When he died in 1849 at the age of forty, Edgar Allan Poe had already become something of a legend. Oh he was known for his writing, his stories and poems of the macabre, but he was just as well-known for the public persona he’d cultivated for himself. That of the moody loner, the man haunted by death, a character that could have made itself a comfortable home in one of his mysterious tales.
The fact that Poe’s first obituary was written by a longtime rival, former friend turned enemy Rufus W. Griswold didn’t set the record straight. It characterized him as insane, as a man driven by dark passions and alcoholism, a man little removed from that of the murderous narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Though he was a man of many friends who wrote their own obituaries to counter Griswold is one of the many facts about Poe that have been forgotten by the popular imagination. Poe, to us, is remembered as a tortured genius who met a mysterious end.
The newest American Masters special, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive attempts to counter the received narrative and give us a fuller picture of the man, divorcing him from his legend somewhat so we can see the humanity inside him. Its writer and director, Eric Strange, begins his story with Poe’s birth to a celebrated actress and a father who abandoned him. We learn of his mother’s death at the age of twenty-four, one of the many deaths of beautiful young women in his life, the first that would lead to his fascination with the subject.
Buried Alive fills in the holes in the narrative, showing us the human relationships that formed his life. The warmth he received from his foster mother, counter-balanced by the hard coldness of his foster father and rejection by the same. Far from being a moody loner, Poe searched out for himself a real family, finding it in his aunt and young cousin in Boston.
We also get a glimpse into his professional life. His relationship to the trashy gothic literature that permeated American letters at the time. We see his ups and down as he edits magazines, puts his own work in the public sphere to be alternately celebrated and ignored.
It’s a fascinating story for all it reveals about his human side, the tragedies he endured which might ultimately have resulted in a loss of hope. It’s a compelling look at one of the giants of American Literature, and is essential for anyone who wants to understand our culture.
American Masters–Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive debuts Monday, October 30th at 9:00 p.m. on KIXE Channel 9.