Poe’s Woes

Julian Symons

  • Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance by Kenneth Silverman
    Weidenfeld, 564 pp, £25.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 297 81253 X

The prosecution case against Edgar A. Poe looks a strong one. Taken in by the Richmond tobacco broker John Allan when left orphaned at the age of two by the death of his actress mother Eliza, brought up as a member of the family and sent to the University of Virginia, he responded by running up gambling debts and drinking, so that he left after a year. Abandonment after a few months of the Army career he had chosen involved more debts to be paid by Allan, who for the three years of life remaining to him was intermittently though unsuccessfully dunned by the young man he condemned as ‘destitute of honor & principle every day of his life has only served to confirm his debased nature’.

In the years of journalistic hackwork that followed he fell out with almost every editor and proprietor who employed him, and borrowed money he had no hope of repaying. His criticism was notable for savage attacks made on contemporaries, but when challenged he often denied writing them. He accused Longfellow and others of plagiarism, yet himself lifted chunks of prose from journals and encyclopedias. Although priding himself on unflinching personal integrity, he was prepared to write pieces in praise of the most wretched poetasters in exchange for financial support. Even so, he failed to provide for the 13-year-old cousin he married, and her mother who lived with them, partly due to his drinking bouts. Under the prosecutor’s eye he can be made to look like a less amiable Dylan Thomas.

The merit of the stories and poems called in to excuse or justify such a life has also been questioned. D.H. Lawrence called ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ an overdone and vulgar fantasy. Yvor Winters said Poe’s was an art for servant girls. Both Henry James and T.S. Eliot used the deadly word ‘provincial’. Auden condemned a sentence from ‘William Wilson’ as vague and verbose, and Aldous Huxley summed up Poe as ‘one of Nature’s Gentlemen, unhappily cursed with incorrigible bad taste ... diamond rings on every finger proclaim the parvenu.’

An admirer should begin by acknowledging the force of the case against Poe. Those who detest any tinge of Gothic will have no time for the stories, those who find only windy rhetoric in Swinburne are likely to think ‘The Raven’ and ‘Ulalume’ merely ludicrous. But Auden’s remark about that verbose sentence is followed by his acknowledgment that it shows perfectly the narrator ‘in his real colours, as the fantastic self wno hates and refuses contact with reality.’ The combination of that reality-hating self with a relentlessly logical mind finicky in its demand for accuracy gives Poe’s most outrageous stories their unique flavour, and his passionate belief in the importance of prosodic and metrical originality helps the poems to survive their occasional absurdity. Poe’s hopes or dreams were set in a never-never land like that of ‘The Domain of Arnheim’, where a rich man creates a perfect land-scape, but his feet were set in the actual existence in which he worked out the puzzles that are the first true detective stories. In the world of Arnheim the landscape creator had a fortune of $450 million that, as Poe worked out in one of his typically exact calculations, brought him $1541 an hour. When ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ appeared in Graham’s Magazine its author was paid at the rate of $4 per 600-word page, perhaps $50 in all.

One merit of Professor Silverman’s biography is that it is almost wholly factual, reminding us that to his contemporaries Poe was known and feared as a sharp, at times venomous critic, much less regarded as a poet and writer of stories in tune with the current fashion for Gothic horror. And this reflected Poe’s own estimate of his talents. No doubt he thought highly of everything he wrote (though he employed the kind of doublethink that allowed him at one moment to exult about the success of ‘The Raven’ and at the next to deprecate it as a mere metrical experiment), but it was as an editorial critic-dictator of the American literary scene that he chiefly wished to be regarded. In the erratic course of his life as a journalist in America’s Grub Street one wish was constant: to have complete editorial control over his own magazine.

This he never achieved. He was the unacknowledged editor of the Southern Literary Messenger (dismissed for drinking), did editorial work on Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (sacked or resigned after a year) and Graham’s Magazine (resigned after eighteen months). For all of these he did an enormous amount of work beyond the chores of checking proofs. He wrote long critical articles, reviews, stories, poems, and the kind of facetious fillers common to magazines of the period. During all this time he made plans for his own magazine, to be called first the Penn and then the Stylus. A prospectus was issued for both, the second assuring subscribers not only that it would surpass all other American journals in typography, paper and binding, but that it would be guided by ‘the purest rules of Art’ and employ only ‘the loftiest talent’. But possible backers faded away, and there were never enough subscribers. Three years after the collapse of the Stylus project, removed from Philadelphia to New York, Poe did briefly become the owner of a fading weekly called the Broadway Journal, the paper in which he had caused a stir by the attack on Longfellow. He made an unsuccessful attempt to get loans from friends with which to buy the magazine, and inserted an advertisement in the paper under the name of Edward S.T. Grey, one of the more likely-sounding pseudonyms he adopted, inviting any ‘gentleman of enterprise and respectable education’ with a thousand dollars or so to invest to write to him. In the end, he obtained the Journal for $50, but in spite of a heroic attempt to run the paper single-handed which involved him in writing fillers about such works as a ‘Treatise on Corns, Bunions, the Disease of Nails, and the General Management of the Feet’, the paper died within a few weeks. There are times when one wonders whether all Poe needed to make him happy was the contemporary equivalent of today’s Arts Council grant a financial angel. But like Frederick Rolfe he would have found a reason for quarrelling with any patron.

Of course Poe’s troubles went deeper, back almost to his birth, and were, as Silverman makes clear without using the word, incurable. This biography represents few factual matters of importance not already known (the five blank days before Poe’s death remain mysterious), but the filling-out of detail often from previously untapped sources make this the indispensable biography Poe students will consult for years to come. Seventy pages of notes give a good many lines of research to be followed, into manuscripts and materials sited in several American university and other collections. One of Silverman’s greatest merits is that in discussing the stories and poems he is never led to those wild shores of psycho-analytically-based allegorical meanings where Richard Wilbur, Harry Levin, Daniel Hoffman and others have happily roamed, finding that the Red Death in the story with that title is the disease of rationalism, that the tarn and the abstract painting in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ are expressions of evil, and that the exterior of the house is Roderick Usher’s body and the interior his mind. Silverman’s theorising is both strictly limited and of a more practically verifiable kind, as when he remarks that in naming characters Poe used very often the combination of ‘alla’ found in the name of his foster-father, or observes that Roderick Usher may have got his surname from Noble Lake Usher, who often performed opposite Poe’s parents Daniel and Eliza.

As Silverman shows more clearly than any earlier biographer, everything in Poe’s life leads back to his blighted childhood and youth. He was probably present when his mother died penniless in her early twenties, and his position in the Allan household was always ambivalent. He was called first Master Allan and then Master Poe, treated at times with generosity and as Allan’s son, at other times distantly and almost with contempt. The strong theatrical strain in Poe’s personality, the boastfulness and exhibitionism that led him to claim a long jump of a distance not reached in the Olympics until 1952 and to say he ‘would not think much of attempting to swim the British Channel’, earned black marks from his foster-father, to add to those against him for gambling and drinking. Yet Poe was in youth a fine athlete and was brilliantly intelligent, doing well both at the University and at West Point. The uncertainty about his own identity, exacerbated by treatment that blended generosity and dislike, make it unsurprising that the theme of double personality should play so large a part in the stories, most obviously in ‘William Wilson’, but also in ‘Usher’ and elsewhere. To quote Silverman: ‘Doubling is extensive in Poe’s tales, many of whose heroes and heroines are hard to distinguish from each other and often have the physical and mental traits of Poe himself.’

A determination to create the secure family life he never knew as a child lay behind the probably unconsummated marriage to Virginia (Poe often stressed the superiority of Ideal Love to passion) and the household life with his ‘darling little wifey’ and her mother to which Poe clung in the extremes of poverty. His comic-pathetic pursuit of other women after Virginia’s death was carried out partly in an attempt to replicate the family household (he took it for granted that Virginia’s mother Maria would be part of it), partly in the hope he always envisioned of a secure financial future. But although he got as far as the announcement of his marriage to the Transcendentalist poet Helen Whitman, it never took place. By this time Poe’s mental equilibrium had collapsed. Another marriage proposal was made and accepted, even while he was telling a third woman he could not live without seeing her, and then he was dead.

The emotional imbalance that made Poe such a maddening figure to many contemporaries provides the basis for what we value in the work. The powerful logic of a mind that loved cryptograms and puzzles prompted the five tales that are the basis of the classical detective story, yet he regarded them as mere journeyman’s work. It is his simultaneous enjoyment of and contempt for such merely rational writing, combined with his obsessions about eating and excreting and his passionate interest in bodily decay, that make the best of the horror stories so uncomfortably memorable. Auden called Poe’s longest work. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, one of the finest adventure stories ever written. That doesn’t seem an overstatement, yet it should be added that much of the book’s power comes from another obsession, the horror of being confined within a narrow, coffin-like space. With its multiple deaths, cannibalism, putrefying bodies eagerly eaten by sharks, Pym is like a nightmare version of Treasure Island.

And there is a further division in Poe, a would-be European sophistication mixed with a sort of American crassness, which has results often powerful although at times dismaying. Silverman denies Poe a sense of humour, and certainly his idea of what is funny can be remarkably crude, exploiting the Artemus Ward tradition of the appalling pun. It could also, however, be remarkably effective. The most successful example is ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’, in which lunatics take over their asylum and imprison the keepers. The story proceeds on several levels of irony, and gives Poe full play to express his dislike of contemporary do-goodism, in the form of the ‘soothing system’ by which the insane were treated with some degree of sympathy.

The case against Poe is real enough, but it would be a hard heart that did not feel sympathy for his suffering, and an imperceptive critic who did not acknowledge the power and variety of the work. There is something for everybody: the first detective stories, the most terrifying horror stories ever written, dazzlingly dotty theories about the ideal length and subjects for a poem, and some of the most extreme romantic poems of the 19th century. In his writing as in his life Poe was extreme: and it is because his fears and dreams say something to us about possibilities in our own personalities that we go on reading him.