Thursday, December 31, 2009

I offer this Book of Truths

In 1848, Poe published the book that he thought would serve as his major posthumous legacy. He was ultimately wrong, but Eureka still interests both scholars and mainstream Poe fans. In his introduction, Poe addressed his audience:
To the few who love me and whom I love — to those who feel rather than to those who think — to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities — I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.
2009 has brought Poe back to the forefront of the American consciousness, and even internationally. Poe fervor was roaring in January and again in October. Ultimately, did the Poeists broaden our understanding of Poe, or did it merely re-hash the "usual" narrow stuff in his oeuvre? I don't know and I don't think any of us can predict Poe's longevity.

In the end, the Poe Calendar and the Poe Calendar Blog were my 200th birthday presents to Poe. In case you're interested, I totaled 202 posts for his 200th birthday (in varying qualities, I admit). In 2009, I visited Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, New York (and ultimately canceled a Richmond trip) on his behalf. I have given lectures, presented papers, screened films, published articles, assisted in a library exhibit, and tried to draw more and more people to Poe. Was I successful? I don't know. I always say it this way: I don't do any of this stuff for me. I do it for him.

Thank you, Edgar, for being a part of who I am. I can't help but believe your introduction to Eureka was written for people like me. And thank you, anyone out there reading these little bits of Poe enthusiasm. Hopefully, you'll follow me over to my new blog.

Though I'm not continuing this blog in 2010, I will leave it up intact as a resource to others. The site is easily searchable, especially using the categories for each post (a list of them is in the sidebar). Anyone with questions is welcome to contact me.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I have made up my mind not to die

Edgar Poe watched his wife slowly die over about five years. Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe was no longer the "child-bride" incessantly referred to by Poe biographers and middle school teachers. She was twenty years old when she had her first major tuberculosis-induced coughing fit. She had been married to Poe for over six years. She and Poe were quite in love... And Poe watched her deteriorate at what should have been the prime of her life.

After the final stage of his wife's illness was made public, several literary friends tried to make an appeal for her support. It wasn't entirely clear what was happening, but most people would have likely known the death sentence of "consumption." It was reported that Poe himself was also suffering from his own illness. Poe took it upon himself to write a letter in response to the great but perpetually convalescent Nathaniel Parker Willis (pictured at right) on December 30, 1846: "I am getting better... The truth is, I have a great deal to do; and I have made up my mind not to die 'til it is done."

At this stage in his life, Poe had published several books, become well-known as a fierce literary critic, had become one of the most well-known (yet underpaid) poets of his generation, had watched the Broadway Journal fail under his leadership, but he was determined to start a new journal, The Stylus, and become financially stable. He had every reason to be resolute and optimistic.

Nevertheless, exactly one month after his letter to Willis, Virginia Poe died in New York. The Stylus was never produced. And Poe himself died less than three years after he made his conviction not to die.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Absolute idiosyncrasy

Poe's works published in December are very representative of his overall bibliography. They include his mournful, sound-focused poem "Ulalume" (December 1847 issue of the American Whig Review), for example, as well as several tales:

• "Bon-Bon," featuring a devil who eats philosophers' souls like chocolates (December 1, 1832 issue of the Philadelphia Saturday Courier)
• "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion," considered one of the first apocalyptic future stories (December 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine)
• "The Man of the Crowd," a strange urban tale of identity or the lack thereof and secret sin (December 1840 issue of Graham's Magazine)
•one of the installments to the real-life crime story "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (second part in the December 1842 Snowden's Ladies' Companion)
• the humorous "The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq." (December 1844 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger)
• the grotesque hoax-like "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (December 1845 issue of the American Review)
• the critical theory essay "The Poetic Principle" (December 1848 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger)
• the first installment of his only play Politian, though he never completed it (December 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger).

In this snapshot of Poe's works, you see it all: poetry, horror, hoax, humor, science fiction, detective stories, literary theory, experimental works and even ones that defy a single identifiable genre (I'm thinking of "The Man of the Crowd" in particular here). It goes to show that Poe was not only a horror writer in fact, he wasn't even primarily a horror writer. We should have the same problem categorizing Poe as the narrator in "The Man of the Crowd" has with defining the title character.

I've hoped that the way we define Poe as a writer can be broadened. Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with labeling him primarily for his horror works but it's also very important that we look beyond it. The problem I have as a Poeist is people that judge Poe solely for a couple of works which, ultimately, are not representative of his whole body of works. And, unfortunately, we don't just define him as a writer by these few works, but as a man as well.

What makes a man write a story about a man who goes crazy and kills an old man just because of a weird eye before chopping up the body parts to conceal his crime? What kind of man writes a revenge tale where a character lures another into a wine cellar to brick him in alive? How does someone write about a tormented narrator whose obsession over his lost love manifests as a lost, ominous black bird? The definition readers often have of Poe are based on those three works ("The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Raven").

It might be just as useless to ask these questions: What makes a man write a humor story about a man so full of himself that he dares to engage the devil in a debate about philosophy, only to learn the philosophers he mentions have been taken by the devil? What kind of man writes a tale about how urbanization causes us to feel alone while crowded by hundreds of thousands of strangers? How does someone write about how modern technology or techniques can attempt to defy death but ultimately leave us punished for this challenge to God? There is no commonality that generally expressed all of Poe's writing. He should be honored for the "absolute idiosyncrasy" of his wide range of works, the same type of idiosyncrasy which distinguishes the man of the crowd.

Poe was, in case you can't tell, exploring the minds of his readers, not himself. He dove into pop culture, emerging science, and postulated about the future. He found common fears and exploited them just as often as he heightened humor to the level of absurdity. He knew the difference between high quality writing and "just for fun" reading.

It would be nice to see Poe studied, particularly at a younger reading level, identifying all of this. Poe wasn't crazy, he wasn't obsessed with death, he was just a mirror of his own times — and he happened to write really, really well. He is part of his time, his cultural context — and yet, he stands out somehow. He is the man of the crowd.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Richmond Theatre Fire

72 people died on December 26, 1811, when the Broad Street Theatre in Richmond, Virginia burned down. Eliza Poe was not one of them.

Though Eliza Poe, mother of Edgar Poe, had performed there and, in fact, gave her last performance there, she was already dead when the building caught fire. Years later, Poe would claim his mother was one of the many victims of that tragedy.

In fact, Eliza Poe had died about two weeks earlier, presumably from tuberculosis. Things moved very quickly from there. Young Edgar may have been taken in by John and Frances Allan as a foster child as early as the same day as Eliza's death. On about December 11, the Allans had him baptized (using the unofficial name "Edgar Allan Poe"). When the fire occurred, the Allan family, including young Edgar, was celebrating the Christmas holiday at Turkey Island, Virginia, southeast of Richmond on the James River. A letter to John Allan dated January 7, 1812, notes: "How fortunate that yourself & family were out of town" when the fire occurred.

A couple years later, a memorial church was built on the former site of the theatre. John Allan purchased one of the pews, number 80, for $340 as the family pew in April 1814.

Poe used the fire for sympathy points in 1829. Seeking to leave the Army and earn an appointment at West Point, he had a colonel named James House write to the general E. P. Gaines: "The said Perry [Poe's Army alias], is one of a family of orphans whose unfortunate parents were the victims of the conflagration of the Richmond theatre." The same letter also incorrectly notes that Allan had adopted Poe as "his son & heir" (neither claim was true).

Poe may have tried to cast his acting parents in a more noble light, considering that most actors were not considered noble by the public at the time (one historian noted that, though audiences loved drama, they did not respect those that performed it). Perhaps not coincidentally, Poe's loving foster-mother Frances Valentine Allan had died just before the claim was made that Eliza Poe died in the fire.

Interestingly enough, the theatre where Eliza Poe performed for the last time in Boston — the city where her two sons were born — also caught fire. Its stage, however, was preserved. Years later, Poe also "performed" on that same stage in Boston in what has been called the Boston Lyceum "incident." Poe likely did not realize the coincidence.

* The illustration above is from Richmond Then and Now.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas wedding... almost

Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman had planned a Christmas wedding on December 25, 1848. Whitman (no relation to Walt, though the two corresponded frequently) was an accomplished and well-known poet from Providence, Rhode Island. A widow, she was six years older than Poe. She was also an ancillary member of the Transcendentalists, a friend of Margaret Fuller, and an admitted disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson — all of which Poe did not much care for.

Nevertheless, Poe and Whitman hit it off rather well (even despite a possible suicide attempt while Poe was wooing a married woman) and he proposed to her in a cemetery. Whitman, however, was relatively wealthy and her family was concerned Poe was trying to marry her for her money. Undaunted, the couple signed an agreement waiving their rights to inheritance. To further show his commitment, Poe also promised Whitman he would give up drinking — which he almost certainly did.

Poe arrived in Providence on December 20 and, that evening, gave a lecture on poetry at the Franklin Lyceum. Whitman was in the front row and when Poe recited Edward Coote Pinkney's "A Health," he seemed to be directing it right at her ("I fill this cup to one made up of loveliness alone"). Impressed, she agreed to an immediate marriage. Poe called for Reverend Nathan Bourne Crocker, minister of St. John's Episcopal Church. Poe wrote to Maria Clemm (then in New York): "We shall be married on Monday."

A couple days before the wedding, however, Whitman was sitting in a library when an anonymous note was passed to her. According to the note, Poe had broken his promise to stay sober. Though Poe tried to tell her she had been "misinformed," Whitman called off the wedding and Poe immediately left Providence. They never saw each other again. Their marriage was so close to happening, however, that the couple was congratulated in newspapers throughout the country.

Poe did not stay upset for very long. Soon, he lined up another engagement to a different woman.

After Poe's death, Whitman got Rufus Griswold to confess he had written Poe's libelous obituary. She later published a book defending Poe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Birth of the Broadway Journal

Charles Frederick Briggs and John Bisco signed a contract on December 23, 1844 to begin a new publication in New York. Only a couple weeks earlier, Briggs was struggling over what to name the new periodical. He settled on "The Broadway Journal."

Bisco was the brains that handled the business operations while Briggs utilized his established literary reputation to attract both contributors and readers. Briggs, however, was no fool and wanted an even bigger name to attract attention. He asked his close friend James Russell Lowell how to get in touch with Edgar Allan Poe.

The Broadway Journal rose and fell very quickly. Briggs and Bisco partnered with Poe because of his reputation — a reputation earned partly from "The Raven" but also from his harsh, relentless literary criticism. When Poe did the same sort of criticism for the Journal, Briggs was offended (particularly when Poe attacked Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, angering mutual friend J. R. Lowell).

The three business partners never quite came together. Briggs, who was also dealing with personal financial difficulties, attempted to buy out Bisco to take in more profit for himself. Instead, he abandoned the journal he helped start only about six months into the project. Poe considered selling his share of the company to another editor, a lion of New York periodicals named Evert Augustus Duyckinck, or the main proponent of copyright law Cornelius Mathews. Instead, he borrowed money from Horace Greeley and bought out John Bisco. As of October 1845, Poe was the sole owner of The Broadway Journal. Despite Poe's high hopes, the publication shut down with its January 3, 1846 issue (after which Poe vowed to start the Stylus, which never came to be).

Briggs continued to work in the publishing industry, editing several other magazines, journals, newspapers, and annuals. He had a somewhat long run on Putnam's Magazine, where he worked with notables like Parke Godwin (son-in-law of William Cullen Bryant) and George William Curtis. Little seems to be known about John Bisco outside his connection to Briggs and Poe.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Poe drops out

His stint at the University of Virginia over, a 17-year old Edgar Poe left Charlottesville, Virginia on December 21, 1826 and returned to Richmond.

Poe's short run at "Thomas Jefferson's University" was bittersweet. Jefferson envisioned a school which would "develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order." In his optimism, the university he founded in Virginia had no church on campus, and he and the faculty agreed students should be self-governed and follow rules "on their honor." Their optimism was met with disaster.

During Poe's time there, the "scholastic anarchy and student escapades disturbed the peace of the College, Charlottesville, and the plantations about." Gambling, drinking, and fighting (which even included faculty!) were rampant. Poe wrote to John Allan once of a student hit on the head by another with a large stone, causing him to draw a pistol ("which are all the fashion here"). Another fight led to one student biting another. "I saw the arm afterwards," Poe wrote, "and it was really a serious matter—It was bitten from the shoulder to the elbow—and it is likely that pieces of flesh as large as my hand will be obliged to be cut out."

Nevertheless, Poe excelled and distinguished himself as a student of languages. He may have met Jefferson himself and mourned with the rest of the campus when their founder died. However, John Allan had (purposely?) sent Poe to school without enough money to cover general expenses, such as tuition. Poe turned to gambling and soon was in heavy debt. Allan would not allow him to continue after his first semester. The book store at UVa now sells a t-shirt with Poe's visage above the words "dropout."

With no other options, Poe returned to Moldavia and may have worked as a bookkeeper with his foster-father John Allan — and possibly without pay. Soon, he would strike out on his own as an enlisted soldier.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The mystery of Rosalie Poe

Rosalie Poe, the youngest of the three children of David Poe and Eliza Arnold, was born on December 20, 1811.* Her birth was in Norfolk, Virginia the same town where her parents met. Well, presumably. Ultimately, Rosalie Mackenzie Poe's story is one of rumors and more rumors.

The date, of course, is questionable (see the note below). Even Edgar Poe made things more confusing when he once claimed Rosalie was actually his older sister.

Rumors persist that Rosalie Poe was not the daughter of David Poe. Evidence for when his estrangement begins is unclear but his wife having affair could certainly have inspired it, in theory. Even in Rosalie's lifetime accusations were implied. John Allan, for example, wrote to William Henry Leonard Poe (the oldest of the three children) in November 1824:
God may yet bless him [i.e. young Edgar] & you & that Success may crown all your endeavors & between you your poor Sister Rosalie may not suffer. At least She is half your Sister & God forbid my dear Henry that We should visit upon the living the Errors & frailties of the dead.
The "Errors & frailties of the dead" would imply an affair that Eliza Poe had. How John Allan would have known about this is difficult to say though we might speculate that Eliza, a well-known and well-respected actress in Virginia, would easily fall prey to the gossip mill whether rumors were true or not.

Allan also implies that Henry and Edgar need to care for Rosalie. Though she was (legally) adopted into the very loving Mackenzie family of Richmond, the story goes that she had some sort of mental deficiency. Some called her dull, others referred to her as "backward." These rumors contrast with stories that she made a modest living as a schoolteacher and enjoyed playing the piano and writing songs. Evidence for both versions of the story is unclear.

Rosalie likely was not too close with her brother Edgar, judging by their lack of substantial surviving correspondence. One letter from Edgar from sometime in early 1843 is addressed to one of the Mackenzies and notes, "Tell Rose I hope to see her before long, and that I will write to her soon." After Edgar's death, she continued to live with the Mackenzies, never marrying. The Civil War, however, "impoverished and broke up the family," writes Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman. Rosalie herself wrote she was forced "on the charities of this cold uncharitable world Homeless & Friendless."

She made her way to Baltimore, where she was rejected by Neilson Poe. Rumors suggest she walked the streets, hysterical and shrieking. She made money by selling postcards of her now famous brother and often appended signatures of her name with "Sister of Edgar A. Poe."

Rosalie eventually entered a shelter in Washington, D.C., where she died on July 21, 1874. Despite wanting to be buried near her brother (who would, one year later, be granted a substantial re-burying ceremony himself), she was instead buried in Washington in a plot belonging to the shelter. Her headstone oddly gives her year of birth as 1812 a year after her mother's death.

* Though there is a claim that no evidence exists for this date, it actually comes from the Mackenzie family Bible. However, even the Mackenzie's weren't entirely sure. They wrote: "Rosalie Mackenzie Poe... (is said) was born 20 Decr. 1810." The date has been supported, even with a question mark, by Poe scholars including Arthur Hobson Quinn and the two authors of The Poe Log.