Text: J. Lasley Dameron, “Portrait of the Suffering Artist,” Poe Studies, June 1978, Vol. XI, No. 1, 11:16


[page 16, column 1, continued:]

Portrait of the Suffering Artist

David Sinclair. Edgar Allan Poe. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. 272 pp. Cloth, $13.50.

David Sinclair’s personal biography of Poe is designed to attract a wide reading audience. He has perhaps written a marketable book, but only that and little else.

Adopting a psychoanalytical approach to Poe’s life and work, the author stresses Poe’s “inherited traits” of personality and character, focusing primarily on Poe’s dependency upon others, especially women. Poe writings, he observes, spring from a sensitive mind greatly affected by inherited tendencies and by childhood attachments and experiences. This approach makes engaging reading; it also, perhaps unfortunately, reinforces a popular conception (or misconception) of a very complex literary figure.

The limitations of any psychoanalytical approach (pseudo or otherwise) to Poe’s life and works have been defined by many of Poe’s critics. Mr. Sinclair, in an effort to answer some of those limitations, argues that Poe suffered from diabetes. He readily theorizes, for example, that Poe’s marriage to Virginia Clemm was somewhat abnormal

. . . nor only because when it took place Virginia was so young but also because Edgar makes it clear in his tales that he was obsessed by the idea of physical decay, of disease and of death, and this probably aroused some distaste for bodily contact, possibly leading m impotence, which most commonly has a psychological cause. Added to this is the fact that nineteenth-century doctors noted loss of sexual potency as a frequent symptom among untreated diabetics, which might provide another indication of what Poe himself called his ‘long and dangerous il1ness’, as well as of the state of his sex life. The balance of probabilities is that although Edgar needed women — Virginia in particular — and constantly sought their company, it was not for the desires of the flesh that he needed them: they were surrogates for the lost mothers and sister of his life and for the lost goddess of his imagination. (p. 166)

The author, moreover, presents no new evidence to support his assertion that “Ulalume” is a “hymn to the dead Virginia” (p. 228), or that “Annabel Lee” was “written for Edgar’s wife after her death” (p. 79).

Throughout this biography, the reader encounters a suffering Poe obsessed with fears of neglect and death. The author summarily disparages Poe’s formal education and the state of American culture in which Poe worked. [column 2:] He finds Poe’s critical theories to be “vague and instinctive,” saying little about the high quality of literature and criticism Poe had opportunity to read in contemporary reviews and quarterlies. Although at times noting that Poe did receive some renown during his lifetime (see p. 158, for example), he comments without any qualification in his introductory chapter that “In his own time and in his own country . . . the genius of Edgar Allan Poe was not recognized” (p. 12). He finds John Allan to be an invidious schemer who feared Poe, and frequently reminds the reader of Allan’s extra-marital affairs. He carefully reviews the evidence that Rosalie Poe may have been illegitimate and explains Poe’s death in terms of his depressive state of mind that drove him to drink once too often.

Mr. Sinclair’s biographical theories too readily encompass Poe’s tales and poems. Obsessed with the fear of dying, Poe tried “to understand the relationship between love and death, a purpose he would pursue mercilessly in his work” (p. 55). The tide character of “Berenice” is “Virginia, the happy, careless child who sees only the novelty and excitement of the world” (p. 139). “Eleonora” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” reveal Poe’s worry over his sexual feelings toward Virginia, who was to him both “my sweetest Sissy” and “my darling little wifey” (p. 141). Poe’s “The Business Man,” published in 1840, six years after Allan’s death, points to Poe’s lack of love for his foster-father and the business profession. Mr. Sinclair in several instances appears to forget his own admonition: “it is unwise to relate a writer’s work too closely to the circumstances of his life . . .” (p. 140).

In presenting his thesis that Poe was a suffering artist, Mr. Sinclair tends to discuss Poe’s writings in a cursory fashion. He judges “Israfel” and “The Haunted Palace” to be two of Poe’s best poems. “Letters to B —— ” is a significant essay, but in “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe confuses “technique with motivation” (p. 177). He implies, in spite of acknowledged scholarly evidence, that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (p. 169) and the early collections of Poe’s tales (p. 132) were largely ignored by the reading public. He offers little evidence to support his generalization that Poe “would never compromise his art” (p. 189), or that he “never wrote anything longer than a substantial short story . . .” (p. 177).

The author, it would appear, has not made use of the standard two-volume edition of Poe’s letters edited by John Ostrom. He makes no attempt to identify some of Poe’s contemporaries mentioned in Poe’s letters, nor does he attempt to specify the text of quoted passages from Poe’s writings. The index is very brief, and a “Select Bibliography” of criticism and scholarship on Poe is confined to three and a half pages (pp. 265-268). Several of Mr. Sinclair’s chapter headings — “The Unquiet American.” “All in the Family,” “Back to Old Virginia,” “War of Words,” and “The Child Bride” — have a decidedly banal tone. The illustrations (between pp. 128-129) are clearly presented, and Chapter Two entitled “The New World and the Old” includes a brief and lucid description of the conditions, especially military and political, under which John Allan operated his import business. But Mr. Sinclair’s chief concern is Poe’s tortured soul.

J. Lasley Dameron, Memphis State University


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