The real Poe considered himself first and foremost a poet. The real Poe was best known in his lifetime as first a tremendously tough critic, second a poet, and third as the author of tales of mystery and horror. Our perception of Poe has reversed that order.
“Poe was no saint, and he wasn’t always easy to be around,” novelist Matthew Pearl said. “He had difficulty with friendships. He could push people away who were genuinely fond of him and wanted to help him. He could be charming, courtly, witty, and gracious, but he also could be sensitive, petty, suspicious, jealous, and resentful. He wanted to be noticed and appreciated, but he had a difficult time with processing appreciation.”
Edgar Allan Poe sure had plenty of challenges in his life. First came the death of both professional actor parents by the time he was three years old, then being raised in a home where the wife was eager to have him, but the husband resented his presence and overtly disliked him. His adult love life featured a string of romances that did not come to fruition, and others that left him mate-less after far too short a time. In addition, even the mother-figures in his life were short-lived. Is it any wonder that so much of his work centered on death, particularly the early demise of young women? But you probably knew that, or had an inkling. What you may not have known was that Poe was also a writer of comedies, of high-seas adventures, a balloon ride, pirates and treasure.
Mark Dawidziak – image from CityBeat
In A Mystery of Mysteries, Mark Dawidziak takes on the unenviable task of ferreting out how exactly Edgar Allan Poe died.
It is, in fact, a double-barreled mystery. What was the cause of Poe’s death, and what happened to him during those missing days before he was found “in great distress” on the streets of Baltimore, wearing ill-fitting clothes that were not his own? Why did he look so disheveled, his hair unkempt, his face unwashed, and his eyes “lusterless and vacant”? Pale and alternately described as both cold to the touch and burning up with fever, Poe in his delirium held conversations with what resident physician Moran said were “spectral and imaginary objects on the wall.” Sound like the description of a character in one of his stories? It also sounds like a mystery worthy of Poe’s master detective (and the model for so many super sleuths to follow), C. Auguste Dupin.
How Poe came to die where and how he did is a long-standing mystery, well, the specifics of it, anyway. Theories abound, of course. There is little in the way of physical evidence. But the author works with what evidence there is and gives many of the extant theories a good going-over.
Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7th, 1849. The doctor labeled his cause of death as “phrenitis” (inflammation of the brain) which was commonly used when the true cause of death was unknown. Because of these mysterious circumstances, and the persona of Poe, there is much speculation about the true manner of his death. There are over 26 published theories on his demise, so far. – from The Poe Museum
It is clear that he was in poor health in his final days, that he frequently drank to excess, that he suffered greatly from the loss of his beloved, and that his body was failing. He had struggled with alcohol since he was in school, and the behavior that is attributed to him in his final days fits well with a liver failing because of alcoholism or liver disease of another sort. But that is not the only suspect. He rarely had extended spells in which he was not struggling to get by, so add to his health-challenges the ongoing stress of poverty, with a not infrequent scarcity of sufficient food. He was also afflicted with his share of the widespread diseases of his time. The specifics of where he was on this day or that strikes me as uninteresting, in the absence of concrete evidence of murder most foul, or interference by aliens or time travelers, And even were there such a dark undertaking underway, a bit of patience would have seen to that task unaided.
Young Poe – image from the Poe Museum
I confess that while I have read a reasonable portion of the better-known Poe works, I have little exposure to his lesser-known works, (there are links to some of these in EXTRA STUFF) and little knowledge of his biography. I suspect that most folks reading this are either in a similar situation, or can empathize with those of us who are.
This is a book, rich as it is with details of the great writer’s life, that welcomes the phrase “you may not have known.” It does not delve into literary analysis of Poe’s oeuvre, beyond the obvious links between his lived experience and the subjects he included in his writing. It follows his struggles from when he was an unloved orphan, then a difficult, if brilliant student. You may not have known that he was a hale, athletic specimen in his youth, and even well into adulthood. Or that the moustache which we always see in images of him was an addition that did not take place until late in his all-too-brief life.
He is seen as the inventor of the modern mystery. You probably knew that. But you may not have known that even the Ur detective, Sherlock Holmes, was inspired by a character written by Poe, and is credited as such by Arthur Conan Doyle. You may not have known that Poe is seen as the inventor of criminal profiling by none other than the originator of the FBI’s profiling division. You may not have known that he made a national name for himself as a literary critic, a perceptive and harsh one, working for magazines.
Virginia – image from the Poe Museum
Poe was not just a superstar of a writer, but a legend in his own mind, which made him a particularly high-maintenance employee, leaving him constantly struggling to keep body and soul together, constantly pleading for work and assistance. He perceived himself as an outsider, which he was, denied the material comforts and the social access granted his peers.
Poe scholar Steve Medeiros puts it more vividly: “If you could look through the peephole and see who was knocking, and could see that it was Poe, you wouldn’t answer the door, because he would want something. As much of a genius as he is and as charming as he could be, he could also be a real pain in the ass.”
Dawidziak does an outstanding job of detailing for us the trials and tribulations of Poe’s endless quest for for some sort of familial bliss, whether primarily familial or romantic. It seems clear that he spent his life trying to gain the support and affection of the family life that was denied him as a child. His loneliness was a lifelong condition, even though interrupted by periods of happiness.
Poe as you have probably not seen him – image from Poestories.com
Poe married Virginia Liza Clemm when she was thirteen. (He had first met her when she was six) He was twenty-seven. But he called her “Sissy” and it is not known if their relationship was conjugal or exclusively familial. He referred to Virginia’s mother as “Muddy” and related to her as if she were his mother, as well as Virginia’s. Denied the comfort of an actual, warm, supportive domestic upbringing as a child, constructing one may have been his primary motivation for the marriage.
You may not have known that Poe was hardly a dour figure. In fact he could be very charming, coming across as well bred, if not necessarily well-dressed. He displayed excellent licks at readings of his own materials, and had great appeal and success as a lecturer. Maybe having two actors for parents had something to do with that. Even athletic as a young man, despite his privations.
A more usual portrait – image from American Masters
He published only fifty poems or so. Of the forms he worked in, this was the one he loved most. You may not have known that he tried his hand at the novel as well, but was advised not to quit his day job after finally managing one. Try a shorter form, he was told, and he managed that transition quite nicely, writing some of the most famous short stories in literary history.
What killed Poe? Not gonna give anything away here, but really, what difference does it make? What is worth caring about here is the insight one can get into Poe’s work from Mark Dawidziak’s fascinating detailing of his life, his deep dive into a troubled, but ultimately artistically triumphant, life. If you were ever curious about Edgar Allan Poe, about what his life was like, about what drove him, you can check out A Mystery of Mysteries and redirect that gap in your knowledge into the bin marked Nevermore.
“Most people think of Poe as a gloomy pessimist, but, in reality, he was the eternal optimist. No matter what life threw at Poe, he always was kind of like Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, sure that something was going to turn up. He always believed that. He never gives up.”
Review posted – March 10, 2023
Publication date – February 14, 2023
I received an ARE of A Mystery of Mysteries from St Martin’s Press in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.
This review is cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!
Links to the author’s personal and FB, pages
Profile – from Dawidziak’s site
Mark Dawidziak is the author or editor of 25 books, including three acclaimed studies of landmark television series: The Columbo Phile, The Night Stalker Companion and Everything I Need to Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone. He also is an internationally recognized Mark Twain scholar, and five of his books are about the iconic American writer…A journalism graduate of George Washington University, Dawidziak worked as a theater, film and television critic for many newspapers across the USA in his 43-year journalism career.
He is also a professor, and frequent lecturer, and an actor, known for his portrayals of Mark Twain. A Mystery of Mysteries is his 25th book.
—–Publishers Weekly – How Did Poe Die?: PW Talks with Mark Dawidziak
Items of Interest
—–PBS – American Masters – Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive– there are many informative clips on this page.
—–The Poe Museum
——The Poetry Foundation – Poems by Poe
Item of Interest from the author
—–Crimereads.com – excerpt
Some lesser-read tales by Poe
—–Poe Museum – Metzengerstein – Poe’s first published short story, in The Saturday Courier
———-The Duc de L’Omelette – published by The Saturday Courier on March 3, 1832
———-Lionizing – a comedy
—–The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – Bon Bon – a comedy
———-Hans Pfall – early sci-fi
———-How to Write a Blackwood Article – after the success of Ligea he returns to write a comedy
—–Poe Stories – Berenice
—–University of Virginia- A Tale of Jerusalem – a humorous piece about Roman soldiers attempting to play a joke on the Pharisee and Gizbarim of Jerusalem