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'Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive' Offers the Untold Stories of His Life
October 30, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments
 

Edgar Allan Poe, the 19th-centurypoet and mystery writer who poked around in the dark shadowy underside of the American psyche, gets some reputation rehab from a new American Masters.

Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive premieres at 9 p.m. ET Monday on PBS (check local listings). That makes it just in time for Halloween, the holiday that Poe verses like The Raven and stories like The Tell-Tale Heart fit as perfectly as a corpse in a coffin.

Writer/director Eric Stange starts from the premise that Poe has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented over the years as a character from one of his dark detective stories: brooding, tormented, almost not of this world.

The fact he died at 40 under never-explained circumstances has helped fuel that portrait.

In truth, Stange and a series of Poe experts argue, Poe was a gifted and ambitious man whose primary torment arose from a disorienting childhood and the fact that almost every important person in his life died.

His determination to succeed as an editor and even more importantly as a writer led him to spend much of his life on the move, shuffling among Richmond, Boston, New York, Washington, and Philadelphia from one publication to another, even after The Raven made him the rock star of the year in 1845.

Part of this constant motion was propelled by his ambition and part of it by the fact he was not a people person. He seems to have been a contrarian by nature, and this American Masters points out that even when he landed what might look like an ideal position, he had a way of antagonizing the people who hired or funded him.

One man he particularly antagonized was Rufus Griswold, a fellow editor and writer whose work Poe savaged in a review.

Griswold took his revenge after Poe’s death, quickly writing an obituary that portrayed Poe as a friendless wastrel of no literary importance.

History suggests Griswold could better have written that literary judgment about himself, while 168 years later Poe remains one of America’s most revered early writers.

This documentary notes that Poe virtually invented the detective novel and that fictional detectives from Sherlock Holmes to the modern-day Poirot owe to the style created by Poe.

Poe also wrote a lengthy essay, called “Eureka,” that attempted to explain the origins of the universe. While he had virtually none of the scientific information available today, he still suggested ideas that foreshadowed, among other things, the theory of relativity and the big bang theory.

While Stange and narrator Kathleen Turner stress that Poe’s real legacy lies in his work, his life story holds a tragic fascination as well.

His father left soon after he was born and when he was two, his actress mother died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. He was farmed out to an aunt who adored him and an uncle who was a disapproving martinet. Unfortunately, the aunt also died young, and Poe eventually broke away from the uncle.

When he was 27, he married his 13-year-old cousin, which wasn’t as shocking in 1836 as it would be when Jerry Lee Lewis did it 122 years later. Their marriage was by all accounts reasonably happy, as Poe gradually achieved recognition for his writing. It didn’t make him rich, but it did give him sustenance and a good measure of acclaim.

Then in 1846, his wife died, tuberculosis again, and three years later Poe was gone as well.

American Masters goes into considerable and intriguing detail about matters that range from his disdain for the beloved Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to his penchant for drama, underscored in his theatrical public readings of The Raven.

In the larger picture, it credits him with recognizing how ephemeral life felt in the still-new America. It was raw, uncertain, dangerous and saturated with tragedy. Half of all children didn’t live to adulthood.

Poe’s writing captured that streak of uncomfortable certainty wildness – and provided an escape from it.

He was not, American Masters argues persuasively, a disagreeable borderline madman who happened to write a few memorable poems and stories.

He comes off instead as a smart guy who wanted to become famous, changed jobs all the time and was fascinated with technology.

Maybe Edgar Allan Poe was the first millennial.

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
Pam Gearhart
This program was beautifully and smartly produced, and whomever did the artwork needs an Emmy, or some kind of recognition. The mix of photos, Poe's words, film, and shots of the experts was also well done -- not too much of one or the other. Well worth looking for if you missed it.
Nov 7, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
Mac
One of my college term papers was about Poe as literary critic. There is a 1500+ page anthology of his essays and reviews available from the non-profit Library of America. I wish this volume existed back when researching my paper but his ideas what what amounts to criticism are still with me. Note-five star reviews and thumbs up or down do not come into discussion with Poe. Also,there is little,if any, thoughts on the Roger Corman directed Poe Cycle of Films. Vincent Price vs. Ray Milland: compare & contrast. Extra credit: AIP's post-Corman Poe films.
Nov 2, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
 
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