When I was twelve, I had pneumonia, complicated by a bad case of strep. I wasn’t hospitalized, but I was confined to my room to keep me from causing havoc among my sibs. My mother heroically ferried chicken soup and ice cream from downstairs. Other than that, I was pretty much on my own-for two weeks. Luckily, we had a complete set of Mark Twain, and a complete set of Edgar Allan Poe. My mom deposited them in my room in a couple of tall piles, and they made me what I am today.
From Twain I learned about character and narrative structure. And humor. Poe didn’t have a lot of that. But from Poe I learned about language. The beauty of Poe’s language still shines-I defy anyone to find a story more perfect in rhythm, cadence, and sound, sentence by sentence, than “The Tell-Tale Heart.” (Twain’s language, of course, is also gorgeous, but more subtle. I was twelve. I didn’t want subtle. I wanted my socks knocked off.) And I also found in Poe something less tangible, but which resonated with me and still does: inevitability, and the laughable nature of human intention.
This thread runs all through Poe’s work-for example, in poems like “Conqueror Worm”-including the above-mentioned “Tell-Tale Heart.” It’s not the still-beating heart of the dead man that gives the killer away, after all; it’s his own fearful, guilty heart that does. But the example I remember most vividly is “The Masque of the Red Death.” In the middle of a plague, an array of wealthy citizens lock themselves away and throw a party, a big masked ball. The danger outside doesn’t matter; they congratulate one another on how cleverly they’ve isolated themselves from it. Except, of course, they haven’t. They’ve made it worse. One of the “guests,” dressed as the Red Death (everyone laughs and applauds, he’s so-o-o-o amusing), really is the Red Death. And far from being locked away from him, they’re locked in with him. He dances with them all, and they all die.
This is “the best laid plans / gang aft agley,” this is “man proposes, God disposes.” It ain’t news. But it was to me, at twelve. Or, no, it wasn’t. It was better than that. It was the first time someone had said, out loud as it were, something I’d suspected but, as a member of a rational, hardworking, optimistic family and society, not been allowed to think. It’s what much, much later, in a review of the movie Chinatown , I saw referred to as “the disastrous consequences of good intentions.” Was I a bleak twelve-year-old? Sure I was. But I had always been like that. What reading Poe for two solid weeks gave me was the relief of knowing I wasn’t alone. I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to a writer than I did to Poe those two weeks.
But I was luckier than Poe. I had Mark Twain, right beside us, showing at least one of us how to laugh despite, or at, it all.
Bless both their beating hearts.