Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rating Poe Biography: The Good, the Bad, and the Simply Insane (Part Two)

The Bad:

(A note: Essentially, this category consists of practically every book ever published about Poe other than the ones mentioned in my previous post. However, these works listed below are what I consider to be the most important and influential disasters.)

*Mary E. Phillips, "Edgar Allan Poe, the Man." I long for the day when someone translates this book into English.

Mary E Phillips Edgar Allan Poe the Man

*Hervey Allen, "Israfel." Of all the major Poe biographies, this is perhaps the one I find most offensive. Allen was, by profession, a writer of trashy fiction (and, it was claimed, plagiarized trashy fiction, to boot,) and it shows. His lengthy Poe biography is often inaccurate, and highly speculative. That itself is hardly unusual in books about Poe. However, what makes his book particularly notable among the Poe Hall of Shame is the coarse, almost prurient tone that is diffused throughout--a tone that has proved to be quite influential, as it has been adopted by all the worst Poe-related biographers and novelists since. In that sense, I suppose you could say that Allen was a pioneer in his way. Of course, you could say the same about Typhoid Mary.

Edgar Allan Poe Kenneth Silverman*Kenneth Silverman, "Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance." The book's insufferably pompous title sets the tone for the entire work. Considering Silverman makes no secret of his disdain for Poe--as both a writer and a man--one wonders what drew him to such a project. "Remembrance" has many factual errors that appear to be due to hasty and sloppy research and writing (the book often reads like a failing grad student's first draft,) and his only interest in Poe's works seems to be in making endless juvenile pop-psychology attempts to view them as some mirror of what he imagines to have been Poe's warped psyche. Silverman also misses no opportunity to interpret every event in Poe's life in a way that paints him in the worst possible light--even when the circumstances clearly suggest otherwise. Silverman is also extremely inconsistent and vague in his descriptions and interpretations of Poe's personal life--his relationship with Virginia in particular. He gives the overall impression that he simply had not bothered to think out or had not been able to decide who or what Poe was, or what had even happened in the more controversial events of his life. This often causes him to take the easy way out by dismissing this or that situation by simply calling it, "murky," while simultaneously setting himself up as a censorious analyst of it all. (Which, again, brings up the question why this book was even written.) The fact that this goofy tripe is considered the standard modern biography of Poe quite frankly appalls the hell out of me.

*Thomas O.Mabbott never wrote a biography of Poe, but he published numerous magazine artcles about the poet, and edited the best-known modern editions of Poe's works, with extensive notes and annotations. Unfortunately, he spread a great deal of myths, errors, and flat-out libels about Edgar and Virginia Poe in the process. He seemed completely unable to judge historical evidence, accepting--and thus giving credibility to--a frightening amount of sheer hogwash. For reasons that completely elude me, Mabbott is considered something of a "dean" among Poe specialists, with his opinions having been given a quite unjustified air of authority. This was a man who considered Susan Talley Weiss to have been a most trustworthy source. Enough said. Mabbott also seemed to have odd problems with simple reading comprehension. I have found a number of instances where his descriptions of what someone said or wrote in no way matched the actual quotes or writings. Very strange stuff.

Edgar Allan Poe Complete Poems

*George Woodberry, "The Life of Edgar Allan Poe" Woodberry evidently wrote his Poe biography on commission. He was a peculiar choice for the job, as his tastes and sympathies were all with the New England Transcendentalists who were particularly anathema to Poe. (Not to mention the fact that he was a friend of Rufus Griswold's son William.) Like Silverman, Woodberry made no bones about his instinctive antipathy to both Poe's writings and personality. The 1885 edition of his biography is reasonably scholarly and not without interest, but by the time he released a heavily revised edition in 1909, he had fallen under the baleful influence of the ubiquitous Susan Talley Weiss, and the book suffered accordingly. If you wish to study Woodberry, stick to the earlier edition.

*Peter Ackroyd, "Poe: A Life Cut Short." Another publisher-commissioned hack job. A mere summary of recent Poe books--mostly Silverman's--and this summarizing is not even done well. This book is most notable for featuring one of the worst metaphors I've seen in some time--where he compares Poe to a "cuttlefish floundering in its own ink." Methinks Ackroyd wound up floundering in his own attempts at profundity.

*William Gill, "The Life of Edgar Allan Poe." Gill was among the more eccentric Poe enthusiasts. His book about Poe has some interesting original information, but on the whole is not of any importance. He is perhaps best known for his claim of having retrieved the bones of Virginia Poe when her Fordham graveyard was demolished, and keeping her remains under his bed for years. Every time I think of Gill, I'm reminded of Robert Bloch's short story "The Man Who Collected Poe."

*J.H. Whitty. Whitty never did an actual book about Poe, but he wrote extensively about the writer, and provided information to several biographers (most notably Mary Phillips and Hervey Allen.) Very unfortunately, Whitty was--in the words of an acquaintance--"a crank." He had a long history of claiming to have uncovered important Poe material that turned out to be either misrepresented by him or simply nonexistent. He also had a passion for attributing practically every poem published anonymously or under pseudonyms during the 1830s and 1840s to Poe's pen. Most of these attributions have been contested or discarded, which is a blessing for Poe's reputation, as the poems Whitty promoted were always dreadfully bad. Even Thomas Mabbott--not exactly Mr. Reliable himself--admitted that Whitty was in the habit of blending fact with fiction. How such a person could remain as any sort of Poe authority astounds me, but such is the case.

He attributed two poems that appeared anonymously in "Graham's Magazine" in 1845, "Stanzas" and "The Divine Right of Kings," as Poe's work, on the grounds that he claimed to have discovered a volume of that magazine annotated by Frances S. Osgood, where she identified EAP as the author. Whitty never produced this volume when asked to do so, but the attribution has stuck, largely because Mabbott claimed that, some years later, someone else discovered a "Graham's" volume in the Boston Public Library, where some unknown person had written Poe's name under these poems. It does not seem to have occurred to Mabbott that someone hearing of Whitty's claim--or even Whitty himself--had used his story as an excuse to label these poems as being by Poe. He also ignored the fact that these highly mediocre poems are not in the least in Poe's style, and that Poe would have had no reason not to claim them as his own, if he had truly written them.

Similarly, a Poe "memoir" Whitty wrote for an edition of his poems featured hitherto unknown and unpublished reminiscences Whitty claimed were written by Poe's friend Frederick W. Thomas. Whitty never produced the actual manuscript of these "reminiscences," or even an account of how these papers came into his hands. Nevertheless, this completely unauthenticated information has become part of standard Poe biography. There are many other examples of Whitty's mendacious influence. Like Mrs. Weiss, he deserves a special infamy for his particularly large amounts of untrustworthy or outright false contributions to the Poe record.

* "Poe" by James M. Hutchisson

All you need to know about this derivative, astonishingly inaccurate, and rather pitiful biography comes near the end of the book. Hutchisson briefly describes the later life of Sarah Elmira Shelton, adding the statement that "After expressing her anguish over Poe's death in the October letter to Muddy, Poe's last love, Elmira Royster Shelton, entered into a discreet silence on all
matters about the author for twenty-six years. She broke it only in 1875, when she granted an interview to Edward V. Valentine, of Richmond, who tape-recorded her statements. After Elmira's death on 11 February 1888, the recording was placed in the Valentine Museum in Richmond, where it remains today."

Tape-recordings. In 1875. Brilliant, Mr. Hutchisson. Simply brilliant.

Coming next: The worst of the worst!


  1. Thank you for your insightful comments. Have you read about the scientific analysis of a lock of Poe's hair? Has this pointed to a more reliable cause for his death ?

    1. Yes, I've read about the testing of the hair of Poe and his wife. It revealed some interesting information (particularly about the very high levels of lead in Virginia Poe's system,) but it did little to indicate a possible cause of Edgar's death.