Friday, January 19, 2018

Edgar Allan Poe and the Birth of Popular Literature Genres

Edgar Allan Poe in rare deguerotype.


He may be the most influential American writer ever.  He is certainly among the most widely read.  More than two hundred years after the birth of Edgar Allan Poe on January 19, 1802 he is easily the most widely read writer of the 19th  Century, and not by just captive college students but by ordinary readers who continue to plunk down hard money for collections of his stories and poems.  

He is credited with inventing the modern detective story.  In The Murders in the Rue Morgue his hero, C. Auguste Dupin was a brilliant eccentric who undertook the investigation of the grisly and baffling murders of a woman and her daughter after reading newspaper account. He had a tenuous, testy relationship with the police but worked as an outsider. The story of his investigation was narrated by an unnamed friend and associate.  Dupin used keen powers of observation and deductive reasoning to unravel the case.  He also used crude forensic evidence—a hair found at the crime scene that proved to be nonhuman.  He revealed his final, shocking conclusion and then explained to the exasperated Prefect of Police his methodology in uncovering the truth.  This set the pattern for detectives like Sherlock Homes, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, and Spenser.  In recognition of Poe’s importance, the Mystery Writers of America named their annual prizes the Edgar Awards.
Poe's stories like The Murders in the Rue Morgue have lent themselves to comic books and graphic novels.  Many of my generation first encountered him in Classics Illustrated comics like this.

Poe is even more famous for his horror stories.  These, too, were an innovative breakthrough that invented a genre.  His were not just tales of monsters or ghosts told around a campfire.  His horror was psychological, the creation of the human mind as in The Tell Tale Heart.

And his work presaged and influenced the development of science fiction.  His famous hoax The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall, which he wrote for the Southern Messenger in 1835, fooled the people of New York City when he reprinted in a newspaper there nearly a decade later.  It was about crossing the Atlantic in a balloon.   Several of his other stories also had elements of science fiction which were picked up Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs among others.

All of these are “only popular genres.”  You can almost hear the serious professors sneer the words, “not serious literature.”  But in creating these tales for the infant medium of the popular magazine, he also helped create the modern short story as a distinct form.  Now that magazines are disappearing and short stories only get printed obscure literary journals, the guardians of our culture revere the form and wring their hands at its tenuous survival.

Poe is surrounded by images from his most famous work in this stunning illustration by Fransisco Francavilla.

And then there are the poemsPeople who do not read poetry—almost everyone—know and love The Raven, Annabelle Lee, and The Bells.  America was awash with poets—many great ones—but no one was writing with such power, such lyricism, and such groundbreaking unconventionality.  Despite their strong rhythms and rhymes they seem more modern and accessible than lofty sentiments by William Cullen Bryant or James Russell Lowell.

Of course Poe’s enduring popularity owes a great deal to his image as the tortured soul who married his teen age cousin and lost her to consumption, drowned his sorrows in brandy and perhaps opium, and died penniless in Baltimore after being found insensible in a saloon at the age of only 40.  Books, plays, and films have been made celebrating that persona.

His physical image is as recognizable as any movie star.  Only a handful of photographs were taken in his life.  The most iconic, taken within a couple of years of his death, shows a handsome, if dissolute man, with dark flowing hair, high forehead, a neat mustache, intense dark eyes with bags below hinting at a night of excess before the sitting. It decorates posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and mouse pads.
Just one of hundreds of items available graced with Poe's iconic visage.

How can heavy weights like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, or even handsome Nathaniel Hawthorne compete with that?

Yet Moby Dick routinely tops lists of important books that no one reads, while even pimply-faced, basement dwelling, gamers of the supposed dumbest-generation-ever have read and loved Poe.  Oh, the injustice!

Ironically, Poe may have even invented one form a prose that the literati worship—textual criticism.  Beginning with his tenure as editor of the Southern Messenger and continuing as he tried to cobble together a meager income as one of America’s first free-lance writers, he wrote hundreds of columns of literary criticism.  He was among the first, if not the first, to focus primarily on the effect of style and structure in a literary work and to analyze symbolism.  He could also be very harsh and personal in his attacks on authors whose work offended him.  That included many members of the established, mostly New England based elite.  He famously savaged Nathaniel Hawthorne among others.  Of course, when he was writing for a predominately Southern audience, this went over well.  It proved less popular as he placed pieces in New York, Philadelphia, and other Northern publications.

One of the men he offended got his revenge.  Rufus Griswold was then a well-known writer, editor, and anthologist.  Poe ripped him a new one.  As soon as he got word of Poe’s death in Baltimore, Griswold rushed to be the first to print an obituary in New York.  He painted Poe as a maniac drunkard, practitioner of incest, and literary fraud.  He quickly followed up with a biography elaborating his charges.  The book sold well and cemented Poe’s public image.

But if Griswold thought his character assassination piece would bury Poe’s reputation and work, he was mistaken.  Instead, the country grew more fascinated by himPosthumous sales of all of his works soared.  Just like James Dean or Jim Morrison, it seems that even back then there was a taste for wild, romantic, talented, tragic bad boys who died young.

The official Poe Museum web site argues that while Poe did drink and battled depression, Griswold’s characterization was a wild exaggeration.  Perhaps so.  It even says that his sordid and lonely death attributed at the time to congestion of the brain and long assumed to be caused by either alcohol poisoning or advanced cirrhosis of the liver, may actually have been caused by rabies.  Who knows?
Roses and brandy left at Edgar Allan Poe's Baltimore grave for the 58th year in 2007

But we do know that for many years a woman bundled in black and heavily veiled came annually to Poe’s grave and left roses and brandy.  It was an annual newspaper story for decades.  And every time it happened, libraries and books stores experienced a run on Poe.

Anyway, here is a sample of what some of the excitement was about.

Annabel Lee


It was many and many a year ago,
   In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
   By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
   Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
   In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
   I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
   Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
   My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
   And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
   In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
   Went envying her and me--
Yes!--that was the reason (as all men know,
   In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
   Of those who were older than we--
   Of many far wiser than we--
And neither the angels in heaven above,
   Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea,
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.


             --Edgar Allan Poe  

Thursday, January 18, 2018

When a Druid Doctor Burned Jesus Christ

Dr. William Price in full Druid regalia.


On January 18, 1884 an old man with white beard nearly to his knees and dressed in green clothing, a red sash, and a fox fur draped across his head, ascended a mountain overlooking the Welch town of Llantrisant.  Muttering invocations in a form of “ancient Welsh” of his own invention, he lit a pyre and laid the body of his five-month-old son, Iesu Grist, Welsh for Jesus Christ.  Townspeople investigating the fire fell upon the old man in a rage and pulled the unconsumed body of the infant from the flames.
Dr. William Price had to be rescued from the mob by the local constabulary who promptly charged the old man with the illegal disposal of a corpse under the assumption that cremation, long banned by Church tradition which held a belief in bodily resurrection on Judgment Day, was illegal.  He escaped a charge of infanticide when an autopsy showed that the boy died of natural causes.  
Dr. Price attempting to cremate his son Iesu Grist.  His arrest and highly publisized court case would pave the way for full recognition, legalization, and regulation of cremation in Great Britain.
Price was brought to trial at Cardiff before the riveted attention of the British press.  Price argued that there were no statutes that either sanctioned or forbad cremation.  It turned out he was right.  The judge was forced to free him.  Price returned to Llantrisant and before a crowd of hundreds of supporters, completed the cremation.  He erected a 60 foot high pole surmounted by a crescent moon on the site and declared his intention to be burned there in his own time.
There was already a small movement to permit cremation in Britain based on various religious beliefs, and for reasons of sanitation.  The new Cremation Society of Great Britain saw the ruling as precedent.  They promoted cremations at Working in 1885 and encouraged the founding of the first British crematorium at Manchester in 1892.  But it was not until the Parliamentary Cremation Act of 1902 that the practice gained the full sanction and regulation of law.
For his part, Dr. Price enjoyed the national celebrity the case bestowed upon him and took advantage of it by selling medallions and religious tracts promoting his Neo-Druid sect and the Welsh nationalism he had long embraced.
But the case was just one episode in the long life of a man described as “both one of the most colourful characters in Welsh history, and one of the most remarkable in Victorian Britain.”
Price was born in a cottage at Tyn-y-coedcae Farm (The House in the Wooded Field) in Risca, Monmouthshire, Wales on March 4, 1800.  His father was an Anglican priest and his mother had been an illiterate servant girl—a scandalous marriage across class lines.  The first surviving son and fourth child, he was raised in a Welch speaking home and knew no English until he began his formal schooling.  His father was a Welch nationalist and by local accounts quite mad, often speaking to trees, spitting on stones, and apt to fits of violence.
Young William attended school in nearby Machen from the ages of 10 in 13.  He proved to be a brilliant student and not only mastered English but completed his course work in only three years and successfully passed his examinations.  In defiance of his father, who wanted his son to be a solicitor, the boy apprenticed himself to successful surgeon, Evan Edwards, at Caerphilly in south Wales.  
William Price in 1822 as a medical student.
Completing his apprenticeship in 1820, Price entered the London Hospital in Whitechapel for a year of instruction under Sir William Blizard and then at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital studying with surgeon John Abernethy.  He found private employment caring for wealthy patients to finance his studies.  By 1823 he had earned his place in the Royal College of Surgeons.
Despite being tempted to go to India, Price decided to return to Wales and set himself up as a general practitioner.  For seven years he practiced at Craig yr Helfa in Glyntaff and rented a nearby farm on which he raised goats.  But some sort of trouble arose and he was evicted from the farm.
While maintaining his Glyntaff practice, Price moved to the industrialized Taff Valley near to Pontypridd.  Serving the working people there, he was elected in 1823 as chief surgeon at the Brown Lenox Chainworks, a job he kept—with as we will see some interruptions—1871.  He also became a private physician to the wealthy Crawshaw family who owned the ironworks at Merthyr and Treforest.
The Crawshaws were ardent Welsh nationalists and helped Price renew his interest in Welsh culture and identity.  He began to be noticed in nationalist circles when he delivered an impassioned address at the Royal Eisteddfod, a Welsh festival of literature, music and performance, in 1834 and became judge of the annual bardic competition at the Eisteddfod.  He awarded a prize to Taliesin, the son of the famous Welsh nationalist and Druid, Iolo Morganwg, perhaps sparking his interest in the religion of the ancient Celts.
He joined the Society of the Rocking Stone, a Neo-Druidic group that met at the Y Maen Chwyf stone circle in Pontypridd, and by 1837 had become one of its leading members.  He also began the first of repeated efforts to establish a Druidic museum of in the town.
At the same time his close association with the workers and the time he spent in Treforest, a hot bed of working class radicalism, drew him into the Chartist Movement.  Although the movement’s goals of electoral reform and one man, one vote seem mild in retrospect, to the national Tory establishment it was considered revolutionary and anarchical.  Welsh workers were among the most militant in the nationwide movement and many were convinced that it would take armed revolution to achieve their ends.
Price joined the movement and rapidly rose in local leadership.  Price sided with the revolutionaries and began helping them amass arms for the day of insurrection.  By 1839 he had secured seven pieces of field artillery and assorted small arms.  Despite his militancy, Price feared that a planned march on Newport was premature and sure to be crushed by the Army.  He and his followers stayed away from what became known as the Newport Rising and the bloody battle with the Army that left more than 20 workers dead and 50 wounded.  In the aftermath scores of Chartist leaders were arrested and 24 were put on trial for their lives

Although an active Welsh Chartist leader, Dr. Price feared the march on Newport was premature and doomed.  He and his group sat out the attack but in its wake he still had to flee the country.
Rightly figuring that he was in danger, Price fled the country disguised in women’s clothing.  He wound up in the traditional European home of political exiles, Paris.   It was there while visiting the Louvre that he had a religious epiphany and a vision which has been compared to that of Joseph Smith and the Gold Tablets of Mormonism.  He became fixated with an ancient Greek stone with an inscription which he believed depicted and ancient Celtic bard addressing the Moon.  That no one else shared this insight did not bother him in the least.  In fact he intuited a whole story from the stone that it represented prophecy given by an ancient Welsh prince named Alun, that a man would come in the future to reveal the true secrets of the Welsh language and to liberate the Welsh people.  Price was sure that he was that liberator.
When it was safe, Price returned to Pontypridd and set himself up as a chief Druid.  Charismatic, he drew a following.  He began to grow his hair and beard and took to wearing special costumes both in daily life and at the rituals he led at Rocking Stone.  He carried a long staff surmounted by a crescent moon.  Many of his followers carried elaborately carved sticks and staffs as well.
After declaring that marriage was an illegitimate exploitation of women that reduced them to chattel, Price took as a partner Ann Morgan who presented him with a daughter in 1842.  At a Rocking Stone ritual he named the girl Gwenhiolan Iarlles Morganwg (Gwenhiolan, Countess of Glamorgan).
As time went by his vision became more grandiose.  He allied himself with the Order of True Ivorites, a so-called Friendly Society, which conducted all of its business in Welsh and which fostered working class solidarity and mutual aid.  In place where trade unions were suppressed the secret society gave them cover under which to operate.  In 1855 Price then led a parade of the Ivorites, through the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, accompanied by a half-naked man calling himself Myrddin (Merlin) and a goat.
Price resurrected his dream of a Druid museum and school and secured the patronage of a local landowner.  But he had a falling out with the patron and the scheme once again fell through, this time leaving Price heavily in debt.  Once again he fled to Paris in 1861.
While in the City of Life, he began to send letters to the Welsh and English press with new claims.  He proclaimed himself Lord of the Southern Welsh.  He also made claims that “All the Greek Books are the Works of the Primitive Bards, in our own Language!!!!!!!… Homer was born in the hamlet of Y Van near Caerphili. He built Caerphili Castle… the oldest Books of the Chinese confess the fact!!”  Then, as now, writing with extraneous exclamation marks was considered a sign of mental instability.
Yet Price pressed on.  Upon returning to Wales in 1866 he settled in Llantrisan opening a new medical practice which thrived despite his eccentricities. By this time Ann Morgan had died and his daughter Gwenhiolan had grown up and was living an independent life.  
He began work on a master opus, in what he claimed was the pure and original form of Welch, from which the Greeks learned.  It was an invented dialect that no one but he and his most devoted followers could read.  The Will of My Father, Price described the universe being created out of a snake’s egg by a supreme Father God.  Perhaps this recalled one of his own father’s many eccentricities—collecting and carrying small snakes by the pocketful on his wild roaming.
The book, which no one could read, was published in 1871 and sank into almost immediate obscurity.
Dr. Price with his young wife Gwenllian Llewelyn and their two surviving children, Penelopen and the second Iesu Grist.
In 1881 the now elderly Price with his famous long beard took a new partner, a 21 year old farmer’s daughter named Gwenllian Llewelyn.  Despite his previous declarations against marriage, he wed her in a Druidic ceremony on March 4, 1881.   In 1883 Gwenllian gave Price the ill-fated son who died after only five weeks of life.  Together they would have two more children, including a second Jesus Christ and a daughter Penelopen.
Price died on January 23, 1893 after drinking a final glass of Champaign.  On January 31 10,000 people gathered to watch him be laid on a pyre of two tons of coal beside the spot where his son was burned.  By all accounts it was a spectacular sight.
Gwenllian abandoned Druidism, married the road inspector for the local Council, was baptized Christian, and changed her son’s name to Nicholas.
The statue of Dr. William Price in Llantrisant
Today Price is a kind of folk hero in Wales.   A statue of him adorns his longtime home of Llantrisant in 1982, depicting the doctor in his characteristic fox-skin headdress, arms outstretched in an odd Christ like pose.