American Masters: Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, a new documentary written and directed by Eric Stange, arrives to haunt viewers on October 30, 2017. In the words of Stange, Buried Alive seeks to “correct the record [and] dispel the mythologies and misunderstandings about Poe.” The film is not a run-of-the-mill Poe piece, to which we’re accustomed: rather, it’s a thoughtful, unflinching look at the more human side of the man we’ve come to associate with sharp chills and spooky stories in front of a fireplace (mayhap a raven or disembodied heartbeat). The Poe of the casual reader is an invention: that man comes predominantly through the lens of a well-timed obituary from Rufus W. Griswold, a bitter professional and romantic rival. One obituary was all it took to perform what the documentary notes as one of the greatest character assassinations of all time.
In other words, forget what you think you know about Edgar Allan Poe – you’re about to learn more about Eddie Poe, as he’s fondly referred to throughout Buried Alive, through the eyes of personal letters, painstaking research, historical fiction authors, and an impressive bevy of scholars and critics.
The documentary on America’s Gothic boogeyman had quite the birth. Stange – who previously completed documentaries The War That Made America (2006) and American Experience: Murder at Harvard (2003) – recalls that the road to Poe started in 2007 with a retired Baltimore theatre set designer named Wally Coberg in a tale that would have felt right at home in Poe’s folio. Wally “wanted to make a film about Poe. But Wally was not a filmmaker and had no money — he was living precariously on social security. Nonetheless, he kept calling me, and his passion for Poe slowly infected me. After about a year of phone calls he wrote a grant to the National Endowment for the Humanities (with me advising but he did all the heavy lifting) — and wondrously got a small research grant — a very hard thing to do. So Wally and I set to work on writing a script. Then, suddenly, Wally stopped calling me. I thought that I’d somehow inadvertently insulted Poe (unforgivable in Wally’s eyes!). For several weeks, no Wally calls. At first I was relieved. Then worried! Finally an email came. It turned out Wally had failed to file federal taxes for several years and the IRS had frozen the grant. He was mortified…threatening suicide. We all talked him down and friends gathered around to help him sort it out. Little by little he felt better, and we slowly got back to work on the script. Then, that same summer — 2011 — Wally met someone on a Facebook page devoted to Art Deco movie theaters (his other great passion) — and after many years alone began to fall in love. But Gil lived in Upstate New York, and the two of them only talked on the phone. They hadn’t actually met. Finally, in November of 2011, Gil was making a trip to Baltimore to meet Wally face to face for the first time. He arrived at the Baltimore Amtrak station — but Wally wasn’t there to meet him as they had carefully planned. Gil took a cab to Wally’s apartment, and the neighbors told him Wally had been taken by ambulance to the hospital just an hour earlier. By the time Gil got to the hospital Wally was dead of a massive heart attack. Gil somehow talked his way into the room where Wally’s body was, and laid eyes on him for the first time. He spent half an hour with Wally, then left and took the train back to New York.” The film is dedicated to Wally’s memory, his own life an uncanny reflection of the writer he sought to shed greater light upon.
At times mournful, painfully honest and insightful, the film presents itself as an impressive marriage of extraordinary elements, particularly the visual. Images of Antebellum society intermingle with illustrator Harry Clarke’s classic renditions of different Poe tales. “It’s always so hard if you’re trying to make a documentary about a pre-photographic era subject,” Stange explains. “There’s something like five daguerreotypes of Poe; that’s it… We had to draw on what we could find to simply create images that seemed appropriate.” The use in particular of Clarke’s images are a fond, if not bittersweet detail for the seasoned Poe fan. “There have been many illustrators of Poe stories over the years,” Stange says, “but I think Harry Clarks was in some ways the most interesting one. And so we used his drawings to be a kind of motif, visual motif throughout.”
The use of Clarke’s artwork balances the skillful re-enactment by Tony Award-winning and Emmy-nominated actor Denis O’Hare, who Stange praises as being a major factor of a successful Poe portrait. “Denis just brought so much to it… We were lucky to get him.” Of the decision to include both artwork and re-enactment, Stange offers an equally honest answer: “There’s just not enough material [for feature-length re-enactment]. It would have become a work of fiction if we had dramatized the whole thing because we just didn’t have the documentary evidence. All the drama scenes that we have are based on letters or other documentary evidence that Poe actually said those things. I mean, he may have written them and not said them out loud; in fact, almost all of them he wrote and didn’t say out loud, but nonetheless, at least he wrote them. But that can only take you so far.” Stange credits the focus on facts to the National Endowment for Humanities, as “their grants are dependent upon having a serious, academic underpinning for the project. That’s true of all their projects. We had a really good board of advisers that – they’re not involved every step of the way, but we would show them a rough cut and people would speak up if they thought …we were going too far or if there was some kind of misrepresentation or something that just played fast and loose with the facts. We had to be pretty faithful that way. We also wanted to be. The story’s good enough. The facts are good enough.”
Facts are all well and good, but one of the hallmarks of Poe’s work was his ability to entertain an audience, of which the documentary fantastically captures. The method of enchantment comes from a cast that extends well beyond the skills of O’Hare (who, for the record, proves a marvelous Poe). Actors Chris Sarandon and Ben Schnetzer read both poetry and prose in haunting, lilting voices, contrasting with the no-nonsense tones of Kathleen Turner as she narrates Poe’s life and circumstances. Then there’s the notable stable of Poe experts Stange interviews: everyone from biographers (Jeffrey Meyes, Paul Collin, James Hutchisson) to relatives (descendant Harry Lee Poe) to authors (Lynn Cullen, William Giraldi, Marilynne Robinson, Zach Dundas, Matthew Pearl, Megan Marshall) to scholars (J. Gerald Kennedy, Paul Lewis, Chris Semtner, Scott Peeples, Chuck Caruso, Jill Lepore, Jerome McGann). Even Roger Corman makes an appearance in this documentary. The resulting portrait is an informative look at Poe through the eyes of someone other than Griswold, an experience that accomplishes what it seeks to do: present the more human side of the mysterious Poe that fascinates history, as well as laud his accomplishments as a critical, editor and shaper of American style.
The key to presenting a more robust portrayal of Poe comes from this balance of both genders and multiple facets of the research world, by including both the academic and the speculative. “He’s a man of so many contradictions,” Stange offers. “Even while he was trying elevate American literature and make an argument that American literature was every bit as lofty and sophisticated as English literature, at the same time he would write some pretty trashy stuff… He was a purist, holding people’s feet to the fire. Of course, typical Poe fashion, he was guilty of all the things that he accused other people of doing.” At the heart of his work, though, Stange offers a beautiful explanation for the enduring success and longevity of Poe’s works: “He just had a gift for understanding human psychology in ways that a lot of his contemporaries – or very few of his contemporaries – did. I’m not sure there’s another writer, at least in America at the time, who was going to those places the way he was. And I don’t know where that came from. He didn’t seem very good at understanding his own psychology. He was really so self-destructive. I mean, in a way, he understood it: his story, “The Imp of the Perverse,” is such a wonderful foray into questioning why it is that we act self-destructively, and act against our own interests, which was something he did, but somehow couldn’t apply it to himself in a way that would seem to get him.”
The theme of self-destruction is a familiar one in the life of the author, which is chronicled in Buried Alive in a way that is both honest and impartial. Stange definitely sees some parallels and influence in Poe’s works concerning the loss of the author’s wife, yet the documentary explores pieces we’re not used to seeing: Poe’s loss of maternal figures from a young age, as well as the oft-maligned relationship between him and his younger wife, Virginia. “In some ways, he was a model husband, except when he fell for another woman,” Stange laughs. “Nobody’s perfect. In a lot of ways, he seemed like a wonderful family man. But not always. We had the help of Lynn Cullen, a novelist who had written this wonderful book called Mrs. Poe. I think she brought some really interesting commentary. That’s something I found over the years with making these history documentaries: often, it’s the writers of historical fiction who can bring things to life a little better, because they’ve done the research as deep as an academic historian would have, but they’ve thought about it in a different way and they’ve digested it in a different way. And so often their comments and their insights are more helpful.”
Indeed, the research and imagination creates a type of shared storytelling with between the academics and the authors, which is a welcome departure from the sometimes slanted angles of a documentary. One such topic is that of Poe’s possible misogyny, which the documentary addresses in a straightforward fashion. Stange offers, “Some people, in particularly female writers and literary scholars, think he’s quite misogynistic. On the other hand, as a critic, and as an editor, he was pretty supportive of women writers. A lot more supportive of women writers than most other male critics and editors of his time. When it came to that part of things – the real world – he was a champion of women in the literary marketplace. And in fact he would not just support them but steal their ideas and try to be as successful as they were, and do it in an admiring way. He really did admire a lot of his contemporaries. You never know with him how much he believed and how much he thought was a marketing gimmick. … He’s a really tough one. And that was part of the problem making the film: every time we sort of presented a side of him that we felt like we somehow had to show that there was another side as well, that wasn’t the full story.”
The strides taken to achieve authenticity are hindered by one man: the afore-mentioned Rufus W. Griswold, a fell critic and editor with whom Poe had a tempestuous relationship both personally and professionally. Stange is upfront concerning Griswold’s role in the perceptions of Poe: “Griswold is the villain. Every story has to have some kind of villain and he certainly fits the bill. When you ask the question, Why is Poe seen the way he is by so many, generation after generation? it really comes back to Griswold’s first obituary and then the short biography that he wrote soon after that. It’s sort of a two-edged sword: in part, it’s what kept Poe famous shortly after his death, I think. Or maybe infamous. But it was just so full of falsehoods that stuck, and it’s an interesting question to me, especially around Halloween, why people are so willing to accept that representation of Poe as the kind of dark boogeyman of literature. We all need – every generation, every culture, every society – needs its boogeyman, needs its kind of spooky, scary figures, especially when they’re safely spooky. When they’re spooky on the printed page or they’re spooky in the handful of portraits that have survived Poe that can be caricatured in so many different ways. But that’s all Griswold’s fault. I mean, for better or worse, he did that. It really seemed like we had to go deep enough into that to explain that this is why Poe exists in the public imagination. I mean, no other writer from his period survives with such vivid clarity. Maybe not clarity – such vividness that people have such strong feelings about Poe. They are not going to say those same things about James Fennimore Cooper or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The other writers just haven’t survived that way.”
Perhaps his status as the boogeyman of the American gothic era stems from his subject matter. Alive at a time that saw daunting political tension – ranging from the impending Civil War to the Native American relocation efforts to slavery – Stange describes Poe as “very snobbish and critical of the populist, Jacksonian, common uprising that came along with the election of Andrew Jackson. He saw it as kind of the rise of the mob, mob mentality and the people who really shouldn’t have power. Part of what was driving that is simply a Virginia gentility attitude, and I think he fancied himself a kind of Byronesque poet type. He didn’t like the idea of the unwashed masses in the White House or in government or anywhere else…. [Poe] would have seen similarities [to modern America]. People see within his stories – I’m talking about literary scholars – all sorts of references to the Indian Removal Act and slavery and the kinds of evils that really were abroad in the land during his lifetime. He was responding to those. One of the best scholars who wrote about this is Gerald Kennedy (Strange Nation: Literary Nationalism and Cultural Conflict in the Age of Poe), who’s in the film. It’s a lot about how Poe was responding to the unsettled and really kind of cruel political climate of his time.” Stange sees common threads to our own turbulent political climate, explaining that the documentary had actually been completed for a year and was slated for release last Halloween – the decision was made to push back the release date. “We didn’t want to release it last Halloween because of the election. We thought it would just get lost in all the noise.”
Not that the time meant an automatic extension of content. Stange describes the need to stop the film at Poe’s death rather than carry on with the famous author’s exhumation and reburial, tempting topics for fans with a penchant for the macabre. “We tried to end in a way feeling that Poe had won somehow,” a fitting sentiment for a man whose death remains a mystery. The burning question with which we’re left is one of intellectual quandary: will we ever know – and would we want to know – concretely how he died, which has been posited as caused by everything from murder to rabies to tuberculosis? “I don’t think we’ll ever find out because there’s too little left, I think,” Stange offers. “There’s a theory that apparently when they did move his body 25 years after his death, something was rattling around in the skull, and Matthew Pearl and other people thinks that it was probably a calcified brain tumor. That’s his theory, because brain tumor tissue doesn’t decay but hardens … I can’t image we’ll ever know. And it’s true that’s one of those mysteries that people love and it seems so appropriate in a way. I think Poe would like it too. I think he would be entertained by that.”
Indeed, Poe would have been rather tickled by the fact that we’re still talking about him years after he shuffled off the mortal coil. At the end of the day, Stange has a simple wish for audiences: to impart the evidence and wonder that “Poe was a far more complex and interesting and nuanced person and writer than the public persona that exists today would suggest. And that he really had an influence on American literature, not just as a writer, but as a critic and an editor. That he was an important figure in this very formative moment in American literature. When America was just beginning to create a national literature, Poe was there. For too long, he had been relegated to the sidelines, represented as somebody out on the edges doing his own weird thing while other people were creating the American literary canon. Poe was right in the thick of it. I didn’t know that when I started the project. … And also a desire to go read his poetry.” And on that note, this writer is off to go curl up with her copy of Poe’s poetry in a quiet corner of the living room.
American Masters: Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive airs nationwide Monday, October 30 at 9 PM EST (8 PM Central) on PBS. The documentary will be available for streaming the day after.