Edgar Poe and his work fascinates me, and this isn’t the first book about him I’ve reviewed.
It’s “Edgar Poe” and not “Edgar Allan Poe” because, as a Poe scholar suggested, on a newsgroup devoted to him on the 200th anniversary of his birth, Poe only added the “Allan” to his name twice — and why honor the stepfather who sabotaged Poe’s life at crucial times? (Not that Poe was incapable of self-sabotage as he demonstrated.)
A retro review from February 26, 2009 on the 166th anniversary of his mysterious death.
Review: Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, Kenneth Silverman, 1991.
Silverman doesn’t seem to like Poe much.
Poe’s desperate poverty, his supporting a sick wife and her mother by writing alone, doesn’t, to Silverman, really justify Poe’s recycling of his early work, the occasional puff piece on writers and editors he wanted to ingratiate himself with or the near plagiarism of other authors. His mysterious death had to be the result of drinking too much or a sudden withdrawal from liquor. Never mind the bouts of illness that plagued him, especially in his last two years, and the contemporary testimony that he had a peculiar susceptibility to even small amounts of alcohol. No such sentiments for Silverman.
Those poems? Well, they’re famous, especially “The Raven”. But he lied about how it came to be written. It wasn’t really a calculating, almost mathematically composed piece. “Tamerlane” just shows a young Poe as a would-be Byron, the desire of a future soldier and poet to conquer the world.
The infamous Eureka? Mostly bad philosophy mixed with a popular astronomy work of the day.
Those stories? Well, Silverman seems to like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, the first detective story, the best of all Poe’s works. “The Case of M. Valdemar” and “Melonta Tauta” are argueably important as prototypes of another genre – science fiction. However, they don’t get much respect. Just the questionable contention that “Valdemar” begins a prevalent tradition in horror of liquefying corpses and that “Melonta Tauta” mainly shows Poe’s anti-democratic feelings. Sure, Silverman covers all the other famous stories, but it’s mostly to draw biographical inferences from them. While he restricts most of his Freudian analysis to the book’s unusually confusing footnotes, he can’t resist finding constant references to “Allan”, the very seldom used middle name of Poe that came from the name of his never-father John Allan, in the titles of Poe works and characters. (The key, you see, is the double “a”s and “l”s.) This reaches its nadir when we’re invited to see the title of “Ulalume” as another example of Allan even though it has only one of the required “a”s.
Given that he doesn’t really see Poe as a literary genius or innovator – with the exception of “Rue Morgue”, one wonders why Silverman even bothered to make the effort because quite an effort it was.
This is a long, detailed, but very readable book. Silverman is thorough in his coverage of Poe’s family many of whom left Poe at a young age. There was the father who deserted him; the beloved, barely remembered mother who died at age 24; a beloved older brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, who also died at age 24. His surrogate mothers died young. His beloved cousin-wife Virginia died at age 25. And, in a nice coda, Silverman talks about the fate of Poe’s beloved aunt and mother-in-law “Muddy” Clemm and his younger sister Rosalie Poe.
Remembering the dead, wishing for and fearing their silence, Silverman argues, is one of Poe’s major themes. The names of his past and his family reverberate in the place names of his stories, in characters’ names, in the mysterious cries Arthur Pym hears in Antarctica. William Poe was also a writer and poet, and there is a particularly interesting section on how similar their early poems were, pointing to collaboration or an eerie similarity of theme and image.
The other major theme Silverman discusses in Poe’s works is the recurring presence of characters who cross back and forth, sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically, the line of life and death. It is part of the theme of remembering and honoring the dead. The “mournful and never-ending remembrance” of the dead is what Poe himself said was the theme of “The Raven”, but it also holds true for much of his other work.
Silverman discusses Poe’s many literary feuds, touches on his “Imp of the Perverse” (as he called it) – his seeming will to self-destruction.
Some Poe scholars claim Silverman always puts the worst interpretation on Poe’s actions. Perhaps so. On the other hand, this book is a useful antidote to thoughtless and ignorant Poe worship. Poe was not the accomplished linguist he claimed. The man who wrote “The Gold Bug” was probably only adept at solving simple ciphers. (Which in no way means that he didn’t inspire real cryptographers to take up their trade.) His work did have precedents. Yes, he did occasionally borrow images and language from others. His writing sometimes showed the sins he ruthlessly criticized in others. His did, perhaps, forge checks. He certainly lied about his past whether it was his age or why he married Virginia.
No, I don’t think Silverman likes Poe much. And you may or may not after reading this book. But, if you already admire Poe’s work, this will help you understand the man better. And, despite the occasional intrusion of worthless Freudianism, Silverman does have some credible and interesting things to say about the relationship between Poe’s life and works.