When Henry James made his famous remark that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of an extremely primitive stage of reflection,” he meant of course to denigrate. Yet now we might think that James had hit upon Poe’s particular genius, his gift of getting beneath the social surface of things to explore in his writing the primitive apparatus of the unconscious. Like other Europeans, Nietzsche understood Poe better than anyone did on these shores:
Those great poets…men like Byron, Musset, Poe…are and must be men of the moment, sensual, absurd, fivefold, irresponsible, and sudden in mistrust and trust; with souls in which they must usually conceal some fracture; often taking revenge with their works for some inner contamination, often seeking with their high flights to escape into forgetfulness from an all-too-faithful memory; idealists from the vicinity of swamps.
Long before Freud had mapped the “swamps,” Poe roamed there, his tales and fables as odd and troubling as dreams.
It is curious that while most of us can remember vividly our first reading of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or “The Masque of the Red Death”—can remember the tale’s plot and the fascination, and the frightening effect, we rarely reread these stories, perhaps from a fear that the satisfying terror of first reading would now be stale and flat, or from reluctance to submit to it again, any more than we would willingly reread “The Little March Girl,” or any of the other painful tales of Hans Christian Andersen that stay so powerfully with us. The image of Red Death removing his mask to mock the arrogant revelers is too potent a metaphor to need repeating; we got it the first time and have never forgotten it. Nor can we ever recapture the effect of a first reading of “The Cask of Amontillado,” the horrid understanding dawning on us as we read; once known, the ending to which the whole thing is so cryptically pointed cannot surprise us again. Yet today we return to Poe to admire the brilliance with which he marshals his effects. The stories are shorter than we remembered, and decorated like plumcakes with symbols whose significance has been made familiar since Poe’s time, and whose directness could make the stories seem obvious in retrospect but does not. He continues to trouble us.
You cannot read the collected tales of Poe without being aware that you are in the hands of a most peculiar writer, perhaps a disturbed and clearly obsessed one, who gave us access to his own tormented unconscious with an openness possible only in preFreudian writers. But Poe wormed his way deeper than anyone had into the buried meaning of the sorts of tales and poems people were already familiar with. He touched on an underside of madness and rage that his readers—James included—were squeamish to acknowledge, and this is perhaps why he fixed himself with the reputation of being a monster, an injustice that literary historians have had a hard time repairing. Even his contemporaries confused his mad narrators with the man himself. His fellow American writers could not make sense of him, and they believed wild stories about him—it is said that William Cullen Bryant refused to contribute to his burial (his reburial) on account of what he had heard about Poe’s bad character.
To think of Poe as an English writer of the Romantic period is to make sense of him in a way that trying to place him among the American Transcendentalists does not. He wrote in a particular English literary tradition, in the Gothic mode popular in his day, and he is the greatest of Gothic writers, perhaps the first modern one. He was a hard-working professional very much of his day, using the predominant motifs and genres of Romantic literature, and was intellectually involved with the critical debates of his contemporaries, especially those taking place in England about language, inspiration, and the relation of art and morals. (He was against moralizing: The “sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations,” anticipating fin-de-siècle aestheticism.)
It is perhaps his language that has made English speakers wonder at the immense reverence the French have for Poe; Poe was admired in France even in his day, and he is still regarded by them as one of our greatest writers. He was translated by Baudelaire (by which, remarked the censorious James, Baudelaire compromised himself utterly in the minds of Americans). He influenced Verlaine, Mallarme, Huysmans, Jules Verne, and countless others. The critic Gilles Barbedette has one explanation—that Poe translated by Baudelaire sounds better than Poe in English, and it may be as simple as that; but his reputation in France is also partly an example of the curious tide that washes up quite unexpected writers on foreign shores where they may receive a hero’s welcome as geniuses neglected in their own lands; there is often among England, France, and America a kind of influence gap, where writing is concerned. One also suspects that the somewhat Anglophobic French were more attracted to the Romantic received via America than in its earlier manifestations by Walpole or Mrs. Radcliffe. Poe also influenced Dostoevsky, who printed “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” two tales of murder and confession, in his magazine five years before he wrote Crime and Punishment. Altogether his influence on both the French and even the Russians is without equal among American writers.
Our idea of the difficult, tragic Poe is largely owing to a “nasty memoir,” as Richard Wilbur called it,1 by his rival, and original biographer, the malicious Reverend Rufus Griswold, who in Poe’s obituary made him out to be a scoundrel, and continued to make a career of maligning him, even altering Poe’s letters to enhance his presentation of the dead writer as a sex-and-opium-crazed alcoholic liar. Griswold told the fascinated world such things as that Poe was a fortune hunter (no one was ever less successful at fortune hunting) and kept a mistress, and that besides his child-wife, Poe had “criminal relations” with his mother-in-law, and, almost worse, was so hated that “few would grieve for his death.” These calumnies fixed forever the reputation of a man who seems really to have been, though desperate and difficult, sensitive, highly intelligent; an orphan who from the beginning was fated to lose all that he loved; a genius and a monumentally unlucky man, “doomed,” D.H. Lawrence said, to “seethe down his soul in a great continuous convulsion of disintegration, and doomed to register the process.” He had one of the most truly sad lives of any artist, a life whose interest for us, like that of the Brontes, rivals the works themselves, and does much to explain them.
In “The Philosophy of Composition” he wrote that the most poignant and melancholy subject for poetry was the death of a beautiful young woman, an idea that must have arisen from his pre-memory, for this subject was given him at the age of two, as he and his infant sister watched beside their deserted, terrified, dying young mother, in rented lodgings in Richmond, Virginia. She was Elizabeth Arnold, a young English actress called Betty, who had come to America with a troupe of minor British players. (The sadness of her life does not bear thinking about.) She was married first at sixteen to another actor, widowed, then married to David Poe, a young American of good family who had studied law but was stage-struck and had joined the company. In 1807 she gave birth to Poe’s older brother, Henry, whom they left with David Poe’s parents, and then on January 19, 1809, to Edgar. David Poe, less accomplished than his wife, was also moody, disappointed, dissolute, and ill, and in the summer of 1810 he disappeared, deserting Betty in Richmond with little Edgar, and four months pregnant with Rosalie. Biographers have suggested that this little sister might not be Poe’s child, and that this explained the breakup of the marriage. In any case, within the year, the readers of the Richmond World would see a notice:
To the humane heart. On this night Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance and asks it perhaps for the last time. The Generosity of the Richmond Audience can need no other appeal.
Betty Poe was dying of tuberculosis. The immediacy of the child’s horror of sickness, decay, and death would never leave him. The father, David Poe, would also die of tuberculosis, whether two days later, as one tradition has it, or earlier, in October 1810, or as late as 1813.
The orphans were adopted, Edgar by a Scots tobacco merchant, John Allen, Rosalie by another family. The childless Mrs. Allen was delighted with the attractive, bright little boy, and his upbringing seems at first to have been a happy and relatively privileged one, with good schools and all the manners and expectations of an upper-middle-class southern family. From 1815 to 1820, the Allens lived in England, where Poe went to a boarding school on Sloane Street, and it was there, one supposes, that he became acquainted with English literature, especially the Gothic tales then current, but also the poetry of the Romantics; Byron (who seems to have been one of his models) and Shelley were then at the height of their celebrity.
The family returned to America. Edgar continued to do well in school and to show some promise at writing, which was by no means John Allen’s hope for him. Like Shelley, Poe was a rebellious adolescent, wild in the fashion of Romantic poets and young southern gentlemen. He had to leave the University of Virginia after his first semester because of gambling debts and drinking. From here his relationship with his foster father would deteriorate in a repetitious cycle of accusations, pleas for money, hard-hearted refusals from John Allen, and increasingly desperate measures by Poe. At the age of eighteen he joined the army, and had to be bought out. It was now that he paid to have his first volume of verses printed: Tamerlane and Other Poems, by a “Bostonian.”
Poe was twenty when he got out of the army. He lived for a while in Baltimore with his grandmother Poe, her widowed daughter Mrs. Clemm, and Mrs. Clemm’s little daughter Virginia, and tried to launch himself into a literary career, attracting attention for his poems and inventing travel tales based on his military service. At twenty-two he obliged Mr. Allen by entering West Point, but he failed at this too, and was court-martialed for neglecting his duties. He left West Point with money collected from his fellow cadets to publish a new volume of poems.
Meantime his beloved foster mother died, Mr. Allen remarried, and the new wife produced a son, so that Allen had no need to repose his hopes in the unruly Edgar, whom he steadfastly refused to help. In Baltimore with Mrs. Clemm, Poe’s brother Henry died, of tuberculosis like their parents, and at the same age as their mother, twenty-four. Poe would marry Virginia Clemm, and she too would die of tuberculosis at twenty-four.
Copyright © Diane Johnson, 1991
Richard Wilbur, Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953–1976 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976),p.128.↩
Richard Wilbur, Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953–1976 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976),p.128.↩