When Edgar Allan Poe was 40-years-old he disappeared in Baltimore for five days. He was found delirious and died a short time later in the hospital. No one knows what caused his death or what happened to him during those missing five days. It’s a mystery worthy of one of the legendary author’s classic detective stories, a genre he invented. This and other interesting facts are the focus of “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive,” the latest American Masters episode, which engagingly recreates Poe’s personal and professional history beyond the “Halloween Poe” many of us consider him to be.
A prolific author, Poe wrote nearly 70 stories in a range of genres. Only a dozen are horror stories, of which “The Raven” is perhaps the most well-known. Written in 1845, the spooky tale put him on the literary map. Yet, Poe was more than a gothic writer and “Buried Alive’s” dramatic reenactments, with Denis O’Hare playing Poe, do a good job revealing the other sides of him. The central conceit of the episode is to investigate the “real” Edgar Allan Poe. Who was he beyond a horror writer?
It’s a question that the show’s academic scholars suggest has no clear answer, which makes the exploration of his life even more intriguing. Narrated by Kathleen Turner, the episode combines reenactments and expert commentary with actors who read Poe’s work, including excerpts from “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven.” The readings are a highlight of the show.
The production uses dark colors, melancholy music and an account of Poe’s personal losses, including the impact of his mother’s, foster mother’s and wife’s deaths to create an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding. But its overall purpose is to expand Poe beyond his horror reputation. The high mortality rate of the 1820s and 1830s meant that Poe was virtually surrounded by death. Yet, his public persona as a “man of the night” was a cleverly crafted one. He used it to enhance his primary literary themes, which tapped into the anxiety and fears that defined the new American urban culture in a time of poverty and financial instability. Poe, according to J. Gerald Kennedy, a scholar at Louisiana State University, wanted America “to understand what was strange about their own culture.”
A smart, disciplined author, Poe earned a reputation as both a tough literary critic and as a craftsman on the art of writing. His criticism made enemies (he picked a fight with Longfellow) and his personal choices, particularly his affair with a married woman while his wife was dying of tuberculosis, damaged his reputation but ultimately his work is his legacy. By the 1870s, he was hailed as a visionary, not just a master of horror and “Buried Alive” entertainingly reminds us of this legacy.
“American Masters — Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” premieres on Oct. 30 at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing’” and the recently released “The American Television Critic.” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.