Edgar Allan Poe is recognized as one of the greatest American writers, but his life was fraught with financial and emotional devastation. He seemed to live larger than life, but many of the Byronic exploits he bragged about were blatantly fictional.
Here, Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Kenneth Silverman reflects on the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe, with many of the contradictions and travesties that make up this illusive and often controversial character of Edgar Allan Poe. His biography is an unforgettable tribute to a man who undermined and devastated his own genius.
Early Years: Search for Love and Acceptance
Poe's parents both made a living on the stage until his father abandoned the family and his mother sickened and died. Along with his brother (five) and sister (one), Edgar (three) suddenly found himself an orphan, dependant upon the kindness of strangers.
John and Fanny Allan took Edgar in, and offered to provide for his education, but they never adopted him. The troubled relationship that developed between Poe and the Allans became exacerbated during his teenage years, and the relationship fell apart still further as Poe attended the university and accumulated debts. He attempted to lie and manipulate his way out of them--without a great deal of finesse or success--and this clash would ultimately lead to a permanent fracture between Edgar and John Allan, after the death of Fanny.
Throughout his life--from childhood onward--he continued to search for acceptance and love, but Poe could never get away fromthe many tragedies and slights of his earliest years. The names or symbology of his mother and brother (who also died young) appeared in many of his works, seeming to dramatize the consant battle he fought with his own past. He wanted to remember, but those were the very memories that caused him the most distress...
A Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance
As might be imagined, many of Poes' most popular works present a conflict between remembrance and forgetting. And, in his exploration of the horrific, dark and ghastly, regions of the human imagination, death plays a pivotal part. Many of his characters experience death in life, and Poe imagined that "death might not exist" at all. Poe was always drawn back to the surface of reality--if only for a few moments--before he was plunged into the depths once again.
With tenacity and hard work--often barely surviving--he was able to accomplish in a short time what others wouldn't have been able to accomplish in lifetimes. He not only brought the power of poetry to prose, but he revitalized or recreated the critical essay. Of course, his triumphs reached far beyond the magazine columns, editorial work, and other hack work that he often despised. He listened to the reading public and then managed to offer them just what they wanted. And, he made his stamp on literary history, revolutionizing genres in the process.
Unfortunately, those moments of genius and clarity became fewere and farther between as his days became fogged in a roller-coaster ride of alcholic binges and recoveries.
Poe's life was ended, but death is as controversial as his life. There's no real certainty as to the cause of his death, though many factors probably contributed: alcohol abuse, ill health and mental distress to name just a few. What is certain is that Poe left behind a substantial volume of works, even in his early death. He also left his Muddy, a woman who had become like a mother to him. And, she was in fact his mother-in-law and aunt. After Poe's death, Muddy wrote: "Oh memory, memory, how faithful it still is." It's a mournfully never-ending remembrance.
Silverman captures all of the devastating details of Poe's life and his death, without sinking into sentimentality or giving way to the almost soap-operish curiosity. So much of Poe's life was odd, and how can we really understand any life fully, what the motivations might have prompted his sometimes haphazard actions.
Here Silverman does a good job of picking up the pieces of Poe's life, and then putting a human face and a voice to the strange antics of his legend.