Poe's latest analyst calls him manic-depressive Researcher links illness, inspiration

April 28, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

Taking the role of C. Auguste Dupin, the fictional detective who solved "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," a Johns Hopkins medical school psychologist has focused her deductive powers on the mystery of Edgar Allan Poe's melancholy and madness.

Her solution seems both elegant and obvious: the writer, she says, was probably manic-depressive. And, she says, illness probably inspired his croaking raven, razor-edged pendulum and other gloomy tales of death and mourning.

Dr. Kay R. Jamison, speaking yesterday at a Hopkins symposium on mood disorders, argued that Poe is probably one of many writers and artists who have suffered from the ailment, which is marked by wild swings between frenzied, compulsive activity and crippling despair.

As evidence, she cited contemporary letters and details of Poe's life.

Fellow students at the University of Virginia, where Poe studied, described him as a volatile personality and an "impulsive, chaotic" gambler, Dr. Jamison said. A fellow cadet at West Point, where Poe spent a year, wrote that "[we] considered him cracked."

Poe himself wrote that "I fell in love with my melancholy." After his 1848 suicide attempt, he wrote, "I went to bed and wept through a long, long hideous night of despair."

The seasonal pattern of his moods is typical of manic-depression, she said. He was often manic in January and February, and depressed in the late summer and fall. And Poe's moods became more pronounced as he grew older, another sign of the disease.

Even the poet's notorious drinking sprees fit the mold: Sixty-one percent of manic-depressives abuse alcohol or drugs.

"It doesn't take a shrink to figure this out," said Dr. Jamison, the author of "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament."

If Poe were alive today, the psychologist said in a separate interview, he probably could be successfully treated with lithium or other drugs.

But, she added, the writer thoroughly mined his dark moods for literary material. A cheerful Poe, she said, might never have gone on to write some of his most widely read works -- "Tha Raven," perhaps, or "The Pit and the Pendulum" or "Annabel Lee."

Researchers think manic-depression is genetic, and it may have afflicted other members of Poe's family.

His father, David Poe Jr., a Baltimore lawyer-turned-actor, probably died of alcoholism. His older brother, William Henry, also a poet and an alcoholic, was described by contemporaries as "morbidly melancholy" and "difficult to control."

Ill or not, Poe's life was marked by tragedy. His father abandoned his family after Edgar's birth in Boston in 1809. His mother, an actress born in England, died in Richmond at the age of 24, when Poe was 3.

In early adulthood, Poe became estranged from foster father John Allan, a wealthy Richmond merchant. Poe's wife died of tuberculosis. He was usually poor and frequently sick.

Poe, who lived in Baltimore from 1831 to 1834, died at 40 after being found semi-conscious and apparently drunk in a tavern during a visit to Baltimore in October 1849.

No one knows the cause of his death, though more than a dozen causes have been suggested over the past 143 years -- including exposure, heart disease, epilepsy, alcohol poisoning and diabetic coma.

Some biographers have stressed the link between Poe's drinking and his melancholy. But Dr. Jamison said Poe's manic-depression was probably the chief cause of his chaotic behavior, his frequent black moods, his intermittent paranoia and his November 1848 suicide attempt using an overdose of liquid opium.

Drunkeness, she said, may have provided Poe with temporary relief from the irritability, agitation and restlessness linked to his manic periods.

Poe himself seemed to share this view that his drinking was an effect, rather than the cause, of his troubles. He mentioned in one letter how "my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity."

Manic-depressive illness, which today afflicts from 2 million to 3 million Americans, was first identified by Scottish psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin at the turn of the century.

Physicians began speculating as early as the 1920s that Poe suffered from the ailment, Dr. Jamison said.

In "Touched With Fire," Dr. Jamison argues that many artists, writers and composers -- including Van Gogh, Shelley, Melville, Schumann and Coleridge -- suffered from the illness but also drew inspiration from it.

"[T]here is strong scientific and biographical evidence linking manic-depressive illness and its related temperaments to artistic imagination and expression," she wrote in her book, published this year.

For Poe and the other artists, Dr. Jamison wrote, mania, with its "far-ranging, intoxicating and leapfrogging nature," helps fuel the creative process.

Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore's Poe House and Museum, said he is generally suspicious of efforts to put Poe posthumously on the psychiatrist's couch.

"Many people over the years have looked at Poe's use of premature burial, for example, and say that maybe he's suffering from a mother-womb complex," Mr. Jerome said.

He pointed out that in the early 1800s physicians couldn't always be sure if a patient was dead, in a coma or heavily drugged. "Premature burial did happen," Mr. Jerome said. "Poe was capitalizing on a current fear of the time."

Poe, he conceded, was not "a happy-go-lucky guy." But neither was he as relentlessly gloomy as sometimes portrayed.

In the course of his career, Poe wrote scores of book reviews, comedy sketches, scientific articles and other pieces for magazines and newspapers.

Still, Mr. Jerome finds Dr. Jamison's theory persuasive. "Sometimes he would feel so depressed he didn't know why, while at other times he would have so much energy he couldn't write fast enough," he said. And, he added, "I tend to agree with her that maybe helping his condition would destroy his creative capabilities."

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