Restoring Poe to greatness

October 28, 1999|By James H. Bready

ONE hundred fifty years after his death, over on Broadway, is there hope that Edgar A. Poe will now be thought of more as an author, less as a lurid public figure? What a dumb question, in a world that dotes on celebrities and personalities.

A double handful of anthology poems; a dozen or more masterly short stories, some of them superior gothics, others the first detective fictions -- the trouble is, everybody's aware of them; they were assigned classroom reading. But there it stops. Who as a grown-up reads Poe's barrel of literary theory and criticism, his many letters, his non-warhorse tales and poetry?

Afar, on whatever basis, Poe's standing remains high. "Poe Abroad," edited by Lois Davis Vines (University of Iowa Press), with reports from two dozen nations, is a highlight of the anniversary observance.

In this country, however, such Poe interest as there is, outside graduate schools and memorial societies, centers merely on whether he was an alcoholic, what was the nature of his marriage (to a 14-year-old first cousin), and what happened to him in Baltimore after he got off the boat from Virginia, in October 1849.

An October death

True, Poe himself repeatedly diverted attention from his blazing literary creativity. Joining the Army in youth, later feuding in print with his colleagues, and, finally, as a widower, pursuing prosperous women, Poe seemed to enjoy shocking people. His death, in the month of All Hallows Eve, the "lonesome October of my most immemorial year," was unquiet.

Poe, who in his 20s had lived on Baltimore's east and then Southwest sides, was a hard worker and had exceptional aesthetic sensibility. He showed scant humor; practical matters could defeat him; he was forever wheedling for money. Toward religion, moral causes, the body politic, he was indifferent; toward lesser writers, harsh. An awkward and unreliable personality, suggests today's observer -- who may not allow for the immediate, obituarial falsifying of fact by Poe's enemies, in their feigned grief.

Two modern biographers have restored him: Arthur Hobson Quinn in 1941 and Kenneth Silverman in 1991. Their book titles, "Edgar Allan Poe" and "Edgar A. Poe," are, respectively, the name as fulsome moderns speak it and the name as Poe himself signed it. (For the French, no such problem: They call him Edgar Poe.)

Even as medical scientists and bus-tour leaders go on speculating about the lost week that ended at the forerunner of Church Home and Hospital (the most recent theory suggests rabies), Mr. Silverman reminds us of the judgment given at the time, an ocean away, by Charles Baudelaire: "This death was almost a suicide; a suicide prepared for a long time."

Poe, at 40, with death on his mind after the early loss of his mother and disappearance of his father, the death from alcoholism of his older brother, and then his wife's fatal tuberculosis; Poe the student of classical literature but artistically a sensation-minded romantic; Poe the seemingly blocked writer -- he knew very well, disembarking in Baltimore, what could be the consequence of one more binge.

Yet if depression rose up within him, a principal spur would have been something else: the prospect of never running his own, funded literary magazine.

For 14 years, Poe had been living the literary life, not as an isolated author but as a magazine staff member or contributor. He reveled in it. Most of his best work was first published in Southern Literary Messenger, Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, Godey's Lady's Book and Broadway Journal.

(Another writer featured in Burton's, a Philadelphia monthly, was J. Hall Bready, a prominent lawyer. How well did Bready know Poe? In 1842, my great-grandfather died, aged 31; no recollections were passed down as far as his namesake.)

This was springtime for American magazines, the number of which, Mr. Silverman notes, expanded 600 percent between 1825 and 1850. Baltimore, in 1831, supported "12 or more journals." While working for Philadelphia magazine publisher George Graham, Poe began planning a magazine of his own, to be called The Stylus.

A dream unrealized

In his vision, it would have the best format, illustrations and writing yet -- especially, writing. As he aged, and after his wife's death disrupted his sheltering household, Poe became less and less capable of shouldering such a responsibility. Nevertheless, as he set out from Richmond, Va., for Philadelphia in 1849, start-up money for Stylus was still Poe's ambition and quest.

In U.S. periodical publishing today, the New York critic Terry Teachout has commented, the literary and other arts are being given less and less critical attention. It wouldn't be easy, founding a serious magazine called Stylus. It would, though, be a splendid way to honor Edgar A. Poe.

James H. Bready is the author of "Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years." He is a former Evening Sun editorial writer.

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