Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman: By decree of time and F. O. Matthiessen, these writers are the “American Renaissance.” EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809–49) belongs in that company, but he has usually been held slightly apart — one suspects because his themes, characters, and obsessions do not fit our Renaissance landscape, which is all forest, ocean, plain. His call is not a YAWP but a cry from the catacomb, a scream on the inside. Even the twisted religio-horrific visions of Melville and Hawthorne are salt-scrubbed, ruddy-faced, outdoorsy, downright wholesome in comparison to Poe’s lingerings in empty mansions, twilight terraces, stale crypts, and other places of suffocated death. But have we ever been fully comfortable with Poe as an American writer at all? He seems a natural Continental; without “edgarpoe,” Decadence would never have happened, and the cultural memory accessed by Surrealism would have been far poorer. He is the tubercular cousin in our family of vigorous visionaries; his gloomy gaze upon the perverse turns any celebration of native pluck and democratic vista into a meditation on waste, incest, and insanity. What American should want to embrace this writer — save for those uncounted millions of us who feel sometimes desperately out of place in the country that made us, who are horrified by and drawn to dreams of torture and confinement, whose screams are all on the inside?
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