Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mr. Poe Takes the Stage (Part One of Two)

“[T]he most exquisite of sublunary pleasures…[is] the making of a fuss, or, in the classical words of a western friend, the ‘kicking up a bobbery.’”
-Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the “Broadway Journal,” November 22, 1845
One of the most notable incidents that led to the destruction of Poe's reputation was his appearance at the Boston Lyceum on October 16, 1845. The uproar surrounding his recital of "Al Aaraaf"--a performance that seems to have largely confounded his audience--and his subsequent public war of words with "Boston Transcript" editor Cornelia Walter served, perhaps more than any other event during his lifetime, to cement Poe's image as a drunken, erratic lunatic. While at least some of Poe's biographers realize that the disastrous nature of his actual appearance before the Lyceum was greatly exaggerated afterwards--in no small part due to the efforts of Poe himself--there has been no consensus about Poe's motives and intentions regarding the notorious recital. Did his failure to produce an “original” address for the occasion lead him to recycle an old poem out of desperation, or, as he asserted, did he deliberately mean to "quiz the Bostonians?" Or was it a sign he was simply going mad?

It is possible that Poe did find himself unable to produce a new poem “on order” for the occasion—like most men of genius, he was unable to “commercialize” himself—and so resorted to this obscure early work. However, I suspect that Poe's own explanation was closest to the truth. His disdain for the Bostonians was certainly quite genuine. It is easy to picture him presenting them with "Al Aaraaf"--a mystical exploration of Heaven, Hell and the grey area that lies between--as a deliberate challenge to their well-known intellectual and spiritual pretensions. He likely assumed the poem, a cousin of "Ulalume," "Israfel," "Dream-Land," "The Conqueror Worm," and others, would be completely over their heads, and he undoubtedly saw their confusion as further proof of their inferiority.

When Poe accepted the invitation to appear in Boston, he knew perfectly well that he was entering enemy territory. His very public mockery of the New England intelligentsia, as well as his recent campaign to prove that Longfellow, the darling of the Bostonians, was a plagiarist, ensured that his appearance would be controversial. The Boston newspapers even predicted that if Poe dared to show his face in their city, the audience "would poh at him, at once." It is usually assumed that Poe's motives in taking on such an obviously hazardous assignment were purely financial. Pressed for money, he agreed to appear in front of the Lyceum, despite the potential for disaster. However, just the opposite may be true--that he welcomed the invitation precisely because of the potential for disaster. Poe was never happier than when in the thick of literary battle--the noisier and more violent it was, the better he liked it. When he cheerfully asserted in the "Broadway Journal" that he accepted the chance to appear before a Boston audience because he was curious to see what it would be like to be hissed at in public, he may not have been entirely facetious.Edgar Allan Poe and BostonCertainly, his performance seemed designed to confuse and irritate his audience as much as possible. After delivering a brief, self-deprecating address that was clearly dripping with sarcasm, he proceeded to recite “Al Aaraaf"—lengthy, complicated verses that are probably the most abstruse he--or just about anyone else, for that matter--ever wrote. Although he followed up his performance by fulfilling audience requests to hear "The Raven"--a recitation that, by most accounts, went over well--the damage had been done. Some attendees, already stupefied by a three-hour speech by Massachusetts politician Caleb Cushing, found Poe's obscurities too much to handle, and walked out on him with the vague feeling that they had been insulted.

That feeling was entirely justified. At a private gathering that was held after the recital, Poe asserted that "Al Aaraaf" was intended to spoof the audience. It had, he claimed, been written before he was twelve years old, and that such a juvenile work was quite sufficient for the likes of the Bostonians. His expressions of contempt for his audience were, of course, widely circulated, and, of course, the local papers responded in kind. Cornelia Walter, who already had it in for Poe because of his "Longfellow War," immediately published an editorial describing Poe's performance as a humiliating failure. From then on, she used the "Boston Transcript" as a forum to regularly mock him, often in the crudest terms possible. Although at least one other Boston paper, as well as several members of the audience, described Poe's recital as beautiful, if somewhat baffling to most listeners, they were drowned out by the catcalls of his enemies, who made full use of the means Poe had provided to attack him.

Say what you will about Poe, but he was always ready to give his opponents as good, or better, than he received. As his contemporary John Du Solle once remarked, "If Mr. P. had not been gifted with considerable gall, he would have been devoured long ago by the host of enemies his genius has created." Two weeks after his Lyceum appearance, Poe wrote a lengthy editorial in the "Broadway Journal" giving his side of the story. He showed no remorse for his actions. Indeed, he countered that “that most beguiling of all beguiling little divinities" Miss Walter "has been telling a parcel of fibs about us, by way of revenge for something we did to Mr. Longfellow (who admires her very much) and for calling her ‘a pretty little witch’ into the bargain." According to Poe, his recital was a smashing success. The approbation he received “was considerably more (the more the pity too) than that bestowed upon Mr. Cushing.” He asserted that all the claims his appearance had been a failure were entirely due to “that amiable little enemy of ours,” at the “Boston Transcript.” (He added that “We shall never call a woman ‘a pretty little witch’ again, as long as we live.”)

Having finished with his defense, Poe gleefully went on the offense. He acknowledged that he himself had been born in Boston, “and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact.” Bostonians “have always evinced towards us individually, the basest ingratitude for the services we rendered them in enlightening them about the originality of Mr. Longfellow.” This prejudice against him, Poe explained, made it scarcely possible that he would put himself to the trouble of composing an original poem for such an audience, so he favored them with one that was “quite as good as new—one, at all events, that we considered would answer sufficiently well for an audience of Transcendentalists.” This poem, he blandly assured his readers, was one which he had written, printed, and published in book form “before we had fairly completed our tenth year.” He sardonically commented that “We do not, ourselves, think the poem a remarkably good one:--it is not sufficiently transcendental.” However, his listeners “evinced characteristic discrimination in understanding, and especially applauding, all those knotty passages which we ourselves have not yet been able to understand.” Unfortunately, he sighed, he could not resist “letting some of our cat out of the bag a few hours sooner than we had intended,” when he told his dinner companions of the success of his hoax. His conclusion: “We should have waited a couple of days.”

Next post: The power of words.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Many Deaths of Edgar Poe

"And all the woe that moved him so
That he gave that bitter cry
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die"
-Oscar Wilde, "Ballad of Reading Gaol"
The major roadblock in the efforts to solve the mystery of Poe's death is the strange fact that none of the witnesses to his final days ever managed to coordinate their testimonies with each other, or even themselves. Poe's biographers tend to cherry-pick among the various accounts given over the years by Joseph Snodgrass, Dr. Moran, Neilson Poe, and other minor figures, selecting and arranging statements as they would pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in order to build whatever narrative most pleases them. For the most part, these chroniclers find it easiest to ignore the fact that whenever you are presented with multiple conflicting accounts of the same event, that only means that none of them can be trusted.

The most commonly accepted story is that a Joseph Walker encountered a disheveled, semi-conscious man "who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe," in Baltimore's Ryan's Tavern. Walker was able to ascertain that the unfortunate man was an acquaintance of Snodgrass, who was immediately summoned. According to Snodgrass, he accompanied the poet to the hospital. Unfortunately, his details of the event varied over the years that he told and re-told the story, and it is established that he manipulated facts in at least one crucial area--the text of the note Walker supposedly sent alerting him to Poe's desperate condition. He falsely claimed Walker warned him that Poe was intoxicated, a lie which does little for Snodgrass' credibility.

Then, of course, the biographies go on to relate Dr. Moran's colorful and harrowing descriptions of his famous patient screaming the name "Reynolds" in his delirium, declaring that the best thing his friends could do for him was to blow out his brains, finally conquering the fever called living with the plaintive plea for God to help his poor soul, etc., etc. (Historians generally ignore Moran's later accounts, which are, amazingly, even more lurid. He also showed a remarkable inconsistency with even the most basic facts, such as the day Poe was brought to the hospital, where he was found--he occasionally liked to say the poet was discovered by an anonymous passerby "lying on a bench by a wharf"--and when he died. According to Poe’s biographer Eugene Didier, Moran lied about having personally attended Poe at all. Again, the point has to be made--if Moran's later versions of Poe's death are demonstrably inconsistent and untrustworthy, why should his original tale be trusted?)

What further complicates the whole matter is the fact that there is a much lesser known, and seemingly equally credible, version of Poe's death that utterly contradicts everything cited above. It comes from a distant relative of his, Elisabeth Ellicott Poe. According to Miss Poe, on October 3, 1849, her grandfather, George Poe Sr. (who was Edgar’s first cousin,) was walking along the streets of Baltimore when saw a man, whom he presumed to be in a drunken stupor, lying beneath the steps of the Baltimore Museum. When he looked closer at the figure, he realized, to his horror, that it was his literary cousin. After sending for Neilson Poe, who lived nearby, George Poe took his unconscious relative to the hospital. Mrs. Clemm was sent for, and doctors worked for days to save the poet. However, he never fully regained consciousness, and finally died on the morning of October 7. Elisabeth Poe was an advocate of the “cooping” theory—that Edgar had been shanghaied by the “Plug Uglies,” a local political organization, drugged, and utilized for their curious electoral purposes. The combination of drugs and exposure, she declared, had killed her famous relative.

Now, of course, Miss Poe’s story—which she claimed was verified by Neilson Poe himself—contradicts the accepted Snodgrass/Moran accounts in practically every detail. Neilson Poe himself was of little help in getting to the bottom of the mystery. Others who knew him asserted that he believed Poe had indeed been “cooped,” a misadventure which resulted in his death. However, a month after Edgar’s demise, Neilson wrote Rufus Griswold that "The history of the last few days of his life is known to no one so well as to myself...I think I can demonstrate that he passed, by a single indulgence, from a condition of perfect sobriety to one bordering upon the madness usually occasioned only by long continued intoxication, and that he is entitled to a far more favorable judgment upon his last hours than he has received..." In short, his famous cousin went on one spree too many. Neilson promised to make a “deliberate communication” on the subject, but so far as we know, he never did.

In 1871, a journalist provided Richard Henry Stoddard with an account he claimed to have received from Neilson. Assuming this journalist quoted him accurately, Neilson claimed that he somehow found Edgar “in a state of insensibility,” and brought him to the hospital. In this version of the story, there was merely a “horrible suspicion” that he had been “cooped.” According to this journalist, while Edgar was traveling to Philadelphia from Baltimore, he took one drink that immediately sent him into a “state of delirium,” and the conductor of the train returned him to Baltimore (presumably, just dumping this stricken stranger on the street to fend for himself.) What happened next was unclear, but the implication was that he then somehow fell into the hands of the unscrupulous ward managers.

Unfortunately, this story is, of course, undocumented (and this journalist never made it clear how Neilson Poe learned all this, as Edgar himself was unable to say what had happened to him.) It does not even come directly from Neilson. It is one of the many inexplicable enigmas surrounding Edgar Poe’s death that, although Neilson evidently spent a good deal of effort investigating the tragedy, he never publicly gave any detailed, first-hand account of what he believed had happened. The reasons for his odd reticence are unknown.

It is strange enough that we do not know for certain where Edgar Poe was or what he was doing in the five or so days between his departure from Richmond and his arrival in Moran’s hospital, or that we cannot even make an educated guess about what killed him. It is virtually incomprehensible that so basic a matter as who first discovered him in Baltimore and brought him to the doctors, where he was found, and whether or not he was intoxicated at the time should be such a matter of dispute. It all makes George W. Eveleth’s assertion that Poe’s death was simply a hoax seem quite rational in comparison.

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.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Whether You Loved or Hated "Arthur Gordon Pym"...

Mat Johnson Pym
...I recommend reading Mat Johnson's "Pym." It's often hilarious, and refreshingly original. I thought the first half of the book was much better than the second, but, then, that's what a lot of people have said about Poe's original work. If, like me, you've had some harrowing experiences in the deranged world of academia, you'll find some of the mockery particularly delicious. However, even if you have no interest in Poe (in which case, pray tell, why are you here?) this is one of the best social satires (a sadly dying breed) I've read since "A Confederacy of Dunces." A comedic novel based largely on racial issues is a particularly tricky business, but I think Johnson handled that aspect of the book cleverly and sanely, simply by lampooning us all.

In any case, how could I not like a book containing the line, "In this age when reality is built on big lies, what better place for truth than fiction?"

Despite what most of the reviews have said, however, I think it's a good idea to read (or re-read) Poe's novel before tackling this book. I've always believed "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" was itself meant as satire--albeit of a characteristically cryptic and mystical kind--so having a detailed familiarity with his work brings a fuller dimension to Johnson's reinvention. (Incidentally, I largely disagree with Johnson's interpretation of Poe's "Pym," but that's irrelevant to this novel, particularly since, considering the context of his book, I question whether he meant this interpretation to be treated completely seriously.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Yet Another Cautionary Tale

The letters of George W Eveleth to Edgar Allan PoeOn January 11, 1848, George W. Eveleth wrote Poe a letter in which he quoted from a statement made by an editor of a paper called the "Weekly Universe." This statement said, "Edgar A. Poe, in the estimation of the editors of the 'Universe,' holds a high rank, regarded either as an elegant tale-writer, a poet, or a critic. He will be more fairly judged after his death than during his life. His habits have been shockingly irregular, but what amendment they have undergone within the past six months we cannot say, for Mr. Poe, during that time, has been in the country--we know him personally--he is a gentleman--a man of fine taste and warm impulses, with a generous heart. The little eccentricities of his character are never offensive except when he is drunk..." Eveleth went on to say that he had been told the names of the editors and contributors of the "Universe," and asked if Poe indeed knew them.

On February 29, Poe responded, "The editor of the 'Weekly Universe' speaks kindly and I find no fault with his representing my habits as 'shockingly irregular.' He could not have had the 'personal acquaintance' with me of which he writes; but has fallen into a very natural error...I do not know the 'editors & contributors' of the 'Weekly Universe' and was not aware of the existence of such a paper."

Poe's statement is something to be kept in mind when weighing the validity of the numerous "reminiscences of Poe" that were brought before the public after his death. With many of these reminiscences, not only are the stories they offered completely uncorroborated, but we have only the speaker's unsupported word that he or she had ever even laid eyes on the poet--and Poe, unlike in the case noted above, was no longer around to confirm or deny their acquaintance.