Text: John E. Reilly, “A Fantastic Potpourri,” Poe Studies, December 1972, Vol. V, No. 2, 5:60


[page 60:]

A Fantastic Potpourri


Sam Moskowitz, editor. The Man Who Called Himself Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1969. 244 pp. $4.95. 


That anyone would attempt to promote the Poe myth at this late date seems almost incredible. Yet here it is, a strange volume modestly described by the publisher as “an unusual anthology of short stories and poetry inspired by the genius and mystery that was Edgar Allan Poe.” The editor-compiler is less modest. “This book,” he announces, “is dedicated to assisting those thousands of readers all over the world who are determined to turn the real Edgar Allan Poe into a fictional character in order to assuage their curiosity concerning him.” Just who these thousands of curious readers are and just what kind of book Moskowitz has pulled together for them are suggested by the names of the magazines from which most of the material, including most of the poetry, is reprinted: Tales of the Frightened, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Unknown, Fantastic, Weird Tales, and Science-Fantasy Correspondent. In a word, this book is a collection of fantasies about Poe promoted by the editor-compiler as a legitimate means of knowing the man.

Although the collection manages to represent such luminaries in the welkin of the weird as Robert Bloch August Derleth, and H. P. Lovecraft, most of its bizarreries, as Poe would have called them, are of no interest to the serious student. Of those that are is a reprinting of the first four chapters of The Atlantis, a Utopian satire published serially in 1838-1839 and believed by some authorities, notably Arthur Hobson Quinn, to be at least in part the work of Poe. Unfortunately, the four brief chapters offered by Moskowitz scarcely provide a taste of the book. Moreover, Moskowitz fails to explain why he has included The Atlantis in what ostensibly is a collection of fiction and poetry about Poe. Another item of interest is George Douglass Sherley’s “The Valley of Unrest,” a story set at the University of Virginia and purporting to explain the origin of the Poe poem from which the tale takes its title. Published in the 1880’s as an independent volume, this item is of interest because the text is hard to come by and not because it “may contribute some elaboration on existing material if not a few new facts” about Poe, as Moskowitz insinuates in an effort to whet his reader’s curiosity. Still another item worth noting, also largely for its historical value, is Julian Hawthorne’s “My Adventure with Edgar Allan Poe,” originally published in 1891. Hawthorne’s narrator describes his encounter with a much mellowed Poe who has returned briefly from the grave forty years after a premature burial.

The Man Who Called Himself Poe is a fatuous book, but it is not, strangely enough, an inaccurate one, that is if we discount the fantastic image of Poe lurking throughout. The fiction is largely free of inaccuracies simply because it typically thrusts Poe into circumstances so bizarre there is little likelihood they will conflict with biographical fact. What inaccuracies do exist occur in Moskowitz’s introductory essay and his editorial notes. [column 2:]

Even here, however, errors are not numerous. Moskowitz not only has discharged his editorial duties with care, he evidently had some assistance from the late Thomas Ollive Mabbott, whose brief sketch of Poe’s life (reprinted from The Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature) leads off the collection. Most of Moskowitz’s errors are obvious ones: Hervey Allen’s Israfel was published in 1926, not 1924 (p. x); Professor Mabbott had not at his death “completed preparation” of his edition of Poe (p. xiii); Poe attended the University of Virginia, not the University of Richmond (p. 17); Appendix XII, not Chapter XII, of Arthur Hobson Quinn’s Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography is devoted to Poe’s role in the com. position of The Atlantis (p. 207); and Poe courted Sarah Helen Whitman in 1848, not 1847 and 1848 (p. 233). The careful reader will also note that at one point (p. xiv) Moskowitz identifies Douglass Sherley’s “The Valley of Unrest” as “originally printed in 1884” and at another point (pp. 17-18) concedes that this 1884 printing, by White, Stokes, and Allen of New York, may be “a second edition.” It is, in fact, at least a third edition, for this reviewer has examined a copy identified as a second edition, dated 1883, and published by John P. Morton and Company of Louisville, Kentucky. This reviewer also is somewhat puzzled by Moskowitz’s assertion (p. xiv) that Professor Mabbott had never previously seen or heard of Sherley’s story, puzzled because Sherley and his strange story were the subject of a correspondence between Professor Mabbott and this reviewer in the autumn of 1962.

The Man Who Called Himself Poe is more than a fatuous book; it is a regrettable one, regrettable because the handful of fantasies it collects misrepresents a rich body of material largely ignored even by Poe specialists. This body of material is the drama, fiction, and poetry Poe has provoked or inspired over almost a century and a half. Among the poems Moskowitz might have drawn upon are verses by people who were personally acquainted with Poe, people such as Lambert A. Wilmer, Frances Sargent Osgood, Sarah Helen Whitman, James Russell Lowell, Thomas Holley Chivers, and R. H. Stoddard; there are verses by such prominent poers as John Gould Fletcher, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Amy Lowell, Edwin Arlington Robinson, John Bannister Tabb, Louis Untermeyer, Edwin Markham, Karl Shapiro, Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich; and there are dozens of poems by poets little known or long forgotten. Poe first appeared in drama and fiction in 1827, the year he published Tamerlane and Other Poems, and he has reappeared often since then in sentimental melodramas, scurrilous satires, and romantic portraits, the work of writers including Poe’s own brother (William Henry Leonard Poe), Thomas L)unn English, Charles F. Briggs, Mary Gove Nichols, George Henry Boker, Mary Newton Stanard, Edith Wharton, Sophie Treadwell, Anya Seton, and still others. Although little of this drama, fiction, and poetry is of value in its own right, the richness of the body of material as a whole resides in its relationship ro the Poe legend or myth; for nowhere is the legendary image of Poe more vividly recorded. This image is not, for all the imaginative weirdness of the selections, recorded in Moskowitz’s collection.

John E. Reilly, College of the Holy Cross

Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:0 - PS, 1972]