I did not expect to find Edgar Allan Poe on the Oregon coast over 3,000 miles away from his East Coast abodes of Boston, Massachusetts and Richmond, Virgina, but seeing his face was a welcome surprise. Well, faces is more accurate.
In the Books ‘n Bears shop in Florence, Oregon, along a street that borders the Siuslaw River, I purchased an Edgar Allan Poe tote bag for roughly $20. This bag, made in the United States by the company Out of Print, measures 15 inches wide and 17 inches tall, matching the standard tote bag size. Two rectangular pieces of steel-gray canvas, constructed out of cotton, are neatly sewn together along three of their four aligning edges so that the top of the bag — with two one-inch-wide straps made of the same canvas — is wide open and accessible. The two walls of this bag lie flat when empty. The sturdy canvas is not stiff, pliable enough to be folded in half at least four times over. Along one side of the inside hem, immediately inside the mouth of the bag, a small gray pocket roughly five inches deep is attached. It is for the small things that should not sink to the bottom, presumably, like keys or spare change. The opening of the pocket, like the bag itself, does not have a zipper, button, or clasp for closure.
The bag’s connection to Poe literally stares the viewer in the face. True to the company’s name for this tote, Edgar Allan Poe-ka Dots, two-inch black-and-white prints of Poe’s face evenly pattern both sides of the bag. The printed faces appear in straight horizontal lines across the bag, usually five or six per row, and looking in the direction of the columns they make, the designs zig-zag, resulting in a symmetric pattern, but not overly tidy and squared. Each Poe head gives its neighbors an equal distance from itself. On one side of the tote, I count 33 whole Poe faces, though there are some that got cut off on the side seams. The images of Poe are identical, white faces accented with black hair, dark eyes, and lopsided mustaches that closely resemble the distinct, off-kilter visage in Poe’s portraits.
The Poe-ka Dot tote hung with other literary-themed totes from Out of Print in Bears ‘n Books, though the Poe bag was observably the black sheep of the collection. One cream-colored tote sported the memorable cover artwork from Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are,” another with the droopy eyes and damp blue background of the “The Great Gatsby’s” significant cover. On both sides of a green tote, the front and back cover art from Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s children’s book, “Goodnight Moon,” was reprinted with all the details of the rabbit tucked into bed, white stars in the window, and golden slippers on the floor. Every tote featured iconic cover art well-established in children’s, young adult, and adult literary canons. For Poe, though, the bag features his face. Compressed into an icon, popped onto the canvas sine corpus again and again. My Poe bag’s maker, Out of Print, sums up its purpose as “Books, worn well.” The muses for Out of Print’s designs come from canonic books like the “Harry Potter” series, “Alice in Wonderland,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” These products — T-shirts, totes, enamel pins, mugs, journals, toddlers’ socks, and more — showcase popular literary interests across all ages. Other designs reflect nerdier book-loving, library-frequenting attitudes; just in the collection of tote bags, designs include the blank lines of an old-fashioned library check-out card and, in stylized gold text on black canvas, a quote from J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger: “When in doubt, go to the library.” The reason why Poe’s tote does not feature cover art is clear — he mostly wrote short stories and poems that would appear in newspapers and journals, so there are no images that correlate with, specifically, the cover art for Poe’s tales. There are two icons affixed to Poe in Out of Print’s collection of merchandise: His face and the raven.
These Poe-ka dots adorn items like men’s boxers, a teal scarf, a gray tea mug. Other shirts are sold with a print of a raven adorning the front, referencing one of Poe’s best known works (all the shirts come in shades of gray, offering a colorless depiction of the poem and Poe). “The Raven” is, arguably, where many readers transpose Poe into the place of the narrator. This conflation can happen while reading other Poe stories, as it’s common for him to set the scene through an unnamed male narrator. But the trend of affixing Poe inextricably with “The Raven” is chronic in popular culture, due to the fact that “The Raven” is his most well-known work. Still, hardly any other auther is swallowed up by their text quite like Poe; never have I seen icons of J.K. Rowling’s face, nevermind correlating her personage to Professor Minerva McGonagall, say, so much that Rowling is McGonagall. The trend of associating Poe’s art with his face is reproduced through Out of Print’s Poe collection, and my personal Poe tote.
What’s the most appropriate use for my Poe-ka dot bag, I wondered. What utility best represents and honors the memory of that prolific writer in tote form? In Poe’s writings, unsurprisingly, he did not delve into explicating the importance of bags. In “The Balloon Hoax,” a fictitious story in the form of a newspaper article, bags are featured in his description of the tale’s hot-air balloon. “The supporting power being estimated at 2500 pounds, and the united weights of the party amounting only to about 1200, there was left a surplus of 1300, of which again 1200 was exhausted by ballast, arranged in bags of different sizes, with their respective weights marked upon them — by cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters.” (747)1 I believe it is safe to say Poe holds no strong feelings for bags; their purpose also in regard of the hot-air balloon is strictly utilitarian, with no evidence for any poetic or metaphorical aspects, in Poe’s view. Perhaps there is not a correct way to use the Poe tote. If there is a best way, I certainly don’t practice it.
My neck-less Poes have traveled with me many places, notably from that riverside shop in Oregon to Kansas, crumpled up in my suitcase and stowed in airplane bellies. For the most part, my gaggle of Poes accompany me as I shop for groceries. Stuffed inside a bigger, superior reusable shopping bag (the mother bag, lime green and insulated for cold foods) the Poes cannot see my indecision in the aisles as I think, “Should I get the Power Greens mix or just spinach for my salads this week?” Blinded, my Poes feel the jostle in the bottom rack of my shopping cart when I push soy milk and frozen pizza up against the dense bag of bags. After the grocery checker rips the tote out from the pack — Poe faces shiny under the fluorescent lights — they stuff it with pasta sauce jars, a box of granola bars, kombucha, bread, Power Greens. I’ll place my Poes in the trunk of the car, then in my hands, then to the kitchen counter. After I take the groceries out of the bag, I usually throw it onto my living room floor with the other canvas bags so that my cat can play with them. Sometimes she will dart around, hunting her pink mouse toy in the flaps and folds, or she will simply sit on top of the bag pile. Does it seem appropriate for the Poe faces to be in the company of a black cat’s underbelly? I think so.
Just as it is not appropriate to equate Poe with his fictional narrators, it might not be appropriate to tarnish his legacy for the sake of outward literary flair in the threads of tote bags, socks, and raven-clad T-shirts. The intended consumer of these products aims to show themselves as well-read, appreciative of the mentioned author’s works. The Poe-ka Dot bag serves as a bookish status symbol, and perhaps also a reincarnation of Poe himself, since I did purchase at least 66 ghostly Poe heads along with my tote. The irony here: Poe’s face has become the icon of his stories, not his stories speaking for the talents of the man. Readers of canonized Poe — drunk Poe, dark Poe, haunted-by-the-raven Poe — equate him to his fictional narrators so much that the story of Edgar the penniless writer in pop culture has replaced his work. Poe’s biography is essential, many think, to understanding his grim tales. His life mirrors (or is at least supposed to mirror) the gray tones of his narratives, the serious prose reflected in his own visage, tales of imagined fantasy intertwined with Poe’s life. Though his writings were never autobiographical, we perceive Poe as the man haunted by the raven. He is the fiendish “Black Cat” abuser. He is Arthur Gordon Pym sailing ghostly white chasms. He is Ligeia’s opium addicted lover. So 66 Poes live on in my home, affixed to gray canvas, usually resting in that bag of bags in the living room closet until they are needed again. A stray cat hair tickles the nose of the centermost Poe. I like to think that the floating Poe heads listen (though invisible, I am sure they have ears) to the goings-on in and around my apartment. I like to think that they ponder, flat printed brains brewing up stories never told. By: Dene Dryden