“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before”… from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
All Hallows’ Eve will soon be upon us, so what better time to become reacquainted with Edgar Allan Poe…the 19th-century American writer, editor and book critic whose Gothic narrative poems, short stories and prescient detective protagonist C. Auguste Dupin (he preceded Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot!) still chill and thrill readers 168 years after Poe’s death on October 7, 1849.
It’s clear from filmmaker Eric Stange’s new documentary, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, that Poe’s work clearly reflected his lifelong struggles with personal loss and grief triggered by his father’s abandonment and his 24-year-old mother’s death when Poe was only two years old. Those early life-shattering experiences precipitated his separation from his two siblings and his introduction into an unyielding foster home.
The 90-minute documentary, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, narrated by actress Kathleen Turner and featuring dramatic reenactments by Tony-Award-winning actor Denis O’Hare as Poe, premieres tonight, Monday, October 30, 2017, on the PBS series American Masters, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS OTT apps for streaming beginning on Halloween, Tuesday, October 31, 2017.)
Although the themes of death and dying permeate this profile–it opens and closes with the mysterious and still unresolved circumstances of Poe’s death in 1849–the film jumps beyond the deaths of Poe’s mother and her successors to link his conflicted career as a writer and editor and his subject matter to the stark realities of living and dying in 19th-century America.
The socio-economic landscape in pre-Civil War America was precarious at best. Poverty weakened resolve. Slaves were bought and sold within Poe’s Southern milieu. And the ravages of consumption (tuberculosis) and the collateral damage suffered by women and their newborns during childbirth fueled a burgeoning mortality rate that was so unrelenting that some unfortunates ran the risk of internment before they actually took their last breaths. To prevent victims from being buried alive, coffins were outfitted with gizmos that enabled the living “dead” to alert those above ground that a mistake had been made. It’s not much of a stretch to connect the dots to Poe’s eventual literary focus.
Writer/director Eric Stange paints his portrait of Poe with a broad stroke. Mr. Stange ably juxtaposes actor Denis O’Hare’s moody evocation of the poet with visuals of Poe’s distinctive handwritten letters and text; staged readings by actors Chris Sarandon and Ben Schnetzer; and factoids from a host of articulate Poe scholars, biographers, and filmmaker Roger Corman. The latter’s film adaptations of Poe’s work did much to breathe new life into actor Vincent Price’s career.
Edgar Allan Poe’s fifth generation cousin, Harry Lee Poe, who has made his own mark as a Poe family foundation helmer, museum trustee and an Award-winning Poe scholar in his own right, contributes fascinating bits of family lore as well. Edgar Allan Poe was saddled with his family’s predisposition to alcoholism; an orphan’s unresolved longing for a stable, loving family; and the final insult of a much ballyhooed obituary written and riddled with lies by his literary rival, Rufus W. Griswold. But, in death, Poe found sustained literary acclaim and a family tree to call his own (no doubt via his siblings’ offspring).
Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive premieres tonight, Monday, October 30, 2017, on the PBS series American Masters, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS OTT apps for streaming beginning on Halloween, Tuesday, October 31, 2017.) As an introduction to the man behind the myth and mystery, the film will serve as an evergreen addition to American Literature classes and Halloween-themed programs, concurrent with the reading of Poe’s work, in high schools, colleges and libraries. Until then…Happy Halloween!–Judith Trojan