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Defending Edgar

In a New Biography, a Southern Scholar Tries to Polish the Dark Reputation of Baltimore’s Favorite Literary Son

Deanna Staffo

By J. Bowers | Posted 4/13/2005

Poe, by James M. Hutchisson

University Press of Mississippi

Rabies, brain tumors, epilepsy, pneumonia, alcohol poisoning, or the official verdict of “congestion of the brain”—the cause of Edgar Allan Poe’s death is still unknown, more than 150 years after the fact. But thanks to the combined effects of a slanderous biography—published after his death by a jealous rival who denounced him as a drunkard and a lunatic—and the haunting nature of Poe’s most famous works, he is remembered today as the king ghoul of American letters, and is claimed as a favorite son by every city where he so much as rented a house. We love him here in Baltimore, where we cheer for the Ravens, sell Edgar Allan Poe dolls to tourists, and enjoy the appearance of a mysterious hooded figure who leaves three red roses and a bottle of cognac beside Poe’s grave at midnight every anniversary of the writer’s birth (Jan. 19). As far as we’re concerned, he’s our guy.

But James M. Hutchisson, a professor of American literature and Southern studies at the Citadel, South Carolina’s famous military college, begs to differ. And he does so in grand style with Poe (University Press of Mississippi), a new biography that strives to heal Poe’s blemished reputation—while also reclaiming his “Southern identity.”

“The biggest claim that Baltimore has on him is that he’s buried there,” Hutchisson says, speaking by phone from his Charleston office. “That’s just where he ended up, for whatever reason, and he’s still there. You have that, and the mythology of the midnight visit. Every city that he was in claims him or part of him as their own, but in my opinion the only city that can make that claim is Richmond.”

In Poe, Hutchisson splits the difference between insightful criticism of Poe’s major works, easy biographical narrative, and excerpts from the author’s copious correspondence, but he always comes back to Poe’s Southernness, a question that has troubled classification-hungry critics for decades. The Southern poet Allen Tate called him “a gentleman and a Southerner . . . not quite, perhaps, a Southern gentleman,” and the critic Louis Rubin argues quite rightly that “of all the antebellum Southern authors, it is Poe whose writings are least grounded in the particularities, settings, and issues of the place he grew up in.”

It is true that unlike other, more overtly Southern literary greats Poe didn’t set his stories in Dixie—his tales often exist out of time or place, evoking a European sensibility, and he spent much of his life outside of the South, going wherever the money was. Born in Boston to a British mother and a Baltimorean father, he spent his formative years in Richmond, Va., with the Allan family after his young parents’ untimely deaths. He spent his career gaining notoriety in America’s fledgling magazine business as a scathing critic and consummate storyteller, which took him throughout the major cities of 19th-century America—Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Richmond—with each move uprooting his ailing wife, Virginia, and “Muddy,” his beloved mother-in-law, in his quest for steady work and literary backing. Still, according to Hutchisson—and to Poe—the author always called Richmond home.

“He wrote a letter once, saying to a friend, ‘if you ever need to reach me, you can always send a letter to Richmond, because that’s always going to be my home,’” Hutchisson says. “That’s a very strong indication of where his comfort zone was. The truth is, his thinking was fully formed by the time he was in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, in New York.”

Poe lived in Baltimore between 1831 and 1835, first on what is now Eastern Avenue, and later on Amity Street. Here, he courted young Virginia (also his cousin, and 13 years old, though this was much less scandalous at the time), befriended the lawyer and author John Pendleton Kennedy, an early champion of Poe’s work, reunited with his brother William Henry Leonard Poe, and placed several early short stories in magazines, including the phantasmagoric “Metzengerstein” and “Ms. Found in a Bottle.” Poe’s stint here wasn’t a complete success, however—he spent some time in a debtor’s jail and found himself unable to find work as a teacher. But Hutchisson is quick to note that Baltimore was merely a stop on Poe’s whirlwind tour of American cities. Poe left Baltimore to take up an editing post at Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger in 1835, and—save for a brief and still poorly understood visit in 1849—never lived here again.

Given Poe’s longstanding reputation as a purveyor of creepy psychological thrillers, readers of Poe might find it strange that Hutchisson spends considerable ink on the author’s critical pieces—the workaday writing that Poe produced to make money, scribbled in the mornings so as to reserve his evenings for creative work. But in addition to restoring Poe’s place in the Southern literary canon, Hutchisson is eager to erase the fallacies, both personal and professional, that surround the author’s life story, and underline Poe’s position as a key figure in the establishment of a uniquely American literary tradition.

“There are still a lot of misconceptions and myths about Poe,” Hutchisson says. “And some of them are pretty egregious, like the idea that he was a dope addict, or a drunkard, or had slovenly habits.”

Unfortunately, Poe’s contributions to American letters are often ignored, thanks to the posthumous jealousy of one Rufus Griswold, a failed Baptist minister-turned-editor who had an uneasy working relationship with Poe throughout his career. Griswold and Poe sniped at each other through book reviews and correspondence with other contemporaries. Poe viewed Griswold as a mediocre writer and literary sycophant who found success through social toadying rather than talent. Griswold, meanwhile, referred to Poe’s “utter lack of honor” and often mentioned that the two were on bad terms. The long years of animosity reached a boiling point after Poe’s death, when Muddy, clearly unaware of the bad blood, gave Griswold rights to publish a posthumous anthology of Poe’s works.

Griswold began his revenge with a slanderous obituary in the New York Tribune, writing, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” This obituary was elaborated upon in the preface to Griswold’s subsequent collection of Poe’s works, and other published “memoirs” in which Griswold attacked the late author’s character, accusing him of perpetual drunkenness, committing adultery with Muddy, drug use, and other charges later found to be false. Among Griswold’s many claims against Poe’s character, only his attachment to alcohol rings true. Poe’s low tolerance for alcohol is well-documented—one or two glasses of wine could put him under, and he frequently drank as a means of coping with Virginia’s slow deterioration from tuberculosis. Hutchisson, however, is quick to forgive Poe this one vice, in light of the author’s prolific work.

“Even during the periods when he was drinking, during his wife’s lingering illness and so on, he was still more or less regularly producing what would come to be canonized as masterpieces,” Hutchisson notes. “He’s actually one of the most disciplined characters I’ve met in literary history. If he’d just written tales of the supernatural, that would be one thing. But he invented the modern detective story. He inspired or half-invented the modern science-fiction story. He wrote hoaxes, comic satires, social, critical, and symbolist allegories, poetry, prose, and more than 1,000 pieces of literary criticism, and it all coalesced into ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ and ‘The Poetic Principle,’ which are the first original documents in American literary theory. No one else in the literary world in the 19th century was doing what he was doing.”

Still, a melancholic note creeps into Hutchisson’s voice when he discusses Poe’s final, unintentional visit to Charm City. In 1849, still grieving Virginia’s death but newly engaged to the widow Elmira Royster Shelton, Poe was on his way from Richmond to New York to gather his belongings and bring his beloved Muddy to Virginia. How Poe ended up in Baltimore is uncertain, and how he spent his brief time here is unknown, but he was finally found insensible and delirious in an alley, wearing another man’s clothes. He was conveyed to Washington College Hospital, where, muttering and incoherent, he breathed his last. The cause of his death was ultimately unknown, and his body never made it back to Richmond, remaining here in Westminster Burying Grounds.

“It was a very strange end, an ignominious end,” Hutchisson sighs. “Poor Poe, he couldn’t help it, he just ended up in Baltimore. The truth is, at the end of his life, or near the end of his life, he returned to the South, to Richmond. Of course, he didn’t know it was the end. But it’s almost as if he was always trying to get home.

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