Friday, July 08, 2011

Book Review - Edgar Allan Poe : A Critical Biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn (John Hopkins Paperbacks 1998)

Having just read Edgar Allan Poe's works, it is only natural that I should want to find out more about the man, especially when that man is so enwrapped in mystery. There are many books about Poe available, but Arthur Hobson Quinn's biography, first published in 1941, still bestrides the stage like a Colossus.

Poe's life requires a patient man who is able to sift the fact from the fiction from the downright lies. He was born in 1809 the son of an actor and actress in Boston. His mother Elizabeth was well-respected in the theatres of the Eastern seaboard, but his father David was not - possibly as a result of a drink problem - and he disappears completely two years after Poe's birth. Elizabeth dies shortly afterwards at the age of 24, and Poe is sent to live with John Allen and his wife, who take him to live in Stoke Newington in England where he obtains a classical education before retuning to the United States.

The mysteries of Poe's life are many, and one of the most perplexing is why his relationship with his Stepfather broke down so completely. Certainly, Allen deprived Poe of necessary funds whilst at College and then at West Point - although whether this was the cause or the result of Poe incurring debts is difficult to determine. In any case, by the time that Poe had engineered his dismissal from West Point their relationship had deteriorated beyond the point of redemption.

On embarking on a literary career, Poe moved in with his Aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia. He fell in love with his cousin and they were married, despite her only being thirteen years old. She remained the love of his life until her untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 24. Poe's reputation as a writer, poet, editor and critic grew, but at the same time his acerbic pen made him many enemies in literary circles. His increasing tendancy to turn to drink became an issue, especially following the death of Virginia, and references in correspondence to Poe being in a state of "excitement" become more common. A potential second marriage to fellow-poet Sarah Whitman falls through, and finally on 3rd October 1849 Poe is mysteriously found in the dockland area of Baltimore dead drunk and dies a few days later.

Poe made the great mistake of appointing as his literary executor the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold, a man who bore a grudge and who Poe had given every reason to resent. Griswold is responsible for many of the myths that have grown up around Poe's life. The great merit of Quinn's book is the exhaustive way in which he has trawled through numerous archives in order to pull together every last shred of evidence relating to Poe's life, and then clearly sifted the fact from the fiction. He painstakingly shows that Griswold forged a number of Poe's letters in order to show himself in a better light or Poe in a worse one. He was responsible for the claim that Poe's marriage with Whitman was broken off because Poe had turned up drunk at her house days before the wedding, for example, but Quinn patiently goes through the facts available to show that this is not the case.

In fact if there is any weakness in this book it is Quinn's tendancy to give Poe the benefit of the doubt too often. There can be no doubt that Poe was susceptible to weaknesses, albeit less so than Griswold suggests and less than in the Legend. But Quinn is always seeking an excuse for his actions. It would be interesting to read a book published more recently to see how Quinn's analysis of the evidence which he has obtained matches that based on more recent scholarship. Certainly, some facts will now have emerged when Quinn was only able to conjecture. But what can be sure is that any modern biography of Poe will use Quinn's book as the starting point, and for its scholarship, clarity and critical acuteness it remains one of the most exemplary books of its type.

1 comment:

Undine said...

Interesting review. I agree that Quinn's book, while hardly definitive, is still the best biography of Poe. If anything, I think Poe scholarship has regressed since Quinn's day. Most recent books about Poe, like Kenneth Silverman's, are virtually unreadable.

As for Poe's odd relationship with his foster-father...I've never found it all that mysterious. Poe was undoubtedly a difficult person to deal with at times, and Allan--who probably never really wanted to raise the child in the first place--was a double-barreled bastard. Put the two together and you've got inevitable trouble.