29 October 2022

Jack Seney Reviews Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" for Hallowe'en

As Jack points out, Poe would undoubtedly be 'cancelled' today for his marriage to his 14-year-old cousin and for his views on slavery, neither of which was unusual in his time.
Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" remains a perfect Halloween read some 180-plus years later. And not in some corny way, but in the style of a true originator of sinister literature.

A narrating traveler arrives at the autumnal mansion of his old artist friend Usher, who has sent word that he needs company. Over the course of some days in the midst of terrible weather, apparent mental illness and a house that seems to be alive with a Godforsaken sense of evil, Usher's eccentric sister dies and is buried deep in the house's crypt. But are there simple endings to anything in the Usher house?
Here Poe smoothly breaks numerous rules that many of us still adhere to today, such as "Thou shalt not use the same adjective more than once in a short piece of writing." Well Poe uses the word "gloomy" repeatedly here, yet readers will not even notice this as he creates an atmosphere so dark that one feels oppressed by it. Such is the power of Poe's writing that readers are in a different zone while consuming it, and often ignorant of what would be glaring mistakes if coming from a lesser writer's pen.

The dreaded word "incest" haunts "House of Usher" like a ghost, and was considered as horrifying then as it is now. But it was then alluded to rather than made graphic and in-your-face as nowadays, and one can ponder whether it serves art well to have the sort of "Jerry Springer literature" that we do these days. I would say it does if it is wrought by an Ottessa Moshfegh, a Missouri Williams or a Sayaka Murata - but there are only so many writers like them.
After his wastrel father's disappearance and his mother's death, the toddler Poe was raised in the South by an unofficially adoptive family. With a fondness for alcohol being no help, Poe was impoverished for much of his adult life and borrowed from Peter to pay Paul on a constant basis while traveling from city to city for journalism jobs.

At one point Poe, his sickly young wife/cousin Virginia and his mother-in-law/aunt lived in a poor, tiny shack in what is now the Bronx here in New York. The tormented look on Poe's face in the famous photograph of him did not come from out of nowhere. But his writing itself thrived despite horrendous circumstances.

Poe's journalism was as controversial as anything else he wrote and he was involved in feuds with writers from other papers. His writing remained gravely calm during these even as he penned soft insults against his foes.

At last achieving some success with his famously creepy and mournful poem "The Raven," (imagine that there was once a time when a great poem could be as celebrated as a pop star's album now) Poe nonetheless remained struggling and troubled until his (inevitably, it seems) mysterious death, apparently from delirium tremens following a drinking binge in Baltimore at only age 40. Until now, various people have visited Poe's grave on his October death day to honor him.

While one can only imagine a "woke" campaign versus Poe were he to live nowadays, in his time a normal marriage to a cousin or a 14 year-old girl was not so unusual, so his union with his beloved Virginia was no great shock to anyone. Her consumptive illness and young death are timelessly sad, however, and influenced many of Poe's mournful poems.

Neither was it unusual for Southern-raised Poe to have now-unpopular opinions on slavery and other topics. But he was apparently nannied by a black slave woman as a child. He preferred northern cities to southern ones. And generations of blacks have since grown up with his face on a wall by their housing project in Philadelphia, at a spot where Poe once lived. The face is regarded affectionately if somewhat ironically by local blacks, and has never been vandalized or protested.


  1. I have heard that black Americans of prior eras did not experience racism until they came north. The southern whites and blacks lived in close proximity for the most part, so they were more or less comfortable with each other.

  2. I mean to say, that some black Americans of prior eras felt they did not experience true racism until they came north.


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