Wednesday, October 7, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe)

October 7, 1849—Edgar Allan Poe, inventor of the modern detective story, could have used a sleuth himself in solving the mystery of his own final days.

It would have taken Auguste Dupin, the ridiculously rational detective of “The Purloined Letter,” to figure out how the 40-year-old short story writer-poet-critic went missing for four days, turned up delirious outside a Baltimore tavern on October 3, 1849—and died four days later in a hospital.

This literary rolling stone, described by biographer Peter Ackroyd as a “perpetual orphan in the world,” died without a loved one nearby, but with plenty of unanswered questions about what led to his death.

Poe was in no condition to give any clues about what happened. To start with, what the heck was he doing in Baltimore?

He had been in Richmond, Va., rekindling a relationship with an old sweetheart, and, more important for his future, raising funds for a new magazine he would edit. He told an acquaintance that he’d be back with his mother-in-law, Mrs. Maria Clemm. On his way to New York to pick up Mrs. Clemm, he intended to stop in Philadelphia to raise more funds for his venture and to edit a book of poems by Marguerite St. Leon Loud.

Let’s consider now the peculiar circumstances surrounding the last week in the life of Poe, and the controversies they’ve engendered:

* Poe might have left Richmond with at least some money, but it was not around when he was found in Baltimore. Only a month after Poe’s death, his friend John R. Thompson claimed he had advanced Poe “a small sum of money for a proposed article which he probably never wrote.” Some years later, Bishop O.P. Fitzgerald recalled an SRO reading in Richmond on “The Poetic Principle” given by the author that netted $1,500. The latter sum might be stretching it—Poe does not appear to have collected such a large sum on any prior trip—but there seems a strong possibility that he had pocketed a nice bit of change before he left the city. None of this was found on his person in Baltimore. I don’t think even Poe could have drunk away that much—which then raises the question of whether he had been assaulted in Baltimore.

* Poe asked his mother-in-law to send him a letter in Philadelphia not addressed to himself, but to “E.S.T. Grey.” In a letter to Maria Clemm on September 18, he told her he thought it best if, after coming to New York, he not go to pick her up at Fordham, where they were living at the time. Why he felt this necessary is not clear, nor is his worry that he might not get her letter in Philadelphia unless she put no name on it. He wanted, however, her letter to “be there when I arrive” in the City of Brotherly Love. In his novel The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl considers the implications of this letter, which evidently was waiting for pickup on October 3—if only Poe had made it there on time.

* The clothes Poe was found wearing in Baltimore were not the same as those he wore in Richmond. They were much cheaper. J.E. Snodgrass, who, when summoned to pick up the delirious writer, had him taken to the hospital, noted that the new outfit included “a rusty, almost brimless, tattered and ribbonless palmleaf hat.” The rest of his outfit was in an even worse state. This has sparked speculation that Poe either was robbed or made a very poor exchange of clothes while he was in an advanced drunken state. On the other hand, Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman has offered much evidence for the American Romantic’s fascination with dual identities, pseudonyms, and other identity issues (which also very much bears on the question of why he had his mother-in-law write to “E.S.T. Grey.”)

* An intoxicated Poe might have been taken from place to place to vote on the day his body was found. It was not a normal tavern outside of which the poet was found—Gunner’s Hall was also Ryan’s 4th Ward Polls. Taverns were common election gathering spots, and citizens received drinks as an incentive for voting. (What a way to ensure a high turnout!)

* Did Poe suffer character assassination at the hands of a literary enemy? Almost certainly—and no surprise there. I’ve already taken note, in a prior post, of Poe’s needless alienation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell. Lowell was content to satirize him, while Longfellow, with unbelievable Christian forbearance considering that Poe had wrongly accused him of plagiarism, had offered a tribute when his body was reinterred in 1875. Rufus Wilmot Griswold was more willful, and damaging to Poe’s ultimate reputation, than his fellow Northern writers. What began as at least some respect between the two men had quickly degenerated by 1844 into active dislike. Two days after Poe’s death, Griswold had contributed a piece (signed “Ludwig”) that had appeared in the New York Tribune. The critic’s dislike was so widely know that his role in its writing was quickly exposed. That did not, however, stop him from writing a biography of the poet that blackened Poe’s name with one fabrication and falsehood after another (e.g., Poe’s honorable discharge from the Army, he wrote, was a case of desertion).

* Who was the “Reynolds” that the delirious Poe mumbled about in the hospital? Nobody knows.

* Could there have been another cause of Poe’s death aside from drunkenness? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Poe wrote Mrs. Clemm that he had recently had “cholera, or spasms quite as bad.” Other theories have included a brain disease, rabies, or some combination of one or all of these with drunkenness.

Poe’s impecunious nature led him to stay, at one point or another, among several major Northern cities in his short life: Boston (his birthplace), Richmond (perhaps his favorite city, as a self-proclaimed Southerner), New York and Philadelphia (sites of his various editing jobs), and, of course, Baltimore (where he died). All these cities today are engaged in a vigorous competition to claim him as their own, even though all, in some way or other, rejected him in life, just as much as he rejected them.

In recent months, the Weekly Standard has become increasingly rabid on the subject of President Obama. If you’re ready to look beyond that, though, I urge you to pick up (or view online) the September 28, 2009 issue of the conservative magazine, which has two excellent articles on Poe by Shawn Macomber and Brooke Allen.

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