Though he lived a short but well documented life, the more we discover about Edgar Allan Poe, the more of a mystery he becomes. 168 years later, and we still don’t know the exact circumstances of his untimely death. A new documentary from PBS shines a light on the man and the myths surrounding him. Yet, just like the strange and weird stories and poems he produced while alive, each answer leaves us with more questions about him and his life. American Masters–Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, currently available through PBS, is the documentary.
The biggest myth about Poe busted here comes courtesy of his literary rival Rufus W. Griswold. Much of our perception that Poe was a drug-addled, alcoholic madman actually stems from Griswold’s largely fabricated obituary published immediately after Poe’s death. We tend to think of Poe as a sickly, insane writer, wrought with madness and melancholy. Well, there’s little doubt about the melancholy part. An orphan early on, Poe’s foster family provided him with an excellent mother figure, and a depressing father figure who really wanted little to do with him.
Family was the most important thing to Poe, and it was the one thing he lacked more in his whole life than anything else.
Poe lived during a time when sickness and death were at an all-time high in America. Death may be a mere fact of life, but when you confront it on a daily basis, especially as much as Poe did, it tends to cast an ugly mark on your soul. As far as Poe’s health was concerned, he was a rather robust man, energetic and in fairly good shape for most of his life, focusing on running and swimming. Certainly, Poe must have dabbled with alcohol and drugs as well, but probably not to the level we were led to believe. Anyone familiar with his work will find horror and dread, mystery and devious behavior, but there’s a deep, lingering sadness as well. Horror is an emotion, and Poe felt it to his very core, and there’s nothing about that to suggest the man was mad or insane.
Directed by Eric Stange (The War That Made America, American Experience: Murder at Harvard), the film stars the always excellent Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story, True Blood) as Poe, and is narrated by Kathleen Turner. The film also features appearances by director Roger Corman, actor Chris Sarandon, writer Matthew Pearl, as well as Poe historians, biographers, and relatives. The documentary is available to watch for free through your PBS cable provider or directly from the website. While the shadow cast on Poe throws some serious shade on our perception of him, the reality is that Poe was pretty much just another writer looking for work. His life shaped the stories and poems he wrote, and they have endured the test of time, making him one of America’s most influential artists.