Of all the classical American writers, Poe is by far the most popular with young people. This acceptance may be attributable to the fact that Poe, as a result of some quirk in his personality that Winwar endeavors to discover, remained immature all of his life. In addition, many young people can identify with Poe because of his rebelliousness, his interest in the macabre, his delight in fantasy, and his feeling of being misunderstood. Many distinguished American authors of Poe’s time and before may seem pompous, sententious, and even hypocritical to modern young Americans; they like Poe because he is so different from such authors as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and many others who believed that it was the duty of authors to be uplifting and inspiring, to promote “sweetness and light.”
Poe was largely responsible for the invention of the horror and mystery genres, so dear to young people’s hearts through television and film, and many of Poe’s own stories have been adapted to the screen, usually in a ruthlessly bowdlerized form. Poe himself has been presented on the screen as a maniacal character steeped in drugs and alcohol, someone not unlike Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Mr. Hyde. Young readers may want to know more about this strange individual’s life, and The Haunted Palace—although it is certainly not easy reading—gives them the best available introduction.
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The popularity of The Haunted Palace with intelligent young readers since its publication in 1959 demonstrates that young people will read difficult and scholarly material if it is truthful, dramatic, and appealing. Poe has always dwelt on a sort of borderline of literary respectability. It was impossible to dispute that he was a great writer, but at the same time educators were repelled by certain facets of his personal life, such as his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin, his drinking, his reputed drug addiction, and the shocking nature of his stories about murder, incest, and insanity. The fact that The Haunted Palace appears regularly on lists of recommended reading in high school and college literature courses shows that educators have developed a more realistic attitude since the beginning of the turbulent 1960’s.
Winwar obviously admires Poe and has been influenced by him stylistically, but she does not attempt to gloss over his faults. In the spirit of the best modern nonfiction, she attempts to portray her subject warts and all. What is remarkable about her book—and what especially appeals to sophisticated young readers—is the fact that she is able to reveal Poe’s megalomania and moral turpitude and still present him as a sympathetic figure. The candor displayed in The Haunted Palace had an influence on biographies written for young adults after 1959.