Alan Catlin: An Essay
Thoughts on Poe
E A Poe, Election Day, the Last of His LifeThe last visitation was by Christ reading an apocalyptic vision, five Stallions illuminated by a million lights that defied seeing. Blinded, I reeled, immobilized by a sense of internal agony that tears me apart. I hear sirens; mythical and real, calling out from the streets of and alleyways of Baltimore. What a place to achieve such illumination! I am moved to continue seeking salvation from the sagging, drooping tit of reason. May the tit continue to leak Remy Martin and may the illusion of succor keep me From these night visions of unspeakable horror that is my life. Even now, close to the source of language, fire inhabits my veins; a galaxy of suppurations implodes behind my eyes. I am naked again with all the dead women of my life. I will never make love or vote in Baltimore again.
I wrote this piece as part of my collection, Shelley and the Romantics, a fine letter press limited edition published by Adastra Press in 1994. Following the book’s publication, I thought very little of EA Poe in the years that followed after until I was asked to do a talk on Poe for the Schenectady Public Library in 2015.
One exception, was a fascinating news article on Poe in the early years of the new millennium, suggesting that the author, Edgar Allan Poe, may have died of rabies. Now that was interesting! Received wisdom had it, that Poe died in an alley in Baltimore under the influence of opiates and alcohol. This new, fascinating, supposition turned out to be one of many such theories, I had previously been unaware of, regarding the untimely demise of one of America’s most popular, enduring authors.
Yet another occasional article, recounted the disinterment of Poe and his reburial in a more suitable resting place. A reburial that was sparsely attended, according to the newspaper, though one author in attendance was of note, Walt Whitman. Surely if one of the primogenitors of American poetry had esteemed Poe enough to endure harsh weather to see his moldering bones removed from one place, and shuttled off to another, there was more to his contemporary legacy than that of the profligate, ghoulish spinner of tales of horror and extreme woe.
And there was the annual tale of the mysterious man in black who appeared, as if from nowhere, during the night of Poe’s birthday to place half a bottle of Remy Martin Cognac on his grave. Subsequent articles never told what happened to the bottle after its delivery or speculated what happened to the missing half (though we can easily surmise, it was not poured out). Three red roses were also laid on the grave with the cognac.
“Man in Black” watches began following the publicity (though the ritual had apparently been going on for decades) and theories proliferated as to what this ritual was all about. One such theory, widely accepted was, the “Man in Black” represented an exclusive club of admirers, perhaps dating back to the previous century. This theory was reinforced, when a second man, clearly not the original, delivered the symbolic relics to the graveside. Abruptly, the ritual ended without explanation, as it had begun. The ritual’s end, appropriately, left only speculation behind. Descendants and scholars were befuddled and saddened by its demise. Maybe it just got too involved, too crowded, another tradition ruined by overexposure and media coverage.
I confess that my interest in Poe, such as it was, related more directly to his being part of the Romantic tradition, than it was by his masterly use of macabre. It never occurred to me that he might have been considered anything but the ultimate American Romantic. Subsequent research for the talk, revealed this was a rather new and novel critical revelation. I suppose this insight, after all until the late 60’s, Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality was considered to be an affectation, not to be spoken of. Even Proust was rarely regarded as gay. Whitman never. So maybe this should not have been a surprise to me. Like one incredulous younger person said to me when I mentioned that when I was in grad school, in the early 70’s, Proust was still regarded as not homosexual, but, asexual. Her reaction was, “But he so is!”
A friend of mine asked me, in early 80’s, when I mentioned that I had read a recently published unexpurgated volume of Wilde’s letters, whether Wilde was actually gay? And I replied, “It would be more appropriate to ask, when wasn’t he?” It was rude shock for my friend who had done his master’s thesis on “Wilde’s Homosexuality as Affectation”.
Poe’s sexuality was widely regarded as having been incestuous, perverted, and possibly even certifiably unhealthy. Given the nature of his early poetry, with the duality of sex and death, noted by the tenuous, amorphous separation of existence and non-existence, it is easy to make these kind of assumptions. Anyone who has read “Fall of the House of Usher” can’t help but make the incestuous connections. And then there was the fact that Poe married his 13-year-old first cousin.
Going into this project, I had a mistaken impression that Poe had been married three times, always to relatives, all of whom died at an early age. Where this came from, I have no clue, though one wants to blame it on high school. I should say, a high school text book, as my high school English teachers were excellent, supportive, and only failed me in not making me (perhaps under pain of death threats) pay closer attention to the basics of grammar, spelling and punctuation. They did instill a real love or reading and writing, so any faults on that score, are clearly self-generated. Regardless, of where the misinformation originated, the thought prevailed until I began doing research.
Apparently, there were extenuating circumstances for this marriage. It should be noted that the union was legal at the time they were joined, that the extenuating circumstances had to do with an inheritance Poe might be in a better position for if he were in a stable relationship. Evidence, largely undocumented, suggests that the marriage was not consummated until Virginia was older, that their relationship was loving and supportive, and that her parent, his maternal aunt, approved.
One wonders why the macabre associations between sex and death? Where did this morbid imagination originate? Poe’s mother was an actress, quite a good one, while his father was an actor and not well regarded. His father was a drunk and succumbed early to the ravages of alcohol and general dissipation. More importantly was, Poe’s mother died when he was three, of consumption, and the odyssey of guardianship that was to color his life, began.
The key dramatic theme of loved women dying young, from a wasting disease, that leaves the body greatly ravaged and well, ethereal, was firmly established, at least, subconsciously at an early age. If anyone has seen the truly disturbing biopic film “Edvard Munch” by Peter Watkins, one can get a sense of how Poe was exposed to this kind of lingering, wasting death. In the film, young Edvard, an aspiring artist, is in a claustrophobic home situation, literally, with the family living on top of one another, with no room to breathe while his much beloved sister is slowly dying of tuberculosis. Small wonder Edvard’s work would resemble one long, drawn out, primal scream. Poe’s mother, sister, brother, and wife all died of the same disease; often in the same household he lived in. Small wonder an impressionable, creative, brilliant young mind, capable of writing poetry that is read today, before reaching the age of puberty, was so distressed.
I don’t want to indulge in psychoanalytic examination, especially Freudian, of Poe’s needs, wants, and obsessions. Regardless, it seems likely that he was searching for a mother figure for stability in an emotionally chaotic life. Poe seems to have been a person who formed deep attachments to women on the slightest of contacts. One of those sexually charged sex and death poems, was inspired by the early death of a childhood friend’s mother whom he revered from afar. That Poe spent most of his adult life living with his maternal aunt and her daughter, his wife, speaks for itself. He continued to live with his mother in-law after his wife’s death and it should be noted that Freud may have profited from understanding that not all relationships, conscious or otherwise, between men and women, are based on sex. He would have, and did, punch someone in the nose for suggesting the living arrangements, when his wife was alive, was unseemly. Indeed, following Virginia’s death, Poe entered into a series of inappropriate, short lived, engagements with unsuitable (for both parties) women.
The key understanding for Poe is not the sexual nature of his work and life, but what it represents in the greater thematic context of his creative thinking. That ingredient can be summed up in one word, Doubling. You have sex and death, you have good and evil, the dark and the light, the innocent and the diabolical. You have the creative genius, the hard working editor and reviewer, the poverty stricken author living by wits who is a free spending fool with money (when he has any) and you have his worst enemy, the binge drinking, black out artist who cannot hold a job. Of course, the worst enemy is himself. As Geoffrey Meyers observed in his biographical study of Poe; that Poe did not drink to enjoy himself or to get drunk, per se, but to annihilate himself.
Why is doubling such an important thematic construct? Think Conrad, Secret Sharer, Dostoevsky, The Double, Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, practically all of Melville, the list could almost go on endlessly. All of these writers owe a great deal to Poe, whose influence extends, to this day, influences that extend far beyond the obvious ability to horrify. What other author is more instantly recognizable than Poe? Ask any group of people, even readers who are not fond of his work, which piece of writing by Poe made the biggest impression on them and virtually everyone will have a response, probably several responses, to choose from.
And yet, though his life was short, and marked by colossal failures, his achievements are nothing short of incredible. He managed to write lasting work that revolutionized thinking on not one, but several genres. In Europe he is credited with inventing Science Fiction. That his work is fabulous and enters realms, even in purported essays, that are essentially fantastic. You can see his impact on no less a master of the form than Jules Verne. The French revered him, especially Baudelaire and his followers at the extremes of self-indulgence and decadence. Whether they are misreading him or not is moot, they followed his lead into the realms of hallucination and sub-conscious divination.
Poe is credited with having created the detective fiction, which he saw as an exercise in logical deduction from observed, often overlooked, or minimal, fact. He created the first detective, Dupin, and while there are other mysteries previous to his series, Voltaire for one, no one else inspired a run on treasure maps looking for gold in ways described in his story “The Gold Bug”. Readers of the eternal Sherlock Holmes can see his origins in the hyper-logical, lone wolf, Dupin.
Perhaps, the most vivid example of Poe’s creative genius, was taking the time honored genre of Gothic writing, of horror and ghost stories, and expanding it in ways that had never before been conceived. He personalized the narratives, making the narrator’s extreme thoughts, Yours. He often makes the narrators totally unreliable, obviously insane or driven by mad impulses beyond their control. There is nothing genteel about these people, as in, “The Tell Tale Heart” or “The Cat’s Eye”, and if there is a ghost involved, you can be sure it is a revenant. No other writer can claim such accomplishments. Throw in the most famous poem ever written by an American, and you have a literary career, unparalleled by anyone before or since.
In this context, what impresses me is the assertion that Poe was the first writer to attempt to make a living on his writing alone. All of the other well known writers of his time, mostly the first and second generation of men of letters in this country, had other outside income whether it be from inherited family wealth, teaching or preaching positions, or some other reliable, outside employment. Even his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of Poe’s few supports among the writing class (along, oddly, with Longfellow, who Poe had written several vicious reviews of) was forced to find government employment though the auspices of his college friend, President Franklin Pierce (an experience that led to the writing of The Scarlet Letter). Poe’s attempt to secure a consular position ended badly, typically, following a fight with the then president’s son, at a party the night before an interview with the president.
Today, we expect the man who wrote, “The Raven”, could live on the royalties of his work. During his lifetime he published a number of books of poetry, short stories, and assorted other work, including putting his name on other people’s books, for a small fee. He published both here and aboard but earned little. In his lifetime Poe earned around two thousand dollars for all his published work, total, including “The Raven”, for which he received sums less than ten dollars. This despite the poem being reprinted hundreds, if not thousands of times in his lifetime alone. Included in that total was Poe’s winning contests with cash sums involved. Fairly generous, by the day’s standards, prizes. Even adjusting for inflation, his earnings were meager.
There was no such thing as copyright laws to protect the author, though there would be eventually, due to efforts by Dickens (another supporter) among others, but too late for Poe. By the time Poe had discovered a money making opportunity, dramatic reading from his work, he was only months from his highly controversial, and much speculated about, death. Reports from that time said his voice had the effect of mesmerism and that his reading of “The Raven” was a thing not easily forgotten.
Fittingly, his death is still a matter of conjecture. One fact is agreed upon: he was found in an alley, outside of tavern, nearly comatose and near death. He was no longer wearing his own clothes, and was disheveled but not obviously beaten, or in other ways, harmed physically. Given that Poe was a fastidious dresser, and very particular about how he looked, this remains a major part of the enduring mystery.
One of the more intriguing theories about Poe’s death are the aforementioned death by rabies. Meyers states, flat out, this is how he died, citing some superficial symptoms, and letting it go at that. While intriguing, this appears unlikely, due to contemporary forensic examination.
Another possibility, was that he had been abducted and kept drugged, for up to a week prior to his death, by one of the two opposing parties in the upcoming election. As wild as this sounds, political parties were known to force unwilling abductees to frequent polling places after such a confinement, and made to vote several times for the candidate of their choice. This theory suggests that Poe was set upon by a rival party and beaten senseless, his clothes having been taken from him at abduction, and others substituted for his own. The facts do not support this conclusion, given the state of his body. The attending doctor at the hospital claimed Poe showed all the symptoms of drug overdose, but his accounts were known to be highly fabricated, and that he was an unreliable witness due to conflicting statements he made for money.
A contemporary forensic scientist concluded, that the most popular assumption of the time, was closest to the truth. Poe, weakened by a recent bender, overdid his drinking and with a weakened constitution, exacerbated by delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal, succumbed to this combination of habitual alcohol abuse and exposure.
Existing medical records for the poet, suggest that Poe was only an occasional drug user, and was in no way an addict. The popular image/photograph of a dissolute appearing Poe, was taken on a day following a long night of excess, and by no means, was his general state of affairs. One mystery about his death remains totally unresolved: What was Poe doing in Baltimore in the first place? He was supposed to be somewhere else (Philadelphia, I believe) for a speaking engagement.
Yet another area rich for speculation. Maybe the Porlock guy who came to the door while Coleridge was composing “Kubla Khan”, led him astray (Of course, that mysterious caller story is one that is often dismissed as untrue). One thing remains constant to this day; no matter if one is a genius or not, the life of a freelance writer, working outside the system, is a perilous one.
of a house
of the dead,
rooms all his
without cut flowers
to mask the scent
of fatal disease
having its’ way
with a body:
the natural mother
and the step one,
the brother then
a sister and more,
pale and consumptive,
life blood spewed
in a basin.
he could foresee
in a cough.