This week, PBS aired a documentary on Poe titled, Buried Alive. It should have been, Buried Anew.
It was too much to hope that the film would actually set the record straight about Poe. Yet the advance write-up on the PBS website said all the right things. The film would sweep away the “misrepresentations” of Poe and replace the “caricature” of Poe as a “madman akin to the narrators of his horror stories” with the “real story.”
Au contraire, the finished product cements the misperception of Poe and his work. Feasts on it, in fact.
An abandoned night street; a lone figure silhouetted in black; somber music; a dog barking in the distance. Thus the film begins, and it never lets up. Visually, we get black and charcoal, pooling ink (or is that blood?), blighted landscapes, and cemeteries, cemeteries, cemeteries. Even the on-air commentators are dressed in black and shot against a black background. This is how writer-director Eric Stange tries to dispel the popular image of Poe.
The biographical content resuscitates the old “tormented Poe” narrative. He was “haunted” by the loss of his mother, which infused his writing. He saw the dread strangeness that most people don’t see. He was driven by “bizarre,” perverse impulses.
The film does, as promised, expose Rufus Griswold’s slanderous depiction of Poe as a madman like those in his tales of terror. But how different is Stange’s counter-narrative—that Poe’s morbid mind suffuses his work and perverse dysfunction drove his life?
The few crumbs of reality the film offers come almost as insults. One commentator notes that a third of Poe’s tales are comedies, yet only the horror stories ever get mentioned or quoted. Hell, someone could’ve just rattled off some of the comic titles: “The Duc De L’Omelette,” “Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Arm in a Sling,” “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” “Three Sundays in a Week,” “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.” It would give in 10 seconds at least a glimpse of the real Poe that people don’t know.
Another commentator alluded to the spoofing going on in Poe’s “tales of terror.” Another big, underknown story that Stange doesn’t touch.
The film quotes Poe’s contemporary James Russell Lowell’s ditty about Poe:
[He] has written some things quite the best of their kind,
But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.
But Stange leaves viewers on their own to infer that the line reflects Poe’s contemporaries’ view of his work—not as infused with his own emotions but as cold, analytic, over-articulated, and more about itself than anything real. I wish Stange had quoted another of Poe’s friends, author and publisher C. Chauncey Burr, who wrote, “Of all authors, ancient or modern, Poe has given us the least of himself in his works.”
If Stange wants to explore why Poe is so misunderstood—as he says on the PBS website—he could start by considering what impelled him to the choices he made in creating his film. Terror and sensation are fun—and infinitely appealing to audiences. Madness and terror sell.
Poe knew that, and so, it seems, does Stange. But Poe carefully and consistently mocked the terror in his work. Stange serves his straight up.
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.