by Ellen Ullman
(Farrar, Straus and
Edgar Poe was orphaned before he was three years old. He was taken into the household of a tobacco merchant, John Allan; and although Poe would take Allan as his middle name, he remained a ward, never formally adopted. Poe and his guardian could hardly have been more mismatched. Allan gave Poe a classical education but then withheld sufficient financial support, evidently expecting his foster son to become a man of commerce, to make his own way in the world. Poe, however, was Byronic in temperament, rebellious, determined to be a poet and a writer; a gambler who was wholly unsuited to the making of money.
I did not know much about Poe's biography until I began writing this blog post about the American writers who have influenced me. I thought it might be enough to say that my attraction to Poe could be explained by my love of Poe’s “dark tales,” which I read over and over as a child; by the seven times in one week I watched the movie The Pit and the Pendulum; the same for The Fall of the House of Usher. In high school, I was forced to memorize “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells” and “The Raven.” My classmates groaned; I was happy for this coercion. It gave me lifelong memories of the kingdom by the sea; the bells’ horrid and relentless descent from silver twinkling to iron moaning; the devastation of the line in “The Raven”: “Darkness there and nothing more.”
Poe’s life, however, may be the deeper explanation for his influence upon me, I can see now. I was born an illegitimate child. I was adopted as a baby into a loving family but one in which my mother and I were like corundum abrading each other. My father, a wonderful man, was dedicated to business. Meanwhile I spent hours locked in my bedroom with my “dark tales”; sat in a dim living room enjoying terrifying movies; lay on a sofa with my eyes closed, gladly suffering the exquisite torture of Beethoven’s late quartets.
Unbelievable as it might seem, I was not conscious of Poe’s profound effect upon my latest novel, By Blood, until I was some way into its composition. The crows that play such an important role in the book, as the representation of the narrator’s “nervous condition,” were based upon actual crows. After the demolition of a bridge anchorage next to my apartment building, the surrounding bird neighborhood changed abruptly: The mourning doves and tiny wrens suddenly disappeared, and legions of crows took their places. To this day, they land on an electrical pole not a foot from my window, cawing, flapping their slick black wings, hunting with those pinpoint eyes, intelligent creatures watching me too closely.Laura Miller has called Ellen Ullman “a rarity, a computer programmer with a poet’s feeling for language.” Constance Hale concurred in her Wired review of Ullman’s 1997 memoir Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, “We see the seduction at the heart of programming: embedded in the hijinks and hieroglyphics are the esoteric mysteries of the human mind.” Computer programmers become characters in Ullman’s first novel The Bug (2003) which Geraldine Brooks found “by turns love story, tense psychological drama, and comedy of (very bad) manners. The Bug is an edgy and irresistible journey into lives all too rarely visited by literary types.” Her new novel By Blood departs the tech world: a psychological thriller set in San Francisco in the pre-tech 1970s. Writing about it in The New York Times Book Review, Parul Sehgal marveled at “How beautifully this book restores to us the uses, the sensuality of sound—our awareness of how much information we are passively gleaning and unconsciously filing away.” Ullman lives in San Francisco and frequently writes about technology for Harper’s, Salon, and The New York Times Magazine.
The crows in By Blood are therefore “real.” And they are also Poe’s creatures: “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt.” And mine. The crows are my inheritance from Poe, passed on to me through what I might call our dark kinship.
Before beginning this piece, I took down my old Penguin paperback of Poe’s writings. The pages are browned; you can tell how old the book is by the price: $2.95. I read one of the few tales I had missed during the many years the book had sat on my shelf. In “The Man of the Crowd,” an unnamed narrator looks out the window of a cafe, noting the many types of people he distinguishes among the throng. Suddenly, he finds himself drawn to a strange man. He follows the man from district to district for a day and a night, trying to understand his attraction to this “incarnation of the fiend.”
I was so startled to see how closely Poe’s storyteller resembled the unnamed narrator of By Blood that I thought I must have already read “The Man of the Crowd.” Both watchers are alone, and hidden, stalking life at a distance, as Poe put it: like “a certain German book that ‘er lasst sich nicht lesen’—it does not permit itself to be read.” But I am sure that, before today, I had never read this Poe tale; that I must have inherited his “Man” as I had inherited his Raven, who came down to me as my narrator and my crows.
Also of interest:
- “A Professor, a Thriller, not a Microchip in Sight,” a recent profile of Ellen Ullman in The New York Times
- Mat Johnson’s Pym twists anew a controversial Edgar Allan Poe adventure tale, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- “The Domain of Arnheim” by Edgar Allan Poe, a previous Story of the Week
- Other “Influences” posts by Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lev Grossman, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Emma Straub