Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rating Poe Biography: The Good, the Bad, and the Simply Insane (Part One)

This is an overview of the major works about Poe--and a sorry, sorry lot they are, for the most part. When I see what passes for Poe scholarship, I'm generally reminded of Henry Ford's classic observation that "History is the bunk." (In the case of Poe history, I'd probably use a more impolite word than "bunk," but never mind that.)

The Good:

Edgar Allan Poe Arthur Hobson Quinn*Arthur Quinn, "Edgar Allan Poe." Overly pedantic at times (do we really need to know the precise location of the building where Eliza Poe died?) and slightly dated, but still the best complete biography. Quinn is, on the whole, admirably clear-headed and much more judicious than most Poe specialists. If you must read only one Poe book, here's the place to go.

*Edward Wagenknecht, "Edgar Allan Poe, the Man Behind the Legend." Not an actual biography--more like a biography of Poe's biographies--but it's a fine overview of what has been written about the man. More intelligent and insightful than many other Poe books, this makes a good introductory volume to Poe's strange life. Its only serious flaw is that Wagenknecht--who was not a professional Poe scholar--often accepted clearly untrustworthy material (most notably the demented outpourings of the omnipresent Susan Talley Weiss) as fact, which sometimes misled him into making erroneous conclusions.

*Sidney P. Moss, "Poe's Literary Battles," and "Poe's Major Crisis." Like Wagenknecht's book, Moss' works are not full biography, but they provide important source material on Poe's storm-tossed literary career. The latter work, in particular, dealing with his libel suit, provides a lot of information not found elsewhere.

*John C. Miller (ed.) "Building Poe Biography," and "Poe's Helen Remembers." These two books provide the highlights of John Henry Ingram's extensive correspondence about Poe. The former volume publishes the most important letters from his major sources, including Nancy "Annie" Richmond, Marie Louise Shew Houghton, and George Eveleth. The latter is devoted to Ingram's voluminous communications with Sarah Helen Whitman. Everything anyone says in either book is to be taken with even more than the usual amount of salt grains--Ingram himself eventually came to the depressing conclusion that most of his contacts were either blatant liars or, to use one of his favorite words, "imaginative," but these letters still make fascinating reading. (Miller's editorial comments and footnotes, unfortunately, are mostly remarkably uninformed, irritating and unintelligent, and are best ignored.)

*John H. Ingram, "Edgar Allan Poe." I included his book in this category with great reservation. Ingram's was the first serious Poe biography, and is obviously a labor of love. It was a landmark event in Poe scholarship. However, it is clumsily written, occasionally misleading, and frequently naive. He was also far too dependent on what one contemporary critic called "gossipy old women."

*Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson (eds.) "The Poe Log." The one truly indispensable source for anyone with an in-depth interest in Poe's life. It chronicles, as much as possible, every day of Poe's life, presenting much original material (letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, etc.) that are otherwise unpublished or not easily available. There is one caveat, however--the editors, understandably, have gone for a complete record, rather than a selective one. They make little or no differentiation between reliable and unreliable source material, thus they include much that is either of questionable believability or clearly bogus.

Private Perry and Mister Poe*William F. Hecker, "Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems." A brief, but excellent and highly underrated analysis of Poe's military career and how it related to his writings. Hecker, a professional military man himself (who was, tragically, killed in Iraq in 2006,) provides authoritative and intelligent insights on Poe's stints in the army and West Point (a period that is oddly dismissed by most biographers,) showing that if Poe had not opted to become a legendary writer, he would have made a first-rate soldier--perhaps the most curious and intriguing anomaly in his entire life story. (The book also includes a facsimile of Poe's 1831 volume of poems.)

*Michael J. Deas, "The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe." The book goes beyond its self-explanatory title. This is a scholarly, but highly readable history of the surprisingly numerous and varied visual depictions of Poe, providing a fresh take on the growth of the Poe Legend. Deas also includes a compilation of the many spurious portraits of both Edgar and Virginia Poe that have emerged over the years.

Next post: The stinkers!

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