4/18/17 (soon after the coffee)
I grew up a huge Edgar Allen Poe fan – I think many young boys do the same after being introduced to his writing. I started reading Poe around the 3rd grade so I was a little ahead of the school-assigned reading that was to come.
While so many have read his classic stories (“A Tale Tale Heart”, “The Fall of the House of Usher” etc) I became a fan of his “deep cuts” so so speak – the titles that aren’t normally included with school assignments.
I recall quickly jumping from more common short stories like “The Black Cat” to more obscure ones like “The System of Dr. Tarr & Professor Feather” or “A Predicament”
I also became increasingly curious about his actual life and history – what kind of man was he? How did he move about in society?
Ultimately, my wife found a great biography on Poe – at a yard-sale for 25-Cents.
This book was written by Edward Wagenknecht in 1963, was sub-titled “The Man Behind the Legend” – and featured a beautiful, worn green hardback cover.
Here’s a much less worn, much more contemporary version of the book cover for your reference:
I can’t say enough good things about this biography – if you’re even remotely a fan of Poe, or are curious – you should pick up a copy and add it to your collection.
The edition I own came from New York – Oxford University press (1963) and is the third printing. There are 221 pages of content with a magnificently robust Notes & Bibliography section in the back.
The book is broken down into 6 sections that cover various aspects of Poe’s life. Each section rewards the reader with excerpts from letters (to/from or about) Poe as well as quotes from his contemporaries.
We quickly learn that nearly every aspect of the archetypical image of Poe (Graveyard haunting, drug addicted, alcohol possessed-madman…etc) is twisted or all-together false. Many of these notions were created by a man named Rufus Griswold. Here’s a link that provides more information On the Topic of Griswold’s Hack-Job on Poe.
As for his early life, we learn of how robust and healthy he was – how he swam 6 miles p the James River in Virginia.
We learn that the ladies LOVED to have Mr Poe drop by to read to them. When is the last time you thought of Edgar Allen Poe as a ladies man? Here’s a link to the Huffington Post (“11 Things You Didn’t Know About Edgar Allen Poe) that shows Poe in His Earlier Years.
Te book takes on the subject of Poe’s drinking and alleged drug use. We learn that he didn’t enjoy drinking, became drunk very easily and, he was far from being a crazed opium user.
He was a tough and sometimes “slighting” or even “rude” editor who, on occasion, even ran down his own mentors (Coleridge & Schlegel). The specific examples of his writing in this context are yours to discover – I dare say you will find the descriptions and excerpts quite entertaining!
The sections that describe Poe’s lifelong dream of owning his own magazine and how he never attained that goal, are heartbreaking.
When we learn that every woman he ever loved died slowly and horribly, when we see him sinking into poverty and learn that, later in life, he would maintain his coat so no one had to see he couldn’t afford a clean shirt underneath, it’s hard to avoid sharing his sense of loss.
The book shares many letters that provide insight on Poe’s character – we also hear from other famous authors (Hawthorne, Longfellow and others) and obtain their opinions on him.
The book provides source after source of rich material that will expand your knowledge and shift your perception of Edgar Allen – well worth the read!
In closing, I’m going to share a different cultural angle on the subject – Music dedicated to Poe.
Allen Parsons also had a fascinating Poe-Themed album back in the day – I recall that the cover art terrified me as a child.
But I also recall that one song in that collection (The Raven) was quite good – here’s a video link if you’re interested.