Edgar Allan Poe’s Works as Autobiography


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Poe occupies a unique place in American Literature. Whether or not he would approve, he has ceased to be a person and has been elevated to the level of an icon. He is regarded as the archetype of the dysfunctional artist, the genius who mines his own troubled life and pours his inner self into his works, creating as he himself is consumed — he is seen as “A Great Man Self-Wrecked,” to borrow the title of an article widely published in the 1850s. This view of Poe has been working its way into the popular imagination since it was first promoted by Griswold in his infamous “Ludwig” obituary of Poe (New York Tribune, October 9, 1849). It has been presented in numerous forms, and used for various purposes, often wielded by both supporters and detractors of Poe. Examining Poe’s “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” for example, J. H. Ingram declared in 1880: “His readers are well aware how clearly Poe’s idiosyncrasies, both in his prose and in his verse, show through the transparent mask behind which his heroes are supposed to be hidden, and in the ‘Narrative’ it is rarely that the imaginary hero is thought of otherwise than as identical with Poe himself” (1880, p. 149; 1886, p. 121). Even some illustrators of his works, including Manet and Dulac, were inclined to produce images for “The Raven” featuring the male protagonist as having more than a passing resemblance to Poe. With the subsequent advent of Freudian theories, Marie Bonaparte, Joseph Wood Krutch and other psychoanalytical devotees used Poe’s works to put the author on the couch and provided a long series of entertaining “revelations” about their subject. Most of their claims were essentially unprovable, and often they were conflicting or simply absurd, but they seemed to verify the idea of Poe’s works as essentially autobiographical. Although generally discredited, their influence has never completely abated. So ubiquitous has this view become that in a historical overview John Reilly was obligated to concede that “the most pervasive feature of the image of Poe is the assumption that his poems and tales are somehow autobiographical documents in which we can identify Poe himself.” This interpretive approach is still regularly taught by teachers to the eager minds of students. It is, in short, one of our most cherished myths — but it is a myth.

Part of the difficulty in this discussion is the notion of what makes something autobiographical. Frank McCourt’s novel Angela’s Ashes and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are autobiographical works; Poe’s short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Purloined Letter” are not. Webster’s Dictionary denotes the term “autobiography” as “(1) the art or practice of writing the story of one’s own life (2) the story of one’s own life written by oneself.” Even a shallow survey of Poe’s fiction, however, will reveal serious difficulties in applying this definition to Poe’s works. Never did Poe seal anyone up in a wall (“The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat”). Nor was he ever threatened by a razor-wielding orangutan (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), nor did he murder an old man and bury the remains beneath a floor (“The Tell-Tale Heart”). He was never subjected to torture under the Inquisition (“The Pit and the Pendulum”), nor did he ever seek the treasure of Captain Kidd (“The Gold-Bug”). He was never a witness to cannibalism, nor did he encounter south-sea natives as a sailor (“Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym”). Such a list could easily go on for many pages, but the point is sufficiently made and the dilemma clearly apparent.

Reilly addresses the issue by stating: “One of the principal sources of the popular image of Poe is the long-standing notion, encouraged by Poe himself, that his poems and especially his stories are autobiographical documents in which we can identify his narrators and characters as versions of Poe himself speaking in what appears to be his authentic voice . . . The insurmountable obstacle confronting every attempt at translating the popular image of Poe into conventional drama is that the ‘man behind the legend’ as Edward Wagenknecht has called the historical Poe, is appropriate not to tragedy or to melodrama but to documentary. When playwrights such as Hazelton, Cushing, Hoffenstein, and Reed and even Treadwell, playwrights beguiled by the image of the legendary Poe, have attempted to translate that popular image into something stage-worthy, their efforts invariably collide with the unyielding fact that Poe’s life simply does not support the legend” (pp. 473,  481-482 and 485). As noted by Mark Neimeyer, “The Poe legend has proved so strong that popular presentations of the author’s life cannot seem to resist perpetuating it, even when ostensibly striving for historical accuracy,” adding that truth “is the last thing that seems of interest to people in popular depictions of Poe” (p. 210).

In autobiographical writings, the names and settings for the events that are related may be changed, but the essence of the story must reflect what actually occurred, or at least what the author recalls. There may be a veneer of fiction, but the story should be recognizable by anyone who has a basic familiarity with the author’s life. For Poe, we have exactly the opposite — a veneer of reality imposed over a fantasy. The names and settings of Poe’s works are sometimes taken from his own life, but the essence of the story is taken from newspaper accounts of real-life events, from works by other authors, and from Poe’s imagination. There is also the additional complication that Poe’s works contain a great deal of satire, and more than a little hoaxing. What emerges from a study of Poe’s life and works is not that he is an unconscious artist, inscribing his own life on the page, but that he is a very careful and intentional artist, one who borrows widely and recasts various sources with an imaginative flair. The orangutan of “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, seems to be based on newspaper accounts of a man named Edward Cole, who killed his wife with a razor, nearly severing her head. The newspaper accounts are contemporary, and were reported in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, which we know Poe read regularly and to which he occasionally contributed (see Kopley).

Killis Campbell gave, perhaps, the most authoritative voice to the autobiographical reading of Poe. Admitting that “In Poe’s poems I can find but few specific references to the objective facts of the poet’s life” (p. 131), Campbell assigns “Annabel Lee” as “a lament for the death of Virginia Clemm” (p. 132). He later argues that “In the case of the poems the body of self-revelatory material, though small in compass, is, in reality, comparatively large: it involves in some way virtually half of Poe’s poems; and though it is, for the most part, vague and cloudlike, this was entirely in keeping with the poet’s theory that the lyric should hide its meaning under a cloak of ‘indefinitiveness’ “ (p. 146). The bulk of what Campbell includes in this list, however, are poems which “echo his [Poe’s] own griefs and disappointments, his state of mind and his attitude to the world” (p. 132) rather than possessing genuinely autobiographical elements. Turning to the fiction, Campbell asserts, “The autobiographical elements in Poe’s tales and sketches, some seventy of which have been preserved, are, on the other hand, both more extensive and more readily apparent than in his poems” (p. 135). In attempting to document his case, Campbell notes, “The most tangible piece of self-revelation that appears in his stories is to be found in his ‘William Wilson,’ in which he describes under the guise of fiction, and not without fictitious detail and other bits of legitimate mystification, his school-life at Stoke Newington” (p. 135). “In other stories — and here again we can be very sure of our ground — Poe gives expression, either in proper person or through some one of his characters, to his own prejudices and dislikes,” specifically noting stabs at the Transcendentalists in “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” and “Some Words with a Mummy” (p. 137).

Although he uses the term “autobiographical” rather lightly, Campbell’s essay chiefly dwells on issues more accurately described as self-revelation, and even here he goes pretty far out on a limb in making his argument. Discussing several selections from Poe’s early poetry, such as “Bridal Ballad,” “Tamerlane” and “Politian,” Campbell says, “But that any of these poems are in reality autobiographical I do not feel certain. At best, one can only say that circumstantial evidence favors the assumption that they are” (p. 134). “It is safe to assume, too, that the particulars he gives in ‘The Premature Burial’ concerning a hunting expedition on the James River involve reminiscence of some similar experience in his boyhood” (p. 136). “Indirectly also ‘Ligeia’ must be accounted autobiographical, if we may credit an autograph note by the poet (in one of the printed texts of the story) to the effect that the tale originated in a dream” (p. 137). He also includes such minor details as the Bowling Green Fountain in “Some Words with a Mummy” and Earl’s Hotel in “Von Kempelen and his Discovery” as autobiographical (pp. 136-137). The “hunting expedition” is but a trivial few sentences, with no detail of any significance, and if we are to consider dreams autobiographical then there no longer seems any distinction remaining between autobiography and pure imagination.

In closing his argument, Campbell prophetizes “There is, I dare say, a good deal more of autobiography in Poe’s poems and tales than I have been able to discover. More light will doubtless be thrown on the matter with the revelation of new facts about Poe’s life and about his habits of composition” (p. 146). This prediction, however, has not been borne out by advances in scholarship. After more than one hundred and fifty years of such attention, we should have lots of information documenting sheaves of autobiographical elements, but we still have only a few tidbits scattered here and there. What we have accumulated, as Poe’s life and works have been examined under the academic microscope, are many more external sources than internal ones. The great Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott, who spent most of his life preparing a monumental edition of Poe’s poetry and tales, concluded: “Primarily Poe used things he found in print. Most common, probably, were accounts of incidents and events he believed to be factual. Secondly, he used obviously fictional stories. A good example of a combination of materials may be found in ‘The Oblong Box,’ where a recent crime is combined with a dramatic scene in a Byronic poem by Rufus Dawes. Occasionally Poe took up a challenge and wrote an answer to a story by somebody else, as in ‘MS. Found in a Bottle,’ or worked out completely a narrative left in some way unfinished by another, as in ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom.’ On a few occasions the inspiration came from pictures; ‘Morning on the Wissahiccon’ was written to accompany an illustration; a painting by a friend was the inspiration for ‘The Oval Portrait’ ” (Tales and Sketches, 2:xx). Continuing in this vein, Mabbott goes on to say: “A few tales are founded on personal experiences, as is ‘Landor’s Cottage.’ Poe said he based ‘Ligeia’ on a dream, although that story has literary sources too. It is said that he also talked about writing up a delirious vision he had in his last summer, but inspiration from drugs is not supported by any evidence at all. Of the storytellers that he may have heard, little is known. In the Old South, children frequented the kitchen and listened to stories told by the servants; there, one assumes, the poet heard talk of premature burials. Yet little even probably comes from a Negro source, unless the eyeless devil of ‘Bon-Bon’ be related to a voodoo divinity” (Tales and Sketches, 2:xxi).

Supporters of the view that Poe’s works are significantly autobiographical observe that he commonly writes in first person narration, typified by a phrase such as: “Some years ago, I engaged passage from Charleston, S.C., to the City of New York” (“The Oblong Box”). Those who are well-read in the literature of the period, and the literature Poe would have read and studied as models, know that first person narration was a common technique, especially in the tales of sensation which had helped to make Blackwood’s Magazine such a success in the days of Poe’s youth. It is a literary device with a long and distinguished history, including Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (1719), a novel of which Poe was known to be fond (see his review of January 1836 in the Southern Literary Messenger). Jonathan Swift’s famous Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is written from the first person, as are several of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837). First person narration is a hallmark of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). For Poe, the narrator becomes one of the characters of the tale, giving the stories a sense of limited perspective and lending an air of believability. To confuse Poe with his narrators is to fall victim to his spell as a writer.

Autobiographical readers further note that many of Poe’s works contain settings, characters or events that seem to correlate to Poe’s life. We have already noted Campbell’s comment on “William Wilson,” which takes place in an English school that clearly resembles one Poe attended and even uses the name of Poe’s real headmaster, the Reverend Bransby. In “Berenice,” the narrator becomes engaged to his cousin and in “Eleonora,” the narrator marries his cousin, as Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm. These minor references are treated as clues, suggesting that other aspects of the tale, even without support from Poe’s biography, reveal more personal information about Poe. Such logic, however, is easily abused and by its use one might as well presume that a strawberry and a pencil, both being red, share all other traits and are, therefore, equally edible. More importantly, such details as are given above are mere window-dressing. They do not form the essence of the story and these trivial similarities are overwhelmed by differences. Furthermore, such readings fail to take into consideration Poe’s sources. In “William Wilson,” for example, the narrator states, “I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions.” This admission has been taken by some as a reflection of Poe’s own behavior at the University of Virginia, where he is know to have been introduced to drinking and gambling. Such an interpretation, however, ignores Poe’s literary debt for the story to Washington Irving’s “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron,” acknowledged in Poe’s October 12, 1839 letter to Irving. In Irving’s article, describing a “a dramatic poem which he [Byron] did not write, but which he projected,” the hero is described as “His passions, from early and unrestrained indulgence, have become impetuous and ungovernable, and he follows their impulses with a wild and heedless disregard of consequences” (W. Irving, “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron,” The Gift for 1836, pp. 166-167). In the face of this evidence, some will argue that Poe is using both this source and his experiences at the University of Virginia, but the evidence does not support the charge and it must be dismissed as exaggeration and speculation.

Others will claim that the themes from Poe’s works reflect his life. In this view, all tales of revenge, for example, become veiled contests between Poe and his foster father, John Allan. Silverman goes to the absurd extreme of hypothesizing that Poe’s “brooding on the forbidden name already echoes in Al Aaraaf, Lalage, Phaall (with his ‘Unparrallelled’ [sic] adventures), and other characters and places formed on the letters double-a double-l”(p. 126) — without explaining the double-r in “Unparrallelled,” which is otherwise a perfectly correct spelling of that word, if now a slightly dated one. Such psychological readings ignore the complexity of Poe’s personality and of his relationships with others. After John Allan’s death, far from nurturing the anger of his youth, Poe often conceded his own sad part in earning John Allan’s displeasure and forgave his foster father for leaving him nothing in his will (see Poe to J. P. Kennedy, ca. November 19, 1834). For “The Tell-Tale Heart,” we have a much more likely source than Poe’s feud with John Allan, an account of a case written and published in 1830. The details of that case, including the carefully executed murder of the old man and the murderer’s need to confess, and even much of Poe’s phrasing, bears such an eerie similarity that the source must be considered nearly conclusive. (A second source may be Charles Dickens’ “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second,” from his book Master Humphrey’s Clock, which Poe favorably reviewed for Graham’s Magazine in May 1841.) Even if we did not have such sources, there seems insufficient cause to presume that Poe is imposing himself as the narrator and John Allan as the old man with the evil eye. The connection between the murderer and the old man is unknown, but at no time is there a suggestion that they are related or family, including foster family.

In a greater error, these readers reduce all of Poe’s writings to their essential mood or emotion, but ignore the universality of such themes. When one realizes that anger, loss, loneliness and fear are shared human experiences, there is no need to even attempt to attribute specific associations in Poe’s life. In the preface to his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Poe himself indicates this element of the themes used in his works. Noting accusations of “ ‘Germanism’ and gloom,” Poe replies: “If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul, — that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results.” That Poe felt anger and wrote about anger, or felt sadness and wrote about sadness does not constitute autobiography. These are universal emotions, and as such are simply part of being human.

Still others will recite patterns that reoccur in Poe’s narratives, such as male characters who suffer from nervous disorders (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and others) and the death of young women (“Ligeia,” “Morella,” “Eleonora” and others), but, like premature burial, these are mostly stock elements from Poe’s literary bag of tricks. An unreliable narrator makes it easy for Poe to create a sense of uncertainty in his readers — are these events real as described or are we being misled?

Perceiving the battle lost in the prose, autobiographical readers of Poe will often retreat to the poetry. Surely here, they cry, Poe is revealing himself. Lenore and Annabel Lee, they insist, must be Virginia. There is at least something to this argument, and one would be wrong, of course, to say that there are no autobiographical elements in any of Poe’s works. Poe’s late poem “To My Mother” is dedicated to Maria Clemm and  makes clear and unambiguous references to his mother, Eliza, and his wife, Virginia. Another poem, “Song” (“I saw thee on the bridal day . . .”), first published as “To — —” in (1827), may refer to Poe returning home from the University of Virginia to find his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royster, engaged to someone else. A small part of the idea of “Tamerlane” may be based on Elmira as a well. “Alone” (“From childhood’s hour I have not been . . .”) may have remained unpublished by Poe precisely because it was so personal, but however ardently Poe may have felt the emotions expressed in his poetry, they too are not really autobiographical. There are a few other elements, but mostly minor things such as names and settings. As Poe matured as a writer, even these scraps of autobiography diminished. Admitting that one’s life influences what one creates is something of a truism, but that is a very different thing from saying that one’s works are autobiographical. Is “The Raven” based on Poe’s ongoing distress at the failing health of Virginia? Well, perhaps in part, but the poem is a substantial revision of Poe’s earlier poems “Lenore” (1843) and “A Paean” (1831), which shows that the idea predates her illness and Poe’s relationship with her. Furthermore, Poe does not mention Virginia at all in discussing the creation of the poem in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition.” In fact, Poe complicated the issue considerably by telling various women (including Mrs. Lewis, Mrs. Shelton, and Mrs. Whitman) that they were the models for “Annabel Lee” (see Mabbott, Poems, 1:473-475). Indeed, these are but two of Poe’s idealized women, who are a combination of several women Poe knew, read about or merely imagined.

That Poe wrote about ideas which interested him, at least as literary devices, does not meet the definition of autobiography, nor approach it in any meaningful way. Poe wrote about mesmerism, for example, but seems not to have really believed in it. (Indeed, he enjoyed the fact that advocates of mesmerism mistook his accounts as fact.) Far from being an enlightened or rarified reading of Poe’s works, the idea that they comprise his autobiography is, perhaps, the most superficial of possible readings. Poe is not merely documenting his own fears; he is exploiting the fears of his readers. Looking for parallels between Poe’s life and all, or most, of Poe’s characters and plots misses the point, and reduces Poe to solipsism, which is what Griswold tried to convince us was the case. Poe’s works must be about more than himself for him to be a successful writer, especially if they are to appeal to readers over 150 years after they were written. We must be careful about extending the concept of autobiography to fit reality into our preconceived notions. Although there are often layers of meaning in Poe’s works, we must always be careful of finding “hidden” meanings.

Mabbott summarizes: “Poe said many times that the writer of stories should invent or select incidents to combine for a preconceived desired effect. Although this procedure may not have been thought out philosophically before he observed his own practice, it describes that practice in his later years. He selected far more than he invented, but it is in the mastery of combination that his genius is most strikingly exemplified” (Tales and Sketches, 2:xx). In fact, Poe’s genius is precisely that he was able to transcend the limited perspective of his own life and communicate to his readers by relying on universal truths. Poe’s works are about ideas. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the other stories of ratiocination, for example, are about the nature of though. Most works of art, and all great works of art, are about ideas, but ideas are not autobiography. Of course Poe had to think about something to be able to write about it, but he did not need to experience it first hand. Indeed, for the most part Poe is not writing primarily about himself, but about the darker parts of humanity in general. If we recognize this broader meaning, the observation appears to make us uncomfortable, so we retreat to the relative safety of thinking that we are glimpsing into Poe’s soul and not our own. In the end, the denial of autobiography as a predominating element in Poe’s works is not a denial of his genius — it is the confirmation of it.

 


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Bibliography:

  • Bonaparte, Marie, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, translated by John Rodker, London: Imago, 1949 (originally published in French in 1933 and German in 1934).
  • Campbell, Killis, “Self-Revelation in Poe’s Poems and Tales,” The Mind of Poe and Other Studies, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933.
  • Friend, Joseph H. and David B. Guralnik, eds., Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Library, Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1955, p. 99.
  • Ingram, John Henry, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letter and Opinions, 2 vols, London: John Hogg, 1880. (Reprinted in 1965 by AMS company.) (Revised in one volume, London: W. H. Allen Co., 1886.)
  • Irving, Washington, “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron,” The Gift: A Christmas and New Years Present for 1836, (edited by Miss Leslie), Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart, 1835, pp. 166-171. (Poe’s own story “MS. Found in a Bottle” appears on pp. 67-87.)
  • Kopley, Richard, Poe and the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, Baltimore: E. A. Poe Society of Baltimore, 1992.
  • Krutch, Joseph Wood, Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius, New York: A. A. Knopf, 1926.
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, volumes I: Poems, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969.
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, volumes II-III: Tales and Sketches, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978.
  • Neimeyer, Mark, “Poe and Popular Culture,” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 205-224.
  • Reilly, John, “Poe in Literature and Popular Culture,” Companion to Poe Studies, edited by Eric Carlson, pp. 473,  481-482 and 485.
  • Silverman, Kenneth, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

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[S:1 - JAS] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - General Topics - Edgar Allan Poe's Works as Autobiography