TEN MOST OUTRAGEOUS POE MYTHS

Poe, who died this month (Oct 7) .  Can you see the smile?

1. Poe’s Gambling Problem. Of these three writers, which one did not constantly beg for money from their parents well into middle-age?  Edgar Poe, T.S. Eliot, or Ezra Pound?

Answer: Poe.   Poe was a mere boy when he was short of money, sent at 17 to the University of Virginia without enough funds for room and board. (Poe’s guardian John Allan was unfaithful to his wife and the boy poet took her side—this was the source of the friction between Poe and Allan.) Poe supposedly gambled and drank away Allan’s money.  No. In the early days of Thomas Jefferson’s institution, every student gambled and drank (and routinely fired pistols).  Poe excelled academically, lucky to survive the school’s violence and his shortage of basic funds, thanks to a sulky, half-mad guardian. Poe headed north, without a degree, without a penny, and succeeded in the army—at 18.  By 20, he published poems that would make him famous, by 21 he had entered West Point, and had nothing more to do with Allan, or the estate in which he was raised.

2.  The Macabre Myth  Was Poe macabre?

Answer: Poe never wrote of vampires, zombies, werewolves and none of his works can be classified as scary.  Just as Shakespeare wrote comedies, histories, and tragedies, as well as songs and poems, Poe, America’s Shakespeare, wrote in every style under the sun—even as he invented whole genres of literature.  To narrowly ascribe “the macabre” as the essence of Poe is the height of ignorance.

3. The Narrow View of Poetry Myth  Did Poe think all poems should resemble his “Raven?”

No. Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven,” and his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” were scientific acheivements, and because they were scientific acheivements, we find in them specific results.  With Poe, the experiment, in which he proceeded to create a popular poem within material, laboratory conditions, reflected a series of concretized suppositions—he did not simply proclaim a generality, which is always safer to believe in, especially when the vagueness produces the illusion of freedom.  Modernist pronouncements, such as “make it new,” or “no ideas but in things,” or “poems must be difficult,” are essentially poetic behaviors  one ought to follow—the advice of a priesthood seeking to artificially create for itself a certain authority, unlike the more scientific outlook grounded in material conditions we get from Poe: “a long poem does not exist,” for instance.

4. The Humorless, Friendless, and Tragic Life Myth.  Was Poe hopelessly morbid and oppressed?

Poe was a happy man. He reveled in his literary abilities. “As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.” (The Murders in the Rue Morgue)  One has to remember that Poe did not revel in the gruesome, like a Stephen King, but in the mind that triumphs over the gruesome.  Poe presents murders to be solved, never as mere causes of mayhem.  Poe never indulged in the gruesome for its own sake. Poe’s stories sometimes travel a dark path, but always with fortitude and hope, and even a sunny disposition:

“They were fearfully—they were inconceivably hideous; but out of Evil proceeded Good; for the very excess wrought in my spirit an inevitable revulsion.  My soul acquired tone—acquired temper. I went abroad. I took vigorous exercise. I breathed the free air of heaven. I thought upon other subjects than death. I discarded my medical books. “Buchan” I burned.  I read no “Night Thoughts”—no fustian about church yards—no bugaboo tales—such as this. (The Premature Burial)

His tale, Some Words With A Mummy, is a comedy. Poe escaped many of the agonies of his contemporaries, such as James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, and Abraham Lincoln, having never lost a child—because Poe had none. By that measure alone, Poe was happier than most of his fellow men. Longfellow lost his wife in circumstances at least as tragic as Poe’s. Poe was not a back-slapping, uproarious man, but it is wrong to assume he had a predisposition to misery. He was as happy as it is possible for any sensitive genius to be, no more, no less.  Poe’s handwriting reveals the steady, the neat, and the clear, with a certain exquisite delicacy in the flourishes; there is no sign of rashness, impulse, or pain.  Poe had plenty of friends, but they aren’t interesting to biographers, because they were not tongue-waggers, and only had nice things to say about Poe. And, lastly, I swear, when I study Poe’s famous photographic portraits, I can detect the faintest trace of a smile.

5. The Inevitable Death Myth   What are the real facts of Poe’s death?

We don’t know the real facts of Poe’s death itself, but we do know many facts surrounding Poe’s death, and these plainly indicate murder.  The fact that we don’t know the facts of Poe’s death is a fact in Poe’s death. The unkindness of Griswold’s obituary in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune is often cited, but what is never remarked upon is the Tribune’s failure, and the failure of any newspaper at the time, to report the facts of Poe’s death.  Who were the men that found Poe, and where did they take him, and why?  What was his condition when found?  Where is the autopsy? Horace Greeley’s Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and other papers had a duty and an obligation to ask these questions.  None did. The contemporary reportage, if it can be called that, amounted to ‘that poor miserable fellow—his name was Poe—is dead. It’s a pity.’  The reportage since has taken its cue from that initial injustice. The whole history of Poe’s death has been merely the repetition of hearsay, without any investigation whatsoever—when any investigation ought to begin with whatever surrounding evidence is at hand—such as, why was the death completely covered up in the first place?  The fact is, “friends” did not find Poe half-dead in Baltimore, and a “friend” did not circulate the silly rumor, known as the ‘cooping’ theory.  This is where any investigation must start—with the behavior of the press itself, and the behavior of Poe’s so-called “friends,” including his cousin, Neilson Poe, and Snodgrass, the Baltimore Sun employee, and a former intimate correspondent of Poe’s.  Oh, by the way, the rabies theory was long ago discredited.  There’s also no evidence that Poe was declining mentally or physically in the last year of his life, when he turned forty, and was still writing in a lively manner, having just published Eureka, his remarkable scientific essay.

6. The Drunkard/Druggy Myth  Was Poe A Drug Fiend?

Once and for all, no.  This myth helped Poe become famous, but the ‘evidence’ comes to us from a tiny portion of Poe’s letters, and first, we must remember that Poe’s slanderer, Rufus Griswold (who actually fits in his actual person the persona created for Poe) somehow became Poe’s sole literary executor—and was caught altering and forging Poe’s papers.  The biographical question can clearly be seen as Poe’s friends saying he was sober on one hand, and his enemies, including recent biographers like Kenneth Silverman, saying he was not.  Looking at the evidence of Poe’s handwriting, and the material fact of his constant literary output, and the chaste, heroic, ratiocinative, clever nature of his writings in general, the side one comes down on says more, probably, about the reader, than Poe himself.

7.  The Southern Poe Myth   Did Poe aspire to Southern gentry?

No.  John Allan raised Poe as Southern gentry, and to the swaggering, adulterous John Allan’s chagrin, the ungrateful Poe decided to become a poet instead. Poe spent most of his highly successful working life in the North.  Poe was not part of the rancor which grew between North and South and eventually almost destroyed the United States in the 1861-1865 war.  Poe sought a healthy balance between the two regions—New York and Boston cliques dominated the scene and Poe’s sense of fairness was acute.  In Poe’s voluminous writings, we find no defense of slavery, or the usual racial myths which dominated the discourse of his day.  Poe was universal, not regional, in his approach, and this, in fact, was at the heart of his writing, and his personal life.  He was probably the least fanatical, and least provincial person, who ever lived.

8. The Nasty Critic Myth  Was Poe a harsh critic?

Poe does rough up an author occasionally.  He did a number on Emerson’s friend, the poet William Ellery Channing—nephew to the famous Unitarian minister and friend to T.S. Eliot’s grandfather—a review that led directly to Emerson’s “jingle man” remark in conversation with a young William Dean Howells, years after Poe’s death.  Poe’s review of Channing’s is not only highly correct, but highly funny, and we forgive Poe as we read it today in direct ratio to how he was not forgiven by those affected by the harsh review in Poe’s day.  But Poe always said good things—even in the Channing review he quotes what he likes—when he could, and wrote many a favorable review of good writers, like Elizabeth Barrett and Nathaniel Hawthorne; it is true he always pointed out what he thought were flaws—that was his nature; he decried ‘the puff’ and never wrote one himself.  He was certainly no back-scratcher or blurbist, and this ought to be seen, especially, in our day, as highly meritorious.  Finally, Time has shown his judgments to be astute—in whatever work he may have happened to be reviewing.

9. The Whitman Myth  Is Whitman really more relevant than Poe?

This idea was established by Harvard professor F.O. Matthiessen in the 1940s.  It’s rubbish.

10. The Harold Bloom Myth  Why were 20th century critics so unkind to Poe?

The answer lies with the transatlantic Modernist movement, led by Ford Madox Ford, Eliot, Pound, and their New Critic allies like Ransom and Tate, who founded the Writing Program era in America.  The Modernists’ anti-Romantic animus targeted Poe, but Poe was an even greater enemy, since he was a Writing Program to himself, and the Writing Program era was all about selling the freedom to be a writer to anyone willing to enroll and participate in mutual puffing.  Poe was poison to those who reveled in the Pound era and the Writing Program era—and he still is.  As for Harold Bloom, I assume Bloom resents Poe for being too scientific for Bloom’s fustian taste.

16 Comments

  1. Undine said,

    October 10, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Very nice, thanks. Particularly liked #2, and #4. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for people to realize Poe had a sense of humor.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks, Undine.

      Yea, ‘Humorless Poe’ may be the dumbest myth of all.

      Tom

  2. Anonymous said,

    September 29, 2012 at 2:39 am

    please make it more interesting thank you XD

  3. Anonymous said,

    September 29, 2012 at 2:41 am

    add more……..how do you say it as in…… more exciting, awesome, spooky, interesting stuff in it will you thank you XD

  4. thomasbrady said,

    September 29, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Thank you, XD. You are right. It needs to be more “awesome and spooky.”

    Tom

  5. September 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    […] be more familiar with his most popular work.  I’m not the only one who is captivated by the mythology of Poe and if you’re equally interested, I’d recommend adding Lynn Cullen’s novel to your reading […]

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 10, 2013 at 8:32 pm

      Thanks for linking this Scarriet post to your review!

      By the way, the novel, Poe and Fanny by John May covers the same ground.

      Poe is somewhat like Shakespeare—very little is known of Poe’s intimate life. To read “The Sonnets” as biography doesn’t work. The same is true with Poe’s writings, even his letters. It takes a great detective to know Poe at all.

  6. Frank Avon said,

    November 1, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    I’m new to your site, still finding my way around. (I am hard-wired to need a Rand-McNally Road Atlas, so I’m trying to draw my own. I think I have a rough idea of where Main Street is, and I’ve found a dozen or so back alleys and side streets, but I’m still seeking the four-directional system.)

    Your comments on W.C. Williams first attracted me (and Edgar Lee Masters and Edna St. Vincent Millay), but you really won my alliance with statements about the Academic Movement such as this one: “The Modernists’ anti-Romantic animus targeted Poe, but Poe was an even greater enemy, since he was a Writing Program to himself, and the Writing Program era was all about selling the freedom to be a writer to anyone willing to enroll and participate in mutual puffing. ” What I call the Academic Movement maintains itself across the decades in several inter-connected ways: (1) AM poets write for each other, NOT the Common Reader. (2) AM poets accept each other’s poems in the numerous “reviews” they edit. Not to mention the Best American Poetry series. (3) AM poets serve as judges (usually one at a time, never a panel of three – and never a Common Reader) for their numerous awards. (4) AM poets hire each other to “teach” in their Writing Workshops, patterned after Iowa’s. (5) AM poets have persuaded all colleges and universities that a reputable college or university MUST have a Writing Workshop to produce more AM poets. (6) AM poets have determined that US Poets Laureate must be AM poets. (7) Above all, AM poetry must be oblique, obscure, and “self-contained,” requiring AM critics to tell the Common Reader how to read it, providing employment to numerous English professors, associate profs, assistant profs, PhD students, and TAs. So forget about Wm. Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, even the Whitman/Ginsberg lineage, and of course EA Poe,

    I’m playing around now with a series called: “Free To Be: American Poets and American People.” Some American poets free themselves to write for their readers (e.g., the Fireside Poets); some free themselves to require their readers to “rise to their level” – a kind of elitism; some; some free themselves to be themselves (e.g., Whitman, the Confessionals, Ginsberg). I would appreciate anyone’s suggestions.

  7. Frank Avon said,

    November 1, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    Someone just asked me what I mean by Common Reader. Perhaps the briefest explanation is by Virginia Woolf herself, whose essays on literature she called ‘The Common Reader': “He is guided by an instinct to create for himself out of whatever odds or ends he can come by, some kind of whole–a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing.” According to Doctor Samuel Johnson, who may have originated the term, this common reader rises above “all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning.” The common reader is neither a professional critic nor scholar, but reads for his own personal satisfaction and self-regeneration.

    [By the way, how do I edit my own comments on this site – other than providing an addendum like this? ]

  8. thomasbrady said,

    November 1, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    Thanks, Frank. I hear your AM comments loud and clear. Unfortunately, you can’t self-edit. I’m happy to help. Tom

  9. Anonymous said,

    November 5, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    hello u am a student and i wanted to know where you got these sources?

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 5, 2014 at 8:22 pm

      Dear Student,

      The sources I use are simply everything available: Poe’s works, biographies, the Letters, the handwriting, the more you read to get a bigger picture, the better. “Midnight Dreary” (2000) by John Walsh is a good investigation of Poe’s murder, even though I don’t agree with the conclusion…but that’s not the point…take the facts available and draw your own conclusions.Some facts are hidden so we’ll never know the whole story. James A. Harrison’s 1901 biography is actually pretty good. eapoe.org is a great site.

      Tom

  10. Anonymous said,

    November 28, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    nice story

  11. Jeff Jerome said,

    December 3, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    I don’t know how I missed this! I think it’s great! However, people who believe all the myths about Poe will continue to believe in them. I’m going to post this on my Poe Facebook page for all to see. Thank you for a good article!! Jeff Jerome, Curator Emeritus, formerly with the Poe House in Baltimore.

  12. Alfred "Ed Moch" Cota said,

    December 4, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Being raised in The Fordham Section of The Bronx, I was intrigued by the myth, but the myth I came to embrace was the real neighborhood stories of Poe and His Family. My intuition felt that here was far much more to and in spite the opinions, I would discover that most of what I believed was much more accurate.
    This conclusion would culminate over the years, when I would discover a personal family secret between the pages and in my looking around my Fordham neighborhood, that was hiding in plain site… Me!
    To my surprise, I would find that I was A Cousin to both The Clemm and Poe Families. No big deal, except that my defending Cousin Edgar and The Family of Fordham is one that was, is, and will be a part of me.
    So… what was written here come pretty close to what I knew, in spite the nay sayers that still try to whitewash Cousin Edgar into a macabre comic book image, when in fact, he was a adept genius of body mind and soul.
    To this day… I question the words of Dr. John Moran… if Cousin Edgar really died in Balimore or was it made to look that way? A possible family secret that only a few can share.

    Rev./Dr. A. Edward Moch (aka: Alfred Cota)
    Actor-Director/Writer-Historian, Etc.

  13. thomasbrady said,

    December 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    The sneering falsehoods raining down from every quarter in the United States, blotting out Poe’s legacy, is perhaps the most shameful thing in the universe. Let the truth be shouted from the rooftops.

    Thank you, Jeff Jerome. You’ve caused an avalanche of visits to our Scarriet piece.

    Yes, “macabre comic book image.” Exactly. I don’t trust Dr. Moran any more than I trust Neilson Poe (cousin) or Snodgrass. Poe confessed to Snodgrass in a letter that he reviled Neilson. Poe and Snodgrass had a rather lively correspondence, which then abruptly ended. How strange, years later now, that Poe is found, many miles out of the way from his destination and his journey, a few blocks from the house of Snodgrass (who was caught red-handed doctoring the Walker note to have it look like Poe was “intoxicated”)…and then Neilson quickly shows up…and then: mysterious coverup and mysterious death. And yet every report says Poe was found by “friends” as he was dying in Baltimore.


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