For my final project in Advanced Research Writing, I was given free reign to choose my topic,methodologies and genre of publication for a work of, uh, research writing. Initially, I was going to research LaTeX and use it to typeset one of my own manuscripts, but after seeing how time-intensive it would be on top of everything else I had going on I chose something a bit more manageable.
I decided to write about one of the most intriguing and well-written (not to mention meticulously researched) series of novels I’ve read so far, Harold Schechter’s Edgar Allan Poe Mysteries. It took a few turns between the research and the writing phase, but I’m rather pleased with the outcome. Below is the ten-page final draft.
Fact, Author, Meta-Author – Harold Schechter, Edgar Allan Poe and American Obsession with Depravity
Historical fiction appears to cycle through the collective consciousness in waves, taking one form and then another as it makes its way through publishing houses and booksellers to reach the reading public in their homes and libraries. Over the years, the focus of historical writing has trended towards romance, westerns, political thrillers and, occasionally, even horror. However, one literary trick, which appears to be exceedingly difficult to pull off and pull off well, remains underutilized – channeling the dead directly, taking on their identities and telling stories from their first-person viewpoint. While it has been done numerous times and to varying levels of success, none have stood out as fiction par excellence the way Harold Schechter’s Edgar Allan Poe Mysteries have.
Simply picking individuals out of history and plopping them into a fictional story is neither new nor all that difficult, depending on the narrative style and the particular people chosen to receive the fictional work-over. Schechter’s relationship with Poe, and his treatment of the great American author, belie a deeper understanding of the source material than most, and careful pains have obviously been taken to not simply weave a tale fractionally fact and predominantly fiction. Schechter takes history and seamlessly integrates it with fiction in a way no other author has, before or currently.
In the Mysteries series, Schechter takes on Poe’s personal voice, no simple task in and of itself, and leads the reader down a grotesque path straight out of Poe’s own life. In Nevermore, the first book in the series, the combative author, having just grievously insulted Davy Crockett’s autobiography, comes face to face with the frontiersman, only to have their public battle called to a grinding halt by a series of grotesque murders. The two men must temporarily shelve their resentments of one another to figure out who is killing wealthy theatre patrons, working together to lend one another their respective intellectual strengths. In the rest of the series, Poe encounters P.T. Barnum, Louisa May Alcott, Kit Carson and a host of others, broadcasting to readers what life could have been like through his eyes and experience. Of course, most of what his eyes see never occurred, though Schechter has gone to great pains to construct a reality in which these things not only could have happened but did. In the following sections, I will attempt to illustrate Poe’s legitimate life, the fictitious one Schechter has created and the methodology employed to achieve this none-too-easy task.
Poe as Real
People generally remember Poe for two things – his oft-quoted poem “The Raven” and his reputation for being an overly pessimistic, gloom-and-doom spouting alcoholic. These twin concepts have been kept alive by thousands of angsty, black-clad teenagers with penchants for clove cigarettes and the music of The Cure and Nine Inch Nails. For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll admit right now that I make my own cloves by hand these days and I still have those albums, albeit in digital form. Nobody can make me grow up.
Lost in the goth kid shuffle, though, are the details of Poe’s real life. By focusing on just one or two aspects of the man as propagated by popular culture, much has been completely overlooked. How many people know of Poe the Father of American Gothic, Poe the Father of the Mystery Short Story, Poe the Essayist, Poe the Critic? Not many, and those unaware of his real-life literary roles have been greatly deprived.
Poe was one of the great hatchet-man critics of the nineteenth century, an angry gadfly whose sole mission in his capacity as literary assessor was to tear down the elite circles of New York and Boston writers who dominated American publication at the time. Central to authorship at the time was the concept of puffery – lesser-known authors circling well-knowns like eager satellites, hoping to catch some fame or notoriety by simply filling their target author with enough praise that the successful one would lend their name to future publishing ventures, bringing along with them their sizeable readership (Cohen, 2012, p. 44).
Poe resented puffery, for a number of reasons. First and foremost on the list was the fact that there was no real national literary canon as of yet, and the two northern circles were all that was largely representative of the country. Poe, along with a number of southern authors, were all but ignored due to their geographical location, and they watched as their hard work went completely unnoticed in favor of the groveling wannabes who spent their time flattering successful authors in the hopes of success (which, Poe asserted, came not from literary talent but their abilities in the realm of kissing ass). He spared them no quarter in his own writing, often tearing their work to shreds in the few publications south of the Mason-Dixon line that would utilize his editorial abilities. A collection of his critical work, Edgar Allan Poe: Literary Theory and Criticism, collects some “best of” moments of Poe’s ire. In his critique of Theodore Fay’s novel Norman Leslie, which drew critical acclaim due to the big name authors supporting Fay, he had this to say:
As regards to Mr. Fay’s style, it is unworthy of a school-boy. The “Editor of the New York Mirror” has either never seen an edition of Murray’s Grammar, or he was been a-Willising so long as to have forgotten his vernacular language. Let us examine one or two of his sentences at random. Page 28, vol. i. “He was doomed to wander through the fartherest climes alone and branded.” Why not say at once fartherertherest? Page 150, vol. i. “Yon kindling orb should be hers; and that faint spark close to its side should teach her how dim and yet how near my soul was to her own.” What is the meaning of all this? Is Mr. Leslie’s soul dim to her own, as well as near to her own?—for the sentence implies as much. Suppose we say “should teach her how dim was my soul, and yet how near to her own.” Page 101, vol. i. “You are both right and both wrong—you, Miss Romain, to judge so harshly of all men who are not versed in the easy elegance of the drawing room, and your father in too great lenity towards men of sense, &c.” This is really something new, but we are sorry to say, something incomprehensible. Suppose we translate it. “You are both right and both wrong—you, Miss Romain, are both right and wrong to judge so harshly of all not versed in the elegance of the drawing-room, &c; and your father is both right and wrong in too great lenity towards men of sense.”—Mr. Fay, have you ever visited Ireland in your peregrinations? But the book is full to the brim of such absurdities, and it is useless to pursue the matter any farther. There is not a single page of Norman Leslie in which even a schoolboy would fail to detect at least two or three gross errors in Grammar, and some two or three most egregious sins against common-sense (p. 7-8).
I will admit, here, publicly, that I return to this collection of criticisms frequently, especially when forced to read a novel I cannot stand. Puffery is alive and well over a hundred and fifty years since Poe’s death, and though there are more literary circles in America now than we can even quantify, the practices remain rather unchanged. Sadly, I do not have the viciousness required to emulate the master, so I simply read his eviscerations of his contemporaries and enjoy the imagined schadenfreude.
Poe’s personal life was as tumultuous and combative as his public battles with other authors. He lost his parents, lived with a distant and derisive adoptive father and a doting, devoted adopted mother who died too soon, moved in with his aunt and young cousin and eventually married the girl when he was twenty-seven and she not even fourteen. From his teenaged years forward, he was obsessed with literature and self-published, at great cost personally, two books of poetry. He wrote a textbook on mollusks used by the University of Virginia, attended West Point only to be kicked out (with his expulsion deliberately engineered – he could have avoided it had he dropped his attitude, which he chose not to do in an effort to leave the military school) and joined the Army under an assumed name (Ackroyd, 2008, p. 35-43). During all of these escapades, he was at odds with John Allan, his wealthy adoptive father, and frequently at odds with other writers and people he deemed to be disingenuous. He lost his mother, his adoptive mother, his young wife – all women, all dead before their time. His own death at the age of forty has been and will always be shrouded in mystery, a subject I’ve written papers on before and would again if I had the time to immerse myself in months of giddy research. The man was and is an amazing enigma. The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the details of the author’s life, and contains one of the largest collections of original and biographical/derivative works accumulated on him (Edgar Allan Poe Museum).
Poe as Simulacrum
Jean Baudrillard’s definition of a simulacrum, taken from his seminal work Simulacrum and Simulation, is broken down into four progressing “orders” of intensity, from the obvious copying of legitimacy to the mind-numbing symbolic obscuring of the fact that reality does not even exist. Below the noticeable copy of the first order lies the second, wherein the mass-reproducibility of an object or idea blurs the distinction between the real and the falsely real. It “masks and denatures a profound reality” (p. 6). Here is where Schechter’s work lies, conjuring Poe as if he has been resurrected from the dead by a talented and thorough necromancer. Perhaps that is what we should call a man like Schechter, rather than simply a professor of literature and true crime novelist, because he brings Poe to life in such realistic detail that it is almost as if he were working through some sort of spiritual medium. I would not be in the least surprised to find a Ouija board tucked in with his research and analysis skills.
Poe’s overwrought, wordy style has been known to turn off less than enthusiastic readers, which may be partially why his entire body of work is known only to severe enthusiasts. Most people’s knowledge of him appears to come from one lonely poem or derivatives, such as the recent John Cusack film The Raven. Schechter, however, manages to perfectly imitate the seemingly inimitable. Can you tell that these aren’t Poe’s words?
During the whole of a dull, dark, and dreary day, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the sky, I had been sitting alone in my chamber, poring over a medical treatise of singular interest and merit. Its author was the eminent Doctor M. Valdemar of Leipzig, whose earlier volume, The Recrudescence of Leprosy and Its Causation, had done much to divest that grave affliction of the aura of preternatural dread that has surrounded its sufferers throughout the ages. In one remarkable stroke, Valdemar had succeeded in elevating the study of this ancient scourge – so long steeped in primitive superstition – to the heights of pure science (Nevermore, 1999, p. 3).
My name is Edgar Allan Poe. For several years prior to the commencement of my tale, I had been residing in Philadelphia with that heaven-sent pair to whom I owed whatever measure of felicity I have known in this life. I mean, of course, my darling wife and soul-mate, Virginia, and her mother, my Aunt Maria Clemm, toward whom I felt all the ardor — the gratitude — the sheer, overpowering devotion — of an adoring son. Completing our household was our handsome female tabby, Cattarina, a creature of such beguiling habits and preternatural intelligence that she was treated less as a mere pet than as a fourth and much-beloved member of the family.
Within the sacred sphere of my domestic circumstances, I enjoyed a nearly perfect contentment. The situation, however, was markedly different as regards my professional affairs. These, indeed, were of a most unsatisfying — a most insupportable — nature. In my capacity as editor of Graham’s Lady’sandGentleman’s Magazine, I had managed to increase the circulation of that publication more than fourfold in the two years of my employment. And yet, my accomplishments had received neither proper recognition nor adequate remuneration from the owner. On the contrary. While Mr. Graham had profited mightily from my unceasing labors on behalf of his enterprise, my own salary had remained fixed at the pitiable rate of $800 per annum — a sum entirely insufficient for the support of myself and my dependents (The Hum Bug, 2001, p. 5-6).
Even today, there are images I retain from these books that are impossible to banish from my mind. How shall I ever forget the dreadful scene in the memoirs of John Roger Tanner when his young comrade, Toby Squires, is strung up by his wrists and flayed alive by a gloating Iroquois chieftain? Or the equally gruesome moment in the narrative when of the French fur trader Jean Laframboise, when he is forced to consume a bleeding collop of his own flesh, sliced from his leg by an Apache tormentor? Or – most horrific of all – the episode recounted by Captain John Salter, in which a Comanche brave tortures a captive by making a small incision in his abdomen, removing one end of the small intestine, nailing it to a wooden post, and forcing the victim to run in a circle until his entrails are completely unwound! The mere recitation of these atrocities is enough to suffuse my bosom with a tumultuous mix of emotions, compounded equally of dread – revulsion – and rapt fascination (The Mask of the Red Death, 2004, p. 7).
In New York City, on a gusty October evening, I was making my way through the bustling streets of the great metropolis, toward the rooms I shared with the two beings dearest to my soul. I refer, of course, to those angelic creatures I called by the fond sobriquets “Sissy” and “Muddy” – i.e., my precious wife Virginia, to whom I was bound by the double ties of cousin and spouse, and her mother, my darling Aunt Maria Clemm. I was returning from the office of my business partner, Mr. Charles Briggs, publisher of the Broadway Journal, a magazine which – thanks largely to my own editorial innovations – had enjoyed a steep rise in circulation in recent months (The Tell-Tale Corpse, 2006, p. 8).
It’s not easy, is it? Poe’s lexicon, his deployment of lengthy phrases and seemingly endless sentences and his characteristic punctuation have all been mimicked to near perfection, no easy feat for an author working in a different time period, using different authorial tools in a world so rapidly changed. Schechter manages not only to evoke Poe in the minds of his readers but to transform himself into Poe, placing the narrator and audience in an environment long-gone, down to the smallest of details, not at all limited to people. Schechter reproduces the people, publications, locations, modes of transportation and methods of communication that were commonplace in Poe’s day and anachronistic in ours, all without breaking character for a moment.
So, how does he do it?
Harold Schechter himself is no stranger to both literary history and the macabre. He is currently a professor of American Literature and culture at Queens College, City University of New York. His work runs the gamut of crime and literary analysis and includes biographies of historical criminals, including Jane Toppan, Jesse Pomeroy, Ed Gein, Albert Fish and H.H. Holmes. He has also written on crime in pop culture, including his treatise supporting violent entertainment as catharsis, Savage Pastimes (About Harold Schechter).
Schechter’s interest in true crime began in the 1980s with his discovery of a cache of copies of London’s Illustrated Police News, a Victorian-era periodical comparable to today’s supermarket tabloids. In it, readers were subject to all manner of sensationalistic journalism – shocking crimes, gruesome companion illustrations, intentionally embellished headlines. Schechter refers to these as wondertales, a label folklorists affix to tales designed to elicit childlike wonder and raw emotion in readers. Despite the ghastly nature of the crimes written upon, these newspapers were very successful in drawing in readership, a tactic he emulates with his novel-length accounts of similarly vicious crimes in American history (Library of America).
In an interview conducted by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, where Schechter and his wife, the poet Kimiko Hahn lectured as distinguished visiting writers, he lays out his research and writing process. Surprisingly, he does them in tandem, often becoming so impatient to begin a project that he writes as he reads. His research is conducted chronologically, the same as his manuscripts are structured, so that he does not need to stop doing one to work on the other. Another interesting detail to note is that Schechter doesn’t do draft work; he works on his manuscripts as he goes, revising and polishing the same document until he is satisfied with every passage (An Interview with Kimiko Hahn and Harold Schechter).
It is easy to see how Schechter’s discovery of sensationalism could influence both his professorial career and his work as a true crime author, but how does Poe factor into all of this? The answer lies in Schechter’s book Savage Pastimes, a lovingly detailed compendium of America’s perennial favorite activity – gawking at nasty things we ought not be seeing, let alone enjoying as much as we do. He argues, and I am inclined to agree with him, that violence-by-proxy provides a cathartic effect that is not only beneficial to people but fundamentally necessary as a non-violent outlet for human aggression. He begins the book by outlining historical background material to the present-day obsession with violence in the media by going into American journalistic and literary traditions, beginning with American Romanticism and seguing into historical crime, beginning with first-person accounts of the Mayflower journey.
Schechter prefaces his explanation of Poe with a vignette on Emerson robbing his own wife’s grave (“What we can say for sure is that, at the very least, the great preacher of Ideal Beauty and Reason once engaged in an act of necrophiliac desecration worthy of one of Poe’s demented protagonists”) before discussing America’s favorite brooding writer directly:
And speaking of Poe, I sometimes wonder how it is that – in an era when everything from Huckleberry Finn to HarryPotter is banned in one school district or another, and when the public is so concerned about the kind of violent fantasies peddled to children – Poe’s fiction, as far as I know, has never elicited a peep o protest from the usual moral watchdogs. There’s no getting around the fact that this is exceptionally gruesome stuff. Why is it even permitted in the classroom (p. 4)?
I received my first dose of Poe at the tender age of twelve via a gift from my father – an old, secondhand blue paperback embossed with the title Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I have fond memories of hiding in the dance studio where I took ballet lessons, in between classes, curled up in a folding chair, reading some of the most gruesome scenarios I couldn’t have even conjured up myself at the time, clad in a pink leotard with my toes still encased in their delicate slippers. Thank you, Dad.
What is the reason for this, though? What answer does Schechter have?
When I pose this question to my students, they reflexively answer, “Because it’s art,” without really considering the full implications of that statement. One implication is that art and intensely disturbing images of horror and violence are not incompatible – a truism verified by even a cursory glance at great literature, from The Iliad to A Light in August, The Inferno to Crime and Punishment, Beowulf to Native Son, Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale” to any number of Shakespeare’s works (p. 5).
It appears to me that what Schechter is saying is that the raw materials for crime fiction, even historical crime, are already within the bulk of humanity as impulses, and what he does is rather simple – he brings them to the surface and teases them out into their darkest possibilities simply by doing extensive research.
No one understands this better than Schechter, and in Poe’s time no one understood it better than Poe. “Of all the great American writers,” Schechter explains, “Poe is far and away the most widely read by modern audiences, and it’s definitely not the ‘formal felicities’ of his writing that accounts for his appeal, nor the ‘moral instruction’ offered by his fiction.” He goes on to explain that Poe’s writing is considered unreadable by many, “overwrought to the point of near-unintelligibility, and the only moral to be gleaned from a story like ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is the inadvisability of entombing your sister alive.” (Savage Pastimes, 2005, p.7)
With violence in our collective consciousness, it is no wonder an author as brilliant as Poe was able to so successfully harness the attentive power of the macabre, and no wonder an equally brilliant contemporary can so thoroughly mimic a mimic. Schechter is, and likely will remain, one of America’s preeminent meta-authors.
The following is but a partial list of works utilizing historical figures in speculative fiction. It is in no way complete, though it covers many genres – true crime, graphic novels, stage plays, literary fiction and horror.
Byrne, E., & Newman, K. (1997). Back in the USSA: A Novel. Shingletown, CA: Mark V. Ziesing Books.
Moore, A., & Gibbons, D. (1987). Watchmen. New York: DC Comics.
Newman, K. (1994). Anno Dracula. New York: Avon Books.
Newman, K. (1995). The Bloody Red Baron. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf.
Newman, K. (1999). Judgment of Tears: Anno Dracula 1959. New York: Avon Books.
Schechter, H. (1999). Nevermore. Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike Press.
Schechter, H. (2001). The Hum Bug: A Novel. New York: Pocket Books.
Schechter, H. (2004). The Mask of the Red Death: An Edgar Allan Poe Mystery. New York:
Schechter, H. (2006). The Tell-Tale Corpse. New York: Ballantine.
Weiss, P. (1964). The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Woodstock, IL: Dramatic Pub.
Yalom, I. D. (1992). When Nietzsche Wept. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Ackroyd, P. (2008). Poe: A Life Cut Short. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
An Interview with Kimiko Hahn and Harold Schechter. (n.d.). Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Arizona State University. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://www.asu.edu/piper/Marginalia/October_2009/dvws_interview.html
Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Cohen, L. L. (2012). The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Edgar Allan Poe Museum : Poe’s Life, Legacy, and Works: Richmond, Virginia. (n.d.). Edgar Allan Poe Museum : Poe’s Life, Legacy, and Works : Richmond, Virginia. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://www.poemuseum.org/index.php
Poe, E. A., & Cassuto, L. (1999). Edgar Allan Poe: Literary Theory and Criticism. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Schechter, H. (n.d.). About Harold Schechter. HAROLD SCHECHTER. Retrieved from http://www.haroldschechter.com/about
Schechter, H. (1999). Nevermore. Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike Press.
Schechter, H. (2001). The Hum Bug: A Novel. New York: Pocket Books.
Schechter, H. (2004). The Mask of the Red Death: An Edgar Allan Poe Mystery. New York: Ballantine Books.
Schechter, H. (2005). Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Schechter, H. (2006). The Tell-Tale Corpse. New York: Ballantine.
The Library of America Interviews Harold Schechter about True Crime. (2008). Library of America. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://www.loa.org