Poe in Cyberspace: Edgar Allan Poe Review, Spring 2005|
"Poe is a web diva." This improbable blurb, quoted from USA Today, appears on the RealPoe web site, owned by that other Poe - Annie Decatur Danielewski. She acquired "Poe" as her nickname in childhood when she wore a Poe-inspired "Red Death" Halloween costume; as a composer-singer in the1990s she took it as her stage name. Encouraging Poe-puns, she once described her struggle to recover rights from a former music album publisher as a "re-po-session," [repo, legal repossession], and somewhere her entire project is dubbed "po-mo" [post-modern]. She earns the "web diva" epithet by having her own poe.org and RealPoe web sites and by enjoying at the same time eleven other fan websites: see <http://web.simmons.edu/~johnsol2/poelinks.html>. These fan web sites suggest the rise of social networking in cyberspace.
The roots of our current media-mad Information Revolution clearly go back to our Poe's life and career. He was keenly aware of the extent to which the fate of literature depended on the printing press, the steam engine, the post office, railroads, photography, and the telegraph. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson elevated the U. S. Postmaster General to Cabinet status, and by 1840 there were 13,468 American post offices, one for every 1,087 persons. The early postal system depended on stagecoaches until the triumph of the railroad system after the1840s.
At times Poe himself depended on trains, writing to Chivers in 1846, "I am living out of town about 13 miles, at a village called Fordham, on the railroad leading north." Poe realized that the relatively new railroad technology could affect the human understanding of physical reality and social relations. In 1845 in "The American Drama," Poe lamented the lack of progress in the relatively stationary craft of the theater while other contemporary arts "flitted [by] so rapidly" that they put viewers - already conditioned to constant change - in the position of "the traveller by railroad [who] can imagine that the trees by the wayside are retrograding." It was probably Poe who complained in Graham's Magazine in June 1842, of Bulwer's mechanical use of moral tags in Zanoni: "Every personage . . . is thus ticketed for a particular vice or virtue, like passengers in a railroad car."
The coming of the railroad, as Poe was aware, altered the common sense notion of a connection between time and distance; the spread of the telegraph system, however, completely obliterated any sense of such a connection. The 1790s optical telegraph ("distance writing") was slow, using flags, arms, or blinds to communicate a visual signal that operators had to observe and relay physically from tower to tower. The optical telegraph flourished for half a century, giving rise to such local names as "Telegraph Hill," and by 1820 the word telegraph had been incorporated in the names of 40 American newspapers. When the electric telegraph finally arrived in the 1840s - the first information medium to use electricity - it created the illusion that any two points no matter how distant in space could now exist simultaneously in one time frame. This conquest of space by information was a science fiction phenomenon in itself - producing what Poe, who loved to coin words, might well have called electrospace as a predecessor of Gibson's cyberspace. "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade" describes a potentate who
had cultivated his voice to so great an extent that he could have made himself heard from one end of the earth to the other. Another had so long an arm that he could sit down in Damascus and indite a letter at Bagdad - or indeed at any distance whatsoever.
Poe's footnotes were necessary for technology-challenged readers in 1845: first, "The Electro Telegraph transmits intelligence instantaneously - at least so far as regards any distance upon the earth," and second, such a writing device already existed as "The Electro Telegraph Printing Apparatus."
After having demonstrated it could produce writing, could electricity also produce sound? Poe wrote in the Weekly Mirror in 1844 that the Swiss Bell Ringers might follow "the principle of Maelzel's Automaton Trumpeter and Piano-forte player" by employing "the same power which operates in the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph, but which should here be called Electro-tintinnabulic." First writing by electricity, and then music by electricity - would there ever be a limit? Evidently not, since spiritualism, or communication with the dead, seemed one step ahead, as Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman wrote in the year after Poe's death:
It is a strange and mysterious thing to believe, nay to know, that we can at any moment hold communication with the Spirits of those who love us and who are ever hovering about us, but for the last six weeks I have been daily in the habit of communing with these invisible guardians by a mode of intercourse as sure though not yet so swift as the communications by the magnetic Telegraph.
During Poe's career the growth of information technologies, such as the postal system, the railroad, and the telegraph, greatly stimulated the growth of magazines. Speaking for an earlier generation, Noah Webster had written in the American Magazine in 1788, "The expectation of failure is connected with the very name of a Magazine." But by the mid-19th century, magazines had become central to American literary publishing, and Poe famously remarked in the Broadway Journal in 1845, "the whole tendency of the age is magazine-ward." Although detractors might claim that magazines represented "a downward tendency in American taste or in American letters," Poe replied in Godey's in 1845 - incidentally defending the characteristics of his own work - that only magazines captured the positive contemporary preference for "the curt, the condensed, the well-digested in place of the voluminous - in a word, upon journalism in lieu of dissertation."
Poe's posthumous fame depended not only on translators in other languages but also on artists and adapters working in other media in the late 19th century. The tradition continued in the 20th century as noted film and radio actors such as Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Vincent Price, and Paul Scofield made audio recordings or performed Poe roles in films, sometimes in decidedly liberal adaptations. Many of these performances, re-released on CD or DVD, are now available for purchase on the Internet. In addition, several audio recordings of Poe are now available gratis on the Internet:
<http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/9511>: The Raven.
<http://www.aruffo.com/poe/>: Christopher Aruffo's readings of The Imp of the Perverse, William Wilson, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Masque of the Red Death.
<http://www.librivox.org>: Morella, The Oval Portrait, The Bells, The Black Cat. The Cask of Amontillado, A Dream Within a Dream, Eldorado, An Enigma, For Annie, Ligeia, The Masque of the Red Death, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and To Marie Louise.
Narratives of Poe's life and works - sometimes popularly adapted to explain one another - became a staple of educational television documentaries. The American Masters program on PBS in 1995, "Terror of the Soul," featured appearances by Philip Glass, Alfred Kazin, Patrick Quinn, Kenneth Silverman, and Richard Wilbur. The A&E Poe program for the Biography Channel contained commentaries on Poe's life and works by Paul Clemens, Jeff Gerome, John T. Irwin, and J. Gerald Kennedy. Maryland Public Television aired another Poe video biography. The World Wide Web is now host to tens of thousands of Poe images: a Google Image search produces 73,800 hits. One of the oldest Poe web sites, Peter Forrest's <http://www.houseofusher.net/library.html>, has a rich collection of links to Poe media: animation, artwork, clothing, comics, humor, home pages, images, movies - film, documentaries, and video - multimedia - CD-ROMs and games, music and musicals, personalities, podcasts, restaurants, references to Poe in media, RSS, search, video, wine, and worldwide sites.
In the 1990s the new recording and transmission media (HDTV, broadband internet, satellite dishes, optical cables, and high density DVD) went well beyond the traditional capabilities of telephone, film, and television to make up what are called the "New Media." Today camera cell phones, personal information devices, wireless Internet receivers, and MP-3 players contribute to digital convergence - the unprecedented merger of text, image, sound, video, animation, and any anything else that can be represented, reproduced, or transmitted through binary coding.
But that is not all. Although some social networks, such as MySpace, are purely personal, other social networks actively contribute both to the collective authorship of information and its interactive distribution. For example, Wikipedia, using collaborative Wiki software, is constantly being written and rewritten by its own readers and has become the most popular online general encyclopedia. (The first item listed in a Google search of Poe is the Wikipedia entry on him.) Recently Wikipedia added videos in Wikimedia Commons <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Literature>, reporting that 1,000,000 media files had been uploaded to its web site within two years of its launching in 2004. (Incidentally. Poe aficionados are needed to contribute to Wikipedia's companion projects, WikiMedia, WikiQuote, and WikiSource - the last being only partially filled thus far as a proposed complete repository of Poe e-texts.)
The cooperative video exchange site YouTube was purchased late in 2006 by Google for the remarkable price of $1.65 billion. At the time of writing, YouTube listed 827 Poe video items already uploaded by volunteers: the user can sort them by duration, relevance, ratings, views, date, and title. (Tip: start your search not with individual Poe titles but with someone's YouTube playlists). Since anyone can upload or download a YouTube video, the collection is untidy. The Poe videos have been sorted into several categories: entertainment (204), film and animation (155), music (67), comedy (63), people and blogs (34, including some school presentations), news and politics (13, mostly Poe gravesite observances), games (8), pets and animals 6 (chiefly ravens and black cats, naturally), "how to" or do it yourself (4), and travel and places (4, chiefly Baltimore). Among the education features are a Web English Teacher "webquest" for students working with "William Wilson" and a lesson plan to create a local production of "The Tell-Tale Heart." In the category embracing live performance, animation, stop motion, and music videos, I found a mixed bag of Poe-related material: Snoopy the Musical, Vincent Price, The Beatles, UPA animation (James Mason), Christoper Walken, John Astin, Basil Rathbone, a setting of Spiderman, Skippy the puppet, Peter Lorre, and a concert performance of Rachmaninoff's "The Bells."
While I was editing this column, Google announced that it was initiating its "Universal Search" so that a single search will result in cross-media results from its regular search engine, books, local data, images, news, and videos all at once. Amazon already offers a similar integrated approach in its customizable A9 Open Search at <http://www.a9.com>, combining Amazon books, answers.com, Wikipedia, and other entertainment and reference services.
I must mention that my favorite discovery while browsing Poe titles on YouTube was "The Raven" as performed by The Simpsons. Unfortunately, you can enjoy this only in Spanish or in German, since the English language version has been withdrawn in response to 20th Century Fox's claim of a copyright violation. There already are several major copyright suits against Google because of uploads to YouTube. There were serious disputes in recent years between music and film producers and the fans who were accused of illegal sharing and downloading. Yet video phones and Internet blogs are producing a potentially larger media revolution, having already redefined both the serious and popular news media. Will the potential energy in these new social networks equal the potential energy of electricity in Poe's day?
Thirty years ago in Neuromancer (1984) Gibson described cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions ... a graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system." A few years later he broadened the notion, admitting that it was only a "suggestive buzzword." In the 1990s the word cyberspace came to signify not the original visual representation of data on a network but rather the digital telecommunications network itself, typically the Internet or the World Wide Web. Big computer hardware dominated the1960s; a generation later, personal computer software dominated the 1980s. Will social networks such as Wikipedia and YouTube become the next dominant element in the Information Revolution in the 2000-decade?
A final note. It is curious that 20th Century Fox interfered with The Simpsons' production of "The Raven" in English on YouTube for copyright reasons but spared The Simpsons' version (or should we say subversion?) of Hamlet. Is that because Poe lends himself to the short, participatory representations characteristic of the "New Media" more readily than Shakespeare does? If so, then the blurb may prove true again: "Poe is a web diva."
Rutgers University - Newark
Note: "Poe in Cyberspace" columns are available here at eapoe.info