Let’s Not Try to Rescue Stormy Edgar Allan Poe

This year is the 150th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death, and Poe’s idolizers are still fighting his obituary. Poe had made Rufus Griswold, a minister, his literary executor, and at Poe’s death at age 40, after the writer’s drunken binge in Baltimore, Griswold detailed his failings. Poe was an erratic but brilliant star who raved to himself in the street and had so few friends no one would mourn him. He’d deserted the Army, he’d probably slept with his mother-in-law, Muddy. And so on. When Griswold’s fabulous hatchet job was published, Muddy wrote, “Did you ever feel as if you wished to die?” and took to her bed. You can still visit the scene of her despair, a tidy wood-frame cottage fenced off from urban turmoil on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. She lived there with “poor poor Eddie.” A crow is in the tree outside, cawing.

Poe’s more forgiving friends fought back in eulogies then, and have been fighting back ever since. His biographers in this century have emphasized his courtly, industrious side, which is now on view at the Pierpont Morgan Library. Its exhibit of splendid Poe manuscripts, Poe: The Ardent Imagination , presents the writer as a hardworking scribe in a little family beset by crude editors and poverty. Just look at Poe’s fine, controlled handwriting. You can’t imagine him lying in the gutter.

“Because 19th-century Americans did not recognize alcoholism as a disease, his ailment was considered a moral failing,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s curator, explained. Covering the show in The New York Times , the critic Michael Frank echoed this piety piously. Demon alcohol was “of course” an “illness,” he said.

The belief that poor Eddie suffered from alcohol disease is reminiscent of the scholars who argued not long ago that Poe died of rabies, not dissipation. “They were trying to save Poe from himself,” the scholar Burton Pollin said.

The Morgan wants to save Poe, too. Its description of him as a hardworking man with “personal struggles” is a thin-lipped half-truth aimed at polishing a marble shrine of our literary heritage. Like the other rescue attempts, it’s a fundamental misreading of Poe’s character, and worse, of his creation.

You might as well say that Poe had the disease of the human condition, or the disease of nerves, grief, or manic depression. If he hadn’t had these diseases, Poe certainly would not have written his best works, many of which are triggered by a narrator’s experience of alcohol or opium.

Even in Poe’s day, people offered him the excuse of alcoholism to explain his troubles. The poet rejected it. “I am constitutionally sensitive–nervous in a very unusual degree,” he wrote. He drank, he said, because of an underlying “evil,” which he hinted was hereditary insanity.

“My enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity,” Poe said.

Poe was alive during the flourishing of Romanticism, and its heir, the Gothic literary movement that opened the fragile writer to his subject–mania, self-destruction. Explaining his best-known work to his readers in the Philosophy of Composition , Poe said that “The Raven” was about the “human thirst for self-torture.” In the poem, of course, the grief-stricken narrator asks more and more desperate questions of his visitor, knowing the answer.

Because he was Great, and one of our literary Founders, it makes the stewards of tradition more comfortable to treat Poe as normal. And, yes, today someone of his morbid sensitivity would lead a better-adjusted life. On Prozac, banging girls at Bread Loaf. But in Poe’s time he wasn’t normal, he suffered tremendously, and because of that he opened the heavy iron doors that help make the world habitable for Poes of today.

Consider the outlines of his life and career. The child of actors, Poe was orphaned by three. His uncle brought him up with aristocratic expectations, educating him in Europe, then at West Point, but Uncle remarried, and disinherited Poe. A man of the highest taste, prideful Eddie was reduced to a life of grinding poverty, often wearing rags. He craved fame, and got it four years before dying, with “The Raven,” but he was not a popular writer. His mind was of such a fine turn that he always wrote for an elite.

The rescuers like to diminish Poe’s bouts of drinking as “infrequent” (as the leading biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn said in 1941). But the evidence is skimpy; it seems they can say as much because not every bout was documented. Certainly, Poe was bedeviled by drink throughout his life. He was fired for his dissipations. His first big job, at the Southern Literary Messenger , ended with a loving but exasperated tirade on temperance from his boss, which included the warning, “No man is safe who drinks before breakfast!”

Those who knew Poe said that he was completely undone by drink. That the courtly and industrious worker so evident from the prissy little handwriting at the Morgan disappeared. “The least drop of wine,” an editor wrote, “was to him literally the cup of frenzy.” Another said, “With a single glass of wine his whole nature was reversed.”

These are not descriptions of alcoholism so much as mania, and Poe understood that. The reversal of the hardworking gentleman by drink became a theme. It is at the heart of one of his finest stories, “William Wilson,” a tale of a demonic double set in English schools. Good and bad William Wilson are born on the same day, Jan. 19, which was Poe’s birthday. The story inspired Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde .

Like Melville’s bourgeois rescuers, Poe’s academic rescuers gloss over the evidence that the writer was seen as insane. And, perhaps today, Poe would not be insane. Jekyll and Hyde would be pleasingly integrated, through therapy or drugs. He’d be making a living in the arts, like other fine madmen of American literary life, William T. Vollmann, Denis Johnson and Walter Kirn. In workshops, Poe would urge students to mine their unconscious and describe their worst fears. But in Poe’s day the unconscious lay unnamed. He was widely thought to be deranged, and was apparently treated for insanity.

And little wonder. The Morgan tap-dances around Poe’s bizarre social arrangements: his craziness with women, his isolation from his peers.

He seems to have pursued friendlessness. His reviews of contemporary writers were prideful, savage and envious. “His jealousy of other writers amounted to a mania,” one contemporary wrote. His style of conversation seems to have been too self-absorbed for the drawing room. Griswold is astute on this point: “He had made up his mind upon the numberless complexities of the social world, and the whole system was with him an imposture.” He was never knit into society the way that Hawthorne was, even Thoreau. When dying in Baltimore, the doctor asked him if he could summon any friends. “My best friend would be he who would take a pistol and blow out these damned wretched brains!” Poe said.

Poe was never a very good observer. His efforts at social commentary fall flat. His best tales and poems were set in his head. The Morgan speaks with academic sympathy of the obstacles the cruel publishing world set in Poe’s path. That he could never get his visionary journal The Stylus going. That he wanted 50,000 copies of the nutty book Eureka published, and the publisher did only 500. But again one must focus on Poe’s perverseness. There was good reason his dreams were frustrated: He was in a business that was then far more primitive than it is now, and there was no market for those works.

As for women, at 26, Poe married his 13-year-old cousin–a girl he had lived with since she was 9. Virginia Clemm’s nickname was “Sissy” and she was said never to have physically developed to maturity. Try and rescue that, please. Poe’s marriage belongs in the same transgressive category as Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister.

Then Virginia died in her 20’s, and Poe became stranger. He seems to have proposed to several women. He attempted suicide. He barged in on upper-class households and was politely, and then firmly, pushed out. There were some near-duels.

The greatest misrepresentation of Poe’s rescuers is that this tortured existence had no connection to the work. In his biography, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe , Daniel Hoffman says that the “violence, passion and the perversity characteristic of Poe’s stories resembles his own actions no more than do the haunted palaces, luxurious chambers, and festooned interiors of the tales resemble the bare unheated cottages” in which Poe lived.

This is simple-minded. Yes, Poe’s tales were dreams, but dreams enabled by dysfunction. Last year at the 92d Street Y, Norman Mailer said that while writers have famously drunk too much, they can also drink too little. Courtly mannered Poe needed drink, to get to his material. Could he have written “The Black Cat,” whose narrator gouges out the eye of a beloved cat, then hangs the cat, then kills his wife, without spending delirious days, as the narrator does, in a sodden public house? Could he have written the confessional poem “Alone,” which endeavors to explain the roots of a “most stormy life”:

From childhood’s hour I have not been

As others were–I have not seen

As others saw–I could not bring

My passions from a common spring

without being as alienated as he was? Could he have written “The Fall of the House of Usher,” about incest destroying a family line, without having lain with his sickly barren cousin, or having experienced the opium and mania that frame the tale?

For that matter, how much incest was there actually in Poe’s genealogy? The biographers are scared of this subject.

Poe’s bravery was that he understood his depravity and insisted on exploring it, at whatever cost. He had to write about uncontrollable desires that can be ruinous, “the imp of the perverse,” in the phrase that has been an inspiration to countless artists. But Poe’s own society was not ready for that; and his life was miserable. His peers understood him as sick, and he paid the price: alienation, insanity. And like Melville, whose miserable family life and awareness of his homoeroticism led him to the devil-worship of Moby-Dick and Pierre , Poe’s psychic understanding has helped to make us who we are today. The French began to worship him even before he died.

Miserable and clairvoyant, Poe knew he needed fame and scandal to carry his romantic message on to us. He chose his first biographer with great care.