Complete Tales & Poems, by Edgar Allan Poe

Complete Tales & Poems

As indicated by the “Complete” in the title, this is an unusually comprehensive collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s writings, consisting of seventy-three “tales” and fifty-three poems. Is it in fact everything Poe wrote, or at least everything published that Poe wrote? I’m not sure, but it’s at least close. Wikipedia lists only sixty-six stories, but seventy poems, along with fourteen other writings (i.e., essays, novels, plays). I haven’t taken the time to match the items in this collection with the Wikipedia bibliography one-to-one, but at least some of the discrepancies are attributable to such judgment calls as to how to classify a certain piece, whether to include writings that were never published or were published posthumously, whether to include unfinished pieces, etc.

So let’s say the book includes virtually all Poe’s prose, and the majority of his poems.

That I had to dig to find that out is indicative of a problem I have with this book. There’s really no supplementary material to speak of; it’s just Poe’s writings. There’s one paragraph on the back cover describing the contents of the book, but there’s no introduction, no biography of Poe, no explanation of editorial decisions that were made (e.g., why the tales are in the order they are in—they’re not chronological—or which version was included of stories that were published in multiple forms), and no indication of the year or periodical in which a given story was published. There is no introduction from an editor to the individual stories that might helpfully put them in context.

A few of the tales do indeed have a brief note or quotation at the beginning, and there are a substantial number of footnotes in the book, but who are these by? Poe was a mischievous sort of writer, given to put-ons and such, so I’m thinking at least most of these are by Poe himself, but of some I’m not sure. Some of the footnotes, for instance, are labeled as being by an editor, but is that the editor of this book, the editor of the newspaper or magazine in which the story first appeared, or, again, Poe himself pretending?

Are the various quotations in the stories (attributed to figures such as Seneca, Archimedes, Rousseau, etc.) genuine, or some kind of put-on or Ambrose Bierce-style humor? What of the alleged factual claims that provide context to the stories? For instance, is the deadly Norwegian whirlpool of A Descent Into the Maelström, the “Moskoestrom,” a real thing? (Actually that one is real, though Poe’s description of it is greatly exaggerated, but again I had to research that online to find out.)

In interpreting these things I can often take an educated guess from the context, but I’d much prefer some help within the collection itself. This would be more helpful with Poe than with most writers, since, as I say, he has a mischievous side and is a devotee of hoaxes and put-ons.

Not only would I like to know what’s real and what’s not, but also whether readers back then would have known. Were there certain things one could glean back then from what publication a certain piece appeared in, what section of the publication it was in, what was said about it, if anything, by an editor of the publication, etc. that would not be apparent to a reader today just looking at the story without that context? (I’m thinking of the way, for instance, an article being published in The Onion nowadays would be sufficient evidence for a reader to know it’s satire.)

Anyway, my reaction to the book as a whole is that while I’m a fan of Poe, evidently I’m not a big enough fan to enjoy consuming this much of his stuff. Certainly I’m glad this kind of volume exists, because a writer of his stature deserves having all his work preserved in one place like this, but I personally wasn’t very impressed by the bulk of the lesser known pieces.

When you get right down to it, of my dozen favorite stories in this book, at least ten, and maybe all twelve, are among the classic Poe stories you’ll find in just about any popular Poe collection. So think of this as being like a boxed set of multiple CDs that contains everything a band ever did, including rarities that never appeared on any of their albums, songs from when they were unknowns, etc. And think of me as the kind of casual fan who realizes after listening to the entire boxed set that, you know, a greatest hits single CD of this band would have fit my tastes a lot better.

One thing that has been a pet peeve of mine since childhood is writers who include a lot of (untranslated) foreign phrases and quotes in their writing, the implication being “Well, if you’re not able to read at least the eight languages I use in my stories, you’re the kind of uneducated ignoramus I don’t want as a reader anyway.” Poe absolutely fits in this category.

In one story he takes it to the extreme that the devil flips a Greek letter over in something Plato has written in order to falsify it. If you don’t know the Greek alphabet and can’t read Greek, then you have no way of knowing what this joke or plot twist even is, as there’s no translation of the sentence and its alteration, no explanation in English.

Talk about limiting your audience. I mean, this is really taking elitism to an extreme.

The nonfiction essays generally did little for me. The subject matter—things like book reviews of long forgotten travel books—held little or no interest for me, and the style tends to be highly arrogant and opinionated. Poe is typically writing from a kind of Olympian perspective, proclaiming what extraordinarily intelligent, educated folks like him need to believe (which seems to rarely stray from the bland conventional wisdom of the day on things like race and religion—a literalist kind of Christianity is assumed as self-evidently true.)

Several of his pieces are parodies of the popular writing of his time, basically his way of whining that “This is the kind of bullshit that gets published in our periodicals nowadays, while genuinely talented writers like me struggle to have our work appreciated.” If you’re well-acquainted with the sort of thing he’s lampooning—which presumably some significant number of his readers back then would have been, but some tiny fraction of 1% of readers today would be—then you may find them very witty, clever shreddings of popular taste. Since I have basically no familiarity with the editorial habits of American newspapers and magazines of the 1830s and 40s or whenever these pieces were written, again they had little appeal for me.

A good number of his short stories—maybe as many as half—are more whimsical, humorous tales than most people probably associate with Poe. Rarely do these cutesy stories strike me as more than minimally entertaining or clever.

Some of them are OK. The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, about a guy pretending to have gone to the moon in a balloon, is mildly interesting. The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade has kind of a fun premise. (The king finally loses patience with Scheherazade’s tall tales and has her executed after all. The twist is that this happens when she switches to telling the truth, relating various actual phenomena from around the world, which the king finds too implausible compared to her earlier stories. So a “truth is stranger than fiction” message.)

But still, Poe is at his best, in my opinion, when he writes creepy horror stories and ghost stories and such, when he explores the dark side of humanity, the things that for whatever evolutionary reason we’ve developed a terror/fascination for.

Stories like The Black Cat and The Imp of the Perverse explore the psychological oddity that some people in some circumstances are actually more apt to do something if they perceive it as evil. It’s not that there are other factors—such as greed, hatred, self-interest, etc.—that outweigh the dictates of conscience, but that its being evil in and of itself attracts them to it.

Multiple stories draw upon the common horror people have at being buried alive. In a particularly disturbing moment of one of them, the protagonist has a nightmare in which he’s granted some kind of X-ray vision to see into tombs around the world, and discovers that the majority of them contain terrified people who are still alive and futilely trying to escape.

There are also several stories exploring hypnotism, or mesmerism, including the possibility of using hypnotism to keep someone’s consciousness intact through the process of dying in order to learn about life after death. (Unfortunately, dead people get really arrogant and spout a lot of vague pseudo-philosophical nonsense about spirituality and being and such, with an attitude that it’s quite tiresome having to explain it all to ignorant simpletons like us who haven’t died yet.)

Given that Poe married a sickly girl who died quite young, it’s not surprising that young love that ends with the tragic death of the idealized female is a common theme in many of his stories, and his poetry as well. It strikes me, though, that she contracted tuberculosis seven years before his death, and died two years before his death, which was well into his writing career, and so it feels like his obsession with this theme started before his own experience with it.

You can’t tell for sure from this book, since again it can’t be bothered to tell you things like publication dates, but I notice, for instance, that the section entitled Poems Written in Youth includes some works with this general theme, and I would have to think those were written before his wife’s illness and death.

The story of this type that I found perhaps the most interesting is Eleanora. There are several stories in a row in the collection with one word, female name, titles like that, each of which is about a beloved young woman dying young, and then the aftermath of that death—some kind of ghostly visitation or haunting experienced or imagined by her lover. The twist with Eleanora is that the protagonist made a youthful vow to his dying lover to remain forever faithful to her memory, and then after many, many years has finally decided to move on with his life and marry someone else after all, but the message from beyond the grave that he then receives, which you’d think is going to be some kind of condemnation, some kind of reinforcement of his feelings of guilt, in fact absolves him of any wrongdoing and tells him that an extreme vow in youth like that should not bind one forever and compel one to forego the happiness of a new love.

There are multiple stories about the exploits of C. Auguste Dupin, a clear inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I believe these are among the first modern detective stories. These are moderately entertaining, and include some abstract discussions of reasoning and logic that are mostly interesting (though I must say marred by the fact that the allegedly maximally rational, super intelligent protagonist defends a version of the gambler’s fallacy in one of them).

One of these detective stories—The Murder of Marie Roget—was Poe’s way of addressing a real life murder mystery. He sets up the case to be identical to the real case in all respects he deems relevant, and then he has Dupin solve the mystery.

Did Poe really, as he apparently purported, solve the case before the authorities did in real life? I’m not clear on that. I did a little bit of reading about it online after finishing this book, and evidently there’s still some uncertainty over what happened in the real case, plus Poe wrote—or changed—some of his story after others had made progress in solving it. So his claim to have cracked the case through his fiction seems to be exaggerated at best.

This collection also includes Poe’s only published novel—really more of a novella—called Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. I thought it was a moderately entertaining, fanciful seafaring yarn, though Poe himself dismissed it later in life as one of his weaker efforts. It’s said to have been a significant influence on Herman Melville and Jules Verne, among others, which makes sense, especially in the case of Verne.

I can’t say much about the poems, because I have so little aptitude for poetry. I did dutifully read all eighty plus pages of them, since when I read a book I commit to reading it in its entirety, but I won’t pretend to have understood much in them. I suppose I was able to grasp his stuff a little better than the average poem I’ve read in my life, but that’s not saying much since my grasp of the average poem is near zero. But a few of them got through to me a bit emotionally, probably his most famous poem—The Raven—most of all.

Poe’s influence on figures like Doyle, Melville, and Verne shows what an important figure he is in the history of literature. But historical relevance doesn’t always translate into current relevance. If you want to understand the history of logic (and of science, philosophy, etc.), you’ll definitely want to familiarize yourself with Aristotle. But the vast majority of what he wrote has long since been superseded, so if you want to understand logic (and science, philosophy, etc.) rather than its history, you’ll probably be fine ignoring Aristotle.

I think Poe is still a good read to some extent, so I wouldn’t say he is completely irrelevant to a modern reader, but much of this collection was frankly a chore to get through. It’s a terrific resource for people studying the history of literature, but it’s a mixed bag for a normal reader just wanting to experience some good stories.

I reiterate that for me, and I suspect for anyone other than diehard Poe fans, a more modest “greatest hits” collection with ten to twenty stories, including The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Oblong Box, and maybe Hop-Frog and a few others, would be more appealing than this weighty tome of over a thousand pages.

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