Poe's foreshadowing genius

Monday Book Review

December 21, 1992|By John F. Kelly

EDGAR ALLAN POE: HIS LIFE AND LEGACY. By Jeffre

Meyers. Scribner's. 348 pages. $30.

JEFFREY Meyers' life and legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, the year'second biography of Poe (the first: Kenneth Silverman's "Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance") seems a little long on "legacy" and somewhat shorter on "life." That is not meant as a criticism. I might have preferred a more detailed account of Poe's life simply because the man fascinates me, but I recognize there is only so much new ground that can be plowed -- and previous biographers have plowed virtually every inch.

Mr. Meyers, whose biographies of Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis and Ernest Hemingway were critical successes, wisely, I think, chooses to emphasize Poe's literary standing rather than delve at greater length into his life on the chance he might turn up something new.

As a result, it's a book heavy on analysis. Mr. Meyers not only dissects Poe's work, but also his reputation and influence on generations of European and American poets and writers, from Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, Conrad and Joyce to Hawthorne, Melville and Fitzgerald.

Poe was born in Boston on Jan. 19, 1808, the third child of David Poe, a Baltimorean who quit law and became a mediocre actor, and Eliza Arnold Poe, a brilliant actress who in her brief career (she died when she was 24) played more than 300 roles. Poe was orphaned at 3 and died in Baltimore Oct. 7, 1849, after collapsing outside a saloon in Fells Point. He was 40 years old.

Mr. Meyers traces Poe's alcoholism to his infancy, when a nursemaid fed him bread soaked in gin to keep him quiet. He also establishes a destructive genetic link between Poe and his father, both of whom, he notes, were moody, hot-tempered, hard-drinking, financially irresponsible men who were inclined to blame others for their problems. Edgar's birth "sparked a financial crisis and emotional upheaval" in the Poe family, and David Poe turned to his cousin George for help.

Much of Poe's anger and finger-pointing were aimed at John Allan, his wealthy foster father (whose name Poe took as his middle name). Allan and especially his wife, Frances, were kind parents who indulged young Edgar, but Mr. Meyers suspects Allan was a "poor disciplinarian who confused the child by alternately spoiling and scolding him." Poe's rebellion surfaced as a teen-ager, and Allan increasingly criticized his character and condemned his lack of gratitude.

Poe drank and gambled at the University of Virginia, blaming Allan for his troubles. Poe's only real loyalty, it seems, was to to his father's widowed sister, Maria Clemm, with whom he shared quarters in Baltimore and a succession of other cities, and her daughter, Virginia, whom he married in 1836 when she was 13 and he 27. Later, as editor of several magazines, Poe wrote savage literary criticism that provoked needless quarrels with contemporaries. A favorite charge was plagiarism, though, as Mr. Meyers points out, Poe, too, "cannibalized his literary ancestors." Nor was he above the occasional tit for tat. He frequently accepted gifts, usually cash, for favorable reviews.

Poe's poems and stories had enormous impact. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1814) was the first detective story, still popular. "The Raven" (1845), with its haunting refrain of "Nevermore," was one of the most popular poems of the day and made Poe famous. "The Gold-Bug" (1843) sold more than 300,000 copies. Yet Poe was paid only $9 for "The Raven" and earned no more than $100 for "The Gold-Bug." Mr. Meyers quotes one scholar who calculated that Poe's lifetime earnings as author, editor and lecturer amounted to $6,200.

Mr. Meyers seems more assured and in command of his material when he is following Poe's trail as innovator and literary predecessor. Indeed, the last hundred pages of the book are insightful enough to form the foundation for an upper-level college course. The author relentlessly tracks Poe's reputation and influence across Europe, where, in contrast to America, he was wildly popular. He then sums up Poe in a masterful chapter called "Influence."

"His poems and literary theories influenced the French Symbolists and English Aesthetes," Mr. Meyers writes. "His concern with guilt, anxiety and divided personality inspired Dostoyevsky's great fiction. His pessimistic view of the human condition and fascination with death appealed to writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad and James Joyce. The Goncourts [19th century French brothers who were novelists and critics] were right to declare Poe -- more than any other writer of the 19th century -- had foreshadowed the literature of the future and would become a major figure in Western culture."

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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