Cultural Appropriation: On Visiting Edgar Allan Poe’s Grave

by | May 12, 2022 |

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It was “The Tell-Tale Heart” that served as my introduction to the work of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). This is a common occurrence, for young people have always been drawn to fantastic tales: Stevenson, Verne, Bradbury, to name a few. 

What exactly is it that attracts young readers to Poe’s dark romanticism? Action, adventure, mystery, tales of ghostly specters, the struggle of good versus evil, and the thrill of the unknown – these are some viable candidates. These are also some of the dominant and universal themes of literature.

The lure of imagination is an aphrodisiac for healthy-minded people.

Perhaps no other work embodies this better than the oldest story of wisdom literature, the ancient Mesopotamian: Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh exhibits many of the aforementioned ingredients in an epic that scholars conservatively date to about 2,000 B.C. Gilgamesh’s cultivation of friendship, his respect for loyalty, and his search for immortality have proven to be staple characteristics of Western literature.

Horror Stories and the Human Psyche

As far as horror stories go, ideally, they should only attract people of sound mind who understand them as being a genre of literature, a convention of stories that thrive on make-belief. 

With the notable exception of psychopaths and evil people, no mature or sophisticated reader delights in the extra-literary goings-on in Poe’s stories. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a story of cold-blooded murder driven by madness. While the protagonist prides himself in calculated cunning, the tale ends in crushing and debilitating guilt. Is he merely evil?

Is the guilt of the protagonist in “The Tell-Tale Heart” a case of redemption? That remains a literary open question. My point is that up to several generations back, healthy-minded young people read the story and were immediately appalled and repelled by the crass violence of the protagonist. The general reaction of such readers was that the protagonist was raving mad and evil. Readers put the story down and went on to read other works. No one ever thought the protagonist anything other than repulsive and demonic.

Readers do not have to be aware of the circumstances of Poe’s miserable life in order to be enchanted by his tales of mystery and imagination. Though, it is fair to say that Poe’s life experiences may have influenced his literary imagination. 

Take death, for instance. The termination of carnal existence is a central aspect of life that is often best put in perspective in works of fiction. As enticing as Zola’s “The Death of Olivier Becaille,” Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and Enrique Anderson-Imbert’s “El Fantasma” are, we relish these stories as imaginative tales. These works offer readers an engrossing, yet varied perspective on life and death. I suppose that most people’s curiosity about death ends there. Literature serves as a fine laboratory for life. In other words, what matters most is the form. In real life, form and function cannot be separated.

Poe’s stories have always held a special place in my reading habits. For this reason, I was delighted when I found myself before Poe’s grave in Baltimore. To visit Poe’s grave was one of my priorities when the family visited that mid-Atlantic city. My children were already acquainted with Poe. Our visit to his home and grave served as an opportunity to discuss American literature and history.

Historical Places and Gravesites

There is vast cultural significance in visiting the gravesite of historical figures. That type of travel brings us closer to the reality, the having-lived quality of the deceased before us. This fosters a greater connection – and communion, in some cases – between us and historical figures in ways that books simply fail to fulfill. 

Visiting places of historical significance is particularly important to me because it solidifies my conviction that history is made by individuals, not collectives or governments. 

It helps to know something about the historical figures we pay respect to in their resting place. Otherwise, we simply scamper by in a disinterested rush, like small children before great works of art.

Visiting historical places and gravesites humanizes our idea of historical figures and the meaning of history. This is one reason why I am so fond of reading auto-biographies. Writing is a vocation that is embraced by individualists.

In Poe’s case, it was a personal quest of mine to pay respect to a writer I have read since childhood. Visiting his grave made Poe’s life more focused in space and time; biographical questions cannot be separated from historical appreciation of the time period that historical figures lived in.

I sat by Poe’s grave and reflected on all those days, when as a younger man, I sat at home and school reading his work. I thought about the span of time that separates that great American writer from our own.

I envisioned Poe going about the dark city at night, walking to the Baltimore harbor, and dealing with the difficulty of earning a living as a writer during a time when writing was still a labor of love. 

I thought about Poe’s difficult life, the hazards of travel and the adversity of trying to establish himself as a writer. I reflected on America and the people who created our cultural and literary traditions.

I got this same feeling when I visited the Pantheon in Paris and saw the graves of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Zola. “These are the mere mortals who have given us our culture,” I thought.

I was equally moved when I stood before the graves of the Popes who are buried in the crypt under Saint Peter’s Basilica – in the Eternal City. I thought about the lives of these giants of Christianity and Western culture, their spiritual toil and aspirations. Mere mortals, they.

The small cemetery that makes up the grounds of Westminster Presbyterian Church where Poe is buried, contains graves that are over two hundred years old. Sitting there on a warm summer morning, I imagined Poe walking from his home – about one mile away – and conversing with the men and women of his time. What did he feel and think about the world that was his lot to live in? 

Poe must have taken great pleasure in walking the dark streets of Baltimore and Boston, in addition to Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York City, some of the places where he lived, while concocting the stuff that was to inform his hair-raising stories. Poe’s imagination as a writer has captivated the imagination of readers, for his work exposes readers to universal and timeless themes. 

Literature, when it is practiced as the vocation of sincere writers, says more about life and death than all the fanciful theories and abstractions of pedants and radical ideologues.

Poe writes in “Time and Space,” “We appreciate time by events alone.” For a writer like Poe, walking through dark city streets late at night proved to be an essential component of his vocation and trade.

In literature, as is also the case in life, we find only when we seek. This simple truism escapes most people, for to seek requires a sustained will, dedication and discipline. Fortunately, neither literature or life are often as complicated as they appear to be.

I look around me in the gentle light of morning and try to imagine a raven glancing into Poe’s soul: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing…”

Dr. Pedro Blas González

Pedro Blas González is Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida. 

He earned his doctoral degree in Philosophy at DePaul University in 1995. Dr. González has published extensively on leading Spanish philosophers, such as Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno. His books include Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega’s Philosophy of SubjectivityUnamuno: A Lyrical Essay; Ortega’s ‘Revolt of the Masses’ and the Triumph of the New Man; Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy;Dreaming in the Cathedral and Fantasia: A Novel.

He published a translation and introduction of José Ortega y Gasset’s last work to appear in English, “Medio siglo de Filosofia” (1951) in Philosophy Today Vol. 42 Issue 2 (Summer 1998). 

His book Philosophical Perspective on Cinema will be published by Lexington Books in May 2022.

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