One thing has always bothered me whenever a discussion turns to an argument about who is the top of the line amongst American writers. That is, the guy I consider the best of the best is hardly ever listed as such. Certainly, he gets a mention, somewhere in the top 10 typically, occasionally top 5, but those are often a rarity. I think his exclusion is usually due to two long-standing biases against writers: one, he didn’t write novels and, two, his primary excellence was in writing horror.
I’m talking, of course, about Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s use of language is unmatched, in my opinion, in American literature. No one could convey as palpable a sense of atmosphere in a simple sentence like he could. Read a little Poe, and you can literally feel the chill in the air or smell the decay from a damp crypt.
Poe was an expert in conveying emotions in subtle, indirect ways. His use of language is nearly Shakespearean in scope and tone. A short story of his is like a symphony in words. To be sure, the emotions he chose to convey were almost uniformly dark, the atmospheres he created almost always dreary but, to me, that is what is best in Poe. He never shied away from the shadows that creep over life, from the struggles and the hardships, the sometimes anguished loss and occasional bouts of madness that can consume us all. His tales are exaggerations, often tinged with the supernatural, but underneath, I believe his words have more effectively spoken to those darker aspects of the human condition better than any American writer before or since.
Who really cares that he never wrote novels? Novels are, in an historical sense, a pretty overrated medium and very often over-long, anyway. And why should his primary focus on horror be an issue? It’s a genre like any other, and often more effective at making larger points than any other. Besides, one of Poe’s other great contributions to literature the world over, not just in America, is that he essentially invented the detective tale. His sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, is the forerunner of an entire class of literature populated by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and infinite others. How impressive was this accomplishment alone? Dupin first appeared in a story in 1841, about a decade before the term “detective” even came into popular use.
Please, let’s also not forget that he was also a world-class poet. The Raven, The Bells and Annabel Lee alone can attest to his skills within that particular discipline.
So who is his competition for this mythical honor of Greatest American Writer? To be sure, there are many others who have been exquisite practitioners of the craft, and many more who have produced transcendent works.
There’s Hemingway, of course, always a popular number one choice. But at this point, I think that may be more on reputation than actual skill. Hemingway’s the best because a lot of people just assume he is. Steinbeck is another popular choice but I’ve always found his prose so dry I needed a glass of water after each chapter. Fitzgerald certainly left a masterwork in The Great Gatsby, probably even more topical these days as history seems to be repeating itself, but how many people can name anything else he wrote? Hawthorne gave us the immortal Scarlet Letter, but his work is aging badly, unlike Poe’s which holds a certain timelessness.
The only other American writer I could reasonably make a case for above Poe is Mark Twain. Twain has had a similar vast, lasting cultural impact, and produced a prodigious body of work. I still have Poe higher because of craftsmanship alone. Say what you want about their collective greatness, and both are undoubtedly among the best to ever put pen to paper, Poe was a better pure writer than Twain. Twain may have been better at knowing his audience and communicating with them at their level, but Poe possessed more skill and style, I believe.
Poe defined horror, was equally artful at both prose and poetry, created detective fiction and provided a lasting, deep, affecting style of writing that hasn’t been matched in American literature since. He is, in my opinion, quite simply the best of all American writers. But don’t just take my word for it. Here are some of my favorite Poe efforts, complete with links to the full stories.
Click below for more fright-filled stuff. And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…
The 13 Days of Halloween