The orphaned Poe was trapped by his history

January 12, 1992|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times


Kenneth Silverman.


564 pages. $27.50.

One of the odder accomplishments of Kenneth Silverman's life of Edgar Allan Poe is to make the reader wonder why it was written.

That is a paradox, but it is in no way a put-down. Mr. Silverman has written a remarkable book, detailed and prodigiously researched. It grapples for its subject as fervently and hyper-rationally as one of Poe's garish protagonists grapples for his particular horror. Like them, it self-destructs, even as it succeeds.

It does so because, although this is a personal and psychological history rather than a critical biography -- he does, however, do a share of evaluating -- it describes in detail Poe's writing, almost item by item. And a question raises itself that perhaps most of us have taken for granted.

Is Poe, after all, an important American writer? Does he belong on the 19th century A list, where we are taught to place him (admittedly, toward the bottom) along with Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain and Henry James?

If so, why? Not for his poetry, certainly: The sonorous emptiness of "Ulalume," "The Bells," "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven," which the author calls "a work fatally destined to be Beloved, a poem for people who don't like poetry." Not for his philosophical speculations, such as "Eureka," which could be subtitled "Poe's Theory About Absolutely Everything." Nor, as it survives today, for his literary criticism; though at the time it cut acidly through our literary complacencies and earned him the respect of a later acid cutter, Bernard Shaw.

It would have to be for his stories: the ratiocinating Arsene Dupin mysteries that were a precursor to Sherlock Holmes and detective-writing since; and the tales of horror. Drawing on a 50-year Gothic tradition, as the author points out, and using some of its themes, they are mannered and far-fetched, and hover on the edge of farce. (In "Berenice," the protagonist is obsessed by his wife's teeth and digs them up after she dies.) Yet they are complete, glittering worlds with a handhold on the lower spinal cord.

Worth is not something that Silverman raises frontally. He speaks well of the tales, does no unnecessary battle for the poetry, and only partially emends James' comment that the criticism is "pretentious, spiteful, vulgar." The emendation comes a marvelous line in which the author speaks of Poe's subversion of the American literary attachment to boundlessness, as espoused by the Transcendentalists and others. Poe, he writes, "wished to bring a sense of beauty to a country that had so far only conceived sublimity."

And so, to the life. It was tortured, self-torturing and short. Mr. Silverman begins with the appeal issued by Poe's mother, Eliza, and printed in the Richmond papers. She was a popular actress, abandoned by her incompetent actor husband -- he got stage fright -- and left with three small children. At 24, she was dying. "Mrs. Poe," the notice ran, "lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance; and asks it perhaps for the last time."

The good people of Richmond came to visit and help. Nine days later, when Eliza died, two of them took 3-year-old Edgar to bring up. They were John Allan, a flourishing tobacco trader, and his wife, Frances.

Mr. Silverman draws a compelling portrait of Allan: stormy and unpredictable, resenting the education and upbringing he gave Edgar -- he had enjoyed no such privileges himself -- and $H resenting even more Edgar's own stormy ingratitude.

Eventually the young man ran away. There were appeals for help, angry and abject by turns; a brief reconciliation when Allan helped him get into West Point, and a final break after Poe got himself expelled to punish his grudging benefactor.

The author sees Poe's repeated orphaning -- the deaths of his mother and stepmother, and then Allan's cold rejections -- as a key to his temperament. He goes to extremes to find double L's and double A's in the names of Poe's fictional characters, as a sign of his obsession with Allan.

He writes of Poe's marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia -- she seems to have remained a child-bride until her death -- and his enlistment of his aunt, Mary Clemm, into the role of his own mother. Through all of Poe's stormy and penurious wanderings among Richmond, Philadelphia and New York, the three stayed together.

Outside, it was all struggle, blazing feuds and, despite Poe's considerable literary repute, desperate poverty. On the various journals he wrote for, he was almost always in demand for his stories and criticism, but he earned next to nothing.

One of the chief strengths of Mr. Silverman's book is his detailing of the American Grub Street -- its plots, feuds and abject hack work. Poe's tales were prized, and his fierce attacks on the literary establishment made for delicious scandal.

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