"The mysteries of his [Poe's] life were never revealed to anyone, but his intimates well understood that to mystify his hearer was a strong element of his mind."
-George Rex Graham
Studying Poe's life is not recommended for anyone who likes their history uncomplicated. The man is, quite simply, one long exercise in frustration. From his birth until his death, we are confronted with what seems to be one unanswerable mystery after another. If I could somehow interview Poe personally, my list of questions would probably take days to discuss, but these are some of the top items I'd wish to have him truthfully explain. I think I know the answers to a few of these riddles; with others I'm completely in the dark. In either case, I'd certainly like his side of these stories:
1. The obvious one: After he left Richmond late in September 1849, where was he during those five days or so before he turned up in Baltimore, what was he doing, and what led to his death?
2. In a letter Poe allegedly wrote Sarah Helen Whitman, dated Nov. 24, 1848, there is the statement that "You will now comprehend what I mean in saying that the only thing for which I found it impossible to forgive Mrs. O[sgood] was her reception of Mrs. E[llet.]"
What did that mean, "her reception of Mrs. Ellet?" Why did he find that made it "impossible to forgive Mrs. Osgood?" What, exactly, were these two women up to? Were they somehow in collusion? By stating that it was "the only thing" she did that he could not overlook, does that mean she committed other offenses of some sort? If Mrs. Osgood did do something Poe found unforgivable--and the fact that he refused to have any contact with her for the last few years of his life appears to confirm this--how can all his biographers assume he retained a friendly affection for her?
3. Would he truly, in the end, have been willing to marry Sarah Helen Whitman or Sarah Elmira Shelton? If so, why? (You won't convince me for a moment that love had anything to do with it.)
4. "Ulalume" is his one work that truly gives me the shivers each time I read it, all the more so because we can only speculate what, exactly, Poe was telling us. Sarah Helen Whitman's interpretation of the poem--that Poe is depicting his struggle between memories of the dead Virginia and his longing to find new love--is generally accepted. Although I think it is possible that Virginia is represented by Psyche, the "sweet sister"--Sissy?--who tries in vain to save the narrator from doom, I feel that Whitman gave an overly simplistic explanation for such an esoteric and menacing creation. (And the inimitable John Evangelist Walsh's typically lunatic idea that the poem is an elegy for little Fanny Fay Osgood simply makes me ill.) This poem generates a sense of true evil that simply does not appear in his other works (even his most Grand Guignol tales, such as "The Black Cat," or "Hop-Frog," have a strong element of dark humor or satire that is utterly missing here.) I'd very much like to have Poe's own explanation of his most peculiar and ominous piece of writing.5. Did he really want Rufus W. Griswold to be his literary executor? If so, did that mean he anticipated that he would die soon? If not, what, if any, plans had he made for his literary estate?
6. We know that a great uproar was touched off in January 1846 when Virginia Poe--evidently on her own initiative--confronted Elizabeth F. Ellet with a letter written by Frances S. Osgood. What was in this letter, why did Virginia show it to Mrs. Ellet, and to whom was Osgood's letter addressed--Edgar or Virginia?
7. Did Virginia write any poems besides her 1846 Valentine to her husband? Did she--as I have speculated--have anything to do with the Valentine poem addressed to Frances Osgood?
8. While we're on the subject of Mrs. Osgood, what did Edgar and Virginia really think of that lady? And was my interpretation of Osgood's Poe reminiscences accurate?
9. Did he and Virginia secretly marry in 1835? If so, why was it a secret? If not, why did they take out a marriage license on September 22 of that year and not use it?
10. Which of the "lost" or anonymous writings that have been "attributed" to Poe were actually written by him?
11. Which of the extant letters written by Poe are genuine, and which are forgeries?
12. Was he--as both George W. Eveleth and I believe--"Outis?" (Cf. his surreal, hilarious unpublished essay, "A Reviewer Reviewed.")
If "Outis" truly was a case where Poe--in Eveleth's words--"defied himself," that would prove he did not take his infamous "Longfellow War" half as seriously as many of his biographers do--although his charges were indisputably accurate. As sincere as his outrage may have been, Poe likely saw his whole noisy public campaign to expose Henry Wadsworth's misdeeds as a playful and instructive stunt. (That is, actually, a crucial point to understanding many of Poe's actions--he loved to, as he would put it, "kick up a bobbery" almost as much as he loved hoaxes.)
13. Did he regret the fact that he never had children? Did Virginia?
14. Did he really regret his final estrangement from John Allan? Or did he feel that, despite all the struggles he endured afterwards, he was still better off away from a guardian he had obviously come to despise? Whatever miseries he endured in his adult life, did he think he would have been any happier leading a staid businessman's life as the heir to John Allan and the husband of Sarah Elmira Royster or some similar dull, ultra-conventional Richmond girl?
15. Did he really--as he wrote to Eveleth--have "inside information" about the Mary Rogers murder? Is the story related here about him and John Anderson at all accurate?
16. Was he engaged to Miss Royster in 1826?
17. What was the truth about Rosalie Poe's parentage?
18. In the 1846 newspaper column that inspired Poe's libel suit, Thomas Dunn English wrote of Poe that "...the 'Tombs' of New York, has probably a dim remembrance of his person..." implying that he once did a stint in prison. (English did not indicate the crime Poe allegedly committed.) Poe never addressed that specific charge, which, so far as I know, was never referred to again by anybody. Was English--for once--telling the truth, or was this just among his more outrageous libels? I find it hard to believe there was any basis to the story, (or that, if there was, English would be the only one of Poe's enemies to mention it.) However, if there was anything to English's strange statement, could that help explain the "blank period" in Poe's history when he lived in New York from 1837-38?
19. Of all his many, many reputed romantic interests, was he genuinely emotionally attached to any of these women, other than his wife? Did he even know all of them?
20. Did he, as Dr. Moran once claimed, repeatedly cry out, "Reynolds!" soon before his death? If so, what did it mean?
21. We only have one letter of Poe's written to Virginia alone, which is dated June 1846. Unfortunately, it exists only in the form of a copy made by Marie Shew Houghton, which she sent to John H. Ingram. We have no record of the original manuscript of this letter having been seen by anyone other than Mrs. Houghton. (She claimed that she found the letter hidden inside the frame of a miniature portrait of Poe Virginia gave her. This alleged portrait--which Mrs. Houghton, in her typically addled fashion, alternately described as a painting or as a daguerreotype--has also disappeared without a trace.) Is this letter genuine?
22. What were the answers to the questions I raised here and here regarding Poe's libel suit?
23. Did he really attempt suicide in 1848?
24. Just how frequent, and how serious, were his drinking bouts?
25. I'd like to know how deep was his interest/involvement with alchemy and its related mystical arts--an interest evident in such stories as "The Fall of the House of Usher," "Ligeia," "Von Kempelen," and arguably poems such as "Ulalume" and "For Annie." I'd also have a possibly related question--what exactly were those "odd chromatic experiments" he mentioned undertaking in 1835?
26. And finally, who, in his opinion, was the more deranged forger--Rufus Griswold or his son William?
I'm sure anyone reading this has their own list of questions for Poe. Séance, anyone?