Monday, August 9, 2010

Two Prototypical Poe Novels

Edgar Allan Poe novels
Poe has appeared (either as a primary or secondary character) is an astonishing number of novels. Unfortunately, nearly all of these novels are abysmally bad. Worse, these authors often seem to have the attitude that, just because their work is labeled "fiction," that gives them license to play whatever games with history they please. Perhaps worst of all, their historical distortions are inevitably to Poe's great discredit. Depending on which Poe novel you are unfortunate enough to read, he has been depicted as an adulterer (a serial one in some cases--when he isn't portrayed as impotent,) a drug addict, a necrophiliac, a sociopath, a blackmailer, a literary hack and thief, a murderer, a con man, a counterfeiter, and, of course, a nonstop alcoholic who scarcely, if ever, knew what it was to draw a sober breath. The relatively few novels that purport to "defend" him are no improvement. Not only are they as mind-numbingly stupid and poorly written as anything I have ever seen, they inevitably paint Poe as so puerile, weak, and lame-brained that it is impossible to picture him as being capable of reading "The Raven," much less writing it. (And, I swear to Heaven, if I come across one more novel depicting Virginia as a childlike dishrag...)

Libeling the dead may be legal, but that doesn't make it ethical.

One of the main reasons so many Poe novels have failed is that so much of what we think we "know" about him is based on lies and myths--and mostly insanely improbable ones at that. A successful historical novel requires believable characterizations and plausible motives and actions, and if an author follows the "accepted" history of Poe's life, it becomes simply impossible to achieve those goals. In short, if you believe everything that has been written about Poe, there is no way to write a biographical novel about him without coming up with an utterly unconvincing mess. And when writers try to avoid this obvious problem by resorting to sheer fantasy, the results are inevitably even worse.

In a saner world, all this would not be so important. However, most readers presume historical fiction is based on some sort of...history. It is troubling to think of people who know nothing about Poe picking up bizarreries like "The Blackest Bird," and "Poe and Fanny," or soggy claptrap like Barbara Moore's "The Fever Called Living," and taking them to be some sort of accurate representation of the man.

Such books have a long tradition, dating back to his own lifetime. In the early 1840s, Thomas Dunn English wrote a novel titled "Walter Woolfe, or, the Doom of the Drinker" featuring a brilliant but dissolute writer, a character that is believed to be a covert attack on Poe. In 1846-47, both English and Charles F. Briggs published serialized novels that included blatant and quite vicious depictions of their common enemy.

Briggs' "The Trippings of Tom Pepper," an otherwise mild satire of the contemporary literary scene, included a passage where a fatuous bluestocking, "Lizzy" (who was evidently meant as a composite of Elizabeth Ellet and Fanny Osgood,) presides over a "salon" attended by New York's leading artistic figures. Disaster soon appears in the person of Austin Wicks, a well-known poet and critic, "author of the 'Castle of Duntriewell,' a metaphysical romance, and a psychological essay on the sensations of shadows."

Briggs writes of this character: "He was a small man, with a very pale, small face, which terminated at a narrow point in the place of a chin; the shape of the lower part of his face gave to his head the appearance of a balloon, and as he had but little hair, his forehead had an intellectual appearance, but in that part of it which phrenologists appropriate for the home of the moral sentiments, it was quite flat; Pauline said, if he had any moral sentiments, they must be somewhere else, for it was very evident that there was no room for them there. He was small in person, his eyes were heavy and watery, his hands small and wiry, and his motions were like those of an automaton. He was dressed primly, and seemed to be conscious of having on a clean shirt, as though it were a novelty to him...Mr. Wicks was the American Jeffrey, a singularly unfortunate name to apply to the poor creature, as he had neither the learning, the wit, the respectability, the honesty, the independence, nor a tithe part of the talent of the great Scotch critic."

At the "salon," this unappetizing creature immediately got blind drunk on one glass of wine, and proceeded to shower crude abuse on everyone in sight. As a result, said the novel's narrator, "the company now broke up in great disorder, and we took the drunken critic home to his boarding-house, and delivered him into the hands of his wife, who thanked us meekly for the care we had taken of her poor husband."

Briggs then included a parody of the current scandal involving Poe and Mrs. Ellet. Lizzy, who saw Wicks' reprehensible behavior as merely an "eccentricity of genius," published a poem in his honor. Whereupon, "Mr. Wicks sent her a letter, lamenting his destiny, praising her poetical abilities, and asking for the loan of five dollars." Lizzy generously took up a collection among her friends, and sent him fifty dollars, along with a letter full of praise. Then:

"...with a baseness that only those can believe possible who have known him, he [Wicks] exhibited Lizzy's note to some of her acquaintances, as an evidence that she had made improper advances to him. The scandal had been very widely circulated, before some candid friend brought it to Lizzy, who, on hearing it, was thrown into an agony of grief and shame, which nearly deprived her of reason. She could not call upon her father to avenge the wrong that had been done her, but one of her married sisters having heard of it, told it to her husband, who sought for the cowardly slanderer, with the intention of chastising him for his villainy. But he had become alarmed for the consequences of his slanders, and had persuaded a good natured physician to give him a certificate to the effect that he was of unsound mind, and not responsible for his actions. Having showed this to Lizzy's brother-in-law, and signed another paper acknowledging that he had slandered her and was sorry for it, he was allowed to escape without a personal chastisement. But shortly after, being employed to write for a fashionable magazine, he took an occasion, in a series of pretended biographical sketches of literary men and women who had been so unfortunate as to become known to him, to hold poor Lizzy up to ridicule, by imputing to her actions of which she was never guilty, and by misquoting from her verses. Lizzy had the good sense to laugh at such imbecile spite, and when the poor wretch had brought himself and his family into a starving condition by his irregularities, she had the goodness to contribute her quarterly allowance of pocket-money to the gatherings of some benevolent ladies who had exerted themselves in his behalf."

This said, Briggs had no further use for his character, and disposed of him quickly: "The poor creature, Wicks, having tried a great variety of literary employments, and growing too dishonest for anything respectable, at last fell into the congenial occupation of writing authentic accounts of marvellous cures for quack physicians, and having had the imprudence to swallow some of the medicine whose virtues he had been extolling, fell a victim to his own arts, and was buried at the expense of the public."

English's "1844; or, The Power of the 'S.F.'" parodied Poe even more brutally. Here, the poet is "Marmaduke Hammerhead," author of "The Black Crow," a character who makes Austin Wicks look like a model of probity and sobriety: "...he never gets drunk more than five days out of the seven, tells the truth sometimes by mistake; has moral courage sufficient to flog his wife, when he thinks she deserves it, and occasionally without any thought upon the subject, merely to keep his hand in; and has never, that I know of, been convicted of petit larceny...There is an immense deal of charlatanry, however, in all his productions. He affects ignorance in general of the author's real name, and seems to think that sarcasm and scurrility are identical...He has a knowledge of no language except his own, and that to a very limited extent; and of course interlards his works with an abundance of quotations, obtained from the works of other authors. As he does not understand the meaning of these, he occasionally commits some rather ludicrous errors."

Hammerhead plays no real part in "1844" (a silly and convoluted tale of political intrigue)--he just makes occasional appearances throughout in order to give English a vehicle for savaging Poe as a drunken, crude, egomaniacal, uneducated sponger. Like Wicks, the character is a belligerent goon who does little except drink, insult people, and cadge money. By the end of the story, Hammerhead's alcoholism leads him into a state of "decay and degradation," with a "drivelling smile," constantly uttering "meaningless nonsense." "The bloated face--blood-shotten eyes--trembling figure, and attenuated frame, showed how rapidly he was sinking into a drunkard's grave..." Hammerhead soon collapses into "confirmed insanity." "He deemed himself the object of persecution on the part of the combined literati of the country, and commenced writing criticisms upon their character, as writers, and their peculiarities, as men." He is last seen in a madhouse, happily engaged in writing attacks on Thomas Carlyle and the Transcendentalists.

English poured bile on other literary figures in his novel. After giving a brief compliment to his friend Elizabeth Ellet, who was portrayed as "Mrs. Grodenap," a "pretty" author possessing "much ability, and is quite a linguist withal," he parodied his (and Ellet's) enemy Frances S. Osgood:

"But who is that languishing would-be-juvenile lady, who is now approaching the two? By Jove! what laughable affectation of manner!"

"That is Mrs. Flighty, one of our poetesses and all that sort of thing, and the best imitator of Mother Goose. Her poetry is remarkable for its simplicity. As a general rule, the verses of most female writers may be described by the words--'milk and water;' but hers resemble a large quantity of water, with a homeopathical addition of milk." English also satirized Margaret Fuller and Horace Greeley, but such depictions were brief and considerably milder than his portrayal of Poe.

The most notable thing about these two otherwise eminently forgettable novels is the nearly pathological hatred of Poe demonstrated by both authors. The passages featuring "Hammerhead" and "Wicks" are all written in such a spirit of naked fury that the reader is left cringing in discomfort, rather than laughing. Unbridled rage is seldom amusing.

It is also striking that although Briggs and English depicted Poe as a character guilty of many sins, neither even hinted at the inclusion of sexual ones. (Note that Briggs depicted "Austin Wicks" as being noisily outraged by "Lizzy's" alleged advances.) If, as all of Poe's modern-day biographers assume, there had been at the time these novels were published salacious gossip circulating about him and Mrs. Osgood, would not his two attackers have made full use of these rumors? English, as noted above, even included Osgood among his satiric targets, but failed to suggest any sort of relationship at all between her and the loathsome "Hammerhead." These novels serve as further indirect evidence that whatever allegations Poe's enemies were then spreading, charges of an improper association between him and Flighty Fanny were not among them.

Poe's own reaction to "Marmaduke Hammerhead" is unknown. Some literary critics have tried to depict "The Cask of Amontillado" as his subtle retaliation to English's crude parody--that, in short, he saw himself as "Montresor" finally getting the better of English/Fortunato. Unfortunately, their attempts to create a direct link between "1844" and Poe's masterpiece of revenge are not entirely convincing, however appealing it may be to picture Poe crafting such an exquisite literary comeuppance. We do know that in a revised version of his "Literati" sketch of Briggs (unpublished during his lifetime,) he turned a rather lofty eye to "Tom Pepper." While disdaining to mention the book's personal attack on himself, Poe commented that, "As a novel, it really has not the slightest pretensions. To a genuine artist in literature, he is as Plumbe to Sully. Plumbe’s daguerreotypes have more fidelity than any portrait ever put on canvass, but so Briggs’ sketches of E. A. Duyckinck (Tibbings) and the author of 'Puffer Hopkins' (Ferocious) are as lifelike as any portraits in words that have ever been drawn. But the subjects are little and mean, pretending and vulgar." He added dryly that "Mr. Briggs would not succeed in delineating a gentleman."

There is little else to say about these two works, other than the observation that, unlike most modern-day novels featuring Poe, Briggs and English deliberately caricatured him.