An Essential Decency: The Millions Interviews Michael Bourne

John Gardner once said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Michael Bourne’s debut novel Blithedale Canyon is the former, beautifully written, with the ring of truth. Observant. Bleakly funny. Honest about life’s darkness.

Trent Wolfer is an addict who is trying and failing, and failing, to find another way to live. So he journeys home—and because he’s on probation, has to work the counter at the local burger joint, where he’s humiliated to see a pretty girl he once knew intimately. Soon enough, the man finds himself hanging out with his old dealer buddy from high school, who then as now brings out his worst tendencies. Has Trent helped or hurt himself by returning to his hometown of Mill Valley, California? The answer, Bourne hints, is both.

This is hard stuff to get right, and Bourne, a contributing editor at Poets & Writers, gets it right. I emailed him to ask him how. In this interview, he talks about the inspiration behind his debut, as well as its 20-year incubation process and path to publication.

Catherine Baab-Muguira: Where do you think the strength to change one’s life comes from? Did you set out to dramatize how people sometimes totally fail to do that on a desirable schedule?

Michael Bourne: I do think Trent, the novel’s narrator, eventually changes. He’s lived to tell the tale, right? But one of my goals with this book was to tell the other part of the addiction story, which is what happens after a person decides to change their life. We’re drowning in addiction narratives, but so many of them seem to stop when the person takes their last drink or drug. Like, that’s it, they’re cured! But most addicts are like Trent. They stop and start and stop and start endlessly for years. I wanted to dramatize what it’s like to know what you’re doing is wrong and self-destructive, and still keep doing it. Trent is onto himself right from the start of the book. He lies and cheats and uses, but he’s pretty clear-eyed about himself. That’s where the pain is, and also the humor.

I don’t think most people have the strength to change their lives on their own. They do it with the help of family or community. In my case, the only reason I didn’t end up dead in a ditch somewhere is that I come from an intact, supportive family and found a community I could rely on. Trent doesn’t have that and it’s killing him. He pretty much raised himself and what he did learn from his parents was how to lie so people will believe you. I wanted to write a story about a guy learning how to build that community, that found family, out of nothing.

CB: What’s it been like to live with Trent for so long?

MB: A pleasure, honestly. I like Trent. He’s a screw-up, yes, but he has an essential decency. And because he’s had to be a little bit of a grifter to survive, he notices things most people miss. He possesses a first-class bullshit detector, probably because he’s such a bullshit artist himself. Trent sniffs out people’s vanities like some kind of psychic bloodhound. As he says in the book, if you know the lie a person is telling about themselves, it’s a lot easier to lie to them, and that’s true. But it’s fun to write a character who’s always seeing through people, including himself.

CB: How about other forms of inspiration? Were there any novels or stories you had in mind as you wrote?

MB: Publishers Weekly said Trent is like an older Holden Caulfield, and though it wasn’t a conscious influence, I might have had The Catcher in the Rye in mind since the book meant a lot to me when I was a kid. All American books about screw-ups you can root for owe a debt to Salinger, I think. A more conscious model is probably Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, which is one of the few books I’ve read that gets addiction right, both the ups and the downs. Like Blithedale Canyon, it’s fundamentally a book about lying, but it’s so dead honest it breaks your heart. I was going for that. But really, the roots of Blithedale Canyon lie less in books I’ve read than in all the hours I spent sitting in church basements listening to people talk about their lives. I don’t mean I took people’s stories and literally put them in the book. But the way Trent thinks, all the stratagems and self-justifications, that came from listening to addicts talk—and talk and talk.

CB: What about your writing process, what did it look like?

MB: My writing process with this book was looong. I wrote the opening pages of the novel 20 years ago. The characters, the setting, the basic premise, it was all there, but I had no idea what to do with it and I set it aside. A few years later, I picked it up again and wrote another hundred pages, but again, I didn’t have the writing chops to get any further. In the meantime, I wrote a couple other books and finally learned enough about how stories work to finish this one. I do not know why I’ve been such a slow learner. I don’t consider myself an especially stupid or slow-minded person, but it’s taken me decades to figure out what others pick up in just a few years. On the other hand, I do feel like I finally have a better idea what I’m doing. For so long I felt like this big, dumb klutz crashing around in my narratives. Now I don’t feel quite so klutzy.

CB: Can you talk about how you found a publisher, and how you’ve found the publishing process?

MB: I’m living proof: You can publish a novel with a legit publisher without an agent. I shopped Blithedale Canyon around to agents, who are, despite what you might hear in some corners of the internet, great people who love books and writers. I came very close with several who loved the book and its voice, but times are tough for literary fiction and they worried they couldn’t sell it. This is happening more and more with literary novels, especially debuts. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a crop of new, entrepreneurially-minded indie presses is stepping in to pick up the slack. I probably would have made more money if it had sold to a corporate press, but I couldn’t be happier with my editors at Regal House.

CB: Tell me about why you chose this setting, geographically and era-wise.

MB: Mill Valley, California, where Blithedale Canyon is set, is my hometown, though I haven’t lived there in decades. I wanted the town to be a character in the novel, one on the cusp of change. Like so much of California, Mill Valley boomed after World War II when people who had worked the Bay Area shipyards crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for the suburbs. There was another wave of refugees from the Summer of Love, who lent the place a hippie vibe in the 1970s. Blithedale Canyon is set in 2001 when those earlier residents are getting priced out by the dot-com crowd. In the book, Trent works at a family-run grocery store, which is trying to innovate to stay in business. I wanted this to be a secondary plot in the book, what it takes for a small town to stay a small town, how hard that is. It’s not unlike a person trying to stay true to him or herself. It rarely works out well.

CB: As I’ve been reflecting on your book, I realize one of the things I like about it most is that Trent is an anti-Mary Sue. We live in an era beset by Mary Sues, and they’re by no means all female. Every character in every show and movie, no matter whether it’s Pixar or a high-end prestige drama, they’re all rising above their circumstances, showing preternatural emotional maturity, solving rather than managing their problems, all while surrounded by functional, emotionally honest relationships. I love that your book is not that. Do you think it’s more difficult to dramatize failure than to dramatize success? What was the most difficult part of the book to write?

MB: As I’ve said, I was trying to write against the standard addiction story, which I think is essentially false. People romanticize addiction, make it all about rebellion and pushing boundaries, but real addicts don’t rebel or push boundaries; they’re too busy getting high. A true addiction story is unreadable—it’s just a person doing the same damn thing over and over and over for years. It’s not remotely interesting to anyone. My goal was to tell a story that felt true, but that also worked as a story that would keep you reading and interested. So Blithedale Canyon isn’t just an addiction story, but also a love story and a story about hometowns. I’m not sure it’s more difficult to write these kinds of stories than the uplifting Mary-Sue tales you’re describing, but it’s probably harder to sell. People like to see characters transcending their circumstances. It makes them feel better. I was trying to make people feel better in a slightly different way, by showing them life as it’s actually lived by a whole lot of people.

CB: Just out of idle curiosity, exactly how many people have read the book and told you: I dated this man?

MB: Asking for a friend, are you? I’ve heard this a lot, actually. When I was passing the book around to writer friends to get feedback, friends would respond to the book and then include a little note at the end saying they’d dated a guy like Trent or somebody in their family was going through something similar. As I was writing the book, I was very aware that I was writing a kind of user’s guide to the mind of an addict for people who are having to deal with one. And when I say people, I really mean women, because it’s so often the moms and wives and girlfriends and daughters that end up with the caretaking duties. Blithedale Canyon is not autobiographical in any literal sense, but I think I was that boyfriend for a few women who had the misfortune of meeting me in my early twenties. I’m not that guy now, but I still remember how my mind worked and that informed my depiction of Trent.

CB: It’s been a few weeks now since I finished your book and as I look back on it, one of the things I’m most impressed by is the everyman, every-town feel. Trent’s experience of running into old classmates from high school—the girl he liked, his druggie buddy—has an archetypal feel. It’s all very resonant. Were you trying to reach the universal through the specific?

MB: It’s gratifying to hear the book is having these resonances for you. With Trent and Mill Valley, I was trying to capture them in all their particularity. It was important to me, for instance, that in addition to being an addict and felon, Trent is a fan of bad horror movies and has a childhood nickname he hates. Likewise, with the setting, I wanted the reader to know what the Little League ballpark looks like and how to get to the World War II bunkers on the Marin Headlands. In my favorite books, I end up feeling like I know the characters and setting as if they were people and places from my real life. That’s what I was going for in Blithedale Canyon, that this story is happening to people you feel like you know. So maybe what you’re saying when you say the characters and setting feel archetypal and universal is that they’re real to you. You know them. If that’s the case, well, I can retire right now because that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Is This Why Edgar Allan Poe Never Had Kids?

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Two mysteries dominate discussions of Edgar Allan Poe, whose tales of revenge and murder still captivate us. First, there are the strange circumstances of his death in October of 1849. Then there’s the even stranger matter of his marriage to his much younger cousin, Virginia. What was the nature of their relationship? Was it sexual, and if so, why didn’t they have children?

“I was a child and she was a child,” Poe wrote in “Annabel Lee,” his late-life poem seemingly inspired by his marriage. In fact, Poe was 27 when, in May of 1836, he wed Virginia Clemm in a boarding-house parlor. She was not quite 14, an exceptionally young bride even by the standards of their day. As offensive as the marriage may be to modern mores, it appears to have been motivated by Poe’s understandable desire to unite what little family he had, while his aunt, Maria Clemm—Virginia’s mother—consented to the union, and always lived with the couple afterward.

The Poes would be married for 11 years, but whether the marriage was consummated, immediately or later, has bedeviled scholars for over a century. In the 1920s, Joseph Wood Krutch theorized that Poe was “psychically” and physically impotent. A decade later, Marie Bonaparte, also applying psychoanalytic concepts to Poe’s life and work, alleged that Poe never acted on any of his sexual desires, with Virginia or anyone else, because his true interests lay in “sado-necrophilia.” Nor has such thinking fallen altogether out of fashion. In 2000, Jan Finkel cited Krutch’s impotence theory, saying, “there is no evidence that Poe ever had an adult relationship with a woman.”

Children are the usual proof we get of anyone’s sexual relationship, so the Poes’ lack thereof has fueled this salacious speculation. Yet other evidence does exist—and can’t be ignored. In Poe’s 1842 story “Eleonora,” for example, a pair of cousins grow up together in a beautiful valley, until the female cousin turns 15. At that time, “locked in each other’s embrace,” the two at last discover “Eros,” or love and desire. In turn, the valley blooms, ringing with life like a Wagner opera. Even the clouds of the sky grow closer to the ground, Poe writes, “shutting us up, as if forever, within a magic prison-house of grandeur and of glory.”

His gift for metaphor shines here. Comparing erotic life to a “magic prison-house” is a dead-on analogy to make you laugh in the painful way. The whole passage is Poe at his most explicit and seemingly autobiographical, appearing to imply that he and Virginia did know sexual joy, and to imply further that this aspect of their relationship began closer to Virginia’s 15th birthday, or approximately 16 months after the wedding, in late 1837. Poe often fudged dates, it’s true, sometimes shaving a few years off his own age to portray himself as more of a Romantic wunderkind, and adding a year or two to Virginia’s age when it suited him, too. But here again the explicitness of the passage, and the specificity of the timeline given as a relationship between cousins blossoms into mutual desire, is hard to ignore.

What’s more, the Poes’ friends described the marriage as intimate, with George Graham, Poe’s one-time boss and one of the most reliable firsthand sources, characterizing Poe as a “devoted husband.” Likewise, there is Virginia’s only known poem, a sweet acrostic written as a Valentine’s Day present, in which she tells her husband, “Ever with thee I wish to roam/Dearest, my life is thine.” The overall suggestion is one of profound love as well as intense domestic devotion.

Finally, there are the simple odds to consider. Not all marriages are physically consummated, not then and not now; the majority are, making it more likely than not that the Poes eventually developed a sexual relationship. By the same token, more people were (and are) fertile than not. We are indeed assuming a lot if we say that the Poes were likely sexually active as well as fertile, and I admit I’m speculating here, just the same as earlier commentators. Still, after five years’ deep research into Poe, consummated in a book, I’m convinced I’ve arrived at the real reason they had no children. It’s a hidden-in-plain-sight answer that readers today, amidst the rising costs of childcare and medical care, may grasp straightaway: The Poes simply couldn’t afford to have kids.

Here again, the timeline emerges as compelling. Line up the years and you will spot the economic rationale: The Poes’ marriage in fact took shape during the most devastating financial crisis in American history, at least until the Great Depression a century later. They married in the late spring of 1836. Within a year, the Panic of 1837 was fully underway, with banks shuttering and asset prices collapsing. Tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods.

The Poes were affected, too, all the more so because Poe had chosen almost the exact moment before the crisis hit to try and trade up. In the early months of 1837, he’d left (or perhaps was fired from) his job at the Southern Literary Messenger. The Panic hit soon after, and the better job Poe had hoped to pursue in New York seems to have evaporated, essentially overnight. He could hardly any find freelance work, either. The effects of the crisis lingered for years, and his income during its depths averaged just $4 a day, adjusted for inflation. At times, the family had nothing to eat but bread and molasses.

If, as Poe hinted in “Eleonora,” he and Virginia consummated the marriage in late 1837, it would’ve been an impoverished moment, not the time to consider adding to a family. This is where birth control might have entered the Poes’ picture, and where their larger era’s massive drop in birth rates becomes relevant. In fact, birth rates declined so dramatically throughout the 19thh century that historians who track such arcane matters call it the “demographic transition.” Between 1800 and 1900, white married couples went from having an average seven children to fewer than four. The rate of extramarital pregnancy similarly plummeted during Poe’s lifetime.

Historians debate the causes of this shift, ascribing it to urbanization, war, and toward the end of the century, the beginnings of the women’s movement. So far, so plausible, but birth control’s role must be acknowledged. Techniques known in the Poes’ day included coitus interruptus, condoms, douching, and abortifacients (or pills to induce miscarriage that were advertised in a coded, if not coy, manner). Abortion was a relatively common practice, too, and broadly legal. My admittedly prurient best guess is that the Poes may have practiced one or more of these methods, with the lowest-cost methods the most likely.

And by the time their fortunes were looking up in the early 1840s? Virginia had grown ill with tuberculosis, which can cause infertility, while there are the secondary effects of grave illness to consider as well. The couple may have believed Virginia’s health too weak to risk a pregnancy after 1842, when she began to show symptoms. And in fact, Virginia would die in early 1847, closing the question forever.

In the end, there’s no way to prove this theory that the Poes didn’t have children because they couldn’t afford it. Perhaps factors in their diet and environment or some epigenetic cause made birth control unnecessary. Maybe I myself am the flaw in the rationale, inevitably seeing the history through the lens of my own millennial experience because I live in an era when economic crises and the rising cost of raising children have caused many people to delay or even forego parenthood. But my hunch, honed by research, is that a lot less has changed since the Poes’ time than we might hope. Rather, our own day is, to borrow a thought from the great Romantic biographer Richard Holmes, a “particularly fruitful moment” to rethink Poe—a moment in which his life story can take on a new “particular and poignant resonance.”

Image Credit: Pixabay

Edgar Allan Poe: Self-Help Guru

You may have read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. Chances are you’ve read a little whether you’re a fan or not. Poe’s influence, as James Wood wrote of Flaubert, is “almost too familiar to be visible,” while Poe’s work is standard in school curricula across the U.S. and beyond. I still remember how, when I was living in Australia a few years ago and happened to be seated at a coworker’s kitchen table, her eight-year-old son burst in, gushing about “The Raven,” impressed that a poem, of all things, could be so scary.

Still, Poe’s work has its less-visited corners. Take “A Chapter of Suggestions,” an 1844 essay in which Poe set aside literary criticism to advance a different and, to my eye, more personal set of ideas. There is some profound shit in there. The first paragraph goes like this, no preamble:
In the life of every man there occurs at least one epoch, when the spirit seems to abandon, for a brief period, the body, and, elevating itself above mortal affairs just so far as to get a comprehensive and general view, makes thus an estimate of its humanity, as accurate as is possible, under any circumstances, to that particular spirit. The soul here separates itself from its own idiosyncrasy, or individuality… All the important good resolutions which we keep—all startling, marked regenerations of character—are brought about at these crises of life.
A quick and dirty translation? Once or twice in our lifetimes, you and I will experience dissociative moments that allow us to glimpse our humanity beyond the idiosyncratic snags of our personalities. Understanding the self in fact requires transcending the self, however briefly. And such crises may lead to breakthroughs, epiphanies, moments of much-longed-for change. It’s like what people say now about eating shrooms.

Poe, we can be pretty sure, wasn’t writing under any psychedelic influence, but he did have his own experiences of anxiety, depression, and/or periodic breaks with reality. He wrote “A Chapter of Suggestions” for money, netting 50 cents a page when it was published in an 1845 gift book, which may have helped alleviate some of his anxiety, if only for a moment. The reason you and I might find it a funny, poignant reading experience today is because Poe’s “Suggestions” sound a lot like contemporary self-help. He veers through a series of disconnected paragraphs, rattling on about probability, the imagination, why disappointed artists may drink too much in midlife, and more. Here are his bugbears, weaknesses, obsessions, hopes—plus a little how-to, dusted with 19th-century pop science and transparent wish-thinking—in one place and under 2,000 words.

In paragraph four, he remarks how often our first grasp of an idea, our initial intuitive impression, turns out to be the most accurate. We know this from our childhood reading, Poe says. We encounter a poem as a kid and we love it. Later, we grow up only to scoff at the same poem. Then we reach yet another stage in which we return to our initial impression, the right one.

What’s startling now, even eerie, is how accurate Poe’s description of this process is for those of us who—like my coworker’s bowled-over son—loved “The Raven” as children, thrilling to its dark rhythms and atmosphere of glamorous doom. Later, as undergrads or grad students, we put that enthusiasm behind us, knowing without having to ask that, past a certain age, it’s not cool to like Poe. And then, once we’ve graduated, lost whatever grasp we ever gained of theory, and reentered civilian life, we recognize all over again how good “The Raven” really is, how effective and successful. Yes, it is a carefully calculated shot at reaching fame by satisfying popular taste, and that is precisely why it works.

Or take paragraph seven, in which Poe tells us that being a genius means attracting haters, “a set of homunculi, eager to grow notorious by the pertinacity of their yelpings,” but also that, crucially, not everyone who attracts haters is a genius:
All men of genius have their detractors; but it is merely a non distributio medii to argue, thence, that all men who have their detractors are men of genius. Yet, undoubtedly, of all despicable things, your habitual sneerer at real greatness, is the most despicable…Their littleness is measured by the greatness of those whom they have reviled.
Clock the pettiness of detractors by the outsize nature of what they attack: Now that’s insightful.

Skipping to paragraph nine, Poe informs us that geniuses like getting drunk. It grows out of habits picked up in youth, he says, but later becomes more about somehow coping with the unfairness of existence: “The earnest longing for artificial excitement, which, unhappily, has characterized too many eminent men, may thus be regarded as a psychal want, or necessity. . . a struggle of the soul to assume the position which, under other circumstances, would have been its due.”

Readers familiar with Poe’s blog-like Marginalia series and his galaxy-brained prose-poem Eureka will spot familiar strains of thinking in this paragraph and the larger “Chapter.” There is Poe’s tendency to make grand pronouncements about the character of geniuses—something he got on a tear about with some frequency—and all of which, it should come as no surprise, might be applied directly to himself. Call it self-justification, but there might be more to it than that. It’s these moments when we get the keenest insight into Poe’s own turbulent and amazingly successful life—from the person who lived it. How to make sense of its devastating ups and downs, victories and reversals?

Well, he tells us. Such self-knowledge as he ever gained came from moments of profound crisis, as well as sidelong looks and returning to first impressions—or so we might conclude from reading the “Chapter.” And maybe we might now recognize that the same process gives us our best chance of attaining wisdom and self-knowledge in our own lives, too.

Elsewhere, Poe liked to present himself as a towering, one-take auteur. Think of “The Philosophy of Composition,” the essay in which he dubiously, maybe-kinda satirically claimed that he wrote “The Raven” according to some ultra-precise formula. Whereas in “A Chapter of Suggestions” he shows himself to be no stranger to the sorts of questions you and I ask our cracked ceilings at 4 a.m. He wondered about his own lurching, intermittent progress, about the faults and failings of his character—what the scholar Jerome McGann once listed as “his lies, his follies, his plagiarisms, his hypocrisies”—and whether these might sink him.

Maybe the most surprising thing about “A Chapter of Suggestions” is how, in the 177 years since its publication, and in contrast to the rest of Poe’s work, it’s received so little critical attention. If there’s a single paper dedicated to it in all of JSTOR, I haven’t found it. Burton R. Pollin, who wrote an introduction identifying its origins and genre, concluded that the essay might fall under “general philosophy,” alongside other species of vaguely high-minded magazine filler common in Poe’s era.

We might go a step further. Poe, it seems to me, was pondering the subject of personal growth. Where he landed was somewhere between Coleridge at his most aphoristic, metaphysical and self-justifying, and Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, who’s now in a psychedelic phase and who’s never really gotten credit, either, for the range of his thought.

Besides: lies, follies, hypocrisies? That’s most of us, if we’re honest. No wonder then that the ways we come to insight are so strange, glancing, sidelong. Or that we tend to second-guess our initial impressions, only later coming to realize, to know—and, of course, to rationalize. It’s weird to be human, even as we’re unable to compare it with, say, being a macaque or an orchid. We lurch from crisis to crisis, and what knowledge we ever arrive at is likely to surprise us. You can almost see Poe enacting this process in his essay. It makes me think that our childhood assessments of him were right all along: in his darkness, odd rhythms and peculiar wisdom, Poe really was cool. And still is.

Bonus Links:
Edgar Allan Poe Was a Broke-Ass Freelancer
Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?
Twenty-Five Ways to Roast a Raven: The Spiciest Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s ‘Eureka’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Space Opera for Our Times

Image Credit: Flickr/Alvaro Tapia.

Poe’s ‘Eureka’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Space Opera for Our Times

Edgar Allan Poe articulated the Big Bang theory some 75 years before scientists advanced the idea. At least, that’s become the conventional wisdom. In recent years, a spate of books and articles have all argued that Poe, with his 1848 “Eureka” lecture, which was later published as the self-described prose-poem Eureka, nailed the astrophysical origins of the universe. And possibly even predicted its eventual fiery end, too.

Now this bit of Poe lore circulates as one more article of faith, popping up in Aeon and as well as Gizmodo. However, as with nearly all the accepted facts of Poe’s life, everything you may’ve heard about this bizarre episode is probably false, misleading, without factual foundation, and off the mark. Which is to say wrong, in case there was any confusion. There’s even ample reason to question the historicity of the “true” story from which it springs.

So let’s review. On February 2nd, 1848, Poe placed an ad in the Daily Tribune: “Edgar A. Poe will lecture at the Society Library on Thursday evening, the 3d inst. At half-past 7. Subject, ‘The Universe.’ Tickets 50 cents—to be had at the door.”

The following evening, with rain beating on the roof, he took the stage at the New York Society Library and gave a lengthy talk detailing his exact views on the physical and metaphysical nature of the universe. For nearly three hours—to an increasingly confused crowd—Poe yarned on and on and on about stars, space, time, consciousness and the nature of God. He was utterly convinced he’d discovered every last galactic secret, and his confidence showed.

The immediate reception split along roughly two lines. The first was polite if somewhat baffled praise. The second was less polite. In fact, it was Greil Marcus-like: What is this shit?

“Some of us began to be quite sensible of the lapse of time,” a reviewer for the New World moaned. “Still no end was visible; the thin leaves, one after another, of the neat manuscript, were gracefully turned over; yet, oh, a plenty more were evidently left behind, abiding patiently ‘their appointed time.’” Even Poe’s own agent, Evert Duyckinck, described the lecture as a “mountainous piece of absurdity” which “drove people from the room.”

In the long years since, the larger reception of Eureka has divided into similar camps. You’ve got those who assert that Poe somehow intuited a host of advanced scientific theories, including, among others, the idea of the multiverse. And there remains another, smaller yet persistent school that sees Eureka as, to quote the Poe biographer Paul Collins, “crank literature”—arguing that, during this phase of his career, Poe was either crazy or a charlatan, perhaps both. Judging by the frequency with which people will assure you Poe called the Big Bang, it’s the first school that’s emerged victorious.

Yet there’s a third possible explanation, an alternative that marries the eerie prescience of Poe’s guesses while paying close attention to what was going on with Poe in the late 1840s, the most grief-stricken years of his grief-stricken life, and what led him to write the modern equivalent of a nervous-breakdown-inspired space opera. Anyone who’s watched The Office probably remembers how, after manager Andy Bernard is fired, he devotes himself to a spaced-based rock opera—in particular to delusions about its quality.

I’m not suggesting The Office was consciously drawing on Poe, only that we might understand Poe’s Eureka phase in a similar way. It may be that we can learn about the history of scientific breakthroughs from Eureka. You and I might also, and just as profitably, take in the crucial life lesson: If you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, make it a spectacular one, complete with gawking audience and baffled fans. Go big or go home. Loose yourself from your moorings and execute a gigantic, galaxy-brained leap. Crank it up. Otherwise, what’s the point? And who knows where you may land? Maybe in English departments and on listicles.

To really grasp Eureka, you have to understand the year that preceded it. Poe’s beloved wife Virginia died in January of 1847, after suffering horribly, for half a decade, from tuberculosis. And with her death, Poe collapsed, knocked past the limits of his endurance. Then, within months, a strange new spirit—an all-consuming new idea—possessed him. It was nothing less than his very own grand unifying theory of the physical, metaphysical, mathematical, material, and spiritual universe, and if he left anything out, it was not for want of trying.

Poe had long been interested in science, keeping abreast of the latest discoveries and theories of his age, and now the interest grew Poe-etically feverish, futuristic. His aunt-and-then-mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, who remained devoted to Poe after Virginia’s death, would remember how they sat up together until four in the morning—Poe working, she keeping him company. “When he was composing ‘Eureka,’ we used to walk up and down the garden, his arm around me, mine around him, until I was so tired I could not walk,” she said. “He would stop every few minutes and explain his ideas to me, and ask if I understood him.”

I’m convinced that—whatever might be said of the science—Eureka was even more ahead of its time than Poe knew. I don’t think we could quite fathom it before our own age, with its sitcom jokes about space operas, and more to the point, the larger notion of “galaxy brain.” By now, most of us know the expanding-brain meme illustrating the bizarre conclusions that can result when a person’s reach exceeds their grasp. What if Eureka marks the earliest and most literal case, with Poe as patient zero? Suddenly this strange episode in literary history makes much more sense, and the two schools of thought are reconciled and ready to hug it out.

The paradox of Eureka is that those who can judge the science tend to be insufficiently versed in the literature and the credibility of various sources in the field of Poe biography, while people versed in the latter often can’t judge the science. Poe’s most dedicated and conscientious biographer, Arthur Hobson Quinn, had to consult astronomy professors to get their takes. But all of us know what it is to experience profound loss. We’ve all been to dark, half-cracked places, whether because of a loved one’s death or some other awful disappointment like a breakup or a layoff. Who among us, after the year we’ve just had, can’t relate?

For me, this is what makes Poe’s Eureka his most profoundly relevant work. It’s not just the lines that make you wonder if anyone has ever written as beautifully or as wildly about astrophysics, metaphysics, or anything else, like:
For my part, I am not sure that I speak and see – I am not so sure that my heart beats and that my soul lives: – of the rising of to-morrow’s sun – a probability that as yet lies in the Future – I do not pretend to be one thousandth part as sure – as I am of the irretrievably by-gone Fact that All Things and All Thoughts of Things, with all their ineffable Multiplicity of Relation, sprang at once into being from the primordial and irrelative One…

Let not the merely seeming irreverence of this idea frighten our souls from that cool exercise of consciousness – from that deep tranquillity of self-inspection – through which alone we can hope to attain the presence of this, the most sublime of truths, and look it leisurely in the face.
It’s how, in the depths of his grief, Poe sought to reconcile the best and worst aspects of human experience. It’s how he completed his work despite the dire circumstances of his life, when he might’ve just given in altogether to depression and juleps instead.

This is, arguably, the story of Poe’s whole career, and why, despite his sometimes-horrendous failings, he remains such a compelling and inspirational figure. His experience is so timeless and epic it functions as myth, not to mention figures in endless memes. There is something deeply instructive in it all, in the same way Joseph Campbell said that heroes’ stories reflect our deepest fears and greatest hopes, outlining our own paths forward.

Part crank, part saint, part screw-up, part hero, Poe’s example suggests that our own bouts of galaxy brain may lead to glory. At least, glory of a kind. Maybe not the overly dignified variety, granted—that probably lies a little beyond our grasp, as it did for Poe. Who cares? When the chance comes, perhaps we ought to make our own leaps, anyway.

Image Credit: Pexels/Graham Holtshausen.

Twenty-Five Ways to Roast a Raven: The Spiciest Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe


“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I opened a Google doc and started keeping track.” That’s how the story goes, right?

Well, no, but isn’t it high time we made a list of all the worst insults lobbed at Edgar Allan Poe? Seems like once every decade or so, some eminent, eloquent critic comes out with an article summarizing the widespread negative view of Poe among Poe’s contemporaries and in academia and the higher reaches of arts and letters. Richard Wilbur, Karl Miller, and Kevin Jackson, for instance, all made excellent contributions to the field of Poe apologetics (apoelogetics?). You also have the brilliant book-length defenses: Brett Zimmerman’s indispensable Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style (2005) and Jerome McGann’s magnificent The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel (2015). And yet, for all the tea that’s been spilled, no one’s ever made a ranked list of the most piquant remarks—the rudest, most spiteful and biting criticisms.

So I give you my own version, from mildest to meanest, while inviting you to vote for what you think is the absolute worst insult here and to arrange your own ranked list. Feel free, too, to add any insults I’ve left out—because what you’ll find below is not by any means comprehensive. Caesar himself was stabbed just 23 times, whereas with Poe, I’ve found you either stop the count at 25 or begin to lose your taste for the exercise.

Mark Twain
“To me [Poe’s] prose is unreadable—like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s.”

Kevin Jackson
“One might go so far as to say that Poe is the worst writer ever to have had any claim to greatness.”

Allen Tate
“Poe’s serious style at its typical worst makes the reading of more than one story at a sitting an almost insuperable task.”

Aldous Huxley
“To the most sensitive and high-souled man in the world we should find it hard to forgive, shall we say, the wearing of a diamond ring on every finger. Poe does the equivalent of this in his poetry; we notice the solecism and shudder.”

W.B. Yeats
“I admire a few lyrics of his extremely and a few pages of his prose, chiefly in his critical essays, which are sometimes profound. The rest of him seems to be vulgar and commonplace.”

Edith Wharton
“That drunken and demoralized Baltimorean…”

T.S. Eliot
“That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty.”

H.L. Mencken
“[Poe was] a genius, and if not of the first rank, then at least near the top of the second—but a foolish, disingenuous and often somewhat trashy man.”

Henry James
“An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”

Rufus W. Griswold
“Poe exhibits scarcely any virtue in either his life or his writings. Probably there is not another instance in the literature of our language in which so much has been accomplished without a recognition or a manifestation of conscience.”

John Frankenstein:
You, drunken mad-dog, EDGAR ALLAN POE —
Is it my fault that I must call you so?
Your works, like you, are born of alcohol;
Horrid monstrosities, distortions all…”
George Gilfillan
“His heart was as rotten as his conduct was infamous. He knew not what the terms honour and honourable meant. He had absolutely no virtue or good quality, unless you call remorse a virtue and despair a grace. Some have called him mad; but we confess we see no evidence of this in his history. He was never mad, except when in delirium tremens.”

Yvor Winters
“This is an art to delight the soul of a servant-girl; it is a matter for astonishment that mature men can be found to take this kind of thing seriously.”

Harold Bloom
“No reader who cares deeply for the best poetry written in English can care greatly for Poe’s verse…I can think of no other American writer, down to this moment, at once so inescapable and so dubious.”

D.H. Lawrence
“Poe tried alcohol, and any drug he could lay his hand on. He also tried any human being he could lay his hands on.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The jingle man.”

Hiram Fuller
“A poor creature…in a condition of sad, wretched imbecility, bearing in his feeble body the evidences of evil lying.”

William Crary Brownell
“He evinced the singular cleverness of the children of this world…his writings lack the elements not only of great, but of real, literature.”

Paul Elmer More
“The poet of unripe boys and unsound men.”

Owen Dudley Edwards
“Endless self-indulgence, wallowing in atmosphere, incessant lecturing, ruthless discourse on whatever took the writer’s fancy, longueurs, trivialisations, telegraphing of punch-lines, loss of plot in effect, loss of effect in plot…In sum, what Poe lacked above all was a sense of his reader.”

Thomas Dunn English
“The very incarnation of treachery and falsehood.”

Bryan W. Proctor”
“Edgar Allan Poe was incontestably one of the most worthless persons of whom we have any record in the world of letters.”
Arthur Twining Hadley
“Poe wrote like a drunkard and a man who is not accustomed to pay his debts.”

George Orwell
“At worst…not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense.”

W.H. Auden
“An unmanly sort of man whose love-life seems to have been largely confined to crying in laps…”

You wonder: Why exactly has Poe, among all American writers, proven such a popular shooting target? This list, as you’ve seen, reads like a virtual Literary Who’s Who, beginning with those who knew the man. “Of all men Poe had best reason to pray that he might be delivered from the hands of his friends,” as Atlantic Monthly put it in 1896, referring to Rufus W. Griswold, Poe’s great frenemy, who wrote that hit job of an obit.

Beyond Poe’s contemporaries, you have the down-their-noses sneering of highbrow literary figures and would-be highbrow literary figures, together composing what Brett Zimmerman called “the smog of critical hostility that hangs over the Poe canon.” The choicest example, or so I think, is Harold Bloom’s nasty 1984 essay in The New York Review of Books, not only indefensibly snotty in tone but also a grievous sin against hospitality because Bloom used the same piece as the introduction to the 1985 Modern Critical Views edition of Poe’s work. And while dude claims to be speaking of Poe, but “The Inescapable Poe” is more accurately the inescapable Bloom. It’s the ne plus ultra of literary get-off-my-lawns.

On the other hand, you have those who criticized Poe fairly sharply while also writing about him with incredible insight, like D.H. Lawrence and Allen Tate. And this is to say almost nothing of those Poe admirers whose adaptations and interpretations are arguably insulting, like John Cusack portraying Poe as a lech drooling over high-class cleavage in 2012’s The Raven, or Lynn Cullen’s 2013 quasi-historical romance Mrs. Poe. Whether these bits of fan art are goofy fun or edging into character assassination depends on who’s watching, who’s reading.

Poe, anyway, knew something about snobbery and slinging vitriol, given his own sometimes-hyperbolic critical career. No one would ever accuse the guy of being suave and taking things in stride. In his fiction, and often in his essays and reviews, Poe’s nerves are exposed—like he broke the crown off one of his teeth and there’s an abscess and maybe someone should call 911 because he might be dying of a brain infection any second now. This style was intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be to everyone’s taste. That children love Poe’s work seems to be, for some, another strike against him, causing more than a handful of detractors to describe his work as juvenilia. You have to guess they’ve never read his stuff as an adult, when its metaphorical nature comes through with such gutting poignancy. Finally, professional jealousy, and the comorbid tendency to look down on any popularly successful work, must carry a good deal of explanatory power. Call it Poe’s Razor.

Still, it’s a simplistic view that considers all these insults as simply insults—rather than the kind of PR that even good money can’t buy. Poe’s notoriety attracts new fans. It’s not just true in our own day: Poe and P.T. Barnum shared an era, and as Barnum said, “Every crowd has a silver lining.” I think of all the almost supernaturally eloquent Poe defenders—drawn, as I have been, by a sense of moral indignation in seeing one we admire so wronged, as well as out of respect for our legion of forebears and what Shawn Rosenheim rightly called “pathological identification” with our subject. It might be a sad club, but it’s our club, and today, Edgar Allan Poe counts nearly four million fans on Facebook, a further 64,000 on Quora, and another 20,000 on Wattpad. Also, 3,500 people belong to the Poe subreddit. All this nearly 200 years after his death. As a writer, you could do a whole lot worse. I mean, the insults make you laugh. But Poe’s success in spite of these insults? You just cackle with glee.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?

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In Jordan Peele’s new movie, Us, the Wilson family—father, mother, son, daughter—encounters their own strange doubles, who’ve come to exact a terrible revenge. But the Wilsons aren’t the only family to be stalked and menaced. In the second half of the movie, it becomes clear that nearly everyone else in the United States is encountering their doubles—and with similar results.

There are two Americas, Peele suggests. The first is populated by the leisure class and the second is made up of an aggrieved, murderous underclass. So far, so standard, but what exact social issue or experience is Peele attempting to make literal? Us never feels like a straightforward critique of capitalism. The many elements of the story—including the numerous allusions and Easter eggs—never really add up to anything we’ve got words for. We’re left sensing a larger theme we can’t quite name.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Peele is working in the realm of the unspeakable, and as Rod Serling’s famous Twilight Zone intro goes, that territory “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Some of it is unconscious. Even the geniuses don’t always know exactly what they’re laying bare.

Just take what is arguably the source material for Us—Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “William Wilson,” in which a young man encounters, and ultimately murders, his own uncanny double. “William Wilson” initially appears to have an almost annoyingly obvious meaning: The man’s double is his conscience, or superego as Freudians would have it, and we’re all our own worst enemies. Except I’m not sure we’ve ever really understood Poe’s story. What if “William Wilson” isn’t about what it’s always seemed to be about?

I’d like to float a fresh theory about “William Wilson,” which I think casts light on Us, too. It comes down to the autobiographical nature of Poe’s story and to new research published by the British psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien, namely her work on Boarding School Syndrome.

Schaverien first coined the term “Boarding School Syndrome” in a 2011 paper. In treating patients over many decades, she began to detect a distinct pattern—“an identifiable cluster of learned behaviors and emotional states”—in those patients who’d attended Britain’s elite boarding schools. The image of such education as the pinnacle of privilege has blinded us to the cruelty of the practice, she argued, characterizing the phenomenon as “socially condoned abandonment of the very young” in her 2015 book, Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child.

Children who are separated from their families and put into boarding school at a tender age, she’s written, “suffer the sudden and often irrevocable loss of their primary attachments.” Even when not bullied or mistreated at school, the experience of being sent away itself may constitute a “significant trauma” that children may experience as “literally unspeakable.”

“There are no words to adequately express the feeling state and so a shell is formed to protect the vulnerable self from emotion that cannot be processed,” Schaverien has said. “Whilst appearing to conform to the system, a form of unconscious splitting is acquired as a means of keeping the true self hidden.”

“William Wilson” reads like a virtual case study in Boarding School Syndrome. And Poe wrote the story in part about his own experience of boarding school. As most fans know, Poe lost his biological parents early, with both succumbing to tuberculosis in 1811. Few people realize that he effectively lost his family all over again, when his foster parents, John and Frances Allan, put him into boarding school.

The Allan family had moved from Richmond, Va., to London in 1815 so that John could open up a new branch of his business. But Frances quickly grew depressed and withdrawn, and John’s business tanked with the broad economic downturn that began in 1816. Little Edgar, per the longstanding tradition for boys of his age and class, was sent off to school at age six. He first lodged with the Misses Dubourg in a nearby neighborhood. At nine, he was transferred to the more prestigious (and more expensive) Manor House School, in Stoke Newington, much further from the Allans’ home in central London.

Poe used the Manor House School as the initial setting in “William Wilson,” more or less explicitly. The story offers extensive details of its building and grounds. Poe didn’t even bother to change the name of the headmaster, Reverend Bransby (who, according to one source, did not appreciate the mention).

Here the narrator, on his very first day, encounters another boy who’s also entering the school that day. This boy shares the narrator’s name and birthday, as well as every “counter of person and outline of feature.” Other students assume they are brothers.

Though the narrator struggles to define or describe his feelings about his double, he does register “uneasy curiosity” at the “knowing and strangely sarcastic smiles” and “advice not openly given but hinted or insinuated.” Something about this other boy causes him to recall “dim visions of my earliest infancy—wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was yet unborn.” When at last the narrator murders his double, the other William Wilson responds, “how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

The double, of course, is a part of the narrator, his own twin. Or perhaps he’s the narrator’s shell, formed the very day he was put into boarding school. Poe may have been portraying his own unspeakable experience, giving his own psychic split a literal treatment. “William Wilson” drew on some contemporary literary sources, too, but it’s still among the most autobiographical of Poe’s tales.

Art, Schaverien wrote in her book, “offers a way of revealing imagery which has previously had no other form of representation. It shows what cannot be spoken and mediates between conscious and unconscious.” She described one patient who insisted that, on his first day at school, he had “murdered” a part of himself. The man eventually recovered, in part by drawing pictures of his experiences—including a portrait of his “soul murder.” (“They made us cut ourselves in half!” he told Schaverien. “Can it ever be put back together?”)

Reading “William Wilson” in context of Boarding School Syndrome isn’t just an exercise in armchair diagnosis. It raises the possibility that what Poe portrayed in the story—consciously or unconsciously—isn’t solely the symbolic killing of one’s conscience or superego but a deeper and more intimate kind of “soul murder,” through which we become dead to our own feelings, including empathy. The same goes for Peele’s Us.

Though Freud popularized the term “soul murder,” it’s more lately been used to describe abused children who experience psychic splits and by the historian Nell Irvin Painter to explain the psychological dynamics of slavery in antebellum America, including what Painter identified as a deadening of conscience among the privileged, literal master class.

Here’s one example Painter offered.
John Nelson was a Virginian who spoke in 1839 about his own coming of age… He says, when he was a child, when his father beat their slaves, that he would cry and he would feel for the slave who was being inflicted with violence. He would feel almost as if he himself were being beaten, and he would cry. And he would say, “Stop, stop!” And his father, “You have to stop that. You have to learn to do this, yourself.” And as John Nelson grew up, he did learn how to do it. And he said in 1839 that he got to the point where he not only didn’t cry; he could inflict a beating himself and not even feel it.
Is it just me, or in all this does the inchoate subtext of Us start to become clearer? What if Us is also about a kind of soul murder, the soul murder that results from privilege, from constantly observing terrible shit and not doing anything about it, from our becoming numb to the inequities (and iniquities) of class in contemporary America, from our loss of attachment to anything resembling collective interests? What if Us isn’t really about class struggle so much as the dreadful knowledge so many of us live with and are—at the same time—effectively deadened to: our awareness that so much of what’s good in our lives depends upon the exploitation, even subjugation, of people who, but for the circumstances of their birth, are just like us?

Maybe we just don’t have a name for this syndrome yet, even though we can sense it effectively operating at scale among us. But I think that, one day, in what I hope is a slightly more enlightened age, we will. Then we might see Us, like “William Wilson,” as a case study ahead of its time.

Take a Writer Like Him: My Complicated Love Affair with Kingsley Amis

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As much as I may rack my brain, there are 15 minutes or so in the dark that I can’t account for and that I’ll never get back—15 minutes during which, I have to think, that creep’s hands were touching my body. It’s a weird thing to think about all these years later, this weird little grain of rice in my consciousness, a scratch where the record skips. The truth is I will never know what happened, exactly. None of it will ever be resolved. He didn’t rape me, at least in part because he didn’t get the chance. He probably touched me, roamed his hands all over my body, but who’s to say? Only he could. I was passed out.   

It was the fall of my senior year of college. A few days before, I’d gone to happy hour with my boyfriend and he’d dumped me shortly after the pizza arrived. I was crushed and caught off guard, and my incredibly intelligent way of responding to this was to rebound, or at least try to. The weekend came. I slid my bruised ego into the World’s Tiniest Dress and went to a party at the house of a grad-student friend of mine. I didn’t usually go to strange parties because I had my boyfriend and our tight-knit group of friends, except now I didn’t have the boyfriend and I was too embarrassed to see the friends. I left my apartment with the idea I’d do something dumb—kiss someone or something. If he heard about it later, all the better. That was the point.

When the two guys started talking to me at the party, I was drunk. Even so, some lizard part of my brain knew that when they asked me to leave with them, the right answer was nope. Drunk as I was, I could feel them watching me closely, so closely that I can still see the deep muddy brown of one’s eyes, his white-blond eyelashes. They were DJs, they said, and they were going to a late-night rave. I should come, too. They could get me in. They’d give me a ride. No thanks, I said, and stumbled off to the tiny guest room my friend had promised to me. She had this old millworker’s house. The bed was narrow with some antique, almost Dickensian frame. I remember pulling the blankets over me and staring at the wall a minute, feeling disappointed and lonely and, even before anything else happened, just incredibly ashamed of myself. Then I closed my eyes.

Flash forward, 14 years later. It’s the fall of 2017; I’m talking about #MeToo with a friend and we start coming up with a list of literary characters who, had they been real, might now be exposed as rapists, sexual harassers, workplace bullies, and/or terrible boyfriends. A dark joke, our list is long but hardly comprehensive: Humbert Humbert, Oblonsky, Mr. Rochester, Steven Rojack. Well. You’re kind of spoiled for choice.

One of the lesser-known names on the list was Patrick Standish, the main male character in Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis’s 1960 novel. In his era, of course, Amis was a near-ubiquitous man of letters who wrote novels as well as movie and restaurant reviews, poetry and criticism. He’s not nearly as widely read now, despite the New York Review of Books recently reissuing much of his catalogue. If people know Amis’s work, they tend to know his name-making first novel, 1954’s Lucky Jim, or perhaps The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize in 1986. It’s a shame, because Take a Girl Like You is among his best—a great work of art, deeply moral and wonderfully realized. A lost classic.

Still, to make this argument, I’ve got to spoil it for you, and this is a novel which turns on an essential one-two punch, a lot like that Wilco song, “She’s a Jar,” that you can only hear for the first time once. It’s a funny, sometimes-rapturous love story that ends with a rape.

Jenny Bunn meets Patrick Standish. She’s a virgin and he’s a seasoned, self-aware lothario. They fall in love (“she had a sort of permanent two gin and tonics inside her” while “he had felt the wing of the angel of marriage brush his cheek, and was afraid”). But Jenny still isn’t quite ready to have sex, and Patrick spends several hundred pages trying in vain to seduce her. At last, he breaks up with her at a party, telling her, “We’re finished. Even if you walked in on me naked I wouldn’t touch you.” In despair, Jenny gets super drunk and passes out in a guestroom:
It all faded away. Time went by in the same queer speedless way as before. Then Patrick was with her. He had been there for some minutes or hours when she first realized he was, and again was in bed with her without seeming to have got there. What he did was off by himself and nothing to do with her. All the same, she wanted him to stop, but her movements were all the wrong ones for that and he was kissing her too much for her to try to tell him. She thought he would stop anyway as soon as he realized how much off on his own he was. But he did not, and did not stop, so she put her arms around him and tried to be with him, only there was no way of doing it and nothing to feel. Then there was another interval, after which he told her he loved her and would never leave her now. She said she loved him too, and asked him if it had been nice. He said it had been wonderful, and went on to talk about France.
Their host comes into the room, realizes what Patrick has done, and kicks him out of the house. So maybe it’s perverse, but I feel as though I am in a kind of catbird seat for understanding all this, though it’s true I never bobbed up to consciousness like Jenny Bunn did. In my case, I just woke up the next morning, with no interval of awareness. I helped my friend clean up, drank a cup of coffee, drove home. I didn’t know anything before four o’clock that afternoon, when she called me and told me she’d thought it over. If it had happened to her, she’d decided, she’d want to know. One of those guys got in bed with you, she told me. He’d taken off his pants but didn’t seem to have an erection. He’d only been in there a few minutes. He hadn’t had time to do anything. Anyway, she’d kicked him out of the house. I thanked her for doing that and hung up the phone. I was sitting on my bedroom floor by this point, because my legs had given out for the first time in my life.

On the surface, Take a Girl Like You is a sex comedy, and tellingly, not every contemporary critic believed Jenny’s experience to be rape. In Postwar British Fiction, published in 1962, James Gindin describes the novel’s conclusion this way: “Jenny loses her virginity, but not as a result of moral or immoral suasion; Patrick tricks her into capitulation while drunk” (a view Merritt Moseley would decry in 1993). The 1970 movie adaptation, starring Hayley Mills as Jenny Bunn, portrayed the story as a kind of sexual slapstick, changing the ending so that Jenny chooses to sleep with another character. Then Patrick chases Jenny down a road in what’s meant to be a madcap scene. Cue a breezy theme song by The Foundations, roll credits.

But Kingsley Amis knew that what happens to Jenny is terribly wrong, though the word “rape” is not used, even by Jenny herself. The next morning, she wakes up puking, hungover:
Jenny decided reading would be too much for her. She smoked a cigarette until her insides felt as if they were getting as far away from the middle of her as they could. Then she put it out. But even with that big hollow in her interior she was recovering enough to start getting the first edge of thought. For it to have gone like that, almost without her noticing. At that she rebuked herself, sitting up straight in her chair. What was so special about her that it should have happened the way she imagined it, alone with a man in a country cottage surrounded by beautiful scenery, with the owls suddenly waking her up in the early hours and him putting his arms around her and soothing her, and then in the morning the birds singing and the horses neighing, and her frying eggs and bacon and spreading a wholemeal loaf with thick farm butter? A lot of sentimental rubbish, that was—she would be asking for roses and violins next. Much better be sensible, think herself lucky it had not gone for her as it did for some, sordid and frightening and painful and with someone you hated or hardly knew. That was happening every day.
That’s the crux of the novel, its turning from comic to tragic. Jenny deserves better and she doesn’t get it. In fact she is almost pathetically grateful that she has had it no worse. As light as Amis’s touch is here—Take a Girl Like You is not political, not a polemic—you can’t mistake his grief and revulsion. Amis would later describe Patrick Standish as the worst person he’d ever written about, and this when he made a career of writing about unpleasant people, including Roger Micheldene, the hideous antihero of 1963’s One Fat Englishman. Amis knew he wasn’t writing about any straightforward “capitulation.”

Take a Girl Like You is often compared with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but I say the better foil is Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the subtle, below-surface moral weight of the novel is with the victim—all of it springing from her loss and victimization. The Lolita comparison is, yes, a little ironic because Amis hated Lolita and hated Nabokov. Still, there’s a central likeness. Nabokov did not intend that we should fall for Humbert Humbert’s artsy, tortured rationalization of rape; Amis didn’t intend that Patrick Standish be taken for a sympathetic hero, either. Patrick is charming and funny and fun, even erudite, and he’s also a complete asshole. (As well as raping Jenny, Patrick sleeps with his boss’s 17-year-old daughter.)

You could even argue that Take a Girl Like You is in some senses a subtler and certainly a more realistic portrayal of rape because Jenny is not eye-poppingly young, and there’s no continuous, hysterical fireworks of justification. Amis gives both Jenny’s and Patrick’s perspectives in alternating sections, and Jenny’s experience is as deftly handled as it is, in part, familiar. I read the novel swearing under my breath. Kingsley Amis nailed it.

The natural next question is, how’d he do that? In his lifetime, most especially in his later career, Amis was notorious for his misogyny. As the biographies reveal, he was himself a prolific womanizer who sometimes felt guilty about it and often wrote about that guilt, not least of all in Take a Girl Like You. That’s not necessarily the same thing as being a sexist, repentant or otherwise. The evidence is mixed; you can neither dismiss him as a misogynist nor declare his misogyny merely supposed and perceived, as Paul Fussell did in his 1994 book on Amis, The Anti-Egotist. To hear Fussell tell it, Amis is merely “tired of the automatic imputation of virtue and sensitivity to the female character … Women, Amis knows, can be fully wicked as men. They can lie and cheat and destroy with the best of them.” That’s true and yet not the whole picture. In some of the novels, the women do nothing but lie, cheat and destroy while the men struggle vainly to run the world in spite of this ongoing assault. Is that still satire?

It is, in the case of 1978’s Jake’s Thing, where the crazy women are leavened out with pathetic women and no character, the men included, is in any sense to be admired. You can’t miss the comic brio of its penultimate paragraph:
Jake did a quick run-through of women in his mind, not of the ones he had known or dealt with in the past few months or years so much as all of them: their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that, all according to him.
But 1984’s Stanley and the Women is a bridge too far. There’s just one minor female character who isn’t a complete emotional monster, while every male character is sympathetic. Here the satire, if it still is satire, is as sour, unrelieved, and unrelenting as anything Amis ever wrote. In the U.S., several publishers turned down the book because the women on their boards objected. There’s a nadir in the poetry, too, though the 1987 poem that begins “Women and queers and children / cry when things go wrong” went unpublished and unfinished. In his excellent The Life of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader described the poem as “calculated to cause the maximum possible offense.” (I’d add, without glee, that it’s also a bit rich coming from Amis, who had a paralyzing fear of the dark and couldn’t be left alone.)

Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t separate art from artist here because the offense is the whole point. Still, that convention—holding out the work from the person who made it—is flimsy to begin with. It presents a false choice. In the end, we don’t really get to choose between great works and flawed people. We get both. As Christopher Hitchens wrote of H.L. Mencken: “He had very grievous moral and intellectual shortcomings and even deformities … But any reductionist analysis of Mencken runs the risk of ignoring a fine mind that engaged itself in some high duties.”

It’s an uneasy position for this Amis fan. But what’s the alternative, not reading him at all? I love his work. Even in the minor novels, the ones that don’t quite come off, there’s always, always the intelligence, the bite in the closely observed details and those trademark Amis sentences that are wonderfully precise and yet never pretentious, never overwrought. My copies of his books are dog-eared and misshapen from repeated drops in the bath. I’m always in some stage of rereading The Old Devils, and I keep multiple copies of 1990’s The Folks That Live on the Hill because I’m always pushing it on friends. About the time I was at risk of rape at that party in 2003, I was working my way through everything Amis ever wrote, because my college library had every title. I have never encountered that happy condition since, and it almost makes me wish I’d never left school. Maybe you’re not supposed to have a favorite writer—maybe he shouldn’t be my favorite writer—but Kingsley Amis is my favorite writer.

That Amis remains a complex figure is fitting, full stop. There remains something akin to the “problem from hell” that Martin Amis identifies in Nabokov’s work. In the case of Amis senior, it is not a recurring preoccupation with the “despoiliation of very young girls”; it’s a recurring, vigorous anti-woman streak that does not at all preclude him from seeing what women sometimes suffer at the hands of men. In 1969’s The Green Man, for instance, the narrator labors to banish the ghost of a long-ago rapist. And Amis’s 1976 alternate-world novel The Alteration, as William Gibson has written, “depicts the oppression of patriarchy, given full reign by theocracy, as thoroughly as any novel prior to, say, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”

To dismiss Amis as a misogynist would be an attempt to resolve the sort of frustrated justice he himself depicted over and over again. Great works, flawed people. The facts do not really compute.

I never saw that guy, the one who got in bed with me, ever again. I got up off the floor and moved on with my life because it did not occur to me that there was a choice. I did not consider calling the police, not for a second. I was too embarrassed as it was, and in my gut I know that if I had been raped that night, I wouldn’t have reported it. Imagine saying to the police: I’d just been dumped. I was very drunk. I was wearing this napkin of a dress. I don’t remember it. Dear God. Even now. I didn’t even say #MeToo last fall when the hashtag was trending because I didn’t want to have to explain anything to anyone. Also because I didn’t think of it as anything special. Also because it wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me. The breakup hurt me much worse, and for longer. For me, “trauma” doesn’t seem like the right word; whatever happened to me that night I just took as part of the fabric of experience. Why make a fuss, and open myself to judgement and blame? Wouldn’t I have to be a purer victim for it be really wrong in the eyes of our culture?

This points to the ultimate triumph of Amis’s Jenny—his sense of the full scope of her predicament. Jenny not only moves on with her life; she makes up with Patrick. In the last lines of the novel, Patrick says, “It was inevitable,” and Jenny responds, “Oh yes, I expect it was. But I can’t help feeling it’s rather a pity.” In the sequel, 1988’s Difficulties with Girls, Jenny and Patrick are married, have been married eight years as the novel begins. The rape has receded from view, becoming just another part of the knit of Jenny’s experience, and in this way, I’m convinced, Amis brings our dilemma into focus as few other novelists ever have.

The question that #MeToo is answering is, in part: What do we do with these experiences? How do we describe them and how do we integrate them into our lives, and why have we tried to integrate them? How have we been encouraged to erase them? Shouldn’t we hold them apart? What exact behavior becomes legible here, and who benefits when we keep our mouths shut? Almost 70 years after Take a Girl Like You, we’re having that public conversation. Amis was there in 1960. Rereading it and the rest of his catalogue over the last couple of months, I’ve come to see again the particular wingspan of his accomplishments as a writer. The range of the novels, the humor and precision in the poems. All that lively, fun, cutting intellectual energy put to such wonderful use—most of the time. If we’re left with irreducible ambiguities (and indefensible shit like “women and queers and children”), well, at least we get the art, too.

As Amis knew, misogyny and rape don’t take place at some great remove from art and life. They’re part of an ambient hum that drifts in and out of our consciousness, moving from background to foreground and back again. Then as now, that’s the awful problem.

Edgar Allan Poe Was a Broke-Ass Freelancer

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A lot of fans know Edgar Allan Poe earned just $9 for “The Raven,” now one of the most popular poems of all time, read out loud by schoolteachers the world over. What most people don’t know is that, for his entire oeuvre—all his fiction, poetry, criticism, lectures—Poe earned only about $6,200 in his lifetime, or approximately $191,087 adjusted for inflation.

Maybe $191,087 seems like a lot of money. And sure, as book advances go, that’d be a generous one, the kind that fellow writers would whisper about. But what if $191,087 was all you got for 20 years of work and the stuff you wrote happened to be among the most enduring literature ever produced by anyone anywhere?

In one sense, there could not be a more searing indictment of the supposed rewards of the writing life: how, whether we’re geniuses like Poe or not, we suffer and rewrite and yet never realize anything even kind of approaching a commensurate value.

In another sense, there’s hope for us all.

Last October, in the depths of a depression so profound and overwhelming that I had to take mental-health leave from work, I started rereading Poe for the first time since I was a kid. And something happened: I encountered a writer completely different from the one I thought I knew.

It turned out Poe was not a mysterious, mad genius. He was actually a lot like my writer-friends, with whom I constantly exchange emails bitching about the perversities of our trade—the struggle to break in, the late and sometimes nonexistent payments, the occasional stolen pitch. In short, I realized that Poe was, for a good portion of his career, a broke-ass freelancer. Also, that our much-vaunted gig economy isn’t the new development it’s so often taken to be.

Poe’s short stories weren’t the adventure-horror tales I remembered, either. They turned out to be exquisitely wrought metaphors for despair. In “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the narrator, finding himself just about to be sucked into a whirlpool, says, “It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge—some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.” I read the line and laughed in recognition. That was 2016 for me, in a sentence. Call it a most immemorial year.

I didn’t know it then, but reevaluating Poe is, in fact, a time-honored tradition. Every generation discovers its own Poe; in the 168 years since his death, the hot takes have just kept coming. R.W.B. Lewis described the phenomenon this way in 1980: “One of the important recurring games of American literary history has been that of revising the received human image of Edgar Allan Poe.”

There are obvious and less obvious reasons for this continual reevaluation. For starters, Poe’s earliest biographies—some of them based on inaccurate information Poe himself provided—needed correcting in a literal sense. Poe’s literary executor Rufus W. Griswold, for whatever reason, forged letters and deliberately torpedoed Poe’s reputation. The inaccuracies and falsehoods weren’t cleared up until almost 100 years after Poe’s death, with Arthur Hobson Quinn’s 1941 biography.

Another reason is, well, I’m not the only person to read Poe as a child and again as an adult and to be struck by the differences. In his magnificent Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, published in 1971, Daniel Hoffman writes, “I really began to read Poe when just emerging from childhood. Then one was entranced by such ideas as secret codes, hypnotism, closed systems of self-consistent thought.” Later, Hoffman says, “Returning to the loci of these pubescent shocks and thrills…I found that there was often a complexity of implication, a plumbing of the abyss of human nature.” Ditto.

You never enter the same Poe whirlpool twice. Much of his work has a purposeful, built-in double nature; he intended we discover “secret codes” of meaning. While Poe despised facile parables, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1842, he allowed, “Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious meaning in a very profound under-current, so as to never interfere with the upper one without our own volition,” such schemes are permissible.

This points to the other important, less acknowledged, double nature of Poe’s work. It’s both art and commercial entertainment. Few other American writers so obviously and continually straddle the gap between high and low culture, between art for art’s sake and commercial enterprise.

Which is why the Poe reevaluation game isn’t just played by academics and highbrows—including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate, Jacques Barzun, and Vladimir Nabokov. Poe is pop, too. The Simpsons, Britney Spears, Roger Corman, an NFL team and romance novelists have all joined in the game. The Beatles put Poe in the top row, eighth from the left, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, just slightly removed from W.C. Fields and Marilyn Monroe.

I think if Poe hadn’t had to write for money, he’d probably have faded away long ago.

Picture this: A tech breakthrough has made mass publishing cheaper than ever before. With the cost of entry down, new publications launch with much high-flown talk about how they’ll revolutionize journalism, only to shut their doors a few years or even months later. Because the industry is so unstable, editors and writers are caught in a revolving door of hirings, firings, and layoffs. A handful of the players become rich and famous, but few of them are freelance writers, for whom rates remain scandalously low. Though some publications pay contributors on a sliding scale according to the popularity of their work, it’s mostly the case that writers don’t earn a penny more than their original fee even when their work goes viral.

I’m speaking of Poe’s time, not our own. Still, I expect some of this will sound familiar. Pretty much the only piece missing is a pivot to video.

Here’s something else that might sound familiar. Poe grew up writing moony, ponderous poetry and dreaming of literary stardom. Surely, he figured, the world would recognize his genius—the critics would rave, the angels would sing!

The problem was he had no trust fund, no private means. Poe had been more or less disowned by his wealthy adoptive father John Allan, who would eventually leave Poe out of his will altogether. All of this meant, then as now, that Poe had to compromise his cherished ideals and buckle down to the realities of the marketplace.

He would hold a series of short-lived and ill-paid editorial jobs, beginning with the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Graham’s Magazine, and, finally, the New York Evening Mirror and the Broadway Journal. In between and after these jobs, he’d be what John Ward Ostrom called a “literary entrepreneur,” i.e., a broke-ass freelancer.

As Michael Allen laid out in 1969’s Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, the story of Poe’s career is in large part the story of a writer struggling to adapt to the demands of a mass audience. His earliest literary friends and mentors had “turned him to drudging upon whatever may make money” (John Pendleton Kennedy) and advised him to “lower himself a little to the ordinary comprehension of the generality of readers” (James Kirke Paulding).

Meanwhile the stakes were as high as stakes go. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that if Poe didn’t write pieces he could sell, he and his family didn’t eat. Poe’s one-time boss George Graham described him wandering “from publisher to publisher, with his print-like manuscript, scrupulously clean and neatly rolled” yet finding “no market for his brain” and “with despair at heart, misery ahead for himself and his loved ones, and gaunt famine dogging at his heel.”

At one point, when Poe was ill, his mother-in-law and aunt Maria Clemm was forced to do all this on Poe’s behalf: “Going about from place to place, in the bitter weather, half-starved and thinly clad, with a poem or some other literary article she was striving to sell…begging for him and his poor partner, both being in want of the commonest necessities of life.” I’ve heard some freelance horror stories in my time, but this one takes the Palme d’Or.

Even when Poe did manage to sell his literary wares, he didn’t earn very much, as this chart I assembled shows. Over time, he did his fitful best to make his art commercial; he simplified his language and tried his hand at popular forms. Some of these experiments worked and some didn’t. Poe still wrote “in a style too much above the popular level to be well paid,” as his editor-friend N.P. Willis put it.

Why? The usual reasons, as I see it. A writer’s heart wants what it wants. It’s not at all a simple matter to ditch the obsessions that drive you to write to begin with, and it’s hard to change your natural register, no matter that commonplace comment in MFA programs, Maybe I’ll just write a romance novel for money. If it really were so easy to write popular stuff, wouldn’t we all be churning out viral articles and paying the rent with royalties from our bestselling YA werewolf romances? In between writing prose that makes the Nobel people tremble, I mean.

Year Published
Original Payment
Approx. Amount in 2017 Dollars


“The Haunted Palace”

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

“The Man of the Crowd”

“The Masque of the Red Death”

“The Pit and the “Pendulum”

“The Tell-Tale Heart”

“The Black Cat”

“The Raven”

“The Cask of Amontillado”


“Annabel Lee”

Sources: “Edgar A. Poe: His Income as a Literary Entrepreneur” and
So, where exactly does the hope come in?
It’s true Poe’s unending financial problems did not make his life happier or longer and likely constrained some of his writerly impulses. Catering to the market was hardly his first choice, and he remained ambivalent about writing for an audience and magazines he sometimes saw as beneath him. “The poem which I enclose,” Poe wrote to his friend Willis in 1849, “has just been published in a paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It pays well as times go—but unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices; for whatever I send it feel I am consigning to the tomb of the Capulets.”
Then, of course, there were other people’s feelings. Poe’s attempt to adapt to the market did not go unpunished in his own day. “Hints to Authors,” a semi-veiled takedown, was first published anonymously in a Philadelphia paper in 1844: “Popular taste is sometimes monstrous in character…judging by the works and mind of its chief and almost only follower on this side of the Atlantic, it is a pure art, almost mechanical—requiring neither genius, taste, wit nor judgement—and accessible to every contemptible mountebank.”
And the commercial stink has never quite worn off. It seems to be among the reasons Henry James and Aldous Huxley—who likened Poe’s poetic meter to a bad perm—criticized him so harshly. Marilynne Robinson has noted how “virtually everything” Poe wrote was for money: “This is not exceptional among writers anywhere, though in the case of Poe it is often treated as if his having done so were disreputable.”
Yet commercial pressure arguably pushed Poe in the direction that saw him write some of the most lasting work in American history—even world history. I can only speculate, of course, but I think that if Poe had had his druthers, he’d have gone on with the pretentious poetry and abstruse dramas he initially favored. I seriously doubt we’d still be reading him now. Just try pushing through “Al Araraaf.” It’s like sitting down to a lengthy phone call with an elderly relative. You love this person, but it’s a chore.
We tend to view popular success with a skeptical eye, just as many did in Poe’s day. We tend to think of commercial pressure as corrupting. What if it can be also a positive, transformative force? Certainly, the ability to speak to millions of people across 17 decades is not a bad thing. It’s a real-life superpower. We should all be so lucky.

On that point, consider how conditions for freelancers and other writers have improved since Poe’s time. As Tyler Cowen relates in In Praise of Commercial Culture, today more people than ever receive basic education. Vastly more people receive higher education. The cost of art materials has fallen tremendously (think of the price of video equipment just 30 years ago compared to today). And you no longer have to go to a particular concert hall or museum to access art; you can just Google. By comparison, Poe’s couple of decades as working writer really sucked.
So yeah, hope. When I first cracked back into Poe last October, my therapist begged, “Please stop reading him. He’s too depressing.” But my experience of reading Poe and other writers on Poe the last 11 months has been the opposite of depressing. It helped me climb out of a very deep hole.
In the end, Poe only pocketed $191,087, but he did get the immortal fame he grew up dreaming of. And I got taken, blessedly, outside myself. If the past is anything to go by, what lies ahead is not destruction. It just might be the stuff of our wildest dreams.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.