On occasion those with great wealth try to give something back to society. One such gift takes the form of libraries. The J. P. Morgan Library on Madison Avenue in New York is a touch pricey for those who live in humbler domiciles, but the Edgar Allan Poe display proved too immense a draw to ignore. Standing inches away from manuscripts written in Poe’s fine hand was a kind of communion. It wasn’t too difficult to believe he might have somehow been there. In Baltimore last month I didn’t have the opportunity to revisit his grave, but I picked up a book by one of his modern cousins, Harry Lee Poe. This Poe has theological training and an interest in seeing that his famous cousin isn’t theologically shortchanged. Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe is a rare look at Poe and religion. Treatments of the theology of writers are hardly rare, but since Poe wasn’t openly religious, he was typecast a little too readily into the putatively godless camp of those of us with a taste for the macabre.
Evermore may not convince everyone that Poe was a profound religious thinker, but Harry Lee Poe marshals substantial evidence from both Poe’s published writings and letters that he was often caught in that crux between science and religion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Poe was an atheist. He wrote on what were considered lowbrow topics because those were the kinds of pieces that would sell. Since Poe was perhaps the first American to attempt to make a living solely by his pen, he had to pay attention to what people wanted to read. Evermore, while not a biography in the usual sense, does point out that Poe wrote across genres and that his life, while often tragic, had many spells of happiness and some contentment. Poe was a victim of character assassination after his death by a second-tier clergyman, Rufus Griswold. Much of the book is spent dispelling myths.
Perhaps above all, Edgar Allan Poe had a clear mind that could keep imagination alive in the religion and science debate that was to explode shortly after his death with Darwin’s Origin of Species. For Poe, the universe was a story being crafted by God. Creativity was essential to beauty, a concept that haunted Poe. A writer must be introspective, and this will often leave him or her open to criticism by those who prefer simpler answers. Great beauty can be found in complexity, however, and the practice of ratiocination requires a healthy dose of imagination to help make sense of a world that often seems to make no sense any other way. And standing here, my face inches from a handwritten copy of “The Bells,” I can almost hear them ringing.