Monday, February 8, 2010

The Strangest Poe Anecdote Yet

The theory that Edgar Allan Poe was impotent is one of the more unusual canards associated with his name. This notion of his physical inadequacy was first popularized in the 1920s, when the Freudians got their claws into the poor man. They came up with what they liked to think were psychoanalytic interpretations of his stories and poems which "proved" that, for whatever physical or psychological reasons, Poe was unable to have sexual relations. (The limp plumes trailing in the dust in "Ulalume?" Three guesses what that really meant.) This is, of course, an unprovable assertion, but when did little matters like "proof" ever stop your typical Poe biographer?

The closest thing we have to anything approximating evidence for this theory was revealed by a literary critic named John Macy. In 1923, Macy wrote in "The Nation" magazine that a Poe scholar named Charles Richardson, who had known Poe's "Broadway Journal" colleague/personal enemy Charles F. Briggs, had told Macy that Briggs had told him (Richardson) that Poe was impotent. Macy said that in response to the obvious question: Namely, how the devil would Briggs know this?--Richardson admitted he had no idea, but that Briggs seemed quite certain about his claim.charles briggs edgar allan poe impotentThis is interesting, but all too based on hearsay for my liking. It reminds me of the children's game, "Telephone." Macy could have misinterpreted something Richardson said, or Richardson misinterpreted something from Briggs. Briggs could have either misinterpreted something he was told, or simply been spreading colorful lies about a man he had hated. (It would hardly have been the first time he had spread malicious falsehoods about Poe.) In any case, as Macy himself acknowledged, we are left with the problem of explaining how Briggs could have obtained such highly confidential information. The only two people in a position to provide him with this detail were Edgar and Virginia Poe, and it is difficult to picture either of them treating his virility--or, rather, absence of it--as a subject of casual social chit-chat. There were at least two people--Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Annie Richmond's brother Amos Bardwell Heywood--who reported Poe as stating that he and Virginia did not consummate their marriage for two years, with the inference that this was because they saw each other as "brother and sister." (Although his well-known August 1835 letter to Maria Clemm about Virginia certainly indicates that he did not see his relationship with her as any sibling act.) Assuming for the moment that Poe made such a bizarrely intimate revelation to the world, and leaving aside the question of whether he would have been telling the truth or indulging in his penchant for hoaxing his audiences--might this alleged statement, distorted in the telling to suggest that the marriage was never consummated at all, be the basis for Briggs' reputed declaration?

All in all, it is yet another unresolvable Poe mystery.

(A footnote: For what little it's worth, I doubt Poe was clinically impotent. I do suspect, however, that he was simply not very interested in sex. He was a man whose instincts and interests were intellectual and spiritual, not physical.)