Catherine Baab-Muguira had experienced depressive episodes since childhood, but she reacted differently to an especially difficult period a few years ago. Finding herself unable to eat, sleep or work, she began reading Edgar Allan Poe for the first time since elementary school.
Unexpectedly, she realized that Poe was a fellow traveler and that his spooky stories about premature burial and torture were deliberate, exquisite metaphors for the pain of the human condition. Reading on, she discovered that Poe could be very funny, too.
“His letters are so relatable because he bitches about his bosses, tells white lies to friends and endlessly puffs himself up to would-be employers and investors,” Baab-Muguira says. “He’s just like the rest of us, lovable and oddly beautiful despite his many dire flaws. Maybe because of them, too.” One night having a beer with a friend, she mentioned how Poe was cheering her up, giving her – of all things – hope. Her friend’s response was, “That sounds like a book.”
“Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru,” from Hachette, uses a dark role model, maybe the darkest possible role model, and that’s the point. “Virtuous heroes are kind of intimidating, or at least tough to emulate,” the author explains after spending close to four years reading Poe’s oeuvre, as well as journalism collections of the era and a great deal of Poe biography. “But take a screw-up and measure yourself against him and you’ll feel better, not worse.”
Baab-Muguira believes Poe was a genius at many things, especially self-sabotage and writing. Taking a closer look at his life and work she began to see something new, namely that it can be possible to mess up your life and achieve your greatest goals anyway.
The author is the first to admit there’s not much motivation to read Poe today, during some of the weirdest, darkest moments in recent history, and especially amidst a “Masque of the Red Death”-like pandemic that has affected many people’s livelihoods and harmed their mental health. “Life is a dark joke at the best of times and these aren’t the best of times,” she adds. “Without being in any way glad for such widespread suffering, I have to say the book probably couldn’t be released at a better time.”
She points out that a lot of us need some dark, yet grounded inspiration to help deal with the setbacks in our social lives, economic lives and even our best-laid life plans. And the fact is, one of the great consolations of reading about Poe’s life is how, no matter what we’re facing, he likely dealt with worse. Half-jokingly, she calls her philosophy “Poe-sitivity,” suggesting that if you take Poe’s unconventional cues and lean into your own dark side, you can carve out your own unique, notorious place in history.
“It’s a perverse thought, yet a hopeful one,” Baab-Muguira asserts. “And honestly, from my own depressive moments, I can tell you it’s an easier message to hear than ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ or ‘lean in’ or basically anything you find in conventional self-help.”
“Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru,” is available signed at the Poe Museum and Fountain Bookstore, or online. There’s a reading at the Poe Museum on Sept. 7 at 6 p.m., 1914 E. Main St.
More Fall Book Events
Author and historian Karen L. Cox discusses her book “No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice,” which examines the efforts to raise, preserve, protest and remove Confederate monuments while focusing on what the statues meant to those who erected them and how a movement arose to force a reckoning. Sept. 14, 6 p.m., Library of Virginia. Free
Author David O. Stewart discusses his new book, “George Washington: the Political Rise of America’s Founding Father,” making a case for Washington’s rise being one of the great self-reinventions in history given his scant education and limited inherited wealth. Sept. 15, noon, Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Free to members with registration and livestreamed to the public on Facebook and YouTube.
A virtual discussion of Ryan K. Smith’s new book, “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries,” the first comparative study of Richmond’s cemeteries from the city’s founding to the present, as well as efforts made toward their preservation. Sept. 23, 6 p.m., Library of Virginia. Free, but registration required.
Former U.S. Sen. and Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb’s new political memoir, “In the Arena: a Memoir of Love, War, and Politics” is the subject of a conversation between Robb and former Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton. Oct. 6, 5:30 p.m., Library of Virginia. Free, but registration required.Back to the Fall Arts Preview