The Power of Poe-sitive Thinking

Plus, no hard feelings if you're just not feeling it this week

Hey there, everyone. Initially, I thought I’d refrain from sending anything this week because, well, if your experience has been anything like mine, then one overriding question you have right now is: How come nothing just stopped between last Wednesday and today? How come work still expects me to do my job? How come the baby still wants a bottle, doesn’t he watch CNN?? What a jerk!

I hope that, in spite of everything, you’re feeling all right, coping somehow.

If you are in the mood to read anything that isn’t Twitter, the introduction to Poe for Your Problems is below and, in part, it’s about how we can find hope and inspiration even amidst absurdly depressing circumstances.

(P.S. This week’s good link is just this, a helpful little tone-setting sound effect.)

All best,

Cat

The Power of Poe-sitive Thinking

If comedy is tragedy plus time, then Edgar Allan Poe’s life reads like a punchline—just one long, sad trombone.

Here’s the short, over-simple version: Everyone got sick and everyone died, starting with both Poe’s parents before he turned three. A wealthy family adopted him, but only in an informal sense. He lived with them, but he never really belonged, and about the time he reached eighteen, Poe found himself penniless and disowned, forced to craft his masterpieces in cold, dirty rented rooms.

Later, his beloved wife Virginia contracted the same disease that had killed his biological parents, and he became, at last—by his own account—“insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Every hand that fed him, he chomped. Every bridge he could burn, he torched. Finally, in October of 1849, Poe collapsed in the street outside a tavern, and his career of provocation and trouble-making ground to a halt. In a literal gutter. Yet what followed was even worse.

Poe’s greatest frenemy, Rufus W. Griswold, wrote the obituary. Publishing his insults under a pseudonym, Griswold told the world that Poe was a cynical, depraved drunk, with no friends, who had only ever used his talent for spite. 

The twist? That hit job of an obit turned out to be pretty good PR. Not only did Poe’s colleagues and (in fact numerous) friends sprint to his defense, the notoriety that the obit helped create caused a scandal-loving public to seek out his work as never before. You could say that, in the end, Poe’s feuds, mistakes, and missteps worked out for him. Or you could say they weren’t mistakes or missteps at all—instead a series of brilliant career moves and an astoundingly effective system for success. Anyone can get to the top doing all the right things. To make it doing all the wrong things? Now that takes genius.

Today, nearly two hundred years since his death, millions of people across the globe know and love Poe. He’s recognized as one of the most brilliant, original, and influential writers of all time. His poetry and short stories have been translated into every major language and adapted for every new technology, from radio broadcasts to web series to memes. The film and TV adaptations alone—not to mention the references everywhere from The Simpsons to South Park to Jordan Peele’s Us—are so numerous it would take ten pages to list them all. He has an awfully long IMDB profile for someone born in 1809.

Poe’s fans have included high-brow elites like Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Hitchcock, and he’s enjoyed off-the-charts pop success, too. Baltimore named its NFL team the Ravens. Lou Reed, Joan Baez, and Stevie Nicks have all either recorded songs about Poe or put his words to music. The Beatles stuck him in the top row, eighth from the left, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 2001, Britney Spears kicked off her “Dream Within a Dream” tour, while the actress Evan Rachel Wood has the final two lines of that poem inked in black across her upper back. As we speak, Sylvester Stallone is trying to produce a Poe biopic. (Hey Sly, maybe combine it with Rambo 6?)

And if you should feel like raising a toast—well, in 2015, Maryland’s RavenBeer rolled out Annabel Lee White, “a wheat beer angels envy,” and in 2018, a Philadelphia distillery launched a whiskey called Fortunato’s Fate. Who wouldn’t want to achieve such high-proof prominence? We should all be so lucky.

Yet somehow the notoriety lingers. Despite Poe’s unparalleled, worldwide renown, we continue to conceive of him as a ne’er-do-well—just some hopeless, almost Chaplin-esque loser—when the question we should be asking is, What’s his secret? In a better world, Poe would be considered a self-help guru on par with Oprah or Deepak Chopra, the 4-Hour Workweek guy, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Dr. Laura Schlesinger. As it is, we celebrate the work but sadly underrate the man.

Except we’re not making a mistake about just one man. We’re making a mistake about renegades, rebels, and outcasts more generally. We’re also making a very big mistake in being so certain that we know which creative, professional, and even existential strategies work—and which ones are dead ends. Success on Poe’s scale doesn’t just happen. It isn’t solely a matter of genius, either. It requires a unique vision, and more than that, the fortitude, the determination, the narcissism, and the megalomania, to hew to that vision no matter what anyone else says.

It is true Poe’s life was a dumpster fire. That’s precisely the point. He dealt with horrendous circumstances. He had amply justifiable mental-health issues as well as an impossible personality, and he lived in an absurdly depressing era full of racism, sexism, classism, injustice, misfortune, poverty, disease, and death. You and I live in such an era, too. In a screwed-up world, why not look to the most screwed-up writer of all time for advice on navigating the daily dumpster fires of our own lives? Who better to inspire us as we struggle through our own absurdly depressing time?

Personally, I love nothing more than when a misanthropic supposed “loser” is later wildly, spectacularly vindicated. It is like hearing that your own life—no matter this foreclosure you’re facing, or the musty Uber you’re driving right now—might also end in the best-case scenario. And no one could be more qualified than Poe when it comes to teaching us how to fight through our suffering, how to keep hustling in the face of despair, and how to apologize for getting too drunk (all while ordering another round for the house, “on me!”). In short, how to take the nightsoil we’ve been handed and spin it into gold, like he did.

So—just how did Poe fail, flail, flub, and flounder his way into the history books? What perverse formula for success can he offer you, and how might you approach your problems a little differently, following his example? That’s what you’ll find in these pages. Let’s seize the day. Or, since we’re talking Poe here, seize the night. Carpe noctem.

Reading Edgar Allan Poe and parsing his life for instruction might at first seem like a ridiculous exercise, like going fishing in the pool at the Y, or digging for treasure with one of those Allen wrenches you get free from Ikea. And I’ll admit this book started as a dark joke—though I’m convinced that’s a strength and not a weakness, very much in keeping with Poe’s own morbid sense of humor.

A couple of years ago, I was telling a friend how reading Poe’s work and the numerous biographies about his life had had the strange effect of helping me cope with the worst depressive episode I’ve ever experienced, reassuring me that life is worth living at a moment when I was on the verge of ordering a Peloton, and giving me new energy for my creative work. Giving me, of all things, hope.

“That sounds like a book,” my friend said, lifting his glass.

“Oh yeah,” I deadpanned. “I’m going to write a book about reading Poe for self-help and call it How to Say Nevermore to Your Problems.” Which turned out to be just the working title.

The point is, Poe can change your life, too. You want to achieve your childhood dreams? You want to humiliate those who’ve doubted you with your meteoric rise to the top of whatever? All you need is a new perspective—call it Poe-sitive thinking—and that all-important antihero to guide you on your way, helping you discover how to triumph not only in spite of but because of your alleged shortcomings. This is where Poe comes in, and how he can illuminate a new path for you as surely as a black-light in a sleazy motel room.

Forget everything you’ve ever assumed about Edgar Allan Poe. Far from being solely a sad story, Poe’s own life turns out to be an inspirational tale for black sheep everywhere, so epic and timeless it damn near rises to the level of myth. He might have kicked it seventeen decades ago, but he’s never been more relevant. In fact, his life experience reads like a Millennial and Gen Z laundry list. Just for starters, Poe:

  1. Came of age amidst a dire recession

  2. Had to drop out of college with mounting debts (150 years before Sallie Mae even existed)

  3. Got hired, fired, and laid off from a series of journalism jobs at a time of, ahem, profound change in the industry

  4. Was forced to freelance in a burgeoning gig “economy”

  5. Could barely afford to buy himself a couch, much less a house

  6. Had no health insurance (couldn’t get that dental crown he needed)

  7. And lived in an America so extremely divided that even the dimmest observers could catch the whiff of impending civil war.

But this book isn’t just for young people, or for dedicated Poe fans. This book is for all the hopeless freaks and misfits out there—like you, like me—whose adult lives aren’t working out quite as we hoped—which we’re looking to turn around, somehow. Its whole purpose is to help you find new energy and inspiration so you can follow through on your deepest ambitions despite, well, everything. Your inbox full of rejection letters? Your ex and that restraining order? Forget about ’em. Nevermore, problems!

Let’s face it: You’ve already tried everything else, except the wrong way. 

The Poe way.

Like Poe himself, Poe-sitive thinking is about not just recognizing the dark side of life, but maniacally focusing on it; embracing your overwhelming sense of doom; clinging to your grief; and refusing to give up your most basic resentments. In short, not getting over anything, ever, but using all your darkest emotions in novel and creative ways to make a name for yourself and carve out your own unique, notorious place in the world. Let’s take a look:

If you’re heartbroken, lonely, lost, depressed, broke, anxious, underemployed or unemployed, and especially if you’ve recently blown up your life somehow, then congratulations, you’ve come to the right place. Poe messed up his life again and again, too, only to become more and more successful, and more broadly and intensely beloved. This book will offer you a step-by-step Poe-gram for emulating the man and gleaning all the most important “Poe tips” from his most turbulent life. And because each lesson builds toward the next (complete with exercises, charts, and checklists), I suggest reading it from beginning to end rather than skipping around. In the meantime, if you ever get stuck, simply ask yourself: What would Poe do?

All the quotes that you’ll find in the following chapters come from Poe himself, drawn from his letters, essays, poems, and stories, and all the lessons come from his life. As you’ll see, far from being out of date, Poe’s rueful, often cynical life-philosophy has stood the test of time. Take it from a man who is far more famous today than he ever was in his own lifetime—and who most definitely got the last laugh.

Now you can, too.