While historical figures being liberally interpreted as action-oriented, larger than life figures is common these days (How many vampires did Abraham Lincoln really hunt?), how much do you really know about Edgar Allan Poe?
Here are 10 factoids from the former head docent of the Edgar Allan Poe cottage. Perhaps they will change your view of Poe... evermore.
10.) His War with Boston
Poe picked a lot of literary fights in his career, but none greater than with “the Humanity clique” of New England, which included Harvard professor Longfellow and Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Lowell. Class resentment drove his hatred of these “elegant men of leisure” and he denounced Beantown while still desiring its acclaim. He despised, as he understood it, the Transcendentalists’ optimism and their belief in social progress. He sued Longfellow for plagiarism, and pulled Andy Kaufman-like stunts by giving boring never-ending lectures to Boston audiences and then claiming they were too stupid to understand his genius. All of this is either bitterly ironic or psychologically understandable given that he was born in the city, and that his first collection did not carry his name. Instead, authorship is credited to “A Bostonian.” The book flopped.
9.) The Bloody Inspiration for the “The Masque of Red Death.”
It’s fairly well known that Poe married his cousin Virginia and that her subsequent illness inspired much of his work, but perhaps one of the most direct correlations to his work came with the first signs of her tuberculosis. While singing for the family, Virginia’s lungs hemorrhaged and she began bleeding from the mouth. Soon after, in a deep denial about the severity of her illness, Poe wrote the tale of decadent Prince Prospero, locked in his castle and trying, in vain, to keep the specter of pestilence, disease and injury from his doorstep.
8.) He Originated Body-Horror
Detective fiction, American gothic tales, science fiction—Poe is given credit for inventing all these genres, but two of his lesser known tales, “The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case,” and “Hop-Frog” provide good evidence that he cultivated his inner gore-hound; and Virginia’s condition no doubt continued to feed his fear of physical illness. The violence of “Usher,” “Pendulum,” “Tell-Tale Heart,” and “Black Cat” are wrapped in gothic romance, but the deaths in these other two are flat out disgusting. David Cronenberg would be proud.
7.) “Tekeli-li!” (and Poe’s ONLY Novel)
Genre fans know that H.P. Lovecraft picked up where Poe left off. Perhaps his most direct homage to the master is the strange cry of “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” first heard at the end of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the story of a strange expedition to Antarctica. Lovecraft incorporated Tekeli-li into his own Arctic novella, “The Mountains of Madness” making it the call of the Elder Ones. He also borrowed Poe’s giant penguins, and made them whisper it, too.
There’s also the 2011 novel Pym by Mat Johnson, which is a full-on Poe homage/satire.
6.) For Most of His Life, the Iconic Moustache Was Absent
We can’t image him without it, but the handsome devil on the right is the same man who wrote about premature burials and orangutans shoving women up chimneys, and it’s how he looked most of his life. Only in the much darker, desperate, final years did he grow that romantic, brooding facial hair and begin to go mad.
A year after his wife Virginia died, Poe wrote “Eureka: A Prose Poem” a gonzo grab bag of science and mathematics which, he said, would prove Newton, Aristotle, and Bacon to be “intellectual grovellers.” Oh Edgar, you arrogant SOB. What “Eureka” seems to be (if you can get through it) is a mourning husband’s attempt to make sense of his wife’s death. The cosmos of Eureka “presents…an infinitude of pulsating universes alternately willed into orbic systems and reactively condensed into primary particles by an infinitude of gods.” If you can explain that me, I’ll buy you a beer and call you Aristotle.
4.) He Joined Alcoholics Anonymous
Or, as it was known in the 19th century, the Sons of Temperance. And it wasn’t anonymous. Members took a public pledge against alcohol and published their intentions in the newspaper. Poe joined a branch in Richmond, VA amid rumors that he might be marrying his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Shelton. Time to get sober. But he died a month later, before he could climb the 12 steps to recovery.
3.) The Details of His Death(s) Have Been Greatly Confused
Do you think you know how Poe died? Guess what? So does everyone else. His final days in Baltimore have inspired more hokum and conspiracies then Tupac, JFK, and Elvis combined. (Okay, we really can’t measure that, but it feels this way.) There are over 26 theories about Poe’s death, including rabies, diabetes, epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcohol dehydrogenase, and cooping. That last one gets my vote. It was a common practice in our young democracy to abduct isolated people during city elections, ply them with liquor, and then force them to vote multiple times. This would explain Poe’s delirious state before his death when found in a Baltimore tavern—which doubled as a polling site—and the fact that he was wearing clothes that were not his.
At the time of his death, Poe left behind the enticing remains of an unpublished and unfinished story. The tale concerns a lonely lighthouse keeper who has taken his isolated seaside post in order to finish a book. The scant two pages are written in the form of a diary in which the man—a classic Poe anti-hero trapped in an existential no man’s land—begins to question his emotional health and physical well-being. “There is no telling,” he writes, “what may happen to a man all alone as I am—I may get sick or worse…I do believe I am going to get nervous about my insulation.” He inspects the structure of the lighthouse—180 feet high with 20 feet lying below the sea’s surface—and finds it solid, at first, but then progressively becomes convinced that it will collapse. The final sentence (?) of the story, “The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk,” is all the more eerie since it’s followed by another diary entry, this one blank. Joyce Carol Oates, a modern purveyor of the gothic, wrote her own version and published it in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories under the title, “The Fabled Light-house at Vina del Mar.”
1.) He Loved Cats. Really.
Contrary to the famous and nasty depiction of a man gouging the eye of a poor feline in “The Black Cat,” Poe adored animals. His own kitty’s name was Catterina.
Matthew Mercier is a writer and storyteller whose work has appeared in The Mississippi Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Glimmer Train, and The Raven Chronicles. He currently teaches at Hunter College. He’s worked as a youth hostel manager in New Mexico, packed salmon in Alaska, provided showers for homeless men on the Bowery, and proudly served five years as the caretaker and head docent of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in The Bronx. He’s married to a Norwegian herbalist and lives part time in an octagon. He has two stories about Edgar Allan Poe in the magazine Rosebud.