Is Poe really the most influential American writer? Note that I didn’t say “greatest,” for which there must be at least a dozen viable candidates. But consider his radiant originality. Before his death in 1849 at age 40, Poe largely created the modern short story, while also inventing or perfecting half the genres represented on the bestseller list, including the mystery (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Gold-Bug”), science fiction (“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion”), psychological suspense (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado”) and, of course, gothic horror (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” the incomparable “Ligeia”).
That’s just the fiction. W.B. Yeats once named Poe “the greatest of American poets,” which does sound absurd. Still, few poems are more famous than “The Raven” with its dolorous tocsin, “Nevermore.” Among my own earliest memories is hearing my steelworker father, not a bookish man, regularly murmur the first stanza of “Annabel Lee”: “It was many and many a year ago/ In a kingdom by the sea . . .”
Finally, Poe — like several of his characters — haunts us from beyond the grave. When we peer at the mournful figure in those familiar daguerreotypes, we seem to glimpse the emblematic image of the modern artist as misunderstood genius, prey to melancholy, drawn to self-destruction.