AMERICA BIRTHED HIM, and then failed to nurture; France was first to recognise and declare his genius; England legitimately claims a part in his growth; but Scotland, too, had a hand in the shaping of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s worth teasing out these strands a little.
One forgets how early Poe comes in the history of American literature, so prior to its main strands and traditions that he is easily recast as a trans-historical figure, not quite American at all, which is why Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé came to claim him as a kind of displaced Euro-pean. The Poe bicentenary falls next year, which makes a very ‘modern’ figure seem startlingly ancient.
He spent half his life as a published writer, battling poverty, illness, neglect, the repercussions of his own ill-judged attacks on fellow-writers, and the effects of alcohol, which worked on a decent, hard-working nature like venom. Given the brief span, the body of work is astonishing, and astonishingly uneven. Within it, Poe effectively invented the modern detective story and modern science fiction, perfected the media hoax, proposed something like black holes and the Big Crunch theory of the end of the universe, wrote some of the finest and some of the most mechanical and machine-tooled of lyric poems, pretended that he wrote poems by formula and in order to present one sensation and emotion only, wrote one bad novel (it is, though one can’t imagine Moby-Dick without it) and started and abandoned a worse one, edited one of the most successful literary journals of the time, and was fired from several others for derelictions of one sort or another, being in drink or simply too clever.
Everyone knows a couple of things about Poe – that he married his 13 year old cousin; that she died of consumption; that he considered the death of a beautiful woman the only true poetic subject; that he died of the DTs or cholera or rabies or was murdered, having been picked up drunk outside a Baltimore polling station. Roger Corman kept his stories alive during the years when Poe was scarcely taken seriously by making garish B-movies out of them. Despite the best efforts of D. H. Lawrence, who placed Poe in a key position in his Studies in Classic American Literature, as did William Carlos Williams in his In The American Grain, few critics before Leslie Fiedler and Daniel Hoffman seemed willing to include him in the ‘official’ American canon.
Poe was born in Boston, hated it, and preferred not to go back much. In later life, if 30-something can be considered later, he lambasted the new Transcendentalist establishment, or ‘Frogpondians’ as he preferred, with their ecstatic liberalism and progressive view of human existence. Because Poe could have no part in this – even, as a Southerner by upbringing, in the cause of abolition – he was not considered part of the Whiggish forward-march of American letters and ideas. We owe much of what we think we know about him to a malicious obituary and subsequent cooking of the documentary evidence by Rufus Griswold, who managed to become Poe’s literary executor, and the malice took hold. When Vernon Louis Parrington wrote Main Currents in American Thought, he dismissed Poe and his entire oeuvre as the “atrabilious wretchedness of the dipsomaniac”. The cruelty just about survives the ponderous delivery.
Black bile there was in plenty, wretchedness to a disturbing extent, but it can’t all be blamed on Poe’s poor head for drink. He was, if anything, ink-sick and working in a country and in an age when publishing was still a marginal profession, unprotected by copyright, swamped by pirated imports from Britain, and subject to a critical jungle-law that Poe practised doggedly, losing most of his friends in the process. He found his truest admirers among the French Symbolists, who believed he was speaking their language (so to speak) and was in touch with the same chthonic forces they tried to tap. Poe was in his tomb by then, and dust. The promise of posterity would have been ashes in his throat.
Some of that he may have supped with his porridge. Poe was the son of a much-loved actress and her ne’er-do-well, bit-player husband, whose stage presence was so unconvincing critics made ‘Poh!’ and chamber-pot jokes of his name. Edgar took a certain proud self-presentation from his mother, querulousness and a thirst from David Poe, who departs the scene quickly. Shortly afterwards, the mother gathers the children round herself and dies, leaving two sons – doomed William Henry, twice-doomed Edgar – and an idiot daughter called Rosalie. The children were taken in by different families, and Edgar found himself fostered – never adopted – by John Allan, a Scots merchant from Virginia. Their relationship is a strange one, needy, prickly, self-justifying, unreadable. Poe’s defenders see Allan as the villain of the piece, a part that really has to go to Rufus Griswold. Any disinterested reading of the correspondence demands that Allan be accorded some understanding in the face of the orphaned teenager’s ceaseless demands, scoldings, tantrums, and fallings off the perch.
It has been pointed out before that Poe is the only classic American writer who had an English education. In one sentimental version, he had a brief Scottish one as well. In July 1815, Allan took the family back ‘home’ which he had not visited for twenty years. They made a trip to Scotland, met family around Irvine and Kilmarnock, Allan did some business in Glasgow, but the family settled in the South, setting up home eventually on Southampton Row on the fringes of Bloomsbury. One wonders what effect a visit to Scotland had on young Edgar, particularly when the castles and ruins he must have seen began to appear in successive volumes by the ‘Author of Waverley’, who made little of the money he needed from cheap American editions.
In the event, Poe went to school not in Irvine, but in Stoke Newington. Allan’s business promise went sour in the slump following the Napoleonic Wars, and the family returned to Richmond, Virginia, in 1820, after which Poe seemed to do everything in his power to alienate the man who had given him a home and was prepared to pay, and handsomely, for the boy’s education. Edgar never forget that he was the child of strolling players, and without a legacy other than want, ambition and the ability to inhabit other personalities than his own. He left the University of Virginia with no degree and some debt. He joined the army (as ‘Edgar A. Perry’) and seemed to do well in it, rising to the rank of Sergeant-Major at the age of 20. He bought himself out and began a restless shift from place to place in search of some where and one that would appreciate his literary ambitions. He later went back to West Point as a cadet, but engineered his own discharge.
‘Magazining’ was the only viable route for a young writer without any other income, and whose competence had been cut off by a foster-father whose patience was at an end. For the last fifteen years of his life, Poe went from paper to paper, from the Southern Literary Messenger in Rich-mond, to Burton’s in Philadelphia, later to Graham’s (probably the pinnacle of his professional life; he significantly built up its circulation) and to the Broadway Journal, which was at the hub of American literary life but because based in New York, it was in a North that Poe never warmed to. All the while, he dreamed of founding his own, superior magazine, to be called The Penn. It never happened, but the dream never faded. Along the way, he married cousin Virginia Clemm, fooling or bribing the minister into believing she was 21. By all accounts, he loved her without reserve. There were no children, but nothing can be deduced from that.
While in New York, Poe wrote ‘The Raven’, a poem once known line by line by just about every lettered American. He stole the bird from Dickens, having predicted the plot of Barnaby Rudge in a review of the first few serialised chapters. Dickens thought Poe “had the devil in him”, though it’s hardly a stretch to guess Rudge’s clunky conclusion. ‘The Raven’ made Poe a celebrity, but not rich, so he turned round and in ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ tried to pass it off as a mere technical exercise, cynically manipulated to chime with a public who wanted sensation but not the Penn Magazine. No one is quite sure how much he meant it, or whether the essay was another spoof like the unexpectedly successful ‘Balloon-Hoax’ that had masqueraded as a news report of a transatlantic flight.
When Virginia died, her end signalled years before by a dramatic flow of blood while she sang at the piano, Poe seemed to lose touch with reality. The last years are as confusing as the circumstances of his death, in a familiar town he can only have been passing through, perhaps drunk, perhaps caught up in a ‘net’ of prospective voters plied with alcohol to cast their votes in a particular way, carrying another man’s cane, and muttering the name of another, ‘Reynolds’, who has never been satisfactorily identified. By the autumn of 1849 in this truncated story, one sincerely wishes him out of his pain. In the early hours of October 7, Poe died in Baltimore’s Wash-ington College Hospital. Legend took over.
The previous year he published his one certain masterpiece, unless one takes to heart his own claim that the truest and purest works of imagination are short lyric poems dealing with one impression and emotion only. Poe called Eureka a prose poem. It masquerades as a kind of scientific treatise, which anticipates discoveries of the twentieth century such as the Big Bang Theory and the Big Crunch. It is dense, fabulous, convoluted, intermittently beautiful, and virtually unreadable. It is the verbal icon of a career spent in obscurity and longing, absorbed in every detail of its time and culture, but separated from it by every circumstance.
So, on the cusp of his bicentenary, is Poe important, given that his greatest work can be dismissed, only half-jokingly, as ‘unreadable’. He self-evidently is, and not just simply because of his ubiquity in American and world culture, an eternal return of the repressed that from time to time breaks the surface of reason. He is the kind of writer who would nowadays be described as ‘transgressive’, and unless burial alive, hauntings, incest, hauntings, cruelty and a dozen other violations of reason seem within the acceptable pale, Poe transgressed every boundary he met, up to and not excluding death. This is not the place for a resumé or critique of individual works. The great ones everyone knows: The Fall of the House of Usher, Ligeia, The City in the Sea, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Pit and the Pendulum and so on. The fact is that apart from a few republished poems, nothing of Poe’s went into a second edition in his lifetime.
Poe’s importance lies less in what he wrote than in the fact that he wrote. One sees American language and literature emerging from him, even if Parrington was unwilling to admit him to the mainstream. Like all great artists – Picasso, Miles Davis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Norman Mailer, Hugh MacDiarmid – he put out as much rubbish as he did works of genius. He allowed himself to, or was forced to, make his mistakes in public. Though he seems mysterious and troubling in person, his real life was lived in letters, and – there’s an important distinction here – in print. He was a modern precisely because he was absorbed in his own time. He remains a challenge to the reader, not because he is ‘difficult’, Eureka apart, but because Poe is us and we are Poe.
Brian Morton’s Life and Times study of Poe is published by Haus in January.