Just Another Goth
With the publication of “The Raven” in 1845, Poe became sexy. Now, nearly two hundred years after he was born, he's become hip. His “Ultima Thule” portrait is especially popular, with a dissipation that seems present-day; it's what you find on bottle caps, logos, and t-shirts. Today's generations are a tough group to scare, plain and simple, because today's world is a scarier place. A pit and a pendulum? You have to do better than that. So bring on the pop cultural images of Ultima Thule—just another Goth at the lunch counter.
But the tales of horror and the hypnotic, emotional bogs of poems like “Ulalume” aren't the whole story about Poe. In his 1849 poem, “Eldorado,” he describes in four stanzas a lifelong quest: “Gaily bedight, / A gallant knight, / In sunshine and in shadow, / Had journeyed long, / Singing a song, / In search of Eldorado.” He is given seemingly impossible directions by a “pilgrim shadow” along the way, who tells him to go over the mountains of the moon, to go through the valley of the shadow—of death, presumably. The poem is considered Poe's answer to the news about the gold rush out West. But you can also read it as a statement on his life—an absolutely faithful Sir Galahad-like quest, in Poe's case, for Art, for Beauty. To anyone else, those directions sound like nonsense. The artist knows otherwise.
On the album jacket of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Poe is in the crowd. Let your eye scan to the very last row of “assembled” figures, and you will see Poe's face looming at the center.
Poe's success all over Europe didn't seem to perturb his own, unenthusiastic countrymen. Why? What's the essential literary legacy of Poe? Where has his influence been the greatest? How has he made himself felt in music, in movies, and in American culture in general? What efforts have been made to honor him? Can you sum him up? Finally—why would you want to?