Edgar A. Poe : mournful and never-ending remembrance

by Kenneth Silverman

Paperback, 1992

Status

Available

Publication

[New York] : Harper Perennial, 1992

Description

From a Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer, the most revealing, fascinating, and important biography of one of our greatest literary figures.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RandyStafford
Silverman doesn't seem to like Poe much.

Poe's desperate poverty, his supporting a sick wife and her mother by writing alone, doesn't, to Silverman, really justify Poe's recycling of his early work, the occasional puff piece on writers and editors he wanted to ingratiate himself with or the near plagiarism of other authors. His mysterious death had to be the result of drinking too much or a sudden withdrawal from liquor. Never mind the bouts of illness that plagued him, especially in his last two years, and the contemporary testimony that he had a peculiar susceptibility to even small amounts of alcohol. No such sentiments for Silverman.

Those poems? Well, they're famous, especially "The Raven". But he lied about how it came to be written. It wasn't really a calculating, almost mathematically composed piece. "Tamerlane" just shows a young Poe as a would-be Byron, the desire of a future soldier and poet to conquer the world.

The infamous Eureka? Mostly bad philosophy mixed with a popular astronomy work of the day.

Those stories? Well, Silverman seems to like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", the first detective story, the best of all Poe's works. "The Case of M. Valdemar" and "Melonta Tauta" are argueably important as prototypes of another genre - science fiction. However, they don't get much respect. Just the questionable contention that "Valdemar" begins a prevalent tradition in horror of liquefying corpses and that "Melonta Tauta" mainly shows Poe's anti-democratic feelings. Sure, Silverman covers all the other famous stories, but it's mostly to draw biographical inferences from them. While he restricts most of his Freudian analysis to the book's unusually confusing footnotes, he can't resist finding constant references to "Allan", the very seldom used middle name of Poe that came from the name of his never-father John Allan, in the titles of Poe works and characters. (The key, you see, is the double "a"s and "l"s.) This reaches its nadir when we're invited to see the title of "Ulalume" as another example of Allan even though it has only one of the required "a"s.

Given that he doesn't really see Poe as a literary genius or innovator - with the exception of "Rue Morgue", one wonders why Silverman even bothered to make the effort because quite an effort it was.

This is a long, detailed, but very readable book. Silverman is thorough in his coverage of Poe's family many of whom left Poe at a young age. There was the father who deserted him; the beloved, barely remembered mother who died at age 24; a beloved older brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, who also died at age 24. His surrogate mothers died young. His beloved cousin-wife Virginia died at age 25. And, in a nice coda, Silverman talks about the fate of Poe's beloved aunt and mother-in-law "Muddy" Clemm and his younger sister Rosalie Poe.

Remembering the dead, wishing for and fearing their silence, Silverman argues, is one of Poe's major themes. The names of his past and his family reverberate in the place names of his stories, in characters' names, in the mysterious cries Arthur Pym hears in Antarctica. William Poe was also a writer and poet, and there is a particularly interesting section on how similar their early poems were, pointing to collaboration or an eerie similarity of theme and image.

The other major theme Silverman discusses in Poe's works is the recurring presence of characters who cross back and forth, sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically, the line of life and death. It is part of the theme of remembering and honoring the dead. The "mournful and never-ending remembrance" of the dead is what Poe himself said was the theme of "The Raven", but it also holds true for much of his other work.

Silverman discusses Poe's many literary feuds, touches on his "Imp of the Perverse" (as he called it) - his seeming will to self-destruction.

Some Poe scholars claim Silverman always puts the worst interpretation on Poe's actions. Perhaps so. On the other hand, this book is a useful antidote to thoughtless and ignorant Poe worship. Poe was not the accomplished linguist he claimed. The man who wrote "The Gold Bug" was probably only adept at solving simple ciphers. (Which in no way means that he didn't inspire real cryptographers to take up their trade.) His work did have precedents. Yes, he did occasionally borrow images and language from others. His writing sometimes showed the sins he ruthlessly criticized in others. His did, perhaps, forge checks. He certainly lied about his past whether it was his age or why he married Virginia.

No, I don't think Silverman likes Poe much. And you may or may not after reading this book. But, if you already admire Poe's work, this will help you understand the man better. And, despite the occasional intrusion of worthless Freudianism, Silverman does have some credible and interesting things to say about the relationship between Poe's life and works.
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LibraryThing member brianjayjones
A solid biography of a sad, often pathetic, literary life. I was only peripherally familiar with some of Poe's story and, like many readers, had been suckered by some of the stories that had been maliciously spread as fact over the last 200 years (i.e. Poe's expulsion from West Point, his drug use) -- most of which, as it turns out, were completely false and part of a concerted effort by a rival to slur his reputation.

Silverman cuts through the gauze of slanderous or puffed biographies, missing or burned letters, and lost newspaper articles and reviews to paint a warts-and-all portrait of Poe, who comes across as a sort of pathetic, unappreciated scoundrel of a genius. Poe feuded with magazine editors, challenged rivals to fist fights, wrote sock puppet reviews of his own work, accused fellow writers of plagiarism (even as he liberally borrowed from others himself), wooed multiple women at once -- and yet, his fiction and poetry are so clearly brilliant that you can't help loving the poet, even as you wish he would pull himself together. You may not come away from Silverman's book liking Poe as a person, but you'll definitely appreciate his commitment to his craft.

My only real complaint lies with Silverman's over-reading of Poe's work in search of what he is convinced are deep-seated mom and dad issues. Any time Poe creates a character whose name has two Ls and an A in it, Silverman is convinced Poe is taking a slap at his foster fother, John ALLan. To Silverman, every dying woman represents Poe's mother, and any remotely heroic character calls up Poe's brother, William Henry Leonard Poe. It can get to be a bit much, and by the time Silverman starts in on his analysis of the 1847 "Ulalume," you may find yourself groaning and thumbing for the end of the chapter.

Still, Silverman's biography brings much-needed clear-eyed scholarship to Poe's story, making Poe the most memorable character in his own rocky life story. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Midnightdreary
Silverman's book does much to restore Poe the man by pulling him away from Poe the myth. As a biography, a straightforward chronicle of the life of its subject, the book succeeds fairly well. However, the tone of the book implies its author started off with the idea that Poe was a bad person and made sure to present him in that light, regardless of what evidence he found (or did not find).

Silverman almost without exception fails at every attempt at offering personal literary criticism for Poe's works. Like a previous reviewer here, I found his psychoanalytic readings of everything Poe ever wrote somewhat silly. I found myself rolling my eyes at some of his biggest reaches, including, as elsewhere mentioned, his theory that any double "A" or "L" is a reference to his disinterested foster-father John Allan.

Though Silverman presents a very readable book which helps to bring Poe out of his mythical status, it does not quite complete that task. Though Poe need not be turned into a saint, he also need not be presented as a demon.
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LibraryThing member JamesBanzer
This book was published just shy of 30 years ago. The biographical account about a famous 19th century storyteller brings a time of long ago to life. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is by Kenneth Silverman. It was published in 1991 by Harper Perennial, and is full of rich detail about the writer and poet who lived from January 1809 until October 1849. Many memorable short stories as well as poetry came from the skilled genius's pen. He also just happened to be a flawed man of his time. In the course of his career, he also critiqued other writers and was an editor.

Eliza and David were actors. The mother, Eliza already performed on stage by the age of nine. It is revealed that the father skipped out on Edgar's mother. The reason is not known, and apparently Silverman never learned what became of the biological dad.

Eliza Poe died at the young age of 24. The boy was a toddler. He was then adopted by John Allan, whose last name became the boy's middle name. Edgar was only six when Allan and his wife Frances sailed with the child to England. We're told that Edgar's London schooldays were unhappy. But after the stepfather lost his money the Allan family didn't stay long. They crossed the pond back to Richmond, Virginia.

There are many things about Edgar's life that indicate serious character flaws. We learn that when he undertook a pursuit, he often didn't finish it. Thanks to his stepfather, he was fortunate enough to be able to attend the University of Virginia. In the very early days of the existence of that new school, it was the most expensive higher education facility in the country. When times became tough for Edgar, Allan was pretty good at caving in and sending financial assistance. However, there was not much indication of appreciation being expressed for such generosity. The lad soured on higher learning at the university and moved away.

Edgar started but never finished a West Point stint. He attended the military academy for a mere 18 months before being expelled. Another failure in his life was running a publication called the Broadway Journal. The newspaper folded shortly after he purchased it. The reason it failed was the owner's drunkenness.

Heavy drinking was surely Poe's biggest character flaw. This weakness would eventually get the best of him. It started early in his career and continued until he died. He attempted to cover it up, even going so far on one occasion as to claim that he never drank anything stronger than water. He was known to have attributed his own shortcoming to his stepfather. Edgar once stated that John was “not often very sober.”

Edgar's brother Henry also was an alcoholic. The younger brother died at 24 like their mother. So perhaps there was a genetic predisposition for the heavy drinking. Or maybe it was a similar environment that led to imbibing in spirits. However we must remember that the two did not live together during adulthood. There's no indication that sister Rosalie was ever a heavy drinker. The youngest of Eliza and David's children survived into her 80s, far outliving both of her brothers.

The writer had swing periods of moderate to heavy use of alcohol. When troubled, he became highly inebriated. Such was the case after he was fired in 1837 from The Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. Another such instance was when his wife Virginia was dying of tuberculosis.

There are some takeaways that I gleaned from this book. It is reasonable to conclude that his obsession with death and morbidity contributed greatly to the author's spellbinding literary works. Characters in Edgar's fiction are often depicted as being under the influence of opium or alcohol. Sober men would not seem likely to come up with that kind of thing. It was not easy to make good money as a writer in those times. That surely was one factor in frequent moves from one job to the next. On the other hand his demeanor certainly can't be discounted as having contributed to him not staying long in any one place.

As I read through this work of 447 paperback pages, I could foresee heartbreak long before it ended.. Death came in a Baltimore hospital in the fall of 1849. He had been taken there semiconscious and in great distress. He was found in such a state at a tavern. Silverman's colorful language states that Edgar was “flooded with drink.” The subject of the book authored many famous works. “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and of course the eternally famous poem, “The Raven.” In the end though, this man who would become much more famous in death than in life died extremely depressed. His final words were, “Lord help my poor soul.”
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