Monday, May 9, 2011

Quote(s) of the Day

Edgar Allan Poe biography
"'The Legend of Edgar Allan Poe' would not be an inappropriate title for his biography. The most striking of the few things that the narratives of Poe's life have in common is a mythological strain, as if some subtle influence were at work in the minds of men to transform his career into a story stranger than truth, and to make his memory a mere tradition. It appears in that first newspaper article which Griswold wrote before the earth had chilled the body of the dead poet: 'He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayer for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry; or with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms, and all night, with drenched garments and arms beating the winds and rains, would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn.' It is as plain to be seen in Baudelaire's declamatory eulogy over him as the martyr of a raw democracy. In Gilfillan he is the archangel ruined; in Ingram he is the ruined archangel rehabilitated; in all the biographies there is a demoniac element, as if Poe, who nevertheless was a man and an American, were a creature of his own fancy."
-George Woodberry, "Poe's Legendary Years," The Atlantic Monthly, December 1884

Woodberry certainly had his flaws as a Poe biographer. He was commissioned, against his inclination, to write a life of the poet, even though he made no secret of the fact that he detested Poe personally and thought little of most of his writings. It was rather like choosing me to write a biography of Fanny Osgood. He never understood Poe, and made it clear he did not want to even try. (In what Edward Wagenknecht delightfully described as "one of the most beautiful examples of New England snobbery on record" which "goes far toward justifying even Poe's attitude toward that region," Woodberry sighed that the difficulty with describing Poe's history is "that it is a life led outside of New England.")

After his biography was completed, Woodberry even had to flee to Italy for a spell simply to try and get the taint of Poe out of his system!

Despite all that, the first version of his biography, published in 1885, has value. It was certainly the first truly professional book about Poe, and would prove to be the last until Arthur Quinn's 1941 work. Unfortunately, his subsequent, heavily revised editions are increasingly riddled with factual errors, absurd, utterly unfounded speculations, and painfully damaging misconceptions (particularly when he began relying heavily upon Susan Talley Weiss as a source.) With all that, however, he was still more scholarly and readable than the average Poe biographer, and he often came up with interesting observations and conclusions. The above passage is one of them.

Of course, so far as Poe's posthumous reputation goes, I think the man himself said it best, in a well-known quote from "Marginalia," published in the "Southern Literary Messenger" in June 1849:

"I have sometimes amused myself by endeavoring to fancy what would be the fate of any individual gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race. Of course, he would be conscious of his superiority; nor could he (if otherwise constituted as man is) help manifesting his consciousness. Thus he would make himself enemies at all points. And since his opinions and speculations would widely differ from those of all mankind--that he would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of being charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong.

In like manner, nothing can be clearer than that a very generous spirit--truly feeling what all merely profess--must inevitably find itself misconceived in every direction--its motives misinterpreted. Just as extremeness of intelligence would be thought fatuity, so excess of chivalry could not fail of being looked upon as meanness in its last degree:--and so on with other virtues. This subject is a painful one indeed. That individuals have so soared above the plane of their race, is scarcely to be questioned; but, in looking back through history for traces of their existence, we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."

I believe that's the closest anyone has ever gotten to writing an honest account of Poe's life.