Edgar Allan Poe Book Review: A Life Cut Short

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Edgar Allan Poe is back in the news. One of his homes, now a museum at 203 Amity Street in West Baltimore, will reopen temporarily today. The non-profits operating the museum intend to keep in open every weekend in October. It’s all part of the city’s “Free Fall Baltimore” program.  The museum will then close for further repairs and upkeep and return in the Spring of 2014. It had been shut down for more than a year.

“[Poe] would dress in ‘black’…It was his color…He liked to wander through cemeteries.” – Peter Ackroyd.

What’s the story on Poe? Well, he died at the age of 40, in Baltimore, Maryland, under mysterious circumstances. The exact truth of what really happened to him has evaded historians. Even the “experts” on the popular TV program, “Forensic Files,” would be baffled by the case. Poe is a both a legendary and tragic figure. He is one of America’s greatest men of letters. Was his death related to “a vote-rigging” scheme?

Edgar Allan Poe's Memorial Grave 2Poe was found on Election Day, Oct. 3, 1849, “stupefied,” and dressed in shabby clothes at or near “Ryan’s Tavern.” It was used by political thugs. Their gambit was to target an individual, get him drunk, and then run him from one polling place to another to vote for their candidates. We do know that an incoherent Poe was taken to a nearby hospital. Physician, Dr. John J. Mora said Poe’s  last words on Oct. 7, 1849, were: “Lord help my poor soul!.

Poe was known most of his adult life as a “binge drinker,” who possessed a “sad” disposition. He “never smiled,” was easily agitated, with few, if any, friends.

Poe endured an existence of “poverty and deprivation.” Check out the splendid, biography on him, “Poe: A Life Cut Short,” by a British author Peter Ackroyd . I say this because Poe’s mother, Eliza Arnold, was a native of England and a gifted professional actress. If the Brits love anything, it’s their theatre; they do it so well. Poe’s father, David Poe, Jr., an American, also was an actor, but failed to gain the “many plaudits” his wife did at her craft. Their son Edgar was born in Boston, MA, in 1809.

It was Baltimore where Poe’s family connections were strongest. His paternal grandfather, David Poe, Sr., was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War (1776-83). He lived near what is now the Inner Harbor. During the great conflict, he served as an [Assistant] Deputy Quartermaster General” for Baltimore City. He also performed some military-related service, at age 71.  Poe’s ancestry can be traced to Ireland. His great-grandmother was Jane McBride.

Poe’s parents both suffered from weak constitutions. His father, who loved the bottle abandoned the family early on. His mother died when he was only two years old from consumption. She was working in a play in Richmond, VA, at the time. Poe then became the ward of one John Allan, a successful man of commerce with Scottish roots, although, Ackroyd underscores, he was never formally “adopted” by him. Allan’s wife, “Fanny,” was very fond of Poe and he was very attached to her. It was they who gave Poe, “the orphan,” his middle name.

Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

Poe grew up very much a son of the South, although, he did spent a few years in England, as a youngster, (1815-20), where Ackroyd suggested that he became influenced by the “Gothic.” For a while, in 1826, Poe attended the University of Virginia,  where he developed  “a gambling” habit to go along with his inherited fondest for the booze.

Ackroyd wrote: “[Poe] was born, not made, a drinker.” He served in the U.S. Army in 1827-29, as an artillery officer. His days at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, S.C. harbor on fabled Sullivan’s Island, undoubtedly contributed to his popular tale, “The Gold Bug.” Poe even tried the West Point Academy in 1830 from which he was later dismissed in Feb., 1831 via a court-martial proceeding for “gross neglect of duty.”

In 1836, Poe married Virginia Clemm, his first cousin, “in a formal ceremony,” in Richmond, VA. She was then 13 years old, but he “lied” about her age. He claimed she was “twenty-one.”

They lived together with her mother, Maria “Muddy” Clemm, who also was his aunt in various East Coast locations, including New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Maria Clemm did what she could to cover for Poe’s drinking problem. She also worked to alleviate the grinding poverty that usually afflicted the mostly desperate trio. Before Poe’s marriage, they had lived in Baltimore from 1832 to 1835. Virginia, like Poe’s mother, died from consumption, (TB), in New York City in 1847.

There is little or no credible reason to believe that Poe was an opium or drug addict as claimed by the administrator of his literary estate the “character assassin,” one Rufus Griswold. Poe may have occasionally experimented with “laudanum,” Ackroyd wrote. But, the author strongly argued: “The evidence does not suggest that [Poe] was an habitual imbiber of the drug.”

Poe and his foster father, John Allan fell out over money, which left the young man to his own devices. He drifted from job to job and city to city–making a little more than “$300” for a lifetime of brilliant writing, which included his most honored poem, “The Raven.” Poe–some of whose novels were to become part of Hollywood’s film history, such as: “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,”–rarely knew where his next meal was coming from.

x17441Ackroyd wisely focuses on the details of Poe’s life story with all of its twists and turns, and leaves the deep analyzing of his rich literary legacy for others to explore. Much of Poe’s financial troubles, however, must be left at his own doorstep. He made a lot of unnecessary enemies as an “editor” and “literary critic,” and his “cold” personality, accented by his “binge” drinking and often unpredictable work habits, turned most people off. Poe once wrote: “I intend to put up with nothing that I can ‘put down.’”

Author Ackroyd does an excellent job with just about every aspect of Poe’s trials and tribulations, along with his few monetary successes. It was “an erratic” life, and at times, “dramatic,” to say the least. Nevertheless, it all served as a fiery incubator for the explosion of Poe’s unique creative genius as a poet, novelist and literary critic. Like others before him, he had to die to gain wide acclaim. Ackroyd emphasized how the remarkable Poe had launched the first “modern detective story,” opened the door to the “science fiction” genre and to works of just pure “fantasy.”

Poe’s relationship with women is shrouded in mystery. I have to ask: “Were any of his relationships with women, some of whom were married and not married, including with his “child bride,” ever physically consummated?”

There is not much evidence either way.

Visit Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.
Visit Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.

I would bet that Poe, who comes off as an ascetic at heart died a 40-year-old virgin. If he was having sex with any of the women in his life, (Ackroyd does share their stories with us), he sure as heck didn’t brag about it and/or reduce it to writing. Did you ever know of a writer who could keep his big mouth shut about his sexual conquests? Poe was silent on the subject.

Also, can you envision a binge drinker residing in an East Coast city in the middle of the 19th century, who sooner or later didn’t end up drunk in a brothel and/or had a woman from the bar/streets as a “friend?” No brothels or “ladies of the night” for Poe. The author adds, of his insightful tome: “It has been surmised that [Poe] was averse to sexual relations of any kind and even that he was impotent.” This assessment rings true for me.

Ackroyd reminds us how Poe’s impressive literary legacy has influenced and inspired other scribes: such as Remy de Gourmont, Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, James Joyce and one of Russia’s greatest sons–Fyodor Dostoyevky. Alfred Lord Tennyson said of Poe: “The most original genius that America has produced.”

In downtown Baltimore at Fayette and Greene Streets, in the “Westminster Burying Grounds,” Poe is laid to rest. Although “only four” mourners showed up for his funeral, today his memorial grave site is visited every year by thousands of admirers from around the world.

When a monument to Poe was dedicated in 1875, the poet Walt Whitman was in attendance. Poe’s wife, and mother-in-law, along with some of the heroes of the “Battle of Baltimore,” are buried there. (In fact, James McHenry, General George Washington’s former aide-to-camp and his first Secretary of War, and the man for whom the celebrated fort in South Baltimore is named, is also buried at the “Westminster Graveyards.”)

Ackroyd said of Poe: “He had ‘a heart’ always about to break.” I think that sums up the driving motif that was the life and death of the tortured soul that was Edgar Allan Poe. I say: Rest in  peace you magnificent bard and master chronicler of the macabre.

For more background on Poe, please check out the “Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore,” here.

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