Edgar Allan Poe's Problematic Biography


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For over 150 years, legions of scholars, literary people, journalists and general Poe devotees have tried to capture Edgar Allan Poe’s complex personality and enshrine it forever in paper and ink. They have exhaustively chased every conceivable source to fill in the details of his life. Every person who met Poe (or was willing to claim so), and was still alive after 1875, was coerced to recall any scrap of fact or insight, no matter how trivial or vague. After these people had passed on, their children and even grandchildren were asked to repeat anything they had heard about Poe. From this mass of disjointed and often contradictory information, Poe’s biography has been crafted, each generation relying heavily on the work of prior biographers, themselves often happy to steal from their competitors without so much as a footnote. Every letter he wrote, every note he jotted on a piece of paper, every photograph, every newspaper or magazine article, every building, stick of wood or piece of bric-a-brac with a Poe association was duly collected, catalogued and interpreted — but Poe himself has fooled us all and remains to this day an elusive quarry.

The peculiar curiosity of the reader in the life and character of the writer has long been recognized. Nearly 100 years before Poe was even born, Joseph Addison commented in the opening lines of the first issue of The Spectator: “I have observed, that a reader seldom peruses a book with pleasure, till he knows whether the writer of it be a black or a fair man, of a mild or choleric disposition, married or a bachelor, with other particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an author” (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. I, March 1, 1711).

In Poe’s case, there is a great deal of information, but very few verifiable facts. Everything about him is controversial, literally from the place and date of his birth to the exact location and date of his burial. There is no birth certificate, and although Poe seems to have known that he was born in Boston in 1809, most biographies claimed until 1880 that he was born in Baltimore in 1811. Poe himself once even gave 1813 as the date, two years after his mother’s death. As for Poe’s burial, both October 8 and 9 have been recorded. Since no headstone was placed over Poe’s grave when he was buried, some sources have claimed it as to the right of his grandfather, others to the left. Poe himself began this confusion of fact and fancy in his own brief autobiographical note, provided to R. W. Griswold for The Poets and Poetry of America (1842). Among the numerous inaccuracies is the fable that Poe joined the Greeks in their fight for liberty in 1828. (While at West Point, the jokester Poe merrily spread rumors that he was the grandson of Benedict Arnold.)

Reducing the life and personality of any person to a static sequence of words is not an easy task. In one way or another, all such attempts fail to achieve this lofty goal. Any historical figure is particularly difficult to understand, and Poe has further muddied the waters himself by carefully manipulating his own public image to help sell his writings. It is hard enough to record with any certainty where Poe was and what he was doing at any given time, let alone what he was thinking or how he felt. The reasonableness inherent in this warning does not, however, give pause to the biographer, who will glance at a person’s shadow and confidently describe the color of the pen stuffed in the caster’s inside coat pocket. An offhand comment, for example, made once in idle conversation, but still remembered (accurately or not) fifty years later, is presented by biographers as the subject’s definitive and lifelong position on the matter.

Understandably, biographers are reluctant to admit the dark secrets of their craft. Many are unaware of the extent that the final product is shaped by their own personal biases and the unspoken but still very real mandate of the reader to find the presentation cohesive and, above all, interesting. To achieve these goals, biographers frequently supplement the available historical information with interpretations of Poe’s personality gleaned from his writings, an act of desperation that ignores the fact that Poe’s writings are more the result of his imagination than his personality. It is a common error for readers to confuse Poe’s narrators with Poe himself, but trained scholars should know better.

Was Poe drunk when he was found on the street in Baltimore on October 3, 1849? Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass, the man who sent Poe to the hospital in a carriage, said in 1856 and 1867 that Poe was indeed intoxicated. Dr. John J. Moran, however, Poe’s attending physician for the final few days of his life, insisted in 1875 and 1883 that Poe had no trace of alcohol in his system and had probably been beaten by thugs. Both of these men, having endured whatever passed as medical training in those days, are equally credible witnesses. Moran has the advantage of having spent more time examining Poe, but he has partially discredited himself by leaving us at least three romanticized and somewhat contradictory accounts. Snodgrass, having left a more coherent account, has generally been accepted by biographers, but he was a radical temperance man and saw in Poe’s death a means of persuading others to abandon alcohol entirely. He may have exaggerated his claims to bolster his own moral position. (Indeed, his first article was written for the Woman’s Temperance Paper of New York City.) He may also simply have been wrong. Curiously, Snodgrass misquoted Walker’s important note describing Poe’s condition, changing “a gentleman, rather the worse for wear” first to “deep intoxication” and later to “beastly intoxication.” Whichever account you accept depends more on bias and whim than reason.

As another example of this problem, Poe left Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in June of 1840. Poe claimed privately that he left over a point of honor, Burton having advertised an open literary contest with the winner already secretly selected. Burton, however, quickly spread vague rumors that Poe was fired for irresponsible behavior, but offered no proof. Since there is no absolute evidence to substantiate either position, which you choose depends on which you believe. The real question is whether a biographer should choose at all. Instead, is he or she not obligated to report both stories as an impartial observer?

The wide variance among interpretations of Poe’s life can be seen clearly in the three most prominent “camps,” each here named for its originator: The “Griswold Camp” (which vilifies Poe as a devil), the “Ingram Camp” (which glorifies Poe as an angel) and the “Baudelarie Camp” (which glorifies Poe as a devil). To some extent, nearly all biographies of Poe follow or react to this triangle of approaches.

The following items are some of the many biographical books and articles written about Poe. Items listed have been included because they are important, influential or representative examples. Their presence here should not be considered an endorsement of their contents.


 


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  • Poe, Edgar Allan, “Memorandum [brief autobiography],” undated manuscript, about 1841. (Reprinted in James A. Harrison, ed, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: T. Y. Crowell, 1902, I, pp. 343-346.)
  • Griswold, Rufus Wilmot, ed., “Edgar A. Poe,” Poets and Poetry of America, Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1842, p. 387. (A very brief notice, primarily based on information from Poe’s “Memorandum.”)
  • Hirst, Henry Beck, “Edgar Allan Poe,” Philadelphia Saturday Museum, I (Feburary 25, 1843, slightly revised and reprinted on March 4, 1843), p. 1. (It is likely that Poe not only supplied much of the biographical material but also wrote or edited parts of the text. At least one Poe scholar believes that Poe himself is the actual author. Much of the information it contains is erroneous.) (Full text reprinted in facsimile by Burton R. Pollin, “Poe’s Authorship of Three Long Critical And Autobiographical Articles of 1843 Now Authenticated,” American Literary Renaissance Report 7, 1993, pp. 139-171.)
  • Lowell, James Russell, “Our Contributors, No. 2: Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s Magazine, XXVII, No. 2, February 1845, pp. 49-53. (Reprinted with some modifications and omissions in Griswold’s The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, New York, J. S. Redfield, 1850, vol 1, pp. vii-xvii. Also reprinted in Eric Carlson, ed, The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 5-17).
  • Griswold, Rufus Wilmot, ed., “Edgar Allan Poe,” Prose Writers of America, Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1847, pp. 523-524. (A very brief notice, combines Poe’s “Memorandum” with Griswold’s review of Poe’s Tales (1845) from the Washington Intelligencer.)
  • Griswold, Rufus Wilmot (as “Ludwig”), Death of Edgar Allan Poe,” New York Tribune, October 9, 1849, p. 2. (This surprisingly vituperative obituary is generally referred to as the “Ludwig” article. Reprinted in Carlson, Eric W., ed., The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 28-35. Although Griswold had previously used the pseydonym “Ludwig,” and may have assumed that people who knew him would recognize him as the author, he did not publically acknowledge having written the obituary until a brief excerpt appeared as “The Late Edgar A. Poe” in Literary American (New York), Vol. III, November 10, 1849, pp. 372-373, for which the byline credits him by name.)
  • Griswold, Rufus Wilmot, “Edgar Allen [[Allan]] Poe,” International Monthly Magazine, Vol. I, October 1850, pp. 325-344. (This article was simultaneously published as the next item. Although dated for October, this issue would probably have been available by mid-September, following the usual practice and allowing for delivery by the date of publication.)
  • Griswold, Rufus Wilmot, “Preface” and “Memoir of the Author,” The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, 3 vols., New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850, vol III, pp. vii-xxxix.(This is the infamous memoir that is chiefly responsible for most of the Poe myth as an irredeemable alcoholic and a person with an inherently immoral nature. Volumes I and II were published about the end of 1849, with notices by N. P. Willis and J. R. Lowell, but without Griswold’s memoir. About September of 1850, volume III appeared, prefaced by the “Memoir of the Author” noted here, essentially an expansion of the “Ludwig” article. In 1853, after the initial stock of these books had been sold, the three volumes were reprinted as a set, with the memoir moved to volume 1. The memoir includes a number of letters written by Poe, but significantly altered by Griswold to serve his own purposes.) (Excerpts of the memoir are reprinted in Carlson, Eric W., ed., Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987, pp. 52-58.) {Griswold’s biography of Poe was widely reprinted and adapted. One of the more prominent examples is “Edgar Allan Poe”, Tait’s Magazine, NS XXII, April 1852, pp. 231-234; reprinted in Littell’s Living Age, XXXIII, May 1852, pp. 422-424 and Eclectic Magazine, XXVI, May 1852, pp. 115-119.)

 


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Early Biographies of Poe (listed chronologically):

  • Powell, Thomas, “Edgar Allan Poe,” The Living Writers of America, New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1850, pp. 108-134.
  • Nichols, Mary Gove, “Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe,” Sixpenny Magazine, February 1863. (Reprinted by T. O. Mabbott, ed., Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Union Square Book Shop, 1931.)
  • Anonymous, “Edgar Allan Poe,” The Biographical Magazine (London), May 1855, vol. VII, pp. 211-220. (Ingram, item 522) (This biography is fairly typical of those that were drawn largely from Griswold’s information, even if the author might be somewhat more favorably disposed towards Poe as a writer.)
  • Ingram, John H., “Preface and Memoir of Poe,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 4 vols, Edinburgh: Black, 1874-1875, vol. 1, pp. xvii-ci.
  • Stoddard, Richard Henry, “Preface” and “MemoirThe Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, London: George Routledge, 1875 (Reprinted by New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1875 and later revised as “Life of Edgar Allan Poe,” Select Works of Edgar A. Poe, New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1880, pp. xv-clxx; which was reprinted by Armstrong in 1884, with a new introductory essay on Poe’ genius. See also Stoddard’s article “Edgar Allan PoeHarper’s Monthly, XLV, September, 1872, pp. 557-568 — as well as several other similar articles and reviews by Stoddard.) (Stoddard relied heavily on Griswold’s account of Poe. He was also determined that Poe was born on February 19 rather than January 19, an error he continued to argue long after it was clear that he was simply wrong.)
  • Curwen, Henry, Sorrow and Song: Studies of Literary Struggle, 2 vols, London: H. S. King, 1875, II, pp. 93-166.
  • Didier, Eugene L[emoine], “Life of Edgar Allan Poe,” The Life and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, New York, W. J. Widdleton, 1877, pp. 19-129. (revised edition, 1879) (See also Didier’s The Poe Cult, and Other Poe Papers, New York: Broadway Publishing, 1909.)
  • Gill, William Fearing, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1877 (First Edition); New York: Dillingham, 1877 (Second Edition); London: Chatto and Windus, 1878 (Third Edition, revised and enlarged); New York: W. J. Widdleton and London: Chatto and Windus, 1878 (Fourth Edition); New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1880 (Fifth edition).
  • Ingram, John Henry, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letter and Opinions, 2 vols, London: John Hogg, 1880. (volume 1 and volume 2) (Reprinted in 1965 by AMS company.) (Revised in one volume, London: W. H. Allen Co., 1886; reprinted Glasgow: The Grand Colosseum Warehouse Co., n. d., but circa 1890.)
  • Woodberry, George Edward, Edgar Allan Poe, from the American Men of Letters Series, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885. (Reprinted in 1885 [2nd edition], 1886, 1888 [4th printing], 1890, 1893, 1894, 1898, 1905 and 1913. Reprinted by Chelsea House Publishers, 1980 and 1997.)

 


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Modern Biographies of Poe (listed chronologically):

  • Harrison, James A., Biography of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: T. Y. Crowell, 1902. (Originally printed as Vol. I of Harrison, ed,. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 17 vols. The letters are given as Vol. XVII. Both volumes are reprinted, with some minor revisions, as Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols., New York: T. Y. Crowell, 1903: volume 1 and volume 2)
  • Woodberry, George Edward, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, Personal and Literary, 2 vols, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909 (Revised version of Woodberry’s Edgar Allan Poe of 1885.) (volume 1 and volume 2)
  • Whitty, James H., “Preface” and “Memoir,” The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911, pp. xix-lxxxvi. (Whitty is not always reliable.)
  • Phillips Mary Elizabeth, Edgar Allan Poe, the Man, 2 vols, Chicago: John C. Winston, 1926. (volume 1 and volume 2) (Written in a rather odd style, this biography contains much interesting if not always accurate or supportable material. As a small example of how challenging it can be to read her prose, consider the first sentence of Section V: “Critical notes were many that went from Poe’s pen to the Southern Literary Messenger, October 1836.” She also tends to omit the articles “a” and “the” where sense would seem to dictate their use.)
  • Allen, Hervey, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols, New York: George H. Doran, 1926. (volume 1 and volume 2) (Second edition, 1927. Reprinted in one volume, New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1934. Reprinted in London:Victor Gollancz, 1935. Reprinted again, also in one volume, 1949.) (Somewhat romanticized but very readable biography, which resulted from the research Allen did with the original intention of writing a novel. There are small revisions between the various editions, at least the first three printings.)
  • Quinn, Arthur Hobson, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography , New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1941. (Reprinted, 1942, by the same publisher, and with some minor corrections, although there is no overt indication of these changes. Reprinted by New York: Cooper Square, 1969. Reprinted in paperback by Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.) (Still the best overall biography of Poe.)
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, “Annals” from Collected Works of Edgar Allan, Volume I, Poems, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969, pp. 529-582. (A terrific summary of Poe’s life from the all-time great Poe scholar, with wonderful little tidbits unavailable elsewhere.)
  • Thomas, Dwight and Jackson, David K., The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849 , Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1987. (Although not strictly a biography, it provides essential biographical material arranged in a chronological sequence. It is an indispensable resource for Poe devotees. A good portion of the information for years 1837-1844 comes from Dwight Thomas’ 1978 dissertation on Poe in Philadelphia.)
  • Silverman, Kenneth, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, New York: HarperCollins, 1991. (Well-written and researched, but weakened terribly by a strong and inexplicable bias against its subject. Problems are greatly exacerbated by the style chosen for supporting references in end notes, a style that is virtually unuseable and generally guarantees that a reader will not pursue the meager clues provided.)

 


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Other Biographies of Poe (listed by author):

  • Bittner, William, Poe: A Biography, London: Elek Books, 1962.
  • Lindsay, Philip, The Haunted Man: A Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: The Philosophical Library, 1954.
  • Mankowitz, Wolf, The Extraordinary Mr. Poe, New York: Summit Books, 1978. (Outside of some nice illustrations, this biography of Poe is utterly worthless. Avoid it at all costs.)
  • Meyers. Jeffrey, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992.
  • Pope-Hennesey, Una, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, London: Macmillan, 1934.
  • Shanks, Edward, Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Macmillan, 1937.
  • Sinclair, David, Edgar Allan Poe, London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1977.
  • Stanard, Mary Newton, The Dreamer: A Romantic Rendering of the Life-Story of Edgar Allan Poe, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1925.
  • Wagenknecht, Edward, Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend, New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.
  • Weiss, Susan Archer, The Home Life of Poe, New York: Broadway Publishing, 1907. (Weiss actually knew Poe, although her biography contains errors and is highly speculative in parts.)
  • Hutchisson, James M., Poe, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. (A good, general biography that emphasizes Poe as a southerner. Sadly, much like the Silverman biography, the style chosen for notation of sources is virtually unuseable.)
  • Hayes, Kevin J., Edgar Allan Poe, London: Reaktion Books, 2009.


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Other Biographical Material (listed by author):

  • Miller, John Carl, John Henry Ingram’s Poe Collection at the University of Virginia: A Calendar, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1960. (see also the second edition of this work under Reilly, J. E., below)
  • Miller, John Carl, “Poe’s Biographers Brawl,” American History Illustrated, XI, No. 7, November 1976, pp. 20-29. (Reprinted in Edgar Allan Poe: The Creation of a Reputation, Eastern Acorn Press, 1983.)
  • Miller, John Carl, Building Poe Biography, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. (Explores many of the sources Ingram used to collect information for his biography of Poe.)
  • Miller, John Carl, Poe’s Helen Remembers, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1979. (Reprints letters between John H. Ingram and Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe’s and Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe’s one-time fiancee and staunch supporter.
  • Ostrom, John Ward, ed., The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948. (Reprinted and expanded with supplementary material, New York: Gordian Press Inc., 1966. Revised, corrected and expanded in 2008 by Burton R. Pollin and Jeffrey A. Savoye, and published by New York: Gordian Press.)
  • Reilly, John E., John Henry Ingram’s Poe Collection at the University of Virginia: A Calendar, second edition, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994. (see also the first edition of this work under Miller, J. C., above)


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[S:1 - JAS] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - General Topics - Edgar Allan Poe's Problematic Biography