National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

The Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

by Edgar Allan Poe

I would give the world to embody one half the ideas afloat in my imagination.


Edgar Allan Poe, 1848 (Courtesy of the Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Charles Keating reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"...

There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

Reed: That was Charles Keating reading from Edgar Allan Poe's haunting gothic tale, "The Fall of the House of Usher.” Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I'm Josephine Reed. The Big Read is a program designed to unite communities through great literature. And here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: It's nice to be with you for another installment of The Big Read. Today we'll discuss the life and work of one of America's most original and terrifying authors, Edgar Allan Poe.

Louis Bayard: Edgar Allan Poe still has the capacity to get under our skin in a way that few writers can.

Gioia: Writer Louis Bayard.

Bayard: He recognized what people hide in the closets of their minds. He brought all that out in the open—and there's something quite terrifying about that.

Gioia: Poet Daniel Hoffman.

Daniel Hoffman: He was a poet devoted to beauty. He wrote tales that will frighten the boy out of his pajamas!

Bayard: Without Poe we don't have the mystery genre. The gothic horror story doesn't exist in the same way without Poe.

Hoffman: He was a pioneer in inventing the science fiction tale, and the detective story, and the tale of exploration.

Gioia: Writer Arthur Yorinks.

Arthur Yorinks: In an odd way, this man who died when he was 40, he's had a profound impact on many different kinds of writing

Gioia: Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. His life would be marked by loss and difficulty, beginning from early childhood with the deaths of his parents. At the age of two for example, he watched his mother die of consumption.

Poet Richard Wilbur.

Richard Wilbur: His parents were theater people. His father disappeared very early from the stage and into drink. His mother had a fairly satisfactory career on the stage, but died young. Poe was, therefore, at an early age, adopted by some high-minded people of Richmond and brought up more or less, as a member of a leading mercantile family of the town.

Gioia: Poe once wrote in a letter, “The want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials.” His relationship with his adoptive father, John Allan, was always contentious.

Wilbur: Evidently, John Allan was prepared to lower the boom on Edgar Allan Poe when after a first semester or so at the University of Virginia, he found that he had lost a lot of money at gambling. Mr. Allan would not pay Poe's debts of honor, which led to a kind of disgrace, led finally to Poe's absenting himself, making a romantic wander up the seacoast to Boston, and enlisting in the army.

Gioia: Poe found success in the army and eventually made his way to West Point for officer training. However, just like his experience at the University of Virginia, Poe's was soon expelled from West Point for earning too many demerits.

Louis Bayard.

Bayard: He was there at a mere six months, which I think was maybe a month or two longer than he lasted at UVA. I think the reason that Poe went there was probably to impress and pacify his foster father John Allan. They had had a very rocky relationship.And, uh, I think Poe saw the handwriting on the wall and realized that there was no point any longer in creating favor with this very difficult man, and consequently there was no point in staying at West Point.

Gioia: When Poe left West Point, he broke off relations with John Allan and moved to Baltimore to focus on a literary career.

Writer Laura Lippman.

Laura Lippman: Poe is an unusual figure in the nineteenth century in that he wanted to be a full-time writer. That was a luxury very few poets and novelists had. Writers in the nineteenth century tended to have independent incomes or they had day jobs, you know, as Melville certainly did, for example. But Poe wanted to be a full time writer, and at the same time was often incredibly poor.

Gioia: Richard Wilbur.

Wilbur: All the time he was writing so woefully about his life, he was nevertheless being a good magazine editor.

Gioia: Daniel Hoffman.

Hoffman: He was an unrelenting critic—the first critic American literature who applied strictly aesthetic standards, rather than plugging books because they were by American writers. He did have a weakness, however, for the poetic effusions of women.

Gioia: Louis Bayard.

Bayard: He was also... had a genius for making enemies and creating literary feuds with leading lights like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. If you wanna make your way in the world, you don't pick fights with Longfellow or Washington Irving or Nathanial Hawthorne, all of whom at some point in his life he baited.

Gioia: Writer and cultural critic Camille Paglia.

Camille Paglia: At the time Poe was writing, there were two distinct strains in the American sensibility. One was the Puritan, which was based on frugality and prudence. On the other hand, it was a time when America was in love with its own frontier possibilities—a sense of the undiscovered lands. And what Poe did, essentially, is to invent American decadence—a richness in literature when the American style of writing was actually highly planed and using a vocabulary that was fairly limited.

Gioia: Author Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket.

Daniel Handler: He is very haunting; and the language, however flowery in some cases, and the themes, however broad, really work together to weave a spell.

Gioia: Writer Louis Bayard.

Bayard: Edgar Allan Poe's short stories are probably the best known elements of his literary oeuvre, and yet at the time he was alive, they were probably the least well known. When he died he was best known as the author of “The Raven,” which was the equivalent of a hit popular song in its day, it was hugely popular. The short stories he claimed to have written basically for money, and yet they're so strange and dark and so very personal that they don't come across as hack work at all. The amount of care he took with them shows I think how deeply they resonated with him.

Gioia: Among Poe's volumes of terrifying and memorable stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” stands as a centerpiece and a model of gothic horror.

Lippman: This is so scary that I'm not sure you should read it. And if you do read it, read it before the sun goes down. And if you read it late at night, I won't be responsible for the dreams you have.

 

Charles Keating reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"...

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Gioia: Daniel Handler.

Handler: “The Fall of the House of Usher” begins with our narrator, who has traveled a great distance to see a friend he hasn't seen in a very long time.

Gioia: Daniel Hoffman.

Hoffman: Narrator has been summoned by a letter from his boyhood chum whom he hasn't seen in many, many years. This is Roderick Usher.

Handler: Who along with his sister has suffered from various unspecified ailments in a physical and a mental and I would say, spiritual matter.

Hoffman: It seems to take place in a deserted wilderness where there is this mysterious house that rises above a lake, which is called a “tarn.” The house has a zigzag flaw in it, as appears to the narrator who approaches it.

Gioia: Camille Paglia.

Paglia: Now what is unusual in Poe's depiction of nature here is that we're not seeing the unspoiled forest and plains of the America in his time, okay. Instead we're seeing this swamp, we're seeing nature itself in a strange state of decay, with the Usher House poised on the edge of the waters, with a crack running down the façade, which certainly signifies the mental problems of its last remaining male occupant. It implies a kind of schizophrenia and a mental breakdown of the Usher family.

Lippman: Why does Usher send for his old friend?

Gioia: Laura Lippman.

Lippman: Clearly Usher sees that something is about to happen. Does he want a witness? Does he want protection? What is it that is so important to Usher that he reaches out to someone that he knew when he was much younger?

 

Charles Keating reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"...

Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. [... ]

He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy—a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.

Gioia: Daniel Hoffman.

Hoffman: So he goes in and he finds Roderick in very sad shape. His books are scattered about. Musical instruments lie untouched. And what unfolds is that the narrator penetrates further and further into the house, which is full of subterranean passages and hidden tunnels and so on.

Gioia: Camille Paglia.

Paglia: The house of the title is both a physical house of the Usher family, which is in a state of decay, and the actual family itself, which is a dynasty that has been subject to introversion and attenuation and apparently genetic defect, because the two remaining siblings can barely survive breathing and are beset by a host of maladies.

Gioia: The narrator meets Roderick's sister, Madeline.

 

Charles Keating Reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"...

He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin—to the severe and long-continued illness—indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution—of a tenderly beloved sister, his sole companion for long years, his last and only relative on earth. “Her decease,” he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.” While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps.

Handler: Well, the whole House of Usher is something of a house of mirrors.

Gioia: Daniel Handler.

Handler: And I think this is what is so alluring about the story is that to start to read it is to kind of spiral into the eddies of the dark waters of the Usher family. It's difficult even over the course of a small tale with not very many characters to kind of keep everything straight because they're all in this house that is endlessly reflective and self-reflective.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we're discussing Edgar Allan Poe and his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Poe was a master at writing stories that operate on several levels—the immediate and often thrilling tale on the surface, as well as the psychologically complex undercurrents. Critics have long enjoyed peeling back the layers of Poe's stories to uncover their subtexts and hidden metaphors.

Daniel Hoffman.

Hoffman: The real location of the house and the story is in the narrator's mind. The house has been described by Narrator as having windows like eyes, it's overgrown with moss, which he likens to Roderick's hair.

Gioia: Daniel Handler.

Handler: The house itself is kind of a skull, and so the narrator walks into a skull in order to confront what is going on.

Gioia: Camille Paglia.

Paglia: It's a kind of travelogue. So what we're getting, though, is not necessarily visiting far and distant lands, but almost repressed areas of the Western psyche.

Gioia: Daniel Hoffman and Richard Wilbur have written about “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a metaphor for a journey into the human mind.

Wilbur: When we have proceeded into the house of Usher, through winding passages, suggestive of the wandering of the mind as it enters the dream world, we come at last to Roderick Usher, the double, the other half of our hero. Usher's improvised songs and his extraordinary abstract paintings do suggest for me the hypnagogic state.

Hoffman: Well, Roderick is the deeper part of life.

Gioia: Daniel Hoffman.

Hoffman: Roderick really represents Narrator's unconsciousness, and Narrator represents the conscious mind. And the whole tale is a fable of the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

Yorinks: All of the relationships in “The Fall of the House of Usher” are truly mysterious.

Gioia: Arthur Yorinks.

Yorinks: Why is Roderick living with his sister and the only living relatives in this house? What is their relationship? There are obvious hints of a deep bond between Roderick and his sister. Late in the story, we learn that they are twins, and what does that mean?

Gioia: Laura Lippman.

Lippman: The relationship between Roderick and Madeline is unhealthy. She's dying. He's quite ill. He seems to be showing signs of an encroaching emotional illness, mental illness. They have been driven quite mad by something—by their family's own inbreeding? By a relationship that they should not have had? Something has gone terribly wrong in the house of Usher. That's certainly fair to say.

Gioia: Daniel Hoffman.

Hoffman: Then at one point, he turns to Narrator and tells him that Madeline is no more. So Narrator helps Roderick put her in a coffin.

 

Charles Keating reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"... [page 329]

Having deposited our mournful burden upon tressels within this region of horror, we partially turned aside the yet unscrewed lid of the coffin, and looked upon the face of the tenant. A striking similitude between the brother and sister now first arrested my attention, and Usher, divining perhaps my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them. Our glances, however, rested not long upon the dead—for we could not regard her unawed. The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toil, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.

Gioia: Arthur Yorinks, who wrote the libretto for an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher,” recognizes Poe's acute perception to sensory detail and his talent for building tension.

Yorinks: He sets out, in the very beginning, this very desolate and almost quiet tone—and he builds. It's like a great symphonic work. The sound of Madeleine even walking through the house. Doors shutting. The sound of Roderick playing music. The sound of the house. Strange, creaking sounds. It builds and builds and builds 'til this enormous finale.

Gioia: Daniel Handler.

Handler: It's a splendid tale and contains kind of all the gothic obsessions: crypts and families in dire circumstances, siblings and twins, secrets, old houses, bad weather. It's so Poe, it's almost meta-Poe. It's kind of Poe at the white heat of his imagination—that everything is terrible, there's not a ray of sunlight. I love this story.

Gioia: Daniel Hoffman.

Hoffman: So now they put Madeline away and screw down the lid of the coffin and close the huge iron door and bolt it. And they come upstairs. There's a storm outside, and Roderick flings open the window, and it nearly sweeps them away inside.

Gioia: Laura Lippman.

Lippman: Then we have the information that he has known for days that she is alive and trying to get out. Why doesn't he go to her? Why doesn't he, at the very least, investigate these odd premonitions he has about the sounds coming from his sister's temporary tomb? Why does he sit there in the grand living room of the house of Usher, and ask his friend to read him a story in hopes that he will be distracted and wait until she appears on the doorstep?

Gioia: Death and resurrection is a common theme in Poe's work.

Louis Bayard.

Bayard: We have this whole bridge world between life and death. Nobody ever quite completely dies in Poe's books, they're what they call revenants, you know, always coming back to life. And that I think shows you how oppressed Poe felt by the ghost of his mother, by the ghost of the past, by his lost family—his biological family was largely destroyed by the time he came of age.

Gioia: The most important women in Poe's life all died prematurely, including his mother and his beloved young wife, Virginia.

Daniel Hoffman.

Hoffman: This leads to Poe's theory that the proper subject, the only subject, for poems is to mourn the death of a beautiful woman.

Gioia: Laura Lippman lives in Baltimore, the city perhaps most associated with Edgar Allan Poe, and the place where he died at forty years old.

Lippman: He died here under circumstances that are so fittingly an eternal mystery. It's not only that we don't know what killed Poe in October 1849. We don't know why he was here. It makes no sense. He was supposed to be going, I believe, to Philadelphia. There was no reason for him to come by way of Baltimore. No one knows what he was doing in those final days.

Gioia: Richard Wilbur.

Wilbur: The old story, which various people have tried to modify, was that Poe was drunk in Baltimore at a time of elections, and that some rascals got him drunk and took him from polling place to polling place as what they called a “repeater,” to vote again and again for their candidate.

Lippman: He is found wearing clothes that are not his own, and clearly in great distress.

Wilbur: He was discovered unconscious, lying on the sidewalk, and spent several days dying in a hospital there.

Gioia: Camille Paglia.

Paglia: Poe is a keeper. His body of work is a treasure house that can be of use to us from childhood to old age.

Gioia: Daniel Handler.

Handler: There are countless dime novels and penny dreadfuls that have faded into history and countless writers of strange stories, but I think the reason why people stay with Poe and the reason why people still read him, I think it's because his stories contain this kind of air of ghostly desperation and sadness.

Gioia: Louis Bayard.

Bayard: Park your preconceptions at the door. Don't think you know who Edgar Allan Poe is, don't think you know what you're gonna find on the page, because I guarantee you it will be stranger and deeper and richer than what you were expecting.

Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Dana Gioia hosted the program. The assistant producers are Adam Kampe, Pepper Smith, and Liz Mehaffey. Readings from "The Fall of the House of Usher" were by Charles Keating.

And the following music used courtesy of Naxos of America Incorporated.

  • Excerpts from The Fall of the House of Usher opera composed by Arthur Yorinks and performed by Philip Glass used with permission of Musikwersatt Wien.
  • Excerpts from the album Dance Music from Old Vienna, composed by Johann Strauss and Joseph Lanner, performed by the Tanzquartett Wien.
  • Excerpts from the album Brahms: Sonatas for Violin and Piano, composed by Johannes Brahms.
  • Excerpts from the albums Piano Trios Volume 1 and Music from Violin and Piano: Volume 2 composed by Antonin Dvorak.

Special thanks to Ted Libbey and Foster Reed, and to our contributors: Louis Bayard, Daniel Handler, Daniel Hoffman, Laura Lippman, Camille Paglia, Richard Wilbur and Arthur Yorinks.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm the executive producer, Josephine Reed. For more information about The Big Read, go to www.neabigread.org.

 

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