Text: Hervey Allen, “Preface,” Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1926), volume 1, pp. vii-xv


[page vii:]


IT IS not the intention in this preface to attempt to present, in condensed form, a critical estimate of the great figure whose semblance, at least, walks through the pages of this biography. A long, laborious, and conscientious consideration of the immense amount of material concerning Poe, has convinced the author that any brief, comfortably-clever, and convenient presentation of his character, either from a literary, psychological, or romantic standpoint is bound to be misleading. So diverse, so conflicting, and so astoundingly confusing was the life experience of Edgar Allan Poe that, in comparison, the lives of many other men of letters are a simple tale.

The method followed here has been to disregard, for the most part, the findings of all other biographers who have worked in the field, and to depend totally upon source material drawn from contemporary documents, letters, and the evidence given by those who saw, talked with, and, to some extent, knew the man. No matter how great the authority, or scholarship of those who lived after Poe died, it is felt that the evidence of those who affirm, “I saw him, talked with him, on such and such an occasion he did, or said, or appeared thus and thus” — is of more value than theories, be they ever so erudite and clever.

This biography, then, is the story of Edgar Allan Poe, and the strange forgotten America in which he lived, and perished, reconstructed from the direct evidence latent in the documents, letters, books, and illustrations of the period from about 1800 to 1850. Neither expense, effort, nor meticulous care have been spared in assembling this data, in which process, the courtesy, advice, and enthusiasm of those who have [page viii:] been drawn upon for aid, or for source material in their right or custody, have been truly encouraging and have, indeed, made this work possible during the past four years.

There are a great many Lives of Poe. This differs from all others in that, for the first time, it tells the complete story of the man, from birth to death, and makes reasonably clear the mystery which has hitherto surrounded the first half of his life and the formative processes of youth. Former biographers because of the inaccessibility of material, withheld, for sufficient personal reasons, have been largely compelled to project Poe as a somewhat enigmatical torso, with the base draped in convenient and impressive folds.

It is purely an accidental circumstance, but nevertheless an important one, that the passing of time has brought about the release of sources, hitherto inaccessible, which now make it possible to tell amply the strange, and startling story of Poe’s youth. There is no longer any necessity for talking about “the Poe mystery,” indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that there are few other literary figures whose personal life is so fully documented. There exists in the files of the firm of Ellis & Allan, the business house in which Poe’s guardian was a partner, a surprisingly complete record of the daily life of the family, and community in which Poe lived during his youth. These papers were purchased some years ago by the Economic Section of the Library of Congress, presumably as source material for the study of an early Nineteenth Century Virginia mercantile firm. There are thousands of papers comprising the business, and personal correspondence of Poe’s guardian, John Allan, and his partner, Charles Ellis, covering a quarter of a century contemporaneous with Poe’s youth. During this time, Poe was in John Allan’s house, or in correspondence with him. There is, in this store of material, a constant running reference to “Edgar” from childhood to manhood, a number of items in his own hand, and many letters concerning him, and his guardian. [page ix:] The author and other researchers have sifted this mass of documents, and from it drawn the material for the story of Poe’s childhood and youth. The story which emerged is startling, strange, and contradictory of many assertions and legends, hitherto accepted about Poe and his early environment.

For the most part, the statements made in this text are heavily documented by footnotes, but the reader is asked to remember that many assertions made in the body of the work, about the character of those who had the moulding of the young Poe in their keeping, is made from a knowledge of the complete material as a whole. To quote sources in every case would require an annex volume of references alone.

In addition to the Ellis & Allan Papers, the publication of the correspondence between Poe and John Allan by the Valentine Museum, in 1925, amply covered the period between 1826 and 1832. By good fortune, the author was able to locate the wills of William Galt, and John Allan, which are here published in full, in the appendix, and from a synthesis of all three sources: Ellis & Allan, the Valentine Museum Letters, and the wills mentioned, to present his conclusions. It is proper to state here that the construction put upon the relations between Poe and his guardian is not an effort to exonerate Poe, The domestic affairs of John Allan have, as a matter of fact, been treated with considerable reserve. There is no desire to make “startling revelations” in this biography. Collateral material, bearing upon events and persons not concerned with Poe, has been carefully excluded. It is also pertinent to state that, in the author’s opinion, the attempt by John Allan to throw a shadow on the name of the poet’s mother was without foundation, and a doubtful gesture of desperate self-defense.

A much closer, and more affectionate relation between Edgar Poe and his elder brother, William Henry Leonard [page x:] Poe, than has hitherto been suspected, has been brought to light by the recent discovery of Henry Poe’s poems and prose bearing upon Edgar. The above-mentioned material has been generously supplemented, and made more or less complete by the letters and data supplied to the author by Edward V. Valentine, Esq., of Richmond, related to Poe’s foster-mother, and one of the few persons still living, known to have seen Poe, and to have had immediate knowledge of his character, his family, and personal friends. In this matter, and in others, the author is in great debt to Mr. Valentine.

Although Poe was an extraordinary, and unique character, in attempting to reconstruct his life, it soon became apparent that, without a recall of the forgotten and swiftly changing world through which he moved amid the kaleidoscopic incidents of his environment, it would be hopeless to even approach an understanding of the man. Yet if Poe’s reactions to his environment were peculiar to himself, it is in those very peculiarities that his essential literary character is to be glimpsed, and that his triumphs and failures are to be found. Because, for many intricate historical reasons, the America from 1800 to the Civil War, and, particularly, the America of the 1830’s and 1840’s has been allowed to lapse into oblivion, only the lyrical, and romantically-imaginative work of Poe is generally known to the present generation.

The peculiar and intense difficulties with which the writers of the “Middle American” period struggled, and to which most of them capitulated, are now much less evident, even to scholars, than the environment of Restoration London, — or almost any other era. In this study, the intellectual and physical background of the central figure has therefore been reproduced with considerable care.

America is gradually becoming aware of its past. Suddenly realizing that, for some reason, the balance of influence in the planet may have been conferred upon her, she is [page xi:] now looking about and behind, and wondering why. It is ludicrous to suppose that the three generations, from the founding of the Federal Union to the Civil War, were merely so many old-fashioned nobodies. We have already begun to be intrigued by their furniture and costumes, and it is now time to commence to look beneath the surface. Whether we admire or not is inconsequential. The type of culture, which has now acquired a fearsome momentum, was then getting under way among Americans, its future direction was being settled — so that, it is now little short of a necessity to become familiar with all of this background. It seems startling, at this time, to insist that in the Baltimore, or Philadelphia, or Boston of the 1830’s and 1840’s, or even earlier, there were tides of thought, intellectual movements, and political theories that congealed in literature. But it was so, and, without understanding them, and resurrecting them, we cannot understand ourselves.

It is, therefore, earnestly hoped that, in this biography, the attempt to suggest some of the values of the “Middle American scene” will become evident. Poe’s own comment was couched in a style and with an irony that made it distastefully, and even madly, iconoclastic, to his contemporaries. In the year 1926 a great deal of his criticism of social, political, and literary life in America rings with a strangely modern sound. It is significant that, while conservative academic circles still continue to yawn through Mr. Emerson’s doubtful Compensations, there is no knowledge, or comment upon what Mr. Poe had to say of democracy, science, and unimaginative literature about the same time. The croak of the raven is conveniently supposed to be purely lyric. In that direction, the discussion of Poe’s contribution to American letters may be said to be presented here in a modern aspect.

The contribution to imaginative literature is, always, the main, and most pertinent claim for attention that an author [page xii:] can have upon posterity. Whatever may be the eventual niche accorded to Edgar Allan Poe in the literature of English, and estimates vary, the great importance of his place in the field of American letters cannot be successfully denied.

The legend of the man is enormous. One of the few American literary names that cannot be mentioned without awakening interest, anywhere in the United States, is that of Edgar Allan Poe. He is one of the few of our poets who enjoys the perquisites of completely general fame. This is, in itself, for whatever reason, a giant achievement, and deserves the attention of careful and complete biography, free from sectional propaganda, the pet theories of specialists, and sentimental, or moralistic twaddle. But there is something more than that; for those who care nothing, even for those who deprecate his contributions to literature, the story of the man, as a mere human adventure, must, by force of its inherent, dramatic, genuinely romantic, and strange psychological values, be found intriguing to the last degree. Though we may find it impossible to love, and even difficult to admire, we cannot help but be intensely interested. The bare material of the man’s biography is fascinating. Its events constitute a series of human accidents out of which the timbre of personality, and the notes on the staff of incident, have produced the harmony and dissonance of an orchestrated tragedy. With so great a theme, the present biographer can only hope that his audience will not be repulsed by the many difficulties which, he is the first to acknowledge, he has frequently been unable to surmount.

References in the text to authorities, sources, and the author’s comments, are made in a series of running footnotes numbered consecutively. Cumbersome Latin abbreviations have been left out, and the numbers may refer to footnotes either backward or forward. In using those references, the reader is asked to bear in mind that the footnotes run from 1 to 934, and that a reference to a note may also imply and [page xiii:] include a reference to the discussion in the text upon the same page where the footnote occurs. Duplication of footnotes, and cumbersome requoting of authorities have thus been avoided.

The illustrations, with few exceptions, notably that of Poe on Sullivan’s Island, are all from contemporary sources, and have been chosen and arranged, not only to illustrate a particular place in the text, but also to make clear the background of the period in which Poe moved, and the panorama of the changes which occurred. For the convenience of Poe scholars and collectors, the title pages of Poe’s bound works, issued during his lifetime, are here reproduced, together with the photographs of several rare newspapers, and a periodical to which he contributed. In each case, these accompany a discussion, and description of the publication in the text.

No reference in the biography is made to the “Quarles” pamphlet supposed, by some to have been issued by Poe as a reply to Dickens’s American Notes. In the opinion of the author, based on a thorough investigation, this is not an item that can be assigned to the pen of Poe. The discussion of Poe’s “war” with Longfellow, and of his association with Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers has, for reasons of space, been only indicated. A study of Chivers is much needed in the bibliography of American Literature. The relations between Edgar Allan Poe, and his older brother, Henry, have only been touched on in the text. A full discussion of the two brothers will be found in Poe’s Brother, The Poetry of William Henry Leonard Poe, by Hervey Allen and Thomas Ollive Mabbott, Doran, 1926, an excerpt from which is here printed in Appendix IV. It should also be noted that this biography ends with the death of Poe, and docs not purport to detail the aftermath of the Griswold controversy, and other posthumous matters.

In conclusion, the author desires to make evident his profound sense of gratitude, and indebtedness to the following [page xiv:] persons, publishers, and institutions, for their invaluable aid, and generous contributions of advice and data:

To the Edgar Allan Poe Shrine of Richmond, Virginia, and to Mr. and Mrs. Archer Jones, personally, for their invaluable assistance, access to important stories of Poe material, and for illustrations; to Granville S. Valentine, Esq., and to Miss Julia Sully, both of Richmond, Va., to W. G. Stanard, Esq., President of the Virginia Historical Association, and to Mrs. Mary Newton Stanard for several valuable facts, reminiscences, illustrations, and helpful observations; to Edward V. Valentine, Esq., for excerpts from his diary, and permission to reprint letters from the Allan-Galt correspondence; to James Southall Wilson, Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature at the University of Virginia — in particular for his generous attitude about the title “Israfel” — and for access to the Ingram collection, diaries, and Whitman correspondence at the University of Virginia, as well as permission to quote sundry items, and for his helpful advice; to William Van R. Whitall, Esq., of Pelham, New York, for the loan of essential texts from his library and collection, and for his advice and comment; to John T. Snyder, Esq., of Pelham, New York, for the use of rare Poe items, and first editions in his collection; to S. Foster Damon, Esq., of Harvard University, for advice and information; to a New York “Poe Collector,” who desires to remain anonymous, for the loan of texts; to James F. Drake, Esq., for the loan of three letters, and permission to reprint; to Dwight Franklin, Esq., for permission to reproduce his study of the young Poe; to Miss Laura M. Bragg, Director of the Charleston Museum, and to John Bennett, Esq., for information dealing with Poe in Charleston, and The Gold Bug; to Theodore Spicer-Simson, Esq., — and to Miss Elena von Feld, of the American Museum of Natural History, for the illustrations of Poe’s Gold Bug Synthesis; to Edwin M. Anderson, Esq., Librarian of the New York Public Library; to Francis Rawle, Esq., [page xv:] President of the Pennsylvania Historical Society; to the Librarian of the Century Association; to the Maryland Historical Society, in particular for rare files of newspapers and illustrations; to the Librarian of the Virginia State Library; and to the Custodian of the Ellis & Allan Papers at the Library of Congress.

The author also desires to express his appreciation for the release of copyrights on various and sundry items and illustrations to Houghton Mifflin Company, Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, Harper Brothers, the Century Company, the University of Virginia, the Columbia University Press, the Lewiston Journal Company, Charles Scribner’s Sons, The Valentine Museum, of Richmond, Va., and J. B. Lippincott Company — Also to Professor George E. Woodberry, Professor James A. Harrison, Professor Killis Campbell, and Dr. Thomas Ollive Mabbott particularly, for the benefit of their labors in the Poe field, without which no competent comment on Poe would now be possible.

New York City, U. S. A.

October 1, 1926








[S:0 - HVA26, 1926] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (H. Allen) (Preface)