There is little by, or about, Poe that I haven’t read (or at least heard of and need more time to get to). I’ve made it to a handful of his homes and memorials, with a few still on my list. Poe is an enduring figure on my bookshelf, in my life, on my collection of fridge magnets and in my own literary efforts. His influence is impossible to avoid, even if you’re not an avid fan. But for those of us to truly admire his legendary output, we are endlessly fascinated by the man himself. And it has become increasingly clear that Poe was not the dour, macabre, disheveled drunk that popular culture has seized upon.
Surely, he was down on his luck, more than not. He struggled to make ends meet for his family. He worked more furiously and more brilliantly than most in his era or any other. The quality of his writings, despite his hunger, cold, or worry, is astounding. But he was not a sociopath obsessed with murder. He was witty, full of mirth and energy, and kind (according to friends and contemporaries). And he did it in the face of poverty and loss. All the while, he never doubted his talent or abilities. There is even growing evidence that he wasn’t an alcoholic and he wasn’t drunk when he was found incoherent shortly before he died.
Indeed, Poe’s mysterious death is the framework for this biography. Author Mark Dawidziak works attempts to dispel the myths around Poe’s death and life through the lens of his last few weeks. Dawidziak faithfully traces Poe’s plans through letters and diaries, often from those who hosted the poet during his travels or who worked with him editorially. What emerges is a much richer picture than the crooked smile looking back at us in the famous daguerreotype.
To Poe’s ardent champion Charles Baudelaire, the French poet and critic, Rufus Griswold’s ongoing campaign of character assassination was the crass and hateful work of ‘a pedagogic vampire.’ Casting Griswold in the role of miserable cur, Baudelaire famously asked, ‘ Does there not exist in America an ordinance of keep dogs out of cemeteries?’ Nevertheless, Griswold’s brutal and often despicable attacks on Poe created a false overall impression that, despite the best efforts of scholarly detectives to set the record straight, hasn’t been completely dispelled to his day. ~ Loc. 144
He wrote dark psychological horror stories, brilliant critical essays on language, imaginative detective tales, haunting love poems, surreal science fiction stories, inscrutable philosophical works, searing literary reviews, and detailed scientific research volumes.
Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy Spooky Poe a great deal. I even dressed up as Poe for Halloween one year. But I also love his adoration of his tortoise shell cat Catterina, his simple humor in “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” and his true wonder in “Eureka.”
As many theories as there are about how Poe died, there are even more reasons why he lived. Each one of the works he wrote is a reason to be grateful he kept publishing despite the odds. This book is a wonderful read for Poe enthusiasts, but it’s also a reminder that there are dozens of ways people have come to admire Poe, and each is as beguiling as the last.
My thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the advance review copy via Edelweiss.
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (February 14, 2023)
Hardcover: 288 pages