A hundred years ago the Edgar Allan Poe Museum was founded in Richmond, Virginia. To celebrate the anniversary author and preeminent Poe collector Susan Jaffe Tane donated the pocket watch that Poe carried on him whilst writing his short story The Tell-Tale Heart shortly before he moved to the city of New York where he spent his last years.
In this tale the murderous narrator compares the thumping of his victim’s heart to the ticking of a clock.
Edgar Allan Poe was America’s first internationally esteemed author. After his premature death in 1849, the French in particular adopted his work. When in 1884 Harper & Brothers in New York published a new edition of The Raven, they commissioned the French engraver Gustave Doré to create a series of illustrations. The inclusion of Doré’s engravings highlighted the connection between Poe and France.
The widespread adaptation of Poe’s work, be it in poetry or fiction, was the first clear manifestation of American literary export into Europe. Paris and London played a crucial part in the reception process which itself produced contrasting histories.
Poe’s early life was chaotic. Born in Boston in 1809, he was orphaned at age three and raised in Richmond, Virginia, by merchant John Allan who never formally adopted him. In 1825, he briefly attended the University of Virginia before running out of money. He then enrolled in the Military Academy at West Point, but failed to graduate. In 1827 and 1829 he published two books of poems that went unnoticed. He subsequently went to New York where his collection of poems was published in 1831 but failed to find a readership.
Penniless, Poe traveled to Baltimore where he was looked after by his aunt Maria Clemm. He fell for and married her thirteen-year old daughter Virginia, and was employed as editor of Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in Philadelphia. In April 1841 he published his story The Murders in Rue Morgue in the journal.
The story relates the double murder of Mme L’Espanaye and her daughter in this fictional street (Poe never visited Paris) and presents the reader with the investigator Auguste Dupin. In 1842 he published a sequel to the story, entitled The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and Dupin returned in 1845 in The Purloined Letter. These later tales of ‘ratiocination’ (logical reasoning) all follow the concept of the Rue Morgue by which through interrogating witnesses, the examination of crime scenes, and deductive thinking, Auguste is able to solve the riddle (‘locked-room mystery’). Poe introduced his readers to a wholly new genre of story-telling.
The word ‘detective’ did not exist at the time of publication and was introduced nearly a decade later by Charles Dickens in his Household Words (1850) and again in his novel Bleak House (1852), but Dupin certainly was the first fictional detective and his presence would have a lasting and international impact.
Having spent seven years in Philadelphia, Poe and Virginia moved to New York, first staying in a boarding house in Greenwich Street, before settling into a rented second-floor room at Brennan’s Farmhouse in the vicinity of what today is West 84th Street and Broadway (then known as Bloomingdale Road). When they moved in, the area consisted of farmland, unpaved streets, and some scattered homes – and not much more. The house itself was an old two-story property perched on a hill.
It was there that Poe produced The Raven, first published on January 29th, 1845, in The New York Evening Mirror where he was employed as a critic. The setting of the poem was based upon Poe’s own room. Its mantelpiece (the “Raven Mantel”) was saved after the razing of the farmhouse in 1888 and, eventually, presented to Columbia University where it was installed in the Butler Library.
Poe only remained on the Upper West Side for a few months and lived a transient urban lifestyle for the next couple of years until, in May 1847, he finally leased a cottage in the Fordham section of The Bronx. He wrote a number of well-known poems there until tragedy struck. Having contracted tuberculosis, Virginia died in the cottage that same year.
Two years later, while traveling to Philadelphia, Poe disappeared in Baltimore and was found days later in a bar, barely alive, and unable to communicate. He died in October, 1849, under unexplained circumstances, alone in a local hospital.
The French poet Charles Baudelaire discovered Poe’s work in 1846 and immediately recognized a kindred soul. This was all the more remarkable since he berated American literature as dull (“un bouillonnement de médiocrité”). He attacked the United States for being an illiterate society. Baudelaire’s negative rating of American culture was widely shared in France. At the same time, the poet took pleasure in going against the grain and aim his rage against his contemporaries. In Paris, only a “lunatic” would be singing the praises of an American author.
The discovery of Poe’s work revitalized Baudelaire’s own mission as a poet. The two men had much in common. Both lived in poverty and relative isolation; both struggled with drug addiction and depression; and both were drawn towards the macabre and other-worldly.
Between 1852 and 1865, Baudelaire published extensive translations of Poe’s work that reflect the affinity he felt for an author who had never met or contacted. It was his calling to make Poe a “great man in France,” and he succeeded. The rest of Europe followed. Baudelaire’s Poe translations were the source material for early renderings into Spanish, Romanian and Russian, among others.
Looking back on his preoccupation with Poe’s work, Baudelaire described the original “shock of recognition” in a letter of June 20th, 1864, to the critic Théophile Thoré: ‘The first time I opened a book he had written, I saw with equal measures of horror and fascination, not just the things that I had dreamed of, but actual phrases that I had designed and that he had penned twenty years earlier.’
With the exception of four poems, Baudelaire’s translations focused on Poe’s short fiction, starting in 1848 with the tale Mesmeric Revelation. He also translated the Tell-Tale Heart. His output included two collections of stories, published as Histoires extraordinaires (1856) and Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires (1857).
Poe promoted “pure” stylistic ideals in a milieu that was predominantly concerned with moral or ideological generalities. He attacked those who preached the utilitarian value of literature. In his essay on Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire borrowed Poe’s phrase to denounce ‘la grande hérésie’ of didacticism, condemning those who linked literature to usefulness. Art should be practiced for art’s sake – only that and nothing more.
Baudelaire’s translation of The Raven / Le Corbeau first appeared in the periodical L’Artiste in March 1853 and was published in Paris by Michel Lévy in the collection Histoires grotesques et sérieuses (1871). Stéphane Mallarmé admired Baudelaire. He too decided to take on the challenge to translate The Raven, published in 1875 with illustrations by Édouard Manet. It was creative rivalry at its best: two great French poets competing with each other over a text they both admired.
The collaborative effort between poet and painter may have been a commercial failure, but in avant-garde circles the attempt (presented in English & French) was enthusiastically welcomed. Poe was the perfect muse for symbolist poets who sought to move away from realism and turn towards the domains of mysticism and dreams with a preference for the uncanny. Terror entered French culture. Manet’s lithograph illustrations responded to that tendency. By focusing on the tension between the raven and the narrator, he generated an atmosphere of deep gloom.
Poe’s fictional use of contemporary scientific discoveries anticipated Jules Verne, the “Father of Science Fiction” and a lifelong admirer of Poe. Auguste Dupin inspired many stories and novels, especially in Britain. When some four decades later Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887) his faithful assistant Dr Watson compares the (superior) genius of Holmes to the brains of Dupin – one fictional giant acknowledging another.
In October 1883 Liège-born Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, established a route from Paris to Constantinople. The newspapers dubbed it the Orient Express and the owner embraced the name. In 1928 Agatha Christie visited the city. Staying at the impressive Pera Palas, she is said to have written part of Murder on the Orient Express there in Room 411.
Published in January 1934, this is the most famous novel in the Hercule Poirot series. Its main character is a meticulously neat man both in personal habits and professional methodology. A fancy dresser, he is a (waxed) moustache-twirler who dyes his hair, carries a cane, and smokes Turkish cigarettes. Poirot’s foreignness is accentuated by his sidekick Captain Hasting who is a stolid emblem of Englishness. Stereotyping was inevitable.
In September 1914 the British government offered Belgian war victims the hospitality of the nation. They arrived in their thousands. At the start of hostilities public sympathy lay with the fate of displaced families, but empathy soon diminished. Anti-Belgian sentiments were rife.
Born and raised in Torquay, Devon, Christie witnessed a “colony” of refugees who had found shelter in the West Country. She noticed local unease about the “ingratitude” of these newcomers and their unwillingness to integrate. Out of these tattered observations, she constructed her detective’s character. Poirot’s mannerisms are supposed to be representative of French-speaking Belgium.
The “golden” era of detective fiction and the age of literary modernism overlap. In a world where established values were breaking down, modernist authors expressed their anxieties in forms of subjective experimentation. Concerned with problems of fragmented identity, their fictional personae are beset with confusion and incoherence.
By contrast, Poe’s Dupin solves a complex murder through clarity of thinking. Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth also operates in a self-created universe of clarity. Society may be in breech, but Holmes maintains a ’wholeness’ that denies disorder. Agatha Christie continued that theme.
Poirot’s psychological make-up is such that he can only live in a sphere of perfect lucidity. His undivided self defies the chaos of society; his mental strength offers coherence in a splintered domain of ideas and opinions. He is a reassuring presence in turbulent surroundings. Literary modernism never produced such comfort.
Poirot entered the annals of literature in 1920 with the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and solved his last case in 1975. When Curtain went on sale, Thomas Lask wrote an article for The New York Times (August 6th) announcing: “Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age was unknown.” In literary history, Poirot is the only fictional character ever to receive a front page obituary, an honor which he owed to his predecessor Auguste Dupin.
Illustrations, from above: Poe’s pocket watch; portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, ca. 1904 (Library of Congress); Brennan Farm House, 84th Street & Broadway, 1879 (New York Historical Society); Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven = Le Corbeau, translated by Stéphane Mallarmé with illustrations by Édouard Manet. Paris: R. Lesclide, 1875; ex-libris design for Le Corbeau, 1875 by Édouard Manet (Library of Congress); Elihu Vedder’s title vignette to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, illustrated by Gustave Doré. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1884.