The Tell-Tale Genius

Edgar Allan PoeThere are a lot of great and interesting birthdays, but I’m going to have to make this quick because of filial obligations.

On this day in 1807, the great tragic character of the Civil War Robert E Lee was born. I think it is important to see him in the context of his time. In his time and place, we would probably have to call him a liberal. But was he a slave owner? Absolutely. Was he an apologist for slavery? Absolutely. And above all else, did his military brilliance prolong the institution of slavery and cause hundreds of thousands of more casualties in the war? Almost certainly. He was not the icon that he has come to represent, but who is? I don’t doubt, however, had he been born in Philadelphia, he would have been against slavery and be a help in ending the war sooner.

The great post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne was born in 1839. When I was young, I really didn’t like him. Now, he is probably my favorite of the bunch. I’m not exactly sure why this is except that when I was younger, pure impressionism with its hazy realism appealed to me. Perhaps it is the mathematician in me, but I really like the way his work is constantly out of kilter—but in a very appealing way. Although I like his portraits more, you can see it most clearly in something like the following, Maison Maria on the way to the Chateau Noir:

Maison Maria - Cezanne

Film director Richard Lester is 82 today. He is quite good and I’m very fond of some of his films. In particular, he directed A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and The Three Musketeers (and its “sequel”). But here’s what Wikipedia say about him, “Lester is notable for his work with The Beatles in the 1960s and his work on the Superman film series in the 1980s.” Okay. Lester also directed Help! So what?! But the Superman films? Really?! He made some great films and I suppose that the Superman films were okay. But what’s best about Lester is directorial wit. And there isn’t much of that on display in those later blockbusters.

Other birthdays: the great electrical engineer James Watt (1736); positivist Auguste Comte (1798); anarchist philosopher when it didn’t mean you were ignorant or just totally lacking in empathy, Lysander Spooner (1808); critic Alexander Woollcott (1887); actor Jean Stapleton (1923); actor Tippi Hedren (84); independent filmmaker Larry Clark (71); increasingly cadaverous Dolly Parton (68); singer-songwriter Robert Palmer (1949); actor Katey Sagal (60); comedian Paul Rodriguez (59); businessman Thomas Kinkade (1958); and journalist Martin Bashir (51).

The day however, belongs to the great writer Edgar Allan Poe who was born on this day in 1809. There is no writer whose stature increased so much in my mind during the course of my lifetime. I read quite a lot of Poe when I was younger, but it didn’t strike me as particularly great. It was just a lot more fun than the other stuff on offer at the school library. But now, I read Poe in context and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that his work was revolutionary. And as a writer of fiction myself (or at least one who attempts), his use of first person narrative is amazing. I think “The Black Cat” is actually a better story because it shows the disintegration of the narrator’s mind. But “The Tell-Tale Heart” is shorter and so easier to get people to listen to. Here is Vincent Price performing it, as it is written, just as crazy at the beginning as the end:

Happy birthday Edgar Allan Poe!

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