I’m fascinated by how our life experiences affect what (and even how) we create. Usually, I’ve got little interest in what makes a person tick, but I’ve got a great deal of interest in what makes people make what they make.
As a kid growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, when I found the mouth of a stream, I walked upstream until I found the head, or the beginning. Today marks the 103rd anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Since I learned how to read from the works of authors like Poe, I’d like to spend a few minutes tracing the Poe stream to its source to see what we find.
Working backwards upstream, Poe’s life ended in tragedy, and was full of disappointment. Poe died at the age of 40 under mysterious circumstances. He was reportedly found in a Baltimore ditch babbling incoherently. Before that, Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin who died not long after “The Raven” was published, for which Poe reportedly received $9 from the publisher. As a young adult, Poe was disowned by the family who raised him. His mother died when Poe was less than two years old after his father had abandoned the family the previous year. That’s the head of this tragic stream.
With all of those tragedies, Poe produced some of the greatest literary works in history. He is considered one of the few true masters of the short story. He is called the father of detective fiction, and one of the first authors to write successful science fiction.
Was he able to do this because of his life, or in spite of it? At what point do the separate streams of experience, inspiration and talent merge into one continuous flow? Do they? Would Poe have produced the works he did without the string of tragedies we call his life? Would he have written even better works without the depression he fought?
Maybe Poe would be known today as the father of several other genres, or at least different ones, if not for the hand he was dealt. Or was it the cards he chose to play? If Poe had lived a more stable life, would he have been more content to read the works of others than create his own? I’m not finding answers, only more questions. It’s anticlimactic. In fact, it’s exactly what I found when I reached the top of those West Virginia hills.
I’ve seen where streams begin. I’ve found where they start. You know what’s there? Nothing except soggy ground. The only sound of running water is in the distance. A few feet down from the top, a few drops fall from the most saturated pieces of grass and moss. A little farther, and the drops become more frequent.
Then, with gravity’s help, they begin to form the smallest trickle. Farther still, and the trickle becomes a steady stream, as water is picked up, drop by drop, along the journey. People say a steam always takes the path of least resistance, but don’t be fooled. Eventually, the flow becomes strong enough to make its own path, regardless of resistance.
What did I learn traveling upstream? It’s not so much the beginning of our streams that affects us. It’s what happens along the way. It’s the water we take on that determines the strength of the flow at the stream’s mouth. It’s interesting that the start of a stream is called the head, because it points to Poe’s imagination. Of course his life influenced his work, and maybe he was driven to write to avoid insanity. Maybe his reality is the realism we find in his stories.
The mysterious “Poe Toaster” made his final visit to Poe’s grave on the morning of January 19th, 2009, the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth. After a cognac toast, he left the rest of the bottle at the author’s Baltimore gravesite, along with roses. What started on January 19, 1946 stopped just as mysteriously as it began. Even at Poe’s gravesite, we are left with more questions than answers.
Happy birthday to the powerful, creative, enduring, destructive and earth-moving stream we know as Edgar Allan Poe. Your works continue to influence new generations of poets, writers and movie makers. That means we can’t find the mouth of your stream because it has found the ocean.