Wednesday, February 4, 2009

roses and cognac

The most peculiar things seem to grow out of my throwaway lines. “1896” from “1996,” “1900” from “1896,” and now “An Evening with Edgar” from “The 1969 Diaries.” From my experience studying and teaching Poe in Gothic Horror, I thought I knew his story pretty well (plus I listened to all the Radio 3 Essays on Loving the Raven during Poe’s birthday week—bicentenary—in January). I read The Portable Edgar Allan Poe edited by J. Gerald Kennedy to prepare for writing “An Evening with Edgar” and thought I got him pretty well for the purposes of that short story. Reading it now, having listened to Peter Ackroyd’s unabridged Poe: A Life Cut Short (on 6 discs), I think I did a good job distilling him at that point in his life. However, the sad part is that in reality Poe probably would not have given Martha the time of day, as he was a southern slave-owner and no proponent of abolitionism. This facet of his character, along with many others that were uncovered by the Ackroyd book, have somewhat diminished him in my opinion. Nevertheless, what I had always known—and what the biography made achingly clear—was the intense and unrelenting sadness of his life.

How would Poe’s life have been different if his mother hadn’t died of consumption when he was very young? She was an English actress abandoned by his father; Poe’s sister may have only been his half-sister. One wonders how much of Poe’s life of desperation and deprivation might have been prevented by nurture; his mother was married very young to his father, a real waster (and a drunk). And yet perhaps the decisive pull of drink (his “ashes” as Poe called it in later life) was imbedded in his DNA. It’s impossible to tell. Ackroyd suggests that Poe may have encountered “malnourishment in the womb” because of his mother’s emaciation (a motif he returned to so many times in his fiction, it almost makes even this fan weary of it!). And I can’t squarely place the blame of Poe’s rupture with his foster family, the Allans, either with Mr Allan, a Scottish merchant and his indulgent wife Fanny, or with Poe himself.

I’ve never read “William Wilson,” the autobiographical tale of Poe’s school years as a boy in 1820s London (and treated well and expenses paid for), but at least two modern-day authors were inspired by it. Another series of fascinating what-ifs: what if Mr Allan’s fortunes hadn’t changed, and Poe had stayed in England longer acquiring an education? He was neither extremely happy nor distraught during those years. In later adolescence, egged on a bit perhaps by Allan’s refusal to have Poe’s childhood poems published, Poe did what all teenagers do—he rebelled. He was snarky. Unfortunately, and not without reason, Allan was really ticked off that this orphan into whom he had pumped so much of his money and time was acting ungrateful. Poe went to university, slacked off, begged for money, beginning the unfortunate pattern of the rest of his life. You have to wonder, after this happens a million times in the course of A Life Cut Short, whether he had some kind of diagnosable problem, and yet I’ve seen this self-destructive attitude in a lot of my fellow writers.

Poe joined the Army, and the regiment of discipline really suited him. Eventually he tired of this, too, though he never tired of telling his fellow cadets tall tales and satires, “changing his birth year on a whim,” as Ackroyd reports. Out of the Army, he decided (and with all apparent seriousness) to attend West Point, the US premiere military academy. Allan even helped him to get accepted. Unfortunately, following the usual pattern, he was court-martialed for dereliction of duty and lost his place in Allan’s affections forever. Next followed years and years of drifting from Richmond, VA, to New York, to Boston (the city of his birth), to Providence, RI, and back again, seeking work, whether it was in publishing stories or editing literary journals. At first I found his letters seeking monetary help extremely affecting. Then, after five hours of hearing them, I realized he must have been hell to live with. No wonder he wrecked his own relationships and drove away his friends. He had a wild, melodramatic streak infected with pathos (“he seemed to believe everything he wrote somehow became true”) and was a bitter, raging drunk. When sober, people found him gentlemanly, intellectual, and interesting, but a true satirist and a sarcastic wit. Ackroyd doesn’t believe he was an alcoholic, because he could stop drinking for long periods. He did, however, go on binges that lasted days.

About the only people who could put up with him were his aunt Maria Clemm (“Muddy”) and his cousin Virginia, later his wife (he married her when she was 15, not strictly illegal, but they did lie about her age to the officiating pastor). Muddy managed to keep the three of them fed, it seems, and somehow stayed loyal to “poor Eddy” to the end. They were desperately, utterly poor most of the time. “They were forced to live on bread and molasses for weeks on end” (yet never seemed to run out of writing materials). Virginia was consumptive from basically the beginning, and Poe spent most of their married life agonizing over her. When she finally died, he seems to have lost all self-control and tottered to the grave not long after. Yet, if you look at his correspondence and his writing, I think all he wanted of women was their protection and to be able to use them as muses. Even the preternatural Ligeia is no vampire in the sensual sense of Stoker or LeFanu. Basically, then, I don’t think anything improper went on between him and Virginia at all. It would have been interesting to hear her side of the story, though perhaps that would have been too completely miserable to contemplate.

Though Poe’s life is a map of near-misses in the literary world and shooting himself in the foot with critics and potential friends alike, he wasn’t completely ignored in his lifetime. His first big hit, “M.S. in a Bottle,” won a short story prize competition head and shoulders above the rest. By the mid-1840s, literary critics in most major US cities singled him out for praise for such short stories as “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Masque of the Red Death.” He became a celebrity because of “The Raven,” though Ackroyd suggests he wrote the poem with a calculated audience appeal. This is yet another contradiction of Poe’s, whose personal life was such a shambles, whose writing rambled on full of the phantasmagoric, and yet his writing process was precise and exacting. Unfortunately, when he should have been using his fame to establish a foothold, he lashed out and had “spells” of drunken behavior. “His disappointment with the world was his disappointment with himself.” And don’t get me started on the four or five women with whom he had correspondences and literary amours before, after, and during his marriage!

I have trouble understanding why I can be such a champion for someone who certainly deserves pity, but fascination? Yet I suppose I have been exposed to the genius of his writing for so long, noted its uniqueness, and felt a certain resonance not unlike the French Romantics a few years after his death. Johanna once quoted his poem “Alone” to me on a decorated envelope, and it’s stayed with me since. There is still a mystique in Poe, not least because of the confused circumstances of his death, the mysterious identity of the Poe Toaster, and somewhere (in me at least) an appeal for a “defiantly southern writer.” I’ll never forget the day I photographed a black cat on the rue Edgar Allan Poe in Paris (I was staying in the street parallel to it, rue Rémy-Gourmont, another writer). Unfortunately, all of Poe’s misery at this present stage has made me a bit miserable, too, and the weather, and my circumstances, aren’t helping.

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