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Edgar Allan Poe: America's misunderstood genius

poeEdgarAllan100711_optBY JOHN ESPOSITO

The skies they were ashen and sober;

The leaves they were crisped and sere-

The leaves they were withering and sere;

It was night In the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year...

— "Ulalume"

It is early evening in late October. The gray sky serves as a haunting backdrop for the falling leaves. It is the quintessential setting for the spirit of the season. Halloween is only days away. Festive conversation centers on the harvest celebration, hay rides, apple cider and the quest for the perfect pumpkin. Still others turn their thoughts to witches, black cats, graveyards and of course, Poe.

Obituary Shapes a Reputation

On October 9, 1849, the die was cast and the legend of Edgar Allan Poe was born. Just two days following the poet’s death in Baltimore, a hostile obituary appeared in the New York Daily Tribune. The first paragraph set the tone for what would shape the Poe reputation and become the accepted opinion of Poe’s character well into the next century:

“Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. The announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known personally or by reputation,...but he had few or no friends...” The article declared him as a man without morals who “walked the streets in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct purses...”


The Poe Connection: Major Literary Contributions

The notice was penned by Rufus Griswold, a mediocre writer and influential anthologist who had first met Poe eight years earlier. Griswold published the piece under the cowardly pseudonym, Ludwig. He issued a more malicious and slanderous Memoir in his subsequent edition of Poe’s works. The reason for his bitter attack dated back to 1843 when Poe had delivered an uncomplimentary lecture on Griswold’s most popular compilation, "The Poets and Poetry of America." Griswold was unforgiving and harbored a strong dislike of Poe throughout the remainder of his life. Ironically, Poe had personally appointed Griswold as the executor of his literary estate! By this odd twist of fate, Poe had become the victim of revenge, much like characters from some of his own stories.

Other critics soon leaped on the Griswold bandwagon. The more preposterous allegations asserted that Poe possessed the same qualities as his fictional characters: drug addiction, neurosis, impotence and psychosis. A more truthful assessment of Poe’s character would be that he was neither saint nor sinner. The most reliable accounts of his forty short years of life suggest that of a romantic figure. This unfortunately only serves to embellish his earlier tarnished image. Poe was in fact, a disillusioned introvert, insecure, with a strong ego, someone who could not hold his liquor and was quite possibly an alcoholic. He lived his adult life in utter poverty while perfecting his craft as a writer, editor and critic in the cities of Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. The real tragedy of his career was his inability to receive serious recognition from either a monetary standpoint or an ego perspective from his peers in the elite New York and Boston literary societies of the day.

From childhood’s hour I have not been

As others were - I have not seen

As others saw - I could not bring

My passions from a common spring

— "Alone"

 A Tortured Life

Edgar Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to traveling actors. He was orphaned before age 3, when his father apparently deserted the family and his mother died from tuberculosis. Shortly thereafter, he was taken in by John Allan, a stern, aggressive tobacco merchant from Richmond. Poe was never legally adopted. It has been suggested that Allan was unwilling to truly accept Edgar as a son because of the lower social class of his thespian parents. It appears he agreed to take in the very young boy at the request of his childless wife, Frances. Poe was quite cognizant of this slight throughout his lifetime.

Comments (2)
2 Monday, 31 October 2011 05:37
Bob Sheairs
Very well written article. Even Poe the critic would have a problem finding fault.

For more #poelove, check out www.poehead.com

Happy Halloween!
1 Sunday, 30 October 2011 18:44
Dan Currie
Bravo and thank you, Mr. Esposito!

(Please check out the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston
at www.poeboston.org and www.facebook.com/poeboston.)

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