On Edgar Allan Poe

Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore
Edgar Allan Poe; portrait by Gabriel Harrison, 1896

Edgar Allan Poe was and is a turbulence, an anomaly among the major American writers of his period, an anomaly to this day. He both amazed and antagonized his contemporaries, who could not dismiss him from the first rank of writers, though many felt his work to be morally questionable and in dubious taste, and though he scourged them in print regularly in the course of producing a body of criticism that is sometimes flatly vindictive and often brilliant.

It seems to have been true of Poe that no one could look at him without seeing more than they would wish or he could tolerate. His clothing was always neat and genteel and very shabby. His manner was gracious and refined and notoriously pathetic or outrageous if he happened to have been drinking. He was always too desperate for money to be tactful in his solicitations of acquaintances, being the sole support of a beloved and tubercular wife, a cousin he had married when she was not quite fourteen. He was a popular writer and a very successful editor, and always meagerly paid. The gentility that was his entrée and his armor was of a Southern kind, not much appreciated by the New Englanders who dominated literary life. And the Virginia family among whom he had acquired the manners and tastes of refinement had disowned him without a dime.

The writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson said Poe had “the look of over-sensitiveness which when uncontrolled may prove more debasing than coarseness.” And he does seem to have been overwhelmed by himself, intolerably sensitive and proud and intolerably brilliant, his drinking and bitterness abetting his discomfitures and humiliations. That said, his strange little household of aunt/mother and cousin/wife, through it all and while it lasted, was always reported to be warm and sweet. He was a strong, athletic man who, through the whole of his career, bore up under his weaknesses and afflictions well enough to be very productive, most notably in the unique inventiveness, the odd purity, of his fiction.

Poe published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in 1838, relatively early in his career. It is his only novel. Its importance is suggested by the fact that his major work comes after it. That is, in writing Pym he seems to have come to a realization of the strongest impulses of his imagination. The book shows evidence of haste, or of a certain waning of interest in the earlier, more conventional part of it. Pym’s flaws are sometimes ascribed to the fact that it was written for money, as it surely was, and as virtually everything else Poe wrote was also. This is not exceptional among writers anywhere, though in the case of Poe it is often treated as if his having done so were…

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