Friday, April 27, 2012

Everything You Need To Know About Edgar Allan Poe Before You See The Raven (film)

Edgar Allan Poe.
While many--if not all--would claim such writers as Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway, Emerson or Mailer, or any other to be America's greatest writer, without hesitation, I would grant the distinction of greatest American author to Edgar Allan Poe. I want you to know my bias up front; I would award him this distinction based solely on his literary merits, yet even more so in his favor is how he raised the standards of American literature through his critical essays and reviews of the time (for which, when considering his contemporary reputation, he was just as well known as for his literary endeavors). While his many scathing words at contemporaries earned him many enemies, Poe successfully made the general American reading audience (a constantly growing demographic to be sure) a more demanding reading audience and a more informed reading audience, teaching them the critical skills necessary to distinguish the good writing from the bad.
Edgar Allan Poe, a 1848 daguerreotype. What was Poe like? Accounts vary widely, mostly because of the acquaintances giving the accounts many years after Poe's death. One characteristic it seems all agree upon is his neatness of dress, even when his funds were lowest, he was always tidy and dressed as well as possible. Accounts vary widely regarding Poe's relationship with alcohol: while he has the repute of being a drunkard even today, there are only a few sporadic bits of evidence linking him with alcohol and alcoholism. It has been suggested in American literary circles that Poe's physical condition required only a small amount of alcohol to effect the symptoms of drunkenness which would require a great deal more in other men. How The Raven deals with Poe taking of drink will be interesting, especially if Poe actually gets drunk in the film. He was about 5'8 in height, some claimed he was bow-legged but not all and he had gray eyes, dark wavy hair. We was considered to be of excellent manners and always saw himself as a Southern gentleman even though he was born in Boston. Poe was very aristocratic in his bearing and that kind of superiority comes through in the clip preview of The Raven when he meets the inspector for the first time and wants to leave.
In preparation for The Raven, being released today, let's do a very brief biographical sketch then move onto the works we should know about before we see the film. Born in Boston, both of Poe's parents were actors, a fact that plagued him in later years because of his "mean birth" (lower-class); Poe had an older brother and a younger sister. Orphaned by the age of two, Poe was taken in by John Allan of Richmond who never formally adopted Poe. The relationship with Allan was a turbulent one and, whereas Poe appears to have tried to look upon Allan as a father-figure, Allan (by his letters) preferred to remind Poe that he was naught more than a charity case to the Virginia gentleman.
Virginia Clemm Poe, the 13 year-old cousin Poe married. Women to Poe were always "ideal," angels, never sexualized objects of desire, but a goal. Incest was also a sometime theme of Poe's. It appears that he and aunt/mother-in-law lied about Virginia's age so they could be wed.
Poe, as can be imagined, excelled in anything that interested him including sports of the day. He fell in love with Sarah Elmira Royster and was perhaps engaged to her, but once Poe left for the university, Sarah's father did not give her any of Poe's letters so she married someone else; it's important because, after both of them were widowed in later life, they became involved again just before his death (in the film The Raven, this is probably the woman "Emily" to whom Poe, played by John Cusack, is engaged). After being in the University of Virginia for only one year (amazing that such a great writer had such a limited education!) he went on to try and secure a path for himself in the army, then left to attend West Point; it seems that Mr. Allan's refusal to pay even basic expenses for Poe's stay there meant that he had to contrive his own court martial to be free again; this he did.
The cottage in Bronx, New York where Poe spent the final years of his life. This is the house wherein his young wife Virginia died in 1847, two years before Poe's own death.
Poe spent time trying to make a living full-time by writing, moving about to cities where there were growing numbers of magazines. He had a reputation for his writing, but during his life, in the United States, it was really his literary criticism that made him a well-known figure. Poe was always better known in Europe, especially France. Why? America was in a turbulent period during Poe's life, there was a great expansion going on; whereas other writers (not necessarily important ones, but those Poe competed with for publication) were writing about the adventures and exploration of America, Poe wrote about the adventures and exploration of the mind, a topic of far greater interest to well-settled Europeans.
One of many illustrations for Poe's poem The Raven.
When Poe married his 13 year-old first cousin Virginia Clemm, she brought him to a stable point in his life of being free of alcohol and producing many great works. They still struggled, but this was probably the happiest time of Poe's life--if he ever had such a happy time--and after her death from tuberculosis, Poe became increasingly unstable. He found, shortly before his death, his lost childhood sweetheart Sarah, herself recently widowed, and Poe was presumably still attached to her when he died mysteriously, which The Raven is supposed to be exploring.
Illustration by French impressionist Édouard Manet for the Stéphane Mallarmé translation of The Raven, 1875.
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious and in great distress; he died in a hospital, so incoherent, he could give no account for his condition, the clothes he was wearing (which were clearly not his own) or his suddenly deteriorating health. After repeatedly calling out the name "Reynolds!" the night before, Poe died at 5 am on Sunday, October 7. All medical records and death certificate information has been lost and is still a mystery to this day. One literary explanation for his death comes from author Matthew Pearl, and I am happy to recommend his novel about the last days of Poe's life, The Poe Shadow, as a entertaining, well researched, novel.
Gustav Dore's illustration for The Raven.
What stories and poems will The Raven be invoking that we should be familiar with before we see the film? The Murders In the Rue Morgue, which opens the film, with the murders of a mother and her daughter. Poe is also the inventor of what we call today the "modern detective," or at least, the values and expectations by which we measure a good detective; in other words, Sherlock Holmes would not exist were it not for Edgar Allan Poe. In The Murders In the Rue Morgue, it is Poe's deducing champion C. Auguste Dupin who solves the crime of the murders with a bit of hair, hence, Poe gave birth to the literary detective. In the film, it will be interesting to see how Detective Emmet Fields (Luke Evans) measures up to Poe's standards and which of them does more to solve the crime
John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe and Luke Evans as Emmet Fields. Of course, I have not seen the film yet, but in this shot, the light on the table is in-between them, a little more towards Poe; is that how this scene will play out, that Poe is "shedding more light" on the mystery than Fields? Sources of light, windows, mirrors and reflections will play the role of valuable additional commentary in the film, and aid us in getting closer to the characters.
The Pit and the Pendulum, about someone being torn in two, is in the film, as well as The Tell-Tale Heart; what these two stories hold in common is that the murderer narrates the story, so the reader is being forced to identify with someone committing a crime. Similarly, is Poe's Italian story, The Cask Of Amontillado, where the murderer--the main character--is set upon deadly revenge and buries his enemy alive.
Which brings us to a theme: being buried alive.
Dore's illustration for the end of The Raven.
Americans in the Victorian period became frenzied about the possibility of being buried alive, so much so that some took the precautions of having emergency devices buried with them in case they should revive and need to alert someone to their condition (doctors were actually mis-diagnosing hundreds of people for dead, rather like Dr. Watson (Jude Law) with Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes). Poe was happy to capitalize on this for his stories and wrote both The Fall Of the House Of Usher and The Premature Burial. From the trailers, we know Emily in The Raven is buried alive, so while discerning what the film is really about, we should be considering what "childhood sweetheart" has America been reunited with and is being buried? For example, the idea of the "American Dream" being buried alive in debt?
The facsimile of Poe's original manuscript page for The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
We know there is also reference to The Masque Of the Red Death because the villain rides into the masquerade ball with a skeleton mask on; lines from Poe's poem A Dream Within A Dream and Annabel Lee have lines quoted from them (from another review I read) and, of course, there will be reference to that fantastic poem, The Raven.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Harry Clarke.
There are so many potential sources for the film, that it's tempting to jump in before seeing it, but these are aspects of Poe we should keep an eye on: doubles, Poe was fond of using pen names for himself, does the villain do that as well? Are people in Poe's life playing more than one role to him? Poe was a champion of the idea of "Art for art's sake," so I'm going to be looking for evidence of that; what am I looking for? I don't know, but I'll be looking! Another theme is disease, not only the fatal kind in The Masque Of the Red Death, but the nervous kind of diseases like in The Tell-Tale Heart.
Emily buried alive in The Raven.
Why is this film important?
Whether you think Edgar Allan Poe is a great writer or not isn't the point; historical films are never ever never never about history, they are always about the here and the now, and they are meant to be mirrors, catalysts for our own times so we can see ourselves in what Poe diagnosed. Just as Poe is called to search out clues upon the bodies of the murdered, so we are called to search out for clues in the body of the text, the film, for what it's trying to tell us today. Have fun!