Text: Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., “The Poe Palimpsest,” Poe Studies, December 1979, Vol. XII, No. 2, 12:39-42


[page xx:]

The Poe Palimpsest

Julian Symons. The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Harper, 1978. x + 259 pp. $10.95.

Wolf Mankowiez. The Extraordinary Mr. Poe. New York: Summit Books, 1978. 248 pp. $15.00.

A quatrain in Oscar Wilde’s autobiographical sonnet “Helas” is as relevant to two recent biographies of Edgar Allan Poe as it is to Wilde himself:

Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll

Scrawled over on some boyish holiday

With idle songs for pipe and virelay,

Which do but mar the secret of the whole.

Indeed, Poe’s life too is a kind of palimpsest whose popularized, overt graffiti serve to hide the deeper, graver calligraphy of Poe the penman.

Before considering the biographies, we should recall the teasing contradictions of Poe’s twice-written scroll: his impeccable neatness and his inveterate drunkenness; his aristocratic code of honor and his lies, hoaxes, and whimpering, histrionic pleas for money; his emotional chastity with women and his aggressive bitterness against many men; his obsessive need to succeed and his equally obsessive tendency to thwart success when it seemed most near. Certain [column 2:] storied personalities and moments further define and yet obscure the “secret of the whole”: the spectral presences of his vagabond father and deliciously languishing mother who seemed a combination of the Madonna and Becky Sharp; his chaotic boyhood in England; the sado-masochistic hostility toward Allan; his menage a trots with “Sis,” his wraithlike child-bride cousin Virginia, and “Muddy,” his always mothering mother-in-law and aunt, Maria Clemm; the traumatic death of Virginia, which Poe described in a letter to George Eveleth with almost the exact phrasing he had used for the death-throes of his fictional Ligeia-Rowena a decade before; his procession of seriocomic, courtly amours; his enigmatic, semiconscious final days in the streets of Baltimore. Add to all this the muddle of unsubstantiated and often contradictory Poe lore confusing art and life — hedonism, impotence, and drug addiction — and one faces the Poe palimpsest which students love to hear Griswoldian stories about. This is the already celebrated Poe who needs no new popularizing, but who does deserve a synthesizing, holistic understanding, one which intuitively searches for the basic integrity of his life and work and which consequently offers the general reader a new Poe — a less haughty, less histrionic, less hysterical, more human Poe.

The two recent biographies under consideration both fail in interesting ways to realize this intention. The first book, Julian Symons’ The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe, is divided into two unequal sections, the life and works of the subtitle. Symons devotes roughly seventy per cent of his analysis to Poe’s life, thirty per cent to his works. He separates the two because he believes that a synthesis “tends to conceal or soften the miserable realities of his life” (p. ix). Such a prefatory promise is heartening in light of the need for perceiving the underlayer of the Poe palimpsest, but Symons’ Life falls woefully short of fulfilling this early promise because it neither answers the questions listed above, nor questions the conventional answers. In fact, the book reads like a watered-down version of Quinn’s painstaking 1941 biography. Quinn, however, can be excused for his psychological and critical naivete; Symons cannot. To be sure, Symons’ clear prose crystalizes facts, and his judiciously restrained use of dates helps to stress inner development rather than Currier and Ives chronology (though the almost total absence of footnotes is inexcusable). Moreover, his common-sense description of events and his reluctance to pass prescriptive, clinical judgments on Poe’s neurotic symptoms are somewhat refreshing, especially when weighed against the more usual Freudian fustian. Indeed, Symons is at his clearest when Poe’s motivations are at their clearest. For example. his chapters dealing with Poe’s lifelong struggle to edit his own magazine ( especially Chapter VII, “The Aspiring Editor”) sparkle with palpable, uncluttered verisimilitude. But, of course, the literal veneer of the palimpsest conceals more than reveals. There is much more to Poe that invites fresh analysis. Symons’ first sentence says as much: “This book springs from a dissatisfaction with existing biographies of Poe” (p. ix). On the next page, however, he strangely seems to have given up before he has even begun: “It is difficult to think of any further important biographical contributions that could possibly be made . . .” (p. x). [page 40:]

Symons quotes Poe’s condemnation of the “‘very worst species of imitation, the paraphrasical’” (p. 75); but his entire first section does little more than paraphrase the external record of Poe’s life, punctuating such reporting with vague asides like “he was at this time on the borders of sanity” (p. 137), or “it would be idle to ask what reality lay beneath the masks he assumed” (p. 105). After a while, such refusals to engage the material cease to annoy and become simply uninteresting. Moreover, the roles of other major characters in Poe’s dramatic life are left largely unwritten — “John Allan’s actions and reactions are not much more susceptible of logical analysis than those of Poe” (p. 25). Digressive material is also a problem; for instance, Symons devotes a full third of Chapter IV to a mini-history of the University of Virginia that has little to do with Poe’s stint there. Finally, the reader might expect that Symons a novelist himself, would at least bring his dramatic insight to bear upon the inherent drama in Poe’s forty years. But again, except for the noted account of “the aspiring editor,” there is little effort to dramatize creatively Poe’s traumatic encounters with either dear ones or detractors, a disappointment after the flyleaf’s promise that “Symons, himself a critic, poet, and a mystery writer, is the right man to take a new look at the dark genius of Poe.”

And yet the book’s first section is accurate and readable if not terribly interesting or entertaining. It is a Cliff Notes history of Poe the man. The second section treating the work, on the other hand, is a choleric confusion because, to use Symons’ labels, it attempts to canonize “the Logical Poe” and cremate “the Visionary Poe.” Having guided the reader over the upper surfaces of Poe’s twice-written scroll Symons next insists that there are only literal surfaces to his work. The writer of detective fiction greatly admires the ratiocinative creator of detective fiction. But in his successive treatments of the criticism, poems, and stories, and in his glib and hostile summaries of the “psychoanalytic” and the “academic” approaches, Symons betrays his vision’s lamentable failure in reading the lower level of the palimpsest, in explaining what his last section calls the “Coda: The Problem of Edgar Allan Poe.”

Symons provides a straightforward description of the major tenets of Poe’s criticism, though his audience here seems to have altered from the general reader of Part One to a more specialized reader familiar with and interested in the aesthetics of “versification and prosody.” His point which is repeated throughout this last part of the book, is the familiar but persuasive polemic that in “the struggle between Visionary and Logical Poe, and the fusion between them, rests the fascination of his personality and his art” (p. 177). Symons’ critical Poe, however, like his poetic Poe, is ultimately limned as a detached technician, an erudite cryptographer who finally subdues his emotional or visionary responses to art. And certainly some of this has the ring of truth: “The poetic achievement of the Logical Poe, who had the upper hand in these last poems, was technically dazzling; it was also more than a little ridiculous” (p. 199). The problem, however, is that for Symons the Logical Poe is the right Poe, whereas the Visionary Poe is too often obscure and only “for critics of Poe, who are more interested in analyzing the symbolism they discover in [column 2:] his work than in discussing the work as it lies on the page” (p. 195)

His chapter on the stories amounts to little more than plot summary, or paraphrase again, with growing confusion over the intentional fallacy and a running string of straight-faced one-liners against those misguided devotees of the visionary. The critical approach here is naive and simpleminded at best; Symons states of Pym, for example, “that the symbolic side of the book is of comparatively little importance” (p. 219). For some reason, he next chooses to include a five-page chapter summarizing the psychoanalytic readings of Princess Bonaparte, which he begrudgingly respects! One can only wonder at the inability to see the self-irony of his just conclusion: “To consider the work, as she does, solely in terms of his unconscious desires and motives is inadequate; but then it is almost equally inadequate to write only about his conscious intentions, as though his personality could be ignored in considering his work” (p. 230). Before his concluding summation, Symons devotes a chapter to platitudes ridiculing academic, symbolic readings ( for him, apparently, the two are synonymous) of Poe, “Edgar Poe: A Fine Academic Property.” Though there is always some truth in any plea for literalism, even the casual reader could have a field day pointing out contradictions here, especially in his foray into “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Here Symons himself is tempted, risking the bold assertion “that the fissure in the house is a symbol of Usher’s split personality” (p. 237). Somewhat humorously his paraphrase of Wilbur is the liveliest section in the book, although he means to deride such theories. ( His “Select Bibliography,” by the way, is the final laughter; scholars like Thompson, Haliburton, and Moldenhauer do not receive even passing mention, though Raymond Paul does for his Who Murdered Mary Rogers?) Symons concludes with an explicit contradiction of his original argument for separating the life and work: “In the end it is impossible to ignore his life in dealing with his art, because the two were impenetrably interwoven” (p. 238).

The Tell-Tale Heart never, alas, coordinates the high and low temperatures of “the fever called ‘Living’” that Poe suffered. It does not unravel Poe, it paraphrases him. It sees no evil, hears no evil, speaks no evil, except against you and me: “There is a periodical, Poe Studies, devoted to explanation and interpretation of the works, there are essays studying individual stories and discovering new meanings even in the tales of detection. Almost all of this criticism seems to me in varying degrees nonsensical . . .” (p. 231). Thus, Symons reduces the palimpsest of Poe’s life to a xerox copy of its most obvious text.

If one expects much and receives little from Symons, one expects little but receives somewhat more from Wolf Mankowirz’s pictorial biography, The Extraordinary Mr. Poe. Although Mankowitz ostensibly distinguishes between the “legend” and realities of Poe’s exploits, his gospel is often gossip, his history a laundry list of Poe’s histrionics. But this makes for interesting, lively, and often funny reading, especially when complemented (not interrupted) by the photographs and illustrations. Even though the book, like Symons’, is marred by the absence of notes and does [page 41:] not delve very deeply into the lower layers of the palimpsest, it certainly admits, indeed shouts out, their existence and value. It is a readable, racy example of popularizing, refreshing after the demure of Symons’ reticence.

In fact, when The Extraordinary Mr. Poe is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid. To take the latter first, the book often reads like a pastiche of contemporary reminiscences of Poe, most of them culled by Hervey Allen in his 1926 biography, Mankowitz’s only mentioned, though unfortunately not footnoted, source. The reliability of many of these eye-witness reports, like Mary Devreaux’s account of Poe’s flirtation with her “fifty-seven years later,” is dubious at best; and Mankowitz’s claim for its accuracy is almost self-parodic: “It was a long time to keep a secret but, on the other hand, it was the sort of secret which a lady never allows to lose its brightness” (p. 83). Furthermore, the biography often serves as a flimsy excuse for Mankowitz fantasies on the unholy if familiar triple alliance of drugs, drink, and sex. His hobbyhorse of sensationalism usually takes quite a gallop to get all three together:

Poe, writing in the long, cold lonely nights in the attic, haunted by his brother’s hacking cough, would have welcomed a support at once as inexpensive and creatively rich as opium. It was a stimulant, furthermore, which, taken moderately, did not affect him in the sickening, violent and dangerous way of alcohol. No doubt, too, it had pleasurable and loving associations for him, for he would have seen the divine sick ladies who haunted his memory tremulously sipping their precious drops of laudanum and sinking back, forgetful of pain, into the dream-world. Opium was the drug of the Romantics as tuberculosis was their disease. Edgar Poe was sworn brother sweet to both of them. (p. 82)

If the logic of the would haves and no doubts is grating here, it is absolutely grotesque in a passage considering the possibility of a sexual encounter between Poe and Miss Devreaux (p. 87), which contains at least thirteen such subjunctive red herrings and logical qualifiers, yet which still leads, ineluctably, to the final argument that “We may reasonably conclude therefore . . .” (p. 87, my emphasis).

At their worst, Mankowitz’ sources leave the reader confused. For example, in the face of Miss Devreaux’s account, we are first asked to wonder whether Poe’s marriage “ever was consummated” (p. 101); then in the next chapter, we suddenly hear that “there is little doubt,” as far as biographers are concerned, that Poe’s “ten years of marriage to Virginia remained celibate” (p. 115). Even at their best, contemporary accounts force Mankowitz to repeat the old cliches, for instance about the “calculated and cruel mortification” (p. 35) Poe suffered from Allan’s miserliness. Yet, after hearing that Allan’s “last substantial contribution” (p. 51) to Poe was made in spring of 1829, we later learn of subsequent though “paltry sums” (p. 55), then of a twenty dollar gift (p. 81), and once even of “an unusually large contribution” of eighty dollars (p. 61). It is bad enough to get one’s guesses about celibacy mixed up, but i. is horrid to get one’s facts wrong, or at least make them confusing, whatever “substantial” might mean to Mankowitz, Allan, or Poe. Quinn was perhaps the first to show that the portrait of Allan as sybarite and sadist is simply incorrect. And yet for Mankowitz. the “unforgivable” [column 2:] (p. 35) Allan “was at the height of this world with a wife, concubines, heirs and other children, slaves, horses and the envy of his neighbors to buoy up his spirits and help him enjoy life a little longer. The knowledge that the diabolical Poe was rotting in Baltimore added sauce to it all” (p. 91).

But sensationalism is also Mankowitz’s primary virtue because it provides him the opportunity for creating effective dramatic situations, besides provoking a lively prose style and a barrage of witty one-liners emphasizing the harlequin as much as the horrifying nature of Poe’s life. For example, Mankowitz re-enacts the symbolic scene of Elizabeth Poe’s death-bed drama for her nearly-three-year-old son:

The small fairy-like figure of his mother wearing her best gown, her face white as wax after the hectic colour of her last days, illuminated by candles, an ultimate dream-lady in her mysterious sleep, remained one of the most haunting images of Poe’s childhood. One can imagine the child’s puzzlement. He had seen his mother die beautifully on the stage often. Was this another performance? . . . Elizabeth, peaceful as pure marble, free at last of her racking cough and frightening haemorrhages, was even more beautiful in the “uttering candlelight. Thus love and death come together in the childish experience of Edgar Poe, never to separate. (p. 17)

At its comeliest, Mankowitz’s prose style is almost epigrammatic, turning and twisting upon innuendo, stopping dangerously short of self-indulgence. We hear of Poe’s father, for instance, that “no matter how pretty he might be or how well sustained by Dutch courage, David Poe remained one of Nature’s Laertes, an Allan-a-Dale with a small, charming voice” (p. 14). At first Mankowitz judiciously probes the next filial relationship, which he later stereotypes: “it so often seems that Poe was as determined to make a bad father-figure out of John Allan as Allan was set upon making a degenerate, prodigal son out of Edgar” (p. 21). Of that bitch goddess fame, we hear, “Success was a greater stimulant than alcohol, and Edgar was too much a connoisseur to spoil its rare flavor” (p. 95). At his most self-indulgent moments, however, Mankowitz trades in epigram for euphemism and pleonasm, the prettiest ways to bloat the prurient: “Suddenly Edgar, who had always had a deal of fascination for certain women, found that ladies of all ages, besotted with his public image of the desperate diabolic poet, wanted (in their fantasies at least) to dive to the bottom of the maelstrom in his arms, or to save him and his great genius for respectable society” (p. 184). But Mankowitz’s wit often deflates the pomposity and ponderance of his own style. He can be dryly humorous when reporting Henry Beck Hirst’s account of his shooting matches with Edgar: “Poe ‘once shot a chicken on the wing at 50 yards’, which suggests that Hirst brought a bottle with him” (p. 149). He is almost sardonic in recounting one of Poe’s sojourns in Richmond where he “was rarely lucid or in total possession of himself and, in short, became the town’s principal side-show for some six weeks” (p. 219). And lastly, Helen (the poetess Mrs. Whitman) becomes the object of his irreverent sarcasm: “Wearing the costume of Pallas and churning out second-rate verse, she worshipped her ‘Raven’ till she died” (p. 222).

While Symons found motivational patterns nowhere in [page 2:] Poe’s biography, Mankowitz finds them everywhere, even in his choice of male companions like Hirst, George Lippard, and John Sartain: “Edgar’s new habitues brought him into the lower depths of Philadelphia where Poe, in an intense, drink-induced excitement which was close to madness, often recited lines from his doom-haunted poem The Raven which, encouraged by a bird-loving lawyer [Hirst] and a gothic lunatic [Lippard], was beginning to cast the shadow of its black wings over his life” (p. 137). Also unlike Symons, Mankowitz boasts more than a begrudging respect for the reductive patterns of Princess Bonaparte’s clinical thesis. “One must conclude,” for example, “that Annie was a protection against Helen, and Helen a defense against Annie, and that now that Virginia was dead the twin personalities of sister-bride and mother-wife were battling for possession of Poe’s confused and tortured soul” (p. 224). This kind of banal psychologizing, however, often leads to more profitable insights: “The answer might be that Poe had a morbid need to suffer and be rejected, that his genius was compound with the psychology of a compulsive loser” (p. 49). At such crossroads, the psychologies of Alfred Adler, Karen Homey, and R. D. Laing, rather than Freudian psychoanalysis, may provide the skills for decoding the palimpsest. Mankowitz, however, does not develop these leads.

The illustrations in this biography deserve separate consideration, and they too reveal its weaknesses and strengths. There are over one hundred illustrations, eight in full color. The types of material reproduced are various: carte-de-visite photographs, lithographs, daguerreotypes, engravings, prints, oil paintings, and documents such as playbills, newspapers, and Poe’s marriage license. Most of Poe’s illustrators, past and present, are represented; it is nice to have them collected in a single place. These include Beardsley, Dore, W. Heath Robinson, Birket Foster, Edmund Dulac, Harry Clarke, Wilfried Satty, and even Edouard Manet’s lithograph of The Raven. Regrettably, though, the bibliographical information — both in the caption labeling each illustration and in the list of “Acknowledgements” — is vague and inconsistent; and the creator of one print, The Pit and the Pendulum ( p. 162), is left totally unidentified. But the major problem with the illustrations is that many seem to be mere padding included to add pages and cost to an otherwise entertaining and informative collection of pictures. Invariably, these superfluous illustrations distract the reader from the text, rather than complement and enhance it. The portraits of Coleridge and de Quincy, for instance, are little more than window-dressing used to reinforce, by way of analogy, Poe’s alleged opium addiction. The engraving of “a mixed auction of estates, paintings and slaves in the Southern states” (p. 22) is perhaps acceptable as a representation of Allan’s mercantilism; but it is illogical, if not unfair, to use it as a symbol of his enslavement of Edgar, as the context suggests. The pictures of General Lafayette, Giroux’s painting of a Cotton Plantation, the picture of a Baltimore street scene, the lithograph of Washington harbor, or Henry Sargent’s painting The Dinner Party are all really gratuitous flummeries, not even interesting as illustrations of local color. On the other hand, the photographs of “Poe’s sparsely furnished room at the University [column 2:] of Virginia” (p. 36) and of various Poe residences, the illustration of the Southern Literary Messenger building where he worked, the pictures of his retarded sister Rosalie and of his many “sweethearts,” Poe’s projected cover design for The Stylus, and the reproduction of the original typesetting of The Raven from its initial appearance in the New York Mirror, all function organically with the eyewitness reports of the text to approximate the sights and voices of Poe’s life.

Early in his book, Mankowitz asserts that “A writer is indeed a ‘composite’ (though a complex one) of his works, and a study of his life should help the reader to an understanding of why that composite shows certain recurrent images and themes. Poe was an extremely ‘unstable creature’. But it is less profitable to moralize about it than to try to understand why it was, and how it affected his work” (p. 37). Fortunately, perhaps, and unlike Symons, Mankowitz seldom tries his hand at criticism, which for him takes the Freudian form of a bastardized, Edmund Wilson wound-and-the-bow approach: “it is impossible to understand truly the content of his work without making an approach to the psychopathology embodied in it. If in the process one discovers that, quite often, great artists are disordered and unlikeable personalities, the only conclusion one may reasonably come to is that it is better to be the recipients of their work than the injured victims of their temperaments” (p. 101). Consequently, Mankowitz’ reader finds only brief discussions of tales like “The Black Cat” with “obvious autobiographical content” (p. 143) and general and predictable allusions to the recurrent underworld of uterine and umbilical fascinations: “Poe’s stories and poems are consistent in their obsessed imagery. His preoccupations with the dying mother-sister, the red phantoms of tuberculosis, the tomb, suffocation, premature burial, womb-like tunnels of darkness and light (as in Roderick Usher’s painting), recur again and again in his writings” (p. 208).

Thus, it is the angst and antics of Poe which most interest Mankowitz. He is a popularizer par excellence, and that is all. But that is at least something when compared with Symons who delivers neither new insights nor a stimulating rendition of the old ones.

One of Poe’s more celebrated jeux d’esprit when he was in his cups was to wear his overcoat inside out. The task of interpreting such an act, deciding whether it was done deliberately or in drunkenness, epitomizes the kind of problem biographers face in attempting to read the underlying prose of the palimpsest. What most mortals hide, Poe often flaunted; the golden mean that most of us aspire toward, Poe disguised, except by ironic implications in his writing. Neither Symons nor Mankowitz brings us any closer to understanding the discrepancies between the overlying and underlying scripts of Poe’s life, though each, in his way, helps to make individual lines slightly more legible Why, as in Wilde’s poem, the self-divisions “do but mar the secret of the whole,” we are still waiting to discover.

Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., California State University, Sacramento





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