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 achievements, and because they were scientific achievements, 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.