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.
“Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance” – I can’t figure this phrase out. That Poe describes the only symbolism of The Raven as that in his own words. I thought the poem was unmistakably about suicide before reading the internet. But I can’t figure out why Poe himself (ostensibly) claimed the poem was ultimately about “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance”. Without being ambitious enough to actually buy this dude’s (Silverman) book, I also can’t understand why the internet is flush with everyone claiming “The Raven” was a non-symbolic allegory, citing Silverman. I mean it’s not meaningful if “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance” is what he actually was writing about because what the *@#& is that. But Poe himself in the same essay notes that one of the unique functions of The Raven is that its literal narrative supercedes the allegory.
As I recall, Silverman’s thesis is that much of Poe’s work is a remembrance of the dead in his life: his mother, his brother, his wife, his step-mother, and surrogate mother.
Poe himself, in “The Philosophy of Composition” explained how “The Raven” came to be written. His explanation goes right down to the choice of certain words.
Whether you find Poe’s post-facto explanation entirely convincing is another matter.
Personally, I’ve never thought “The Raven” had anything to do with suicide.
I’ve long thought that the 19th century would have been a very interesting and eventful century to live in, but the mortality rate was really awful at that time, as evinced by the number of people who died at age 24 or so just in Poe’s family.
I’d never heard that Poe only used the “Allan” part of his name a couple of times. I’d just assumed all these years since I first began reading him that he’d always gone by the full name of “Edgar Allen Poe.” It certainly does sound much more catchy–not to mention literary– than just “Edgar Poe.”
As for his cause of death, I once read an article written by a doctor who studied the records related to Poe’s death, and he concluded that the symptoms were similar to the symptoms suffered by someone having been bitten by a rabid dog. He went on to say that there were a lot of stray dogs in the streets of Baltimore at the time. One other thing I can remember that I’ve never forgotten. As Poe lay delirious and raving, his last words were “God have pity on my poor soul!”
Well, that just strikes me as incredibly sad and, though it’s been almost 170 years since he died, I still feel great empathy for him for the suffering he went through and for his ignominious death, and not just because he’s my favourite author.
When I visited the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia in 2005, I think they said there were at least 17 theories about Poe’s death including rabies. (The Edgar Allan Poe Society has a whole page on them at https://www.eapoe.org/geninfo/poedeath.htm).
October always seems like Poe month, so I started his Library of America volume containing articles and criticisms and letters. I may punish myself by blogging about individual items. (It’s a +1,400 page book.)
America in the early 19th century was quite the boozing place. I don’t think the per capita consumption of alcohol then was ever been exceeded in the country. That consumption went down greatly in the 1840s, so Poe’s trying to become teetotaler is characteristic of the time.
There aren’t too many museums of authors or other famous people that I would go to the trouble of visiting, but Poe’s is one of them. Another is Robert E Howard’s in Cross Plains, Texas. (I have yet to visit either, however.)
Last year on a visit to the States, I went to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, but that was strictly my wife’s idea and I just went along, though I have to say that I did end up finding it interesting. The only other museum or house of a famous author I’ve been to was the Brontë Parsonage Museum two years ago in Haworth, West Yorkshire. Again that was my wife’s idea, but I ended up enjoying that quite a lot, and also walking in the village and nearby moors. It was like stepping back into time; little has changed since their time.
The strangest and most macabre thing we saw at the museum was the blood-stained handkerchief of Emily Brontë, who died of tuberculosis. Some people hold on to some rather strange things. I would think that it would have been burned in the nearest fireplace the same night she died– if only because it could have led to someone else contracting tuberculosis through the handling of it.
I’ve just remembered that I’ve also been to the Shakespeare Museum in Stratford-upon-Avon (twice actually) and the Museo Casa di Dante in Florence, but for some reason those two don’t stand out in my mind as much.