editing job,

then on to New York to pick up Maria Clemm

and bring her back to Richmond for the wedding.

-"He came up to my house on the evening

of the 26th of September to take leave of me.

He was very sad and complained of being quite sick.

I felt his pulse and found he had a considerable fever

and did not think it probable

that he would be able to start the next morning."

"I went up early the next morning to inquire after him.

I discovered he had left on the boat for Baltimore."

-There is an irony in the fact that the death of Poe,

who wrote the first detective story,

became a mystery.


-Poe arrived by steamboat in Baltimore

on September 28, 1849.

His plan was to immediately

board the train for Philadelphia,

then travel on to New York.

-It seems very strange for us to think

that a man like Edgar Allan Poe could just vanish.

But that's exactly what happened for about five days.


-When he was found, he was still in Baltimore,


dressed in ill-fitting second-hand clothes

that looked nothing like the kind of clothes he would have worn.

-Eventually, he's recognized as the famous writer,

and an old friend is found to take him to the hospital.

-He spent his last four days delirious,

in and out of consciousness, talking to shadows on the wall,

not making any sense.

-Four days later, Poe is dead at the age of 40.

-Poe dies alone

without it ever being completely clear

what exactly he was suffering from.

-Poe's mysterious death has prompted dozens of theories,

that he suffered from rabies

or died from a brain tumor,

or perhaps he was an accidental victim

of warring political gangs on the streets of Baltimore.

It's unlikely we'll ever know the answer.

-Thank heaven the crisis, the danger has passed.

The lingering illness is over at last.

And the fever called living is conquered at last.


-Within a few days of the author's death,

the character assassination began.

-Poe made the mistake of dying

before his greatest literary enemy, Rufus Griswold.

Griswold wrote the obituary of Poe,

and, in it, he pilloried Poe.

He took him apart.

-He says, "Edgar Allan Poe is dead.

Many will be shocked by this,

but very few people will be grieved by it."

He says, "Poe had few or no friends."

He was, sort of, this miserable person.

But Poe's friends,

and he did have many friends, rallied to his defense

and wrote more favorable obituaries.

But, of course, the damage is done by that point.


-The hallowing Poe that Griswold invented

lives on generation after generation,

ensuring Poe's iconic place in popular culture.

But it will always be Poe's writing

that is his real legacy.

-I stand amid the roar of a surf-tormented shore,

and I hold within my hand grains of the golden sand --

How few!

Yet how they creep through my fingers to the deep,

while I weep, while I weep.

Oh, God!

Can I not grasp them with a tighter clasp?

Oh, God!

Can I not save one from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

but a dream within a dream?



Male Announcer: "Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive"

is available on DVD.

To order, visit

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