‘The Annotated Poe’ Is So Thoroughly Poe

Kevin J. Hayes' thorough analysis includes backgrounds on when and where each poem was first published, its contemporary reception, and critical assessments since.

In his exhaustively researched and lavishly illustrated The Annotated Poe, Kevin J. Hayes makes good on his promise to “reveal the extraordinary complexity of Poe’s work” and “give a sense of the great range and diversity of Poe’s achievement”.

Appropriately enough, Hayes’ book is a little like an Edgar Allan Poe character. In keeping with Poe’s penchant for alter egos and bifurcated selves, William Giraldi’s breathless, hyperbolic foreword—“Edgar Poe was the saddest writer who ever lived”—contrasts sharply with Hayes’ measured, scholarly introduction—“As a pioneer in the short story, he influenced all practitioners of the form who came after him.” Together, they start off the collection by marking the polar boundaries of style in the immense corpus of Poe criticism.

Let’s use Poe’s own vocabulary and call them the poetic and the mathematical—the complementary characteristics of C. Auguste Dupin, hero of three of Poe’s tales of “ratiocination” and the first detective in fiction. These twin traditions find ample representation throughout The Annotated Poe. Take Daniel Hoffman’s personal assessment of the work in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, or Jacques Lacan’s opaquely clinical “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”.

They are both here, and hundreds of others: reviewers, critics, friends, admirers, detractors. Poets and fiction writers include Richard Wilbur, W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Jorge Luis Borges. Hayes packs them all in, along with quite a bit of his own sleuthing—especially in the service of tracking down the origins of Poe’s many quotations and epigraphs, as well as his unacknowledged borrowings.

Notes are in red and appear in the book’s ample margins. Hayes offers a headnote for each tale and poem, including background on when and where it was first published, on its contemporary reception, and on critical assessments since. An appendix thumbnails the publication histories of all the works included in the book.

Some of the most memorable notes in The Annotated Poe are trivia and anecdotes. According to Thomas Ollive Mabbott (whose edition of Poe’s collected works serves as the basis for Hayes’), in Poe’s era Berenice was pronounced to rhyme with “very spicey”. D. H. Lawrence thought that Ligeia’s eyelashes as described “sounded like the lashes of a whip”. Poe had a tortoiseshell cat named Catterina.

Speaking of cats (Hayes’s deft weaving of critical threads and associations throughout his book is contagious), Paul Gauguin recounted his frightening experience reading “The Black Cat” in a rented house: in the middle of the story, his wife went to the cellar for coal, was surprised by a black cat on the steps, and then found a skull in the coal pile (from a skeleton that another artist used as a model, Gauguin later discovered).

In a letter to Poe, poet Philip Pendleton Cooke reported his strong reaction to “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, which he read in a turkey blind: “That story scared me in broad day, armed with a double-barrel Tryon Turkey gun. What would it have done at midnight in some old ghostly countryhouse?”

Hayes insists on Poe’s modernity, citing his concern for the distracting effects of a rapidly increasing pace of life, his preference for short fiction that can be consumed in one sitting, and his habit of exploring mind rather than morality. “Poe’s interest in perverse psychology presents another aspect of his work that marks him as distinctly modern and out-of-step with his contemporaries,” Hayes writes.

The many film adaptations of Poe works, as well as filmmakers’ assessment that Poe anticipated techniques of the cinema also support Hayes’s assertion. Hayes explicates the closing paragraphs of “Metzengerstein” to illustrate Sergei Eisenstein’s insistence that Poe’s writing features the rhythm of cinematic editing. On the power of film to preserve the representations of people, Hayes quotes Edgardo Cozarinsky, who calls “The Oval Portrait” “the most extraordinary thing ever to be written about the cinema”.

“M. Valedmar” inspired the 1920 expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A mistranslation of “sleepwaking” (describing the state of being mesmerized) as “sleepwalking” in the German version of the tale led to the film’s lurid plot; the villainous doctor hypnotizes a sleepwalker to commit murder for him.

Hayes has included several film stills, among them a shot from the “William Wilson” segment of Histoires extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead) (1968), directed by Louis Malle, and another from Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) (1962), by Jean-luc Godard. Vivre sa vie is one of three films Hayes cites in which characters recite Poe. Eldorado (1966) and Batman (1966) are the others.

Poe inspired the paintbrush as well as the camera. Harry Clarke’s black and white illustrations for Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919) are the most striking of the many images reproduced in The Annotated Poe: Poe himself, Ligeia, the orangutan from “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and Madeline Usher; the latter image also appears on the book cover. Four artworks accompany “A Descent into the Maelstrom”. Three color woodcuts by Marcel Roux from 1920 and Gauguin’s 1889 zincograph depict the narrator’s slide into the whirlpool.

Hayes has also included artwork to add context, such as an illustration of the “Organs of Phrenology” and a color lithograph of Giza, featuring the sphinx and great pyramid; like many of his contemporaries, Poe was influenced by phrenology and the popularity of all things Egyptian.

Few would disagree with Hayes’s insistence on Poe’s continued relevance, but there are a few moments in The Annotated Poe where he tries too hard. Hayes compares the satirical “The Man That Was Used Up: A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign” to the 1987 film Robocop. In Poe’s tale, a wounded war hero turns out to be an assemblage of prosthetic devices; in Robocop, a gravely wounded policeman becomes “a crime-fighting cyborg”. Hayes calls him “a postmodern example of a man who has been used up”.

In the story’s headnote, Hayes identifies its topic as “the bloody anti-Indian campaigns of the Jacksonian era and the ways in which we honor and talk about war veterans” and says the story “finds disturbing resonances today”.

It’s a provocative reading, but “The Man That Was Used Up” seems less about the modern machinery of death and maiming (the general suffers his injuries at the hands of an adversary armed only with tomahawks and rifles), or the treatment of veterans—and more about 19th century notions of masculinity and race. Smith is used up by native Americans, and reassembled before the narrator’s eyes by his African American valet.

Hayes is strangely silent about race throughout most the book, in the case of this tale refraining from glossing the general’s use of “nigger” in a comment to his valet. This isn’t to say that the tale doesn’t resonate today, just to suggest that it does so more profoundly in less obvious ways than Hayes makes out.

This is a minor criticism. There’s a confidence and balance in the annotations Hayes has included. You get the sense of how carefully he has chosen, of his concern for proportion—you could call it the annotative equivalent of Poe’s dictum that a work should not contain more matter than can be digested in one sitting.

Some annotated editions bog you down as a reader. Marginal notes compel you to at least peruse them, often at the expense of the text being elucidated. The Annotated Poe evinces sensitivity to reader fatigue. Many of the longer tales have a spread or two toward the end with few or no notes—acknowledgement that it’s Poe’s achievement Hayes is documenting, not his own.

RATING 7 / 10