One day before Barack Obama puts his hand on Lincoln’s Bible and takes the oath of office, the nation will commemorate the 200th birthday of Lincoln’s favorite American writer—Edgar Allan Poe. To keep tradition, nocturnal visitors will set roses and cognac on Poe’s grave. The many cities toasting Poe have become team of rivals, as New York, Richmond, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Baltimore and virtually every place where Poe once laid his head still contend for his legacy.
Boston has its own claim: Poe was born in the Theatre District. Although his foster parents carted him away when he was quite young, Poe published his first poems anonymously as “a Bostonian.” In time, he came to hate the place, mocking Emerson, Longfellow and New England’s literary elite as “Frogpondians.” He did return, for brief stints, to chase love and to attempt suicide.
But Baltimore, where he died in 1849, has seized the bicentennial limelight. Perhaps it’s simply their year. Poe’s Ravens—blast them—did snatch that last wild-card spot from the Patriots.
Obama spent his own days in Boston, though he left town not with Poe’s angst but with a Harvard Law degree. And this year, in the midst of a frighteningly cold January, only a single stroke of midnight will separate Poe’s bicentennial from the day when the nation inaugurates its first African-American president.
That midnight boundary is merely a coincidence, but an arresting one. Obama and Poe do seem like alter egos—the advocate of hope, the lyricist of fear. Actually, Poe had his own political ambitions, once wooing a post in the Tyler administration, even if he did show up for the interview with his coat inside out. He made his living not by statesmanship but irony.
And Poe was a brilliantly ironic and fearful writer—if, at times, an erudite raconteur. The oft-told tales about him as an overdosed madman are mostly trumped-up fictions (his first obituary, frankly, was the revenge of a rival editor). Yet he was moody, capable of sly hoaxes and far too many drinks. He preached strict dogmas about serious art and courted popular fame. He had a detective’s steely logic and bouts of depression. The author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” could wink at his audience and then, an instant later, probe the human capacity for self-deception and dread.
In his own century, Poe won admiration overseas, much of it posthumous. Today his shadow looms as large as ever. We mix humor and horror, and blend gothic irony with moral fables. Our masked crusader, once a comic-book idealist, is now a conscience-wracked Dark Knight, while the Joker turns prophet and sage.
No doubt, Poe would find Obama’s inaugural far too buoyant for his taste. After all, in one of his best stories, he did send the “red death” to break up a masquerade. But history has its own ironies: Poe’s bicentennial falls on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a reminder of Poe’s conflicted views on race. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who endorsed Obama for his “wisdom” and “creative imagination,” claims “no American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe.” She attributes to Poe’s fearfulness—and, to some extent, that of his Salem rival, Mr. Hawthorne—many early American anxieties about freedom. True, the new republic bred high ideals: democracy, realism, prosperity, and independence. But there was also the danger that new freedoms unleashed the worst in human nature: violence, powerlessness, alienation and greed.
So Poe and his peers, according to Morrison, often tried to resist their own fears about social decay by creating an “Africanist persona,” an image of “blackness” and savagery, against which they could set their own civilizing minds. Still, Poe was ever the enigma, aware of the literary power of the outsider, the racial outcast, in subverting stagnant cultural ways. He fought his own internal struggles during an era when rival views about race threatened the Union. You can indeed read “The Fall of the House of the Usher” and hear intimations of a house divided.
It is certainly one measure of the progress of the last 160 years since Poe’s death that the nation’s most prominent voice of hope is currently the African-American president-elect. Even for political opponents, Obama’s election is a remarkable landmark in the African-American narrative that was unimaginable in Poe’s antebellum America. That historical journey of African Americans from the Middle Passage to the White House has now become one of the nation’s vital narratives about freedom.
Of course, Obama’s inauguration doesn’t end racism or alarms about unbridled liberty. Racialized attitudes continue to mold American life, though Obama’s election does raise prospects for a fuller conversation about ethnicity and social status, alert to both obstacles and possibilities. Obama’s rhetoric has been relatively unique in its capacity both to evoke and to escape the shadow of history.
So the morning after Poe’s midnight of cognac and roses is a good time for a little inaugural sunlight. The landscapes before Obama and all of us—global recession, interfaith violence, hunger and genocide—are as frightful as Poe’s dreams. True, gothic dreams often serve ethical ends, especially in their capacity to puncture pretense, express our anxieties, and expose malice. We need the capacity to envision evil, or to detect, like Poe, the seeds of terror and injustice in life’s everyday banalities and distractions. But there is also a danger that Poe’s heirs in our popular culture can settle quickly for marketing evil, or at least a cynical partisanship that trades on fear. Fear and partisanship, I suspect, will be easy to sell now, especially once the ebullience of the inauguration gives way to the fierce challenges and some inevitable disappointments required to forge consensus on health care bills, wartime strategies, and sustainable energy.
“Our future is ripe,” Morrison wrote in her endorsement, “outrageously rich in its possibilities. Yet unleashing the glory of that future will require a difficult labor.” At such a time, Morrison claims, “searing vision” is not “naïveté.” I am hopeful that we will continue to find poetry in Obama’s vision, yet I trust that we will also commit our own “creative imaginations” to all those difficult daily labors of governance, the chores of community that require collaboration and persistence. We need to read our history and literature not just for the dreams of danger but also for the simple actions that have transcended fear—the amended policy, the astute compromise, and the reconciling gesture.
That future can indeed keep us awake at night. Some of our hallucinations do indeed capture our daylight realities. Quite often, though, when we hear that midnight tapping on our chamber door, it is the product of our imagination, and nothing more.
*Shortened version printed in the Salem News (January 20, 2009).