Review: Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins, 2014.
Like his subject, Collins is “clever with his pen” and touches on every aspect of Edgar A. Poe’s life. It’s all here in a shade over 100 pages: Poe the poet and soldier, Poe the hoaxer and ghost-writer, Poe the critic, Poe the cryptographer, Poe the orphan, Poe the journalist and editor, and, of course the Poe who wrote famous stories of murder, mutilation, and obsession.
Collins makes a moral and legal case for the legitimacy of Poe marrying his 13 year old cousin.
He strikes a good balance on the matter of Poe’s drinking, what he called his “illness”. While not shying away from the problems it caused Poe, he also shows it wasn’t constant and that Poe’s problem with drink seemed more a chronic inability to handle even small amounts of liquor.
He talks about Poe’s obsession with plagiarism, his thin skin over insults, his talent for self-sabotage – his famous “imp of the perverse”.
Collins ties it all into the chronology of Poe’s writing, shows how Poe’s life influenced his stories and poems, but he doesn’t try to use stories as crypto-symbolic keys to Poe’s life. No Freudianism here.
Above all, Collins is stylish with a particular knack for selecting apt quotations. My favorite was the succinct summation of not only Poe the boy but, unintentionally, Poe the man by an English schoolmaster (Poe lived in England for part of his boyhood): “Intelligent, wayward, and willful.”
For Poe fans like me, who would like to know the source of remarks like that (and reassure ourselves it wasn’t something we’ve already read and forgotten), the lack of footnotes or an index is annoying. Collins does have a limited bibliography though.
However, Collins does shed some new light on published collaborations between Poe and his older brother Henry. As Auguste Dupin does in Poe’s “The Mystery of Mary Roget”, Collins fruitfully examines contemporary newspapers for “collateral or circumstantial events” to show the poor showings at Poe’s Eureka lectures had less to do with the weather or abstruse subject than his poor marketing.
Collins makes a convincing argument that Poe’s importance is as a short story writer. Indeed, his “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was the most influential piece of fiction written by anyone anywhere in the 19th century.
And, perhaps, most surprisingly, Collins actually defends the choice of Rufus Griswold as Poe’s literary executor.
In short, an excellent beginning primer on Poe the man and a quick, satisfying read for Poe fans.
Some Additional Thoughts for Poe Fans
There are a lot of Poe biographies out there, and I have by no means read them all. I have read two of the three listed in Collins’ bibliography: Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn and Edgar A. Poe: A Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance by Kenneth Silverman.
Assuming that someone would come to a Poe biography after reading most of Poe’s fiction and poetry, I think Collins is superior to Quinn and Silverman because he avoids the dryness of the former and negativity of the latter. As follow up works, both have their merits which I note in my reviews.
Like Silverman, Collins’ thinks Poe’s highest achievement was “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. It created the detective story, a genre adopted worldwide and in many languages. “The Raven” may be a beautiful, compelling poem, but it did not serve as a literary model for future poets.
Collins sees the defining characteristic of Poe’s fiction as an examination of “liminal states”. Collins doesn’t exactly define that term, and the Web of a Million Lies isn’t much help. I take it to mean states on the threshold between death and life, dream and waking. In Poe, immediate examples would be the “weak and weary” “gently napping” narrator of “The Raven” or the eponymous speaker of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”.
I liked Collins’ observation that the only institution that really appreciated Poe in his lifetime was the United States Army.
While I once would have agreed, before reading Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, that Eureka is a work of crank science, I think Collins wrongly puts more importance on the affect, the impression it leaves on the modern reader, over Poe’s intent. He conceived it as an “Art Product”, something in the tradition of the metaphysical poem which goes back to Lucretius’ “De Rerum Naturae”.
As to the defense of Rufus Griswold as literary executor, Collins argues that, whatever his assassinations of Poe’s character, his presentation of
Poe’s art was perfectly serviceable for the era … Even J. M. Daniel, a critic so hard on Poe that they’d once nearly dueled, was moved to this prophesy after reading the Works: ‘While people of this day run after such authors as Prescott and Willis … their children, in referring back to literary history, will say, ‘This was the time of Poe.'”
Finally, Collins ends his story in November of 1875 with Poe’s reputation on the rise, his grave relocated, and a monument built to him in Baltimore.