Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Poe and the Milk of Paradise

"[I] was afraid, from the wild imaginations manifested in your writings, that you were an opium-eater--had some chance for hope that this might not be the case, as the same wildness was evident in your childhood productions--supposed that you could not have acquired the habit when so young, and therefore hoped."
-George W. Eveleth, letter to Edgar Allan Poe, January 11, 1848
One of the many disastrous effects of a strange, near-universal mania for reading Poe’s writings as hidden autobiography is the fact that, because several of the narrators of his stories used opium, it is often assumed that he himself was familiar with the narcotic. No serious modern-day Poe biographer credits the idea that he was a habitual drug user, as scholars recognize that his literary depictions of the drug were inspired by contemporary works such as Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” However, the image of him as the wild-eyed po├Ęte maudit ecstatically scribbling verses and stories while in an opium-fueled frenzy is amazingly durable, particularly on the Internet. Never underestimate the power of mythology.Edgar Allan Poe and opiumConsidering the popularity of the belief that Poe was an opium addict, it is rather remarkable that the evidence in its favor is so weak. In 1850, the poet William Ross Wallace wrote John Neal that alcohol, taken alternately with opium, “kept him [Poe] half his days in madness.” Wallace knew Poe, but not at all intimately, and Poe seems to have privately disliked him, although he admired some of Wallace’s poetry. The tone of Wallace’s letter is of someone passing on gossip rather than relaying first-hand information. (Ironically, Wallace himself was an unstable character notorious for his dissipation. He may well have been projecting his own failings on Poe.) Poe’s biographer George Woodberry said that Neilson Poe’s daughter Amelia told him that Edgar’s cousin Elizabeth Herring stated that “his periods of excess were occasioned by a free use of opium.” I have mentioned my reasons for doubting this—at best—third-hand testimony here. Our ubiquitous old friend Susan Archer Talley Weiss wrote that Rosalie Poe had visited Fordham in the spring of 1846 (we have no other evidence this visit took place,) and had witnessed an incident where her brother “begged for morphine.”

I have chronicled Mrs. Weiss’ amazing powers of imagination since literally the first day of this blog. Suffice to say that if she asserted the sun rose in the east, that alone would be enough to make me dismiss the notion.

In the 1870s, Annie Richmond produced a copy of a letter she claimed to have received from Poe in November of 1848, describing his attempts to commit suicide through an overdose of laudanum. According to this letter, he miscalculated. His body, unused to such poison, rejected the laudanum and sent him into unconsciousness before he could take the full dose. Assuming Mrs. Richmond provided an accurate transcript of this letter—and it must be said I believe her to be only slightly more honest than Susan Weiss—and also assuming the incident was not one of the colorful fables Poe enjoyed telling about himself, this has been seen as proof that Poe was not accustomed to taking drugs.

In his 1896 “Reminiscences of Poe,” Thomas Dunn English firmly rejected the idea that Poe took drugs. He said, “Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him, I should, both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it…” English’s account is a remarkably ingenious work of libel, relying on malicious, sly intimations against Poe which he did not have even have the courage to explicitly describe (likely because he knew they could be refuted if he did.) It is something of a minor masterwork of the use of vague insinuation in the cause of character assassination. As I have said before, I do not believe English knew Poe nearly as well as he claimed, but in any case, it is reasonable to believe that if he thought he could get away with using charges of drug use against his old enemy, he would have done so. The fact that he did not is surely a strong piece of evidence in Poe’s favor.

Similarly, English’s business associate Thomas H. Lane, who knew Poe in his Philadelphia and New York years, alleged that one or two drinks could instantly transform Poe from someone “in every way a gentleman” into a surly drunk. However, he was positive the poet was never a drug user.

John Carter, a Richmond doctor who had socialized with Poe during the poet’s visit there in 1849, wrote Woodberry that “Poe never used opium in any instance that I am aware of, and if it had been a habitual practice, we certainly would have detected it, as he numbered amongst his associates half-dozen physicians…I never heard it hinted before, and if he had contracted the habit, it would have accompanied him to Richmond.” (Unfortunately for Poe, Woodberry ignored this unequivocal, first-hand medical testimony in favor of the Susan Weiss/Amelia Poe hearsay. In his biography of Poe, he asserted his belief that Poe used drugs, although he admitted that “it is only a personal view, and may be erroneous.”)

Incidentally, this passage from Woodberry’s book serves as an example of the dangers of trusting Poe biographies too implicitly. Hervey Allen, in his inexplicably popular “Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe,” quoted—whether through a deliberate desire to smear Poe or sheer stupidity (the baroque silliness of his book makes either theory plausible) repeated Woodberry’s conjecture that Poe used drugs—but quoted it as part of Dr. Carter’s letter to Woodberry. Thus, the unsuspecting reader of Allen’s book was left to believe that a medical man who knew Poe well believed he was an addict, when, in truth, he said precisely the opposite. This is just one of the many reasons why, whenever I begin to peruse Allen’s biography, I am faced with the strong urge to hurl it against the wall. (I refrain, however—flinging around Kenneth Silverman’s “Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance” left enough damage in my home.)

In short, while it cannot be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Poe did not take opium—in history, nothing is more futile than trying to prove a negative—there is no reliable evidence of his drug use, and the testimony refuting the charge is considerably more assertive and credible.

There is, as well, an odd legend that Poe also took absinthe, which, in his day, acted as a hallucinogenic. The sole evidence for this is a 1988 book describing itself as a “history” of the liqueur. It listed “Edgar Allen Poe” (whenever a Poe source cannot get the middle name right, you know you’re in for a rocky ride,) as a drinker of “absinthe and brandy.” This claim is found nowhere else in history, and the author provided no documentation or source for his statement.

Unfortunately, once any allegation, no matter how absurd and unproven, gets into print, it takes on an invincible life of its own. Sure enough, every few weeks or so I stumble upon a blog, website, or newspaper article chattering merrily about the notorious madman Edgar Poe, opium and absinthe addict.
Edgar Allan Poe Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder
It’s all enough to make a poor-devil Poe blogger want to reach for the laudanum bottle herself. With an absinthe-and-brandy chaser, please.