Julian Symons’ ‘Life and works of Edgar Allan Poe’ was published in 1978; he wrote it because he was dissatisfied with existing biographies of Poe. He chose to break the book into two sections – Part One: The Life and Part Two: The Work. Poe produced ‘the most original prose fiction of the nineteenth century’ (p241).
Poe used his imagination a lot – even to the point of fabricating his origins, and stating that he was born in 1811 when in fact the date was 1809. He was born in Boston, his father abandoning the family in 1810; his mother died the following year and he was fostered by Frances and John Allan, a childless couple; they never adopted him. John Allan and Edgar were often at loggerheads, and in later years Edgar’s gambling debts and drinking became cause for heated arguments and eventual estrangement.
Edgar failed to apply himself to the rigours of the Army, eventually leaving West Point before he was thrown out. He was determined to earn his living as a writer – a precarious career that left him impecunious through most of his life. He married his first cousin Virginia Clemm in 1835 – he was 27, she was 13 though the documentation stated she was 21. Virginia’s mother, Maria Clemm (née Poe), lived with the couple. Their relationship has been debated over the years: was it ever sexual, or were they living virtually as brother and sister? It’s all supposition. Certainly, he adored her and she idolised him. He thought she was beautiful. ‘Beautiful women have little chance of survival in Poe. They are often seen both as the victims of men and as a cause of destruction.’ (p205)
Sadly, Virginia developed consumption and became so weak that Edgar would carry her to the dining table; she died after five years of illness in 1847, aged 24. Her death was a devastating blow to Edgar. Over the years he had indulged to excess in alcohol but recovered, even abstaining for lengthy periods, but now his depression led him to the bottle with a vengeance.
‘Poe is spelling out his personal agonies in fictional terms. The obsessions, which were accentuated but not caused by Virginia’s illness and death, were concerned with the supreme beauty of death, the association of pleasure and cruelty, the fascination of blood. He offers us in some respects the world of de Sade, but it is a sadism made acceptable to a mass readership by the elimination of any ostensible sexual element.’ (p210)
In 1849, Poe went missing for five days and was found walking delirious in Baltimore, wearing clothes other than his own; he died in hospital a few days later. Since then all hospital records, including his death certificate, have been lost.
Writing articles and criticism, the journalist Poe had to move about the country to obtain work. He was also an editor at times. He barely managed to keep the wolf from the door. For example, his story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ was printed in The Pioneer magazine and he was paid the princely sum of $10 for it. Maria helped the family finances when she could, sometimes by teaching. He was naturally pleased to win $100 for his story ‘The Gold-Bug’, offered by the Dollar Newspaper (1843).
He sold a hoax story to the Sun newspaper; it concerned a balloon crossing of the Atlantic, and its publication caused a great deal of interest and excitement; not until Orson Welles transmitted the radio play ‘War of the Worlds’ would a hoax story have such a widespread effect.
What made his hoax stories believable was the acute observational detail he brought to his work. His The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is his longest prose fiction and W.H. Auden believed it to be ‘one of the finest adventure stories ever written’.
‘I have… rambled and dreamed away whole months, and awake at last to a sort of mania composition. Then I scribble all day, and read all night, so long as the disease endures.’ (p93)
Symons believes Poe was the first great American literary critic, because Poe found a balance between romantic perceptiveness and idealism with a vein of severe common sense. However, Poe the critic accused other poets and writers of plagiarism, but indulged in it himself. He castigated certain authors in his critical essays, which were deemed ‘intelligent and prejudiced’, and thereby made a number of enemies in the literary fraternity. Sometimes his vitriolic criticism was anonymous, though many guessed at the author. Yet several of his targets seemed to forgive him, acknowledging his genius. One writer he upset was editor and compiler, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, yet Poe appointed this man as his executor. Griswold then proceeded to destroy Poe’s reputation and by his death in 1857 he seemed to have achieved his aim. W.H Auden has said, ‘That one man should dislike another and speak maliciously of him after his death would be natural enough, but to take so much trouble, to blacken a reputation so subtly, presupposes a sustained hatred which is always fascinating, because the capacity for sustained emotion of any kind is rare.’ (p161) Certainly, this distasteful trait is still prevalent in academia, and even in online reviews – ‘sock puppets spring to mind’. Symons goes on to apprise us of a number of critical views, one of them concluding: ‘the lowest abyss of moral imbecility and disrepute had not been reached until Poe was born.’ Despite all these nay-sayers, interest in Poe’s work never flagged. And of course he lives in his work while his jaundiced detractors are forgotten and are but dust.
Not without reason, Poe is considered the father of detective fiction with his character Dupin. Yes, before his crime stories detectives did feature in stories, but they did not do any detecting, or use logic, for example the first instance of the marks made by a rifle barrel being used as a clue in solving a crime. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, ‘Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?’
‘Poe’s complaint that the author may give the reader false information through the mouth of a character, but must not do so in his own person [that is the narrative], was a forerunner of the detective story reader’s insistence on “fair play”.’(p185, addition in my italics)
His influence on the detective story has been long recognised: ‘On this narrow path the writer must walk, and he sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him,’ said Conan Doyle. ‘He is happy if he ever finds the means of breaking away and striking out on some little side-track of his own.’
Symons observes that ‘more than half of Poe’s seventy stories are very little read, except by literary critics and honours students. His reputation as a short story writer rests upon some twenty tales which are famous throughout the world. Apart from the four tales of detection, they are all horrific.’ (210) He concludes concerning the horror stories, ‘There is nothing else like them in Western literature.’