There’s a new book, The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel by Jerome McGann, which is, very aptly, all about his poetry. (I’m ignorant enough not to have known what a fanboi Baudelaire was.) However, from reviewer Dominc Green’s perspective in The Weekly Standard (emphasis mine):
Poe is an acquired taste, like whiskey or opium. He was a poet in the way that William Blake was an artist: idiosyncratic and obscure, a commercial adventurer who lacked business sense, a marginal antagonist who became a national treasure, an etcher of sharp and violent lines with a dazzled eye for overdone color. His hero was Byron: a first-rate celebrity but a second-rate poet; really, a debauched Augustan. No less conventionally, Poe called Tennyson the greatest living poet. If Poe’s biography is Byron’s catastrophe on a budget, his poetry is Tennyson unhinged by Thomas de Quincey. As heroic Romanticism slides into boggling horror, meter becomes an avalanche.
Poe was a peerless self-destructor: He was a liar and a plagiarist, a drunk in the office and a beggar in the street, who pandered to a public he despised and married his 13-year-old cousin. McGann skirts the biographical disaster and concentrates on Poe’s writing. But without the tragic setting, Poe’s verse wilts into melodrama, and as McGann forgoes context, he takes Poe at his own assessment, which Poe, a chronic self-publicist, supplied in his marginalia and essays.
Well, okay, all this may be so–it’s certainly the commonly-held view of the wild rebelliousness and dangerous edge that Poe himself seems to have cultivated among readers to provoke and sell papers. Disclaimer: I’m cognizant of the incompleteness of my knowledge. I’m not saying that artifice is the only cause for Poe’s reputation and that it was nothing more than his flair for showmanship. But smart Poe people who I’ve asked seem to read in his words–some of which I got to peruse myself– that his self-cultivated sensationalism was at least part of the hype surrounding him. Now, when I’m reading florid summaries of Poe’s epically rock-n-roll ‘tude, I always think back to visiting the Poe exhibit at the Morgan library. Something popped out at me then that my own lying eyes cannot forget. I further blame my former stints as a bartender and all the mysteries and crime fiction I’ve read.
On diplay were many long scrolls of hand-written manuscripts in a beautiful hand, some impossibly small and perfectly-placed. For publicity and commemorative purposes, Poe made lavishly calligraphed works on scrolls. If you saw this kind of execution in Poe’s own hand–and perhaps you did, too, so share in the comments!– and the sheer volume of other documents, revised copies, bound books, and even ledgers in tiny, almost-impeccable script, you might have your doubts, too, about his being a career drunk. First of all, where would he have found the time to spend what must’ve been endless hours in painstaking transcription? For a guy on the hustle, and always in need of scratch, hours away from the writing board were hungry hours, and he did have his little family who he’s reputed to have cared for.
When people blithely cite Poe’s years of alcohol abuse, I think what they likely mean, and it’s a big difference, is long stints of near-teetotaling sobriety–which are documented in at least a couple spots by him as being his intention–punctuated with blackout binges. From the people I spoke to at the exhibit, it wasn’t even attested that Poe could really “put it away,” like a hard-core drunk. He was a small man and likely a lightweight. When he did fall off the wagon, he would’ve been a cheap date, to mix my metaphors. Perhaps his outsized reputation is why, at his death, people may have been dragging him around town, pouring ever more down him, not aware that a sporadic binger couldn’t tolerate it like a hollow-legged merchant marine. Then again, maybe they didn’t care.
Yes, writing was Poe’s business and he’d have had more automatic, muscle-memorized skills than many, but seriously. In a career drunk, as we say, the eyes go blinky and the hands go wobbly long before the liver fails. No man with regularly-pounding hangovers, throbbing vision, delirium tremens (or whatever else the popular perception of his condition) could have, in my view, penned the regularly exacting duplicating work I saw any more than one could be so impaired while illuminating in one’s monkish cubicle at the scriptorium or even painting on a grain of rice at the mall. The advent of word processors, with their endless, invisible corrections was a gift to sozzled writers everywhere.
The document above is not able to be enlarged to readability (sorry!), but it is a page from an essay Poe handwrote in 1849, the year he died. The image and dimensions are from the PoeMuseum.org. This page, one of three, is 10″ x 8″. It’s far from the tightest, cleanest copy I saw. Nonetheless, as I roughly calculate it by number of lines and word spacing, to fit all this onto the page, around 500 words, Poe’s work here is approximately 11pt font, single-spaced. I’m not sure I can do that now, and I know I can’t do it evenly and legibly.
Maybe that’s why I noticed his penmanship after all, because mine is so foul. But Poe was so attentive to the art, he actually wrote his own treatise on graphology, including literary criticism and analysis of major literary figures of his time.
To me, this is exactly the kind of situation where a visit to a museum or archive to look at the original source material can offer so much more food for thought than just a transcription of words that were on the page. Whether I’m right (or write), after seeing the flourishes of all his beautiful words, I’ll never look at Poe the same way, and I’ll never be able to take those “everybody knows” biographical claims of his grinding, utter dissolution at purely face value.
That’s only my opinion–feel free to share yours!