Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) may be the most misunderstood and the most disliked of serious writers who have made a deep impact on the American public. This is in part the consequence of his sensational and morbid themes—hysteria, catalepsy, metempsychosis, hallucinations, premature burial, the odd impulse, the bizarre fetish, the split personality, the paranoid delusion, insane revenge, and bestial murder. But more important, Poe’s general reputation is the unfortunate consequence of persistent errors of fact and interpretation that have twisted the public view of the writer’s life and work from the very beginning. Just four years after Poe’s death, the Reverend George Gilfillan proclaimed:
Poets as a tribe have been rather a worthless, wicked set of people; and certainly Edgar A. Poe, instead of being an exception, was probably the most worthless and wicked of all his fraternity . . . . He was no more a gentleman than he was a saint. His heart was as rotten as his conduct was infamous . . . . He had absolutely no virtue or good quality, unless you call remorse a virtue, and despair a grace . . . . He was, in short, a combination in almost equal proportions, of the fiend, the brute, and the genius.
Granted that poets—even in the age of the gentle Tennyson—sometimes strayed from the straight and narrow, what could Poe have conceivably done to warrant such accusations?
For one thing, Poe had the bad judgment to select as his literary executor another minister, the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Poe naively regarded him as a friend, as a sponsor of his work. But the jealous Griswold, a minor literatus, had never gotten over Poe’s candid criticism of one of his anthologies, and he harbored a thirst for revenge worthy of Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado.” At Poe’s death, he simply assassinated the poet’s character, leaving an image of Poe as the archetype of the immoral, self-indulgent, and socially subversive writer. Scarcely was the body cold when Griswold, under the pseudonym “Ludwig,” spewed out his calumnies in an obituary published in the New York Daily Tribune for October 9, 1849.
Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art lost one of its most brilliant, but erratic stars. [Italics in the original]
Turning to “the character of Mr. Poe,” Griswold called him an unbalanced misanthrope who “walked the streets in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers.” Taking Poe’s works as revelations of the writer’s own character, Griswold described him as cynical, devoid of faith in man or woman, contemptuous of the social system, shrewd, angry, envious, irascible, coldly repellent, and the dupe of villains:
There seemed to him no moral susceptibility; and what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor. He had, to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species; only the hard wish to succeed—not shine, not serve—succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.
The attitudes here expressed (and reprinted at the time in other American newspapers) were further elaborated in Griswold’s “Memoir of the Author,” which he had the malice to prefix to his four-volume edition of the writer’s works in 1850. With such a sponsor, is it any wonder that for more than a century Poe was roundly condemned by ministers, temperance advocates, high-school teachers, and other guardians of public morality?
What are the facts of Poe’s life? Thanks to Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson, we are now in a position to see the writer’s life with a clarity that none of his contemporaries (and only a very few subsequent biographers) have been able to attain. With the publication of The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849, Thomas and Jackson have now given us—in their fifty-page introduction and 919 pages of text—as complete a written record of Poe’s activities, of his family, friends, and acquaintances, of his publications and reception, as we are likely ever to have in one volume. This book is simply a splendid, massive, compendious work of biographical research—into newspapers, magazines, published and unpublished letters and journals, business account books, school and medical records, military communiques, rent receipts, and the like. If you want to know what it cost Poe’s foster father to mend the seven-year-old’s linen and to supply his shoestrings at the Misses Dubourg’s school in London in 1816, the answer is here: three shillings.
The Poe Log—like Jay Leyda’s Melville Log and The Years and Hours of Dickinson, which it resembles—is not a conventional biography. What we are given here are simply the facts—the facts without interpretation, the facts marshaled in a day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year sequence. To read through these entries is to experience a “diary” of the unfolding events of Poe’s inner and outer life and the way these events were perceived by his contemporaries. Perhaps the clearest way to suggest what The Poe Log contains is to present some typical listings. In December, 1846, at the age of thirty-seven, Poe had fallen dangerously ill in Fordham with what was commonly believed to be a lesion of the brain; his wife Virginia was dying of tuberculosis. With no income from writing, they had been reduced to abject poverty and destitution. News of their plight was published in the New York Morning Express on the fifteenth of December. (In the following entries, I have deleted some repetitive material and the documentation.)
15 DECEMBER OR LATER James Watson Webb, editor of the [New York] Morning Courier, collects “fifty or sixty dollars” for Poe at the Metropolitan Club. Sylvanus D. Lewis, a Brooklyn lawyer, donates “a similar sum” after reading “the statement of the poet’s poverty.”
16 DECEMBER. The Evening Mirror reprints the report of Poe’s illness from yesterday’s Morning Express. Hiram Fuller [the editor and a critic of Poe’s satirical sketches of the New York literati] comments: “Mr. Poe is undeniably a man of fine talents, and in his peculiar vein has written stories unequalled. We have no doubt but that with a fair field for exertion, he could produce a series of tales in grotesque-ness and force equal to those of the German Hoffman [sic]. His friends ought not to wait for publishers to start a movement in his behalf, and if they do not, we, whom he has quarreled with, will take the lead.”
AFTER 16 DECEMBER. PHILLIPS, MAINE. [George W.] Eveieth receives Poe’s 15 December letter, mailed on 16 December. He writes Louis A. Godey [publisher of Godey’s Lady’s Book) in Philadelphia, stating that Poe has told him his reason for discontinuing the “Literati” articles.
18 DECEMBER. BROOKLYN. In the Daily Eagle Walt Whitman reports: “It is stated that Mr. Poe, the poet and author, now lies dangerously ill with the brain fever, and that his wife is in the last stages of consumption.—They are said to be ‘without money and without friends, actually suffering from disease and destitution in New York.’”
19? DECEMBER. NEWYORK. Mrs. Hewitt writes Mrs. Osgood in Philadelphia: “The Poe’s [sic] are in the same state of physical & pecuniary suffering—indeed worse than they were last summer, for now the cold weather is added to their accumulation of ills . . . .
BEFORE 23? DECEMBER. LOWELL, MASSACHUSETTS. Mrs. Jane Ermina Locke . . . sends Nathaniel P. Willis her poem “An Invocation for Suffering Genius,” inspired by press reports of Poe’s illness . . . .
23 DECEMBER. NEWYORK. The Home Journal for 26 December contains Willis’ editorial . . . [proposing] that there should be an institution to assist educated and refined persons who become disabled or impoverished . . . .
23 DECEMBER. Willis writes Poe at Fordham, enclosing his editorial, the anonymous letter mentioned in it, and apparently Mrs. Locke’s poem ….
26 DECEMBER. BOSTON. The Bostonian, a weekly paper, comments: “Great God! is it possible, that the literary people of the Union, will let poor Poe perish by starvation and lean faced beggary in New York? . . .
30 DECEMBERFORDHAM. Poe writes Nathaniel P. Willis: “The paragraph which has been put in circulation respecting my wife’s illness, my own, my poverty etc., is now lying before me; together with the beautiful lines of Mrs. Locke and those by Mrs. _____, to which the paragraph has given rise, as well as your kind and manly comments in ‘THEHOMEJOURNAL.’” Since the private affairs of Poe’s family have been “thus pitilessly thrust before the public,” he must make a statement clarifying “what is true and what erroneous in the report alluded to.” It is true that his wife is hopelessly ill and that he himself has been “long and dangerously ill.” Because of his illness Poe has been in want of money, but he has never suffered from privation beyond his powers of endurance. The statement that he is “without friends” is a complete falsehood: “Even in the city of New York I could have no difficulty in naming a hundred persons, to each of whom—when the hour for speaking had arrived—I could and would have applied for aid.” Poe is now recovering his health: “The truth is, I have a great deal to do; and I have made up my mind not to die till it is done.”
To read such entries, listed day by day, is to get to know Poe partly from the inside, partly from the outside; to apprehend the unfolding of his experience as it occurs, without much in the way of biographical flashback or foreshadowing; to move forward with him without knowing where he is heading; but, at the same time, to register the anxieties felt when the fortunes of an acquaintance begin to fluctuate. The effect of such reading is a salutary antidote to lives where the biographer structures meaning in advance—for example, according to Piaget’s theories of childhood development or Freud’s Oedipal complex or Marx’s notions of class antagonism.
At the same time it is to become aware that Poe indeed had many friends, that he had a Southerner’s point of honor and sense of chivalry, that if he had ambition it was a passion to create enduring masterworks of literature and to elevate the aesthetic taste of his country and time, and that his death was deeply mourned by those who knew him well. Poe, it is true, was often destitute and suffered the humiliation of begging or borrowing money. Sometimes he lied, drank to excess, and became surly. There is no doubt that his hard-hitting reviews alienated powerful people and that he had many enemies. But he was by no means the moral monster his enemies made him out to be. Henceforth there ought to be a special circle in Dante’s hell reserved for every high-school English teacher who neglects to read this book and goes on presenting Poe’s work as if the author were one of his own demented personae, leering in the visage of Vincent Price.
The difficulties of Poe’s life were at times overwhelming. His parents, well-known thespians along the Eastern seaboard, died when he was two years old. Taken in by the successful Virginia merchant John Allan, Poe grew up in comparative ease in Richmond and in England. In all respects he seems to have had a normal youth. He had many friends, was an excellent student, and had the gifts of a superior athlete in swimming, running, and boxing. But in his adolescence, the intransigence of his literary aspirations estranged him from his practical foster father, they quarreled continually, and when young Poe ran up gambling debts at the University of Virginia in 1826 he was temporarily cut off. Obliged to subsist by his own wits, he joined the army in 1827, served a hitch, was honorably discharged, and thereafter won an appointment to West Point. But the youth who had already published two books of poetry by the age of twenty was dissatisfied with the life of a penniless cadet and contrived to get himself dismissed. When John Allan died in 1834, Poe was omitted entirely from the will.
After the grinding vicissitudes of an irregular life, Poe’s luck took an upward turn when he joined the impoverished family of his aunt Maria Clemm, a household that included her daughter Virginia, her mother, and her nephew Henry Poe, the poet’s brother. With that modicum of domestic stability, Poe began in the early 1830s to sell his short stories in Baltimore; he won some literary prizes; and he came to the attention of a local reading public. This success led to an editorial appointment on The Southern Literary Messenger, which gave him a ready outlet for his poetry, fiction, and criticism. In his creative and editorial capacity, Poe almost single-handedly made that journal the most important literary magazine of its time. By May of 1836 he felt financially secure enough to marry his cousin Virginia, a beautiful young girl not quite fourteen at the time. Thereafter, between 1838 and 1844, he performed editorial work for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia, and then removed with his family to New York, where he wrote for Willis’s Evening Mirror and other periodicals.
In many respects these were the happiest years of Poe’s life.
In many respects these were the happiest years of Poe’s life. He was deeply and tenderly in love with his young bride; Virginia’s mother gave “Eddy” a maternal sympathy and love he had never known in childhood; his book reviews established him as the best literary critic in America; and his short stories (“Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “William Wilson,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Pit and the Pendulum”) and exotic poems (“The Raven,” “Tamerlane,” “Al Aaraaf,” “To Helen,” “Lenore,” “Israfel”) established him as perhaps the most brilliant and absorbing man of letters in America. Everyone, it seemed, knew Poe’s work.
Furthermore, his critical observations— scattered throughout his essays, reviews, and letters—established him as one of the foremost romantic literary theorists of his time. His emphasis on pleasure rather than on truth in art, on the indefinite image rather than on the discursive statement, on the necessity of music and sound rather than on sense—all of these obiter dicta, however unoriginal, dazzled his contemporaries and helped to lay the groundwork for Aestheticism, Surrealism, and Symbolisme in the fin de siècle. In emphasizing mood and feeling, especially melancholy and pathos, he touched the nerve of his century. Yet even in our own era of polemical feminism, it is not difficult for many people to regard “the death of the beautiful young woman” as that artistic subject “which most induces the pleasurable excitement of melancholy.” Thus readers still seek in him the affective states that Poe cited as the end of art. Nor can there be any doubt that the preoccupation today with the lyric form owes much to his theory that true poetry inheres in a pleasurable excitement of the soul, or the intensity of an emotional affect, that can only be achieved in a brief lyric. He thought a rhymed poem not an hour in length was about all the excitement one could take in a single sitting. And his formalist insistence on a preconceived unity of effect in art became one of the foundations of the New Criticism as practiced by Ransom, Tate, Brooks, and Warren. Poe’s was essentially a jerry-built aesthetic, manufactured from limited and not always fully understood reading; but in the era of Longfellow’s pious moralizing and Emerson’s didactic meter-making arguments in verse, it had the impact in America of a revelation of genius.
The Poe Log offers many evidences of the high celebrity to which Poe attained in these years. In December of 1835, James Kirke Paulding told White of The Southern Literary Messenger that “your publication is decidedly superior to any Periodical in the United States, and Mr. Poe is decidedly the best of all our going writers. I don’t know but I might add all our Old Ones, with one or two exceptions.” In 1839 the Saint Louis Commercial Bulletin commented on Poe’s editorship of Burton’s: “there are few writers in this country—take Neal, Irving, & Willis away and we would say none—who can compete successfully, in many respects, with Poe. With an acuteness of observation, a vigorous and effective style, and an independence that defies control, he unites a fervid fancy and a most beautiful enthusiasm. His is a high destiny.” Few would have disagreed with Park Benjamin, who in 1842 remarked in the New York New World: “EDGAR A. POE—We regard this gentleman as one of the best writers of the English language now living.” Furthermore, Poe’s editorial duties at these journals and his residence in Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York had brought him into contact with the major writers of his time—Albert Gallatin, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Fitz-Greene Halleck, William Cullen Bryant, Charles King, Lewis Gaylord Clark, James Russell Lowell, and George Lippard. It is true that he made many enemies in New England, for he dared to criticize the fuzzy-minded Transcendentalists and to accuse Longfellow of plagiarism. Nearly everywhere else, however, at the peak of his career, he was held in the highest regard.
But Poe’s too frequent job-hopping was symptomatic of deep troubles, both personal and professional. At each of these magazines he was only an employee, and although at times he virtually controlled the literary department and dramatically improved the circulation, he was often at odds with the publisher about what the magazine ought to contain. And he never earned enough. Although he issued a continuous stream of reviews, articles, stories, and poems throughout the period, Poe was poorly paid and could not decently support his family. The absence of a satisfactory international copyright law made his works easily pirated and reprinted at no profit to him. Thus his fame increased, but not his store. Even with his editorial jobs, he was obliged to write for up to six hours a day, much of the time about trivial and transient authors. He also handled correspondence and oversaw proofreading, printing, and production. These chores bored him, and he sometimes sought refuge in drink. At times he failed to proofread an issue or to supply sufficient copy and alienated his bosses; and he could be nasty and egotistical when he drank. He wanted and needed a journal of his own, and for a period of years sought backers for a new magazine of literature and criticism. But the economic conditions in the 1840s were not propitious.
We must add to Poe’s professional problems the tragedies of his personal life. His wife and mother-in-law, whom he loved with a tenderness and devotion truly remarkable, were constantly in want. Mrs. Clemm did what she could as his messenger, delivering manuscripts and review copies and receiving payments. But there was never enough money. Virginia was afflicted with tuberculosis in 1842 and, during the next five years, her hemorrhages were recurrent and progressive, culminating in her death in 1847. The emotional ordeal of watching her die drove Poe to fits of profound depression. George & Graham, the publisher, later remarked:
I shall never forget how solicitous of the happiness of his wife and mother-in-law he was, whilst one of the editors of Graham’s Magazine—his whole efforts seemed to be to procure the comfort and welfare of his home. Except for their happiness—and the natural ambition of having a magazine of his own—I never heard him deplore the want of wealth. The truth is, he cared little for money, and knew less of its value, for he seemed to have no personal expenses. What he received from me in regular monthly instalments, went directly into the hands of his mother-in-law . . . . His love for his wife was a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty which he felt was fading before his eyes. I have seen him hovering around her when she was ill, with all the fond fear and tender anxiety of a mother for her first-born—her slightest cough causing in him a shudder, a heart-chill that was visible.
Perhaps as a consequence of these pressures, Poe drank—irregularly but to excess. He went through long periods of cold sobriety but could fall off the wagon at any time and be found wandering the streets in a state of delirium. Some of his “sprees” were reported in the press and circulated throughout the country; and, in an era of aggressive Temperance Reform, Poe was condemned as immoral rather than seen as the victim of a disease. After reports of his drinking had been circulating for some time, he tried to defend himself to his friend Joseph Snodgrass.
It is, however, due to candor that I inform you upon what foundations he [the publisher Burton] has erected his slanders. At no period of my life was I ever what men call intemperate. I never was in the habit of intoxication. I never drunk drams, &c. But, for a brief period, while I resided in Richmond, and edited the Messenger, I certainly did give way, at long intervals, to the temptation held out on all sides by the spirit of Southern conviviality. My sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an everyday matter to my companions. In short, it sometimes happened that I was completely intoxicated. For some days after each excess I was invariably confined to bed. But it is now quite four years since I have abandoned every kind of alcoholic drink —four years, with the exception of a single deviation, which occurred shortly after my leaving Burton, and when I was induced to resort to the occasional use of cider, with the hope of relieving a nervous attack.
These remarks smack of the rationalizations of an alcoholic, but it is doubtless true that Poe became intoxicated exceptionally easily. He told his friend George W. Eveleth that when Virginia began to hemorrhage and he despaired for her life, he
took leave of her forever & underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again—I went through precisely the same scene. Again in about a year afterward. Then again—again—again & even once again at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death—and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive—nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much.
It should be said that generally Poe led an abstemious life, “a studious and literary life,” as he called it, that was not seen by the public. But, shattered personally and professionally, he did succumb to the temptation to drink. And while travelling through Baltimore in 1849, Poe fell in with some bibulous acquaintances and was discovered on October 3 at Gunners Hall, a local tavern, drunk and incoherent. It was Election Day, ballots were cast in the tavern, and the ward heelers had made sure that drinks were plentiful. Neilson Poe, the poet’s cousin, later told Griswold that Poe had “passed, by a single indulgence, from a condition of perfect sobriety to one bordering upon the madness usually occasioned only by long continued intoxication . . . .” However that may be, Poe was carried to a Baltimore hospital, where he died on October 7 in a state of delirium tremens brought on by the toxic effects of withdrawal. After his interment, J. Alden Weston, a young admirer, remarked:
The burial ceremony which did not occupy more than three minutes, was so cold-blooded and unchristianlike as to provoke on my part a sense of anger difficult to suppress . . . . In justice to the people of Baltimore I must say that if the funeral had been postponed for a single day, until the death was generally known, a far more imposing escort to the tomb and one more worthy of the many admirers of the poet in the city would have taken place.
Poe’s defense of his studious life has considerable merit. A chronic drunkard could not have produced such a large and important literary oeuvre. And it may be true that a single drink triggered these toxic reactions. Was liquor a poison rooted in the family’s physiological constitution? Did Poe have a hereditary “predisposition” toward alcoholism? Thomas and Jackson, the compilers of The Poe Log, offer no interpretations. But William Poe, the brother of Edgar’s grandfather, seemed to think so, for he issued this warning to the poet in 1843: “There is one thing I am anxious to caution you against, & which has been a great enemy to our family, I hope, however in yr case, it may prove unnecessary, ‘A too free use of the Bottle.’ Too many & especially Literary Characters, have sought to drown their sorrows & disappointments by this means, but in vain, and only, when it has been too late, discovered it to be a deeper source of misery.” Another detail in The Poe Log suggests a predisposition brought on in childhood. Jane Scott Mackenzie later remembered that when she had visited Poe’s dying mother in 1811 she found that “the children [Poe and his sister Rosalie] were thin and pale and very fretful. To quiet them, their old nurse . . . took them upon her lap and fed them liberally with bread soaked in gin, when they soon fell asleep.” The nurse confessed to Mrs. Mackenzie that for more than a year she had “freely administered to them gin and other spirituous liquors, with sometimes laudanum, ‘to make them strong and healthy,’ or to put them to sleep when restless . . . .”
If the moral objections to Poe’s character were not enough to sink him, another kind of criticism has subsequently affected the poet’s critical reputation. This is the view that Poe’s is essentially a juvenile sensibility that appeals to other juveniles. Henry James, in his comments on Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, said in 1876 that to take Poe
with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness oneself. An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection. Baudelaire thought him a profound philosopher, the neglect of whose golden utterances stamped his native land with infamy. Nevertheless, Poe was the much greater charlatan of the two, as well as the greater genius.
T. S. Eliot likewise remarked in “From Poe to Valéry” that “if we examine his work in detail, we seem to find in it nothing but slishod writing, puerile thinking unsupported by wide reading or profound scholarship, haphazard experiments in various types of writing, chiefly under the pressure of financial need, without perfection in any detail.” Eliot thought that Poe’s verse and fiction appealed to some primitive domain of the psyche and, although his work stuck, it is not work of the kind to which we return again and again. This is reminiscent of James Russell Lowell’s comment in “A Fable for Critics”: “There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,/Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge . . . .”
Poe’s defense of his studious life has considerable merit.
Eliot was dismayed at the high reputation of Poe in France—particularly in the criticism of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry. For, indeed, it was through this Gallic admiration that Poe’s reputation was partly sustained after his death and even revivified in the twentieth century, thanks to deeper interests there in l’art pour l’art Aestheticism, Surrealism, oneiric literature, and psychoanalysis. In calling attention to Poe in France, Baudelaire wrote that
the first time that I opened one of his books I was shocked and delighted to see not only subjects which I had dreamed of, but SENTENCES which I had thought and which he had written twenty years before.
Baudelaire translated a good many of Poe’s tales, and, in “Edgar Poe, sa vie et ses oeuvres” (1856), he represented him as le poète maudit, the outcast artist in materialist America whose critical ideas in “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition” constituted a brilliant aesthetic grounded on an opposition to didactic art. Does The Poe Log enlarge upon these literary considerations? In fact it does.
Readers of The Poe Log may be surprised to learn of the extent of Poe’s public lecturing on poetry and criticism in many cities along the Eastern seaboard, occasionally to an audience as large as two thousand. On August 21, 1849 in the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner, the reviewer John M. Daniel remarked that Poe’s lecture exploded
what he very properly pronounced to be, the poetic “heresy of modern times,” to wit: that poetry should have a purpose, an end to accomplish beyond that of ministering to our sense of the beautiful.—We have in these days poets of humanity and poets of universal suffrage, poets whose mission it is to break down corn laws and poets to build up workhouses . . . .
Poe’s aestheticism was peculiarly geared to the milieu in which he wrote. For literary taste in American culture had also been corrupted by an excessive nationalism. Emerson had announced in 1836 that we had listened too long to “the Courtly muses of Europe” and ought to have a properly appreciated indigenous American art; and the book reviewers—according to the Washington National Intelligencer in the same year—began to give “exorbitant and indiscriminate praise to every American book.” The nationalistic spirit was so pernicious that, “no sooner was a novel, poem, or any work of any species, published as the production of an American author, than the periodical press, unanimously, throughout the land, were occupied in singing its praises; and in this manner many a spurious and utterly untenable reputation has been attained.”
That book reviewing then was a game of backscratching and puffery is suggested by the career of Griswold himself, who told J. T. Fields, of the Boston publisher Ticknor & Company, that “I puff your books, you know, without any regard to their quality.” Although Poe was not guiltless of this vice, especially where the female writers were concerned, he was generally appalled at the state of criticism in his time and the corruption of literary standards. As the National Intelligencer put it, Poe
boldly took up the cudgels against so pernicious an evil, and succeeded in shaking the throne of popular faith to its centre, by a series of attacks, bold, well-directed and irresistible, against a number of the most popular authors of the day. The system, too, has been followed up ever since with an industry so untiring, an impartiality so unimpeachable, an ability so undeniable, as to have extorted admiration from all sources . . . .
But if at first readers liked Poe’s critical objectivity, he developed the reputation of excessive bile, of tomahawking defenseless incompetents, and the effect of his criticism was rather like that of John Simon today. Meanwhile, his poems and stories came to be seen as brilliant but “without any redeeming admonition to the heart.” For such critiques, of course, Poe cared little. As he remarked in the Preface to The Raven and Other Poems (1845), “With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion; and the passions should be held in reverence; they must not—they cannot at will be excited with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.”
Poe’s grand indifference to the opinions of mankind suggests that profound dissatisfaction with the conditions of this world voiced in so many of his otherworldly works. Eureka in particular elaborates the sources of his strange preoccupation with the paradisal life beyond the grave. This prose poem conveys a crudely carpentered metaphysic in which the Creation itself is claimed to be the fragmentation of an Original Unity to which every particle of being seeks to return. The protagonists of Poe’s art are thus projections of this vision; they are men of imagination, exiles from a primal Paradise, voyagers in a strange land—this disease of our material existence. They have their real being in an Ideal World marked by a Unity and Oneness occurring in some primordial far-off antiquity. Thus there is next to no social context in Poe’s tales and poems.
Although he lived at a particularly turbulent time in America—while the westering movement was afoot, immigration was constant, urbanization was dawning, abolitionism and slavery were gearing up for the Civil War—Poe was never interested in giving reportorial or journalistic accounts of the sociological features of American life. For Poe, the artistic vision that might capture an intuition of paradise was the only thing that mattered. It was his passionate means of trying to unify the fragmented world of fallen reality, to recover from the primal alienation produced by the Creation itself. He therefore trafficked in the nostalgia of loss, in an ideality known only in dreams, his substitute for the horrifying actuality of the quotidian life. “Israfel,” “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Pym, “Annabel Lee,” and “Lenore” all allegorize a longing for immortality, for this lost world of Ideal Existence before birth. Accompanying this nostalgia is a concomitant fear of death and annihilation, with obsessive brooding about physical and psychological decay—the grim phantasm of fear afflicting the reason and bringing it to the point of madness, a fear reflected in his characters’ preoccupation with dreams, trances, hypnosis, catalepsy, and metempsychosis. Above all, he longed for a love that survives death, bodily dissolution, and the grave. Art, whether created or appreciated, was thus his means of transcending the paltry circumstances of the actual and attaining the effect of an intimation of immortality. As he put it in “The Poetic Principle,” the faculty of Ideality in us creates a thirst that is
no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us—but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to Eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry—or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods—we find ourselves melted into tears—we weep them—not as the Abbate Gravina supposes—through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.
Thus through art we are meant to get a vision of that Supernal Beauty, existent before the fall into birth, that is our eventual destiny.
Poe’s relation to these materials is poorly understood, for his speculative cosmology is the incoherent thought of an overworked autodidact. Readers with an interest in ideas in literature have tried to find in this anti-humanist world view a coherent philosophic statement, but without success. Poe’s grandly elaborated impatience with this valley of unrest seems to appeal most to Freudian critics, for the single perceiving self—the subject of the great works—is a self in quest of its own annihilation. To read The Poe Log, however, is to have Poe’s wild flights grounded in the actualities of his life, to see the romantic rhapsode in the context of the hurried polemical journalism of his own times, to meet the husband and son-in-law “Eddy” behind the self-created myth of the tortured romantic artist. Here he is a much more human figure than appears in any other biography. And we owe to Thomas and Jackson a profound debt for making available the raw materials on which better interpretive biographies and more penetrating criticism will henceforth be written.
- The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849, compiled by Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson; G. K. Hall, 919 pages, $75. Go back to the text.
- A selection of Poe’s criticism can be found in Essays and Reviews, one of the two volumes of Poe’s works that were published by the Library of America in 1984. The other volume is entitled Poetry and Tales. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 3, on page 17
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com