For a writer obsessed with the "grotesque and arabesque," Edgar Allan Poe has had a remarkably broad impact. The fungi surrounding the House of Usher have grown into other fields, covering everthing from Decadent poetry to existential philosophy. Poe's shadow looms over detective stories, mainstream Southern fiction, and even (according to both Debussy and Ravel) impressionist music.
Despite his thematic influence, Poe's hallucinatory and hyperbolic style has been peculiarly resistant to imitation, though many writers, especially writers of supernatural horror stories, have become hopelessly addicted to Poe-like adjectives and images.
The most recent, conscious and full-blown attempt to emulate Poe is Bernhardt J. Hurwood's "My Savage Muse," an experiment in fictional autobiography which combines fragments of Poe's fiction, poetry and letters with an overll simulation of his prose style. Recounting the familiar downbeat material from Poe's biography -- his desolate childhood, his failure at West Point, his struggles with poverty and alcoholism, his helpless watching of his mother and young wife dying of consumption, his exploitation by unscrupulous editors -- Hurwood tries to infuse new life into the Poe legend by writing it as a first-person novel.
There is no doubt that Hurwood has done his homework. His scrupulously researched pastiche, with its piling up of words such as "demon-haunted," "purloined" and "ululating," is a veritable handbook of Poe terminology. The problem is that without Poe's trancelike rhythms, without what Poe himself called the total esthetic "effect," the words by themselves are perilously close to cliche. When Hurwood's Poe persona whines about "the burdens of my tortured soul," or "the cacaphonous melange of emotions welling within me," when he finds himself "uttering a ululating scream of incoherent anguish" or deploring the "vortex of thoughtless folly into which I soon so rashly plunged," he doesn't sound like Poe at all but like a rather unkind parody of Poe.
"My Savage Muse" is an example of what Gore Vidal once called "plastic fiction." Instead of subtlety, atmosphere, and a sense of place, we get names, dates, data, footnotes (both at the bottoms of chapters and ends of chapters) and gratingly unmusical imitations of one of America's most musical writers. The problem can be pinpointed most readily in Hurwood's tampering with passages taken directly from Poe and interwoven into the text. Here, for example, is Hurwood's variation on Poe's moving account of his wife's death: "Each time I felt the agonies of her death, and at each reappearance of the disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her with greater desperation. But I am constitutionally extremely sensitive, nervous in a very unusual degree."
Here now is the original, from a letter Poe wrote to an admirer in 1848: "Each time I felt all the agonies of her death -- and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive -- nervous in a very unusual degree." If Hurwood insists on using the letter at all, one wonders why he doesn't simply lift it verbatim: the substitutions of "reappearance" for "accession" and "desperaton" for "pertinacity" merely dilute the passage, but the addition of "extremely" ruins it altogether. The adjective is not only superfluous, it destroys the rhythm of the sentence. Since turgid adjectives are precisely what Poe's detractors have accused him of perpetrating (T. S. Eliot once sneered that the only reason the French liked Poe was that Baudelaire's translation was an improvement over the original), one wonders which side Hurwood is on.
The truth is that Poe was a precise writer, whose language was unerrinly in touch with every nuance of mental anguish, from depression to breakdown, and who usually managed to invent an utterly original image -- Roderick Usher's abstract paintings of white subterranean tunnels, for example -- to visualize that anguish for his readers. Poe's imagery, as D. H. Lawrence recognized more than 50 years ago, was not just Gothic embellishment but the symbolic language of "an adventurer into vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul." In view of the originality of Poe's psychological insight, it is depressing to see Hurwood recyle all the familiar Freudian cliches about his life. One of the book's many footnotes, for example, offers this memorable psychoanalytic interpretation of Poe's early infatuation with Myra Royster: "This mention of passion and apprehension is a clear example of Poe's unconscious fear of a sexual relationship." Surely Poe, who hated banality and didacticism above all things, would have been even more depressed and hysterical than he is depicted here had he known what the psycho-biographers had in store for him.