As we creep up on the 170th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death, we can see just how long his shadow lies over our culture. His pioneering tales and poems have influenced the landscape of the American imagination. From H.P. Lovecraft to Steven King, from horror and sci fi to detective fiction and philosophy, Poe’s influence is clear and present.
One of his enduring legacies is the notion of madness. Many wondered just how a person could write so convincingly about a killer who hears the thumping of his dead victim’s heart, or the urge to wall someone up in an underground labyrinth.
In Poe’s day, people often thought that artistic work reflected upon the personality of the creator. It didn’t help that Poe’s 1849 obituary was written by his enemy Rufus Griswold, who expounded that Poe’s writings contained “traces of his personal character” and that Poe “walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses.” Even before Poe died, Thomas Dunn English composed a story in which he placed Poe in the Utica Lunatic Asylum. A decade after his death, prominent British psychiatrist Harold Maudsley made a case study of Poe’s madness, and ever since, in the words of scholar Benjamin Reiss, a “significant strand” of Poe scholarship has involved putting him on the couch, metaphorically.
This madness connection is highly significant. Poe’s conceptualization of insanity has influenced our culture profoundly. In many of his works, the narrators are perfectly normal except for one thing. In what was then called “monomania,” Poe painted characters who were crafty and highly intelligent, yet deranged due to a single, insane focus. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it is the pale, filmed-over eye of the landlord. In “The Black Cat,” the protagonist is undone by a gallows-shaped white patch on a black cat. In “Berenice” the narrator is fixated on the white teeth of his beloved. One can go on. For Poe, madness is not a complex of biological processes but rather a single blip in an otherwise functional apparatus. Sanity becomes a fine line that his characters stumble across before carrying out hellish acts.
This notion that otherwise “regular” people can “fall” into madness was a popular idea in Poe’s day: Madness “happens” rather than develops. We are blindly walking a ledge, ready to fall off and unleash horror if we linger unhealthily on one thing. This is the legacy of fictional monomania. It works well in stories, if less so in psychiatry textbooks.
To see the enduring power of this narrative, take a look at the debates surrounding the recent mass shootings. Some politicians and pundits claim that the problem is not guns but rather “sick” persons, people who otherwise have led quiet lives unworthy of acute psychiatric care. This definition of “sick” seems to be of otherwise regular folk, un-medicated and un-hospitalized, who suddenly commit horrendous acts of violence. President Trump has recommended building more “[mental] facilities” as an antidote for gun violence. The problem as he sees it is in identifying these sick individuals before anything bad happens.
Poe was steeped in the medical knowledge of his day. His writings are chock-full of terms like “mania a potu,” “morbid irrationality,” “hypochondriac,” “hysteria,” “cataleptic disorder,” and “nervous agitation.” His characters often reference “medical friends” and “medical books,” and indeed Poe seems to have alluded to prominent alienist Isaac Ray’s “A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity” (1838) in his works. Like many other educated people of his time, Poe also subscribed to the notion that one’s skull shape revealed one’s personality.
Times have changed since the 1840s. The cutting-edge medical science of the mid-19th century is now largely irrelevant. We’ve witnessed advances in neuroscience, psychiatry and epidemiology, among other things. Deciding who is “sick” is rightly the province of medical science, not pundits. Madness is not a label that should be used for political purposes.
Clearly Poe never intended for his fiction to be converted into common sense. He was an artist and product of his own time. Let’s appreciate Poe’s creative genius — but let’s not convert his foundational tropes into “facts.”