No to Poe
Richard J. Daley, the late mayor of Chicago whose novel way with the American language still evokes wonder, once remarked of himself and a political comrade-in-arms that they had been boyhood friends all their lives. So it is with certain writers one first encounters in the spellbinding glory of youth: the memory of such early rapture is sufficiently potent to sustain a fascination, or at least an interest, when youth is long past.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), if not Mark Twain, used to be the first classic American writer one was likely to read—certainly the first I read. At ten or twelve “The Raven” was as dark, weird, and musical a poem as a prepubescent boy could stand. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a short story about the perfect murder undone by guilt’s derangement, satisfied both boyish blood lust (“First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.”) and the passion for overheated prose (“‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!’”). When my sixth-grade teacher made the mistake of asking the class the moral of the story, my best friend, whose father was the local Lutheran minister, answered pertly: “If you’re going to butcher somebody, don’t bury the pieces under your floor.” The moral was clear, at least to him: however frightful, the blood-drenched and macabre was also good for a laugh.
About the Author
Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.