On January 19th, 2023, Edgar Allan Poe would have turned 214 years old. Even today, Poe remains one of the world’s most recognizable and popular literary figures. His face adorns tote bags, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and lunch boxes. He even appears as a meme, either as Edgar Allan Bro with a popped collar and aviator shades or as a raven muttering “I’m just Poe boy, nobody loves me.”
Netflix has sought to capitalize on Poe’s popularity with the mystery-thriller “The Pale Blue Eye” and the upcoming miniseries “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But as a Poe scholar, I often wonder if his appeal is more about the idea of Poe than the power of his prose. After all, Poe’s most famous literary creations are unsympathetic villains.
Poe’s underdog story began with his death in 1849, which was greeted by a cruel notice in the New York Tribune. His friend and rival Rufus W. Griswold wrote the obituary, claiming that Poe had “few or no friends.” Griswold was also Poe’s literary executor and expanded the obituary into a biographical essay that accompanied Poe’s collected works. This sparked a debate about who the man really was and helped to make Poe an international figure.
By the turn of the 20th century, Poe was embraced as the perennial underdog. He was depicted as a tragic figure in melodramas and films like D.W. Griffith’s “Edgar Allen Poe” and “The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe.” Charles Baudelaire promoted Poe as a countercultural visionary, out of step with a moralistic, materialistic America.
Today, we still see Poe as an underdog, a misunderstood artist who was too good for his world. Netflix’s “The Pale Blue Eye” features Cadet Poe as a keen crime solver who is underestimated by his superiors. The Addams Family spinoff “Wednesday” is set at Nevermore Academy, a school for outcasts with a statue of Poe guarding a secret passage.
John Lennon sang “Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe” in “I Am the Walrus” – and that’s exactly why so many people see a little bit of themselves in the weary-but-wise image of Poe. On the 214th anniversary of his birth, let us remember that even the most interesting plants grow in the shade.