Poe's tortured heart still beats in today's literature

Stormy, enigmatic writer's life keeps inspiring novels

Literature

March 14, 2004|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel

The spring day was anything but weak and weary. Novelist John May recalls that the sky was blue, the weather warm as he walked in New York's Greenwich Village in search of the apartment building where Edgar Allan Poe lived and worked in 1845, the year in which he published his famous poem The Raven.

Although May knew the old building was on West Third Street, he couldn't find it and asked for help at a nearby fire station. A firefighter pointed across the street to a vacant lot: "They tore it down two weeks ago."

May was filled with regret. Like so much of Poe's life, from details of his star-crossed life to love letters he had received, the actuality had been lost to time and history.

"It was as if, by that narrow margin, I had missed Poe himself," May writes in the afterword to his forthcoming novel, Poe & Fanny (Algonquin, $25.95), about the romance between Poe and poet Fanny Osgood in 1845. The story is fiction -- as are several other new books featuring Poe -- but it is based on fact.

It should have been "a halcyon year for Poe," May says. After The Raven was published in January, Poe "became the darling of New York society," editor of his own literary journal and a popular lecturer. "He even fell in love. But it ended in disaster. What happened during that fateful year is the Poe story I find the most fascinating."

But it's hardly the only Poe story being readied to enthrall readers.

In Andrew Taylor's literary thriller An Unpardonable Crime (Hyperion, $24.95), already a best-seller in Britain and being published in the United States this month, Poe is a schoolboy in England in 1819-20, when one of his teachers is caught up in murder and intrigue. Poe really did attend a British boys' school while his foster father was in Britain on business. Published as The American Boy in Britain, Crime received rave reviews.

"Poe seems the archetypal romantic hero -- a doomed individual both tormented and exalted by his genius, tainted with excess, touched with madness, and above all, in biographical fact, swathed in mystery," Taylor says.

His novel offers solutions to the two real-life mysteries bracketing Poe's life -- the disappearance of his actor father when he was a toddler and Poe's own disappearance for a week just before his death.

That disappearance and the odd circumstances leading to Poe's death -- he was found delirious in a ditch, possibly because of illness or alcohol -- have led to much speculation. Author Stephen Marlowe used it as a starting point for his highly praised 1995 first novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World: A Tale of Edgar Allan Poe.

Certainly, the outline of Poe's stormy life reads like a novel. Born in Boston in 1809, he was orphaned in 1811 in Richmond, Va., and taken into the home of wealthy merchant John Allan. In 1815, the Allans moved to England, where young Edgar attended school. He later stayed only one term at the University of Virginia before quarreling with his godfather over gambling debts. His childhood sweetheart married another man. Poe joined the Army and was sent to Fort Moultrie, S.C., the setting of his classic story of buried treasure, "The Gold Bug."

Poe secured an appointment to West Point in 1830 but was expelled for not attending classes or church. He lived in New York and Baltimore, writing short stories and poetry, and becoming a critic for literary publications. He also married his first cousin, Virginia, when she was only 13. After a life of ill health, she died in 1847, two years before Poe's own mysterious death at age 40. He is buried in Baltimore, where every year an anonymous visitor leaves a tribute of red roses and brandy on the writer's grave on Jan. 19, Poe's birthday.

That event plays a central role in Baltimore novelist Laura Lippman's contemporary mystery, In a Strange City, and the discovery of what might be a lost Poe manuscript figured in Martha Grimes' 1993 detective novel The Horse You Came In On.

Because Poe is acknowledged as the father of the modern detective story -- the Mystery Writers of America annually award the Edgars in his honor -- it's not surprising that Poe himself also has been a player in period crime novels. True-crime specialist Harold Schechter has written two, Nevermore and The Hum Bug, in which Poe turns sleuth. A third, The Mask of Red Death, will be published in August.

Meanwhile, Louis Bayard, who wrote about the adult life of Dickens' Tiny Tim in his widely praised 2003 novel Mr. Timothy, is working on a novel about Poe.

"I thought it would be fascinating to get into his head for a little while and see how the pain and his art came together," says Bayard, adding that Poe's invention of the detective story "out of thin air" also intrigued him.

After more than 150 years, Poe's haunting poems and macabre stories in The Tales of Mystery and Imagination still reach out to chill readers all over the world. His works are in the public domain and are published by many different editions, as well as excerpted in anthologies and textbooks. Many students have memorized such Poe poems as "Annabel Lee," and millions have shivered as they read "The Pit and the Pendulum" or "The Tell-Tale Heart."

"I think our culture has absorbed him so thoroughly that we don't always recognize him," says Bayard. "But, of course, the modern horror movie is unthinkable without him. Tim Burton and Clive Barker are unthinkable without him. You can feel Poe's imprint on everyone from Stephen King to Ruth Rendell to Joyce Carol Oates. We just carry him around in our bloodstream, I think -- part of our cultural DNA."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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