Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: Evermore, by Harry Lee Poe

"Many people know of Edgar Allan Poe, but almost everything that people know of him is wrong."
-Harry Lee Poe
Evermore Harry Lee Poe
Whenever I buy a new book about Poe, I usually wind up feeling like my pocket was just picked. However, the most recent purchase, “Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe,” was a pleasant surprise. It is the most well-intentioned book about Poe to appear in some time, and certainly one of the most original. This attempt to examine “Poe’s life and work from a philosophical and theological perspective” is literary criticism, not biography, but it provides a fine tool for understanding the famously enigmatic writer on both a personal and professional level.

Following a brief overview of Poe's life, the book is divided into five sections: “Suffering,” “Beauty,” “Love,” “Justice,” and “Universe.” Harry Lee Poe (a descendant of Edgar’s cousin William) describes how each of these subjects figured in Poe’s writings, and ties them all together to show the remarkable thematic consistency of Poe’s work, and how even his earliest poems and tales were natural stepping-stones to “Eureka,” that amazing “intersection of science and imagination.” As HLP noted, “Poe had always understood that his body of work had a unity that could only be understood in terms of the whole.” Poe’s unique virtuosity in so many stylistic forms (including ones that had yet to be formally recognized, such as science fiction) had the ironic effect of pigeonholing him. Modern-day readers think of him merely as a “horror writer” or the “father of the modern detective story,” or the author of the one poem everybody knows, “The Raven.” While virtually everyone acknowledges Poe's mastery of one literary genre or another, his mastery of them all is too often overlooked.

“The history of criticism of Poe,” HLP writes, “is the history of individuals who have imposed their agendas on the body of Poe’s work.” Indeed. HLP emphatically refutes the pernicious habit of interpreting Poe’s writings as autobiography (although even he occasionally falls into this seemingly irresistible trap.) Throughout the book, he does a good job of conveying the idealism, nobility, and spirituality that permeates Poe’s writings, but his criticism is most important towards the end, when he discusses “Eureka,” which he recognizes as the logical culmination of Poe’s entire body of work. HLP contributes a concise analysis of that wild masterpiece which alone makes the book worthwhile.

Unlike most critics of “Eureka,” he gives as much attention to Poe’s philosophy as his science. In particular, he addresses Poe’s efforts to explain what may be mankind’s oldest and most frustrating mystery: The paradox of how a world containing such wonder and beauty can also spawn so much evil and suffering. Poe saw matter as “Spirit Individualized,” a mere temporary “means to an end,” a method of creating conscious intelligence. The material universe would eventually collapse in on itself, leaving God to “remain all in all.” However, this expand-and-collapse cycle could be carried on forever, with an infinite number of universes being born and then going into nothingness “at every throb of the Heart Divine.” (Cf. “The Island of the Fay.”)

He went on to state that “no soul is inferior to another.” As the Creator of matter “now exists solely in the diffused Matter and Spirit of the Universe” we are all, in effect, our own God--“infinite individualizations of Himself.” This process of multiplication increased God’s happiness, but magnified the Creator's pain as well. Poe saw God as the author of the ultimate novel. "The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is a plot of God.” Pain is an unavoidable, even necessary, part of the plot, but Poe also believed in a high form of ultimate justice that would only be understood when the story of the Universe was complete. As he said earlier in “Mesmeric Revelation,” “pain, which in the inorganic life is impossible, is possible in the organic…All things are either good or bad by comparison. A sufficient analysis will show that pleasure, in all cases, is but the contrast of pain. Positive pleasure is a mere idea. To be happy at any one point we must have suffered at the same. Never to suffer would have been never to have been blessed. But it has been shown that, in the inorganic life, pain cannot be; thus the necessity for the organic. The pain of the primitive life of Earth, is the sole basis of the bliss of the ultimate life in Heaven.”

Poe restated that concept even more forcefully in “Eureka”: “In this view, and in this view alone, we comprehend the riddles of Divine Injustice—of Inexorable Fate. In this view alone the existence of Evil becomes intelligible; but in this view it becomes more—it becomes endurable. Our souls no longer rebel at a Sorrow which we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves, in furtherance of our own purposes—with a view—if even with a futile view—to the extension of our own Joy.”

However, I disagree with HLP’s impression that Poe’s “vision of God remains somehow incompatible” with his “knowledge of Love and Justice.” HLP shares the common assumption that Poe saw the ultimate “annihilation” of the individual soul as a negative prospect, but that is hardly how I interpret Poe’s meaning. “Eureka” is essentially a deeply positive, even joyful work, with the ultimate end of this physical universe seen as not just a necessity for the “plot,” but a final blessing. Poe believed our souls will never actually die—they will just return to their beginnings as one with God. His postscript to “Eureka” tells us, “The pain of the consideration that we shall lose our individual identity, ceases at once when we further reflect that the process, as above described, is neither more nor less than that of the absorption, by each individual intelligence, of all other intelligences (that is, of the Universe) into its own. That God may be all in all, each must become God.”

If that statement doesn’t exemplify Love and Justice, what does?

The book has a few odd flaws and factual errors, mostly in the more biographical sections. For instance, HLP seems to assume (although his wording is rather vague) that all correspondence between Poe and Charles Dickens has disappeared. In truth, there are three letters by Dickens to Poe extant.

HLP also states that Hiram Fuller claimed Poe was a forger who was carrying on an “immoral” relationship with Frances Osgood. Fuller published a column where Thomas Dunn English charged Poe with forgery, but he himself was not responsible for the libel. There is no evidence that Fuller—or any other contemporaries, for that matter—accused Poe and Mrs. Osgood (whose middle name, by the way, was “Sargent,” not “Sergeant”) of any impropriety.

Although I applaud any mockery of “Poe’s Mary,” HLP fell into the common mistake of calling Mary Starr “Mary Devereaux.” And his suggestion that Poe was the model for “David Copperfield,” strikes me as, to say the least, eccentric. Finally, while I agree that Poe’s existence was not the unrelieved Gothic nightmare of popular imagination, I would still hesitate to say that “On the whole, Poe’s life could be called happy.” (In particular, I believe HLP gives an overly sunny view of Poe's circumstances and state of mind in 1848-49. He also possibly reads too much into the allegations that Poe joined the Sons of Temperance shortly before his death.)

However, these are examples of relatively minor drawbacks to an otherwise admirable book. I am not normally a fan of elaborate literary interpretations—I belong to the school of “If you want to know what the book is about, read the book.” However, Poe has been so consistently misrepresented, and so much of his most significant work, such as “Eureka,” consistently ignored, that “Evermore” makes a necessary addition to the canon of Poe studies—a field littered with half-baked Freudianism, willful ignorance, and professorial narrow-mindedness. Although this is a scholarly work, it is written in a clear, unaffected style that is a refreshing change from the usual pompous academese found in books of this nature.

HLP also shows a gratifying recognition of the fact that Poe was not only a great writer, but a great man. The last few lines of “Evermore” note, “Poe discovered that the things that interested him (science, religion, and art) lay at the intersection of the rational, the empirical, and the imaginative. As he explored these matters, he found that Justice, Love, and Beauty pointed beyond themselves toward something eternal from whence they had come. In the midst of striving to be a poet and to raise the standard of American literature, he managed to affect the course of world literature and to provide a philosophy of art that film directors would follow without having any idea that it came from Poe. Yet such a public figure and popular icon remains a mystery.”

Read “Evermore"--or better yet, read Poe’s own writings in their entirety--and he will be far less baffling.