To this day, no one knows what happened to Edgar Allan Poe. On the eve of his second marriage, he disappeared in Baltimore for almost a week, was found delirious and deathly ill, wearing clothes that didn’t look like his own, and died in a hospital a matter of hours later. He was not “buried alive,” though it’s an image that crops up in many of his famously creepy stories. (And a chronic preoccupation in 19th century America: Apparently it occasionally happened, evoking enough horror that coffin makers rigged alarm bells that could be sounded on the surface in the event someone came to and found himself six feet under. I have no data on whether these apparatus ever resulted in someone being rescued from accidental burial.)
In a way, though, Poe’s legacy is a bit of a buried one. He has exerted a permanent and profound influence on American literature, but you might not be especially aware of that. To the extent we think of him today, we might recall his masterful horror stories or a couple of poems, probably “The Raven.” If we have an image of him to conjure, it’s probably that of a drug-addled madman, and you might think it’s because of the freaky horror stories or the writ-large Romanticism in his poems. In reality, our image of Poe was largely formed by an excoriating obituary penned by a vengeful rival named Rufus Griswold?
You’ve never heard of Griswold, have you?
Poe is a fabulous subject for PBS’s American Masters series, because while he loomed large over American letters in his own lifetime and continues to do so today, most people don’t actually know much about him. Edgar Allan Poe was a brilliant multi-genre writer, an excellent literary editor and magazine man, a total needy pain in the ass, a person with a terrible relationship with alcohol, a drama queen, a scathing critic, a bridge-burning specialist and nemesis-maker, a lonely orphan and a passionate lover of words.
PBS’s documentary is artsy, with lots of reenactment (Poe himself is played by Denis O’Hare, who nails the look and Southern sensibility) and intermezzo imagery of spilling, scrolling drops of ink (or blood) and grisly illustrations that’d give Tim Burton a bad night’s sleep. It’s richly peppered with Poe’s poems—O’Hare is a great interpreter, stepping lightly on the heavy, embedded rhymes that might make his work seem desperately old-fashioned to modern ears— his fiction, his acerbic criticism of his contemporaries and his lachrymose letters to friends and family (to the extent he had either; he was abandoned by his father, lost his mom to tuberculosis, had a crappy foster father and alienated most people sooner rather than later). A panoply of Poe scholars weigh in on aspects of the man’s life and career—actually, so many of them that it gets a little too weighted with commentary, and makes the overarching narration by Kathleen Turner feel a little intrusive and cluttered. Basically, you get a megaton of information about the author, and that’s good. You also get a megaton of information about the author… and it’s distracting.
What I would have loved from this documentary, though it has many merits, would have been for them to edit it with a more intense focus on its own title and how that resonates thematically into the subject. In what ways was Poe “buried alive”? Not literally, but there are a number of metaphorical senses of the term that could have been brought forward and tied together much more clearly. The film touches on some things we might have forgotten, or never learned, about him: For example, while he’s most remembered for his horror stories, he basically invented the detective story as we know it today—fictional truth-seekers from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Gregory House all have Poe to thank for their existence. His rivalry with Rufus Griswold is interesting, as is his famous (in its time) hatred of his contemporary, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poe diligently tried to bury the careers of many an American writer, and his criticism, while outright nasty, was also keen and honest. Despite his love of writing grand-guignol Gothic tales, he was a highly acute arbiter of taste.
All of these things are interesting in their own right: His search for love and acceptance, his adoption of loss and grief as his master subject, his rivalries and enmities, his many dramatic reversals of fortune, his lasting impact on American popular culture (in that sense, he’s anything but buried; his words have certainly outlived Griswold’s!). But perhaps the most fascinating story about Poe’s life is that of his death, and we don’t touch on that at all until the last few minutes of the documentary, after which there is about 90 seconds of lip service to the brutally mean obituary written by Griswold and the attempts by Poe’s supporters to reverse the damage it did to his legacy. It’s so anticlimactic it’s hard to imagine Poe would have given it anything but a deeply indignant review.
Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive is richly detailed, artfully rendered, takes on a genuinely fascinating subject and is most definitely an essential addition to the American Masters canon. Readings by Chris Sarandon and Ben Schnetzer, as well as O’Hare, are masterful. All the scholars and writers interviewed have interesting things to say. It has much to recommend it. Like some of Poe’s more florid poems, however, it tends to be a bit overstuffed. Editing this documentary must have been a daunting feat, and I’m glad it didn’t fall to me to do it; there’s a ton of material here, and nearly all of it is rich. However, a slightly more ruthless attention to clear through lines might have been what put it over the top. As it stands, this is a really informative documentary on a subject people should know more about, and I definitely recommend watching it. Just be prepared to feel cut adrift in certain places and overstimulated in certain others.
American Masters’ Edgar Allen Poe: Buried Alive airs on tonight on PBS. Check your local listings.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.