Poe’s Paradoxes

Art Taylor interviews Paul Collins

Poe’s Paradoxes

August 26th, 2014 reset - +

ON SUNDAY, October 7, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died of unknown causes in Baltimore while en route to New York. Two days later, his self-claimed literary executor, fellow critic and occasional rival Rufus Griswold, published a largely unsympathetic obituary in the New York Tribune — calling him “a dreamer, dwelling in ideal realms, in heaven or hell, peopled with creations and the accidents of his brain,” painting the portrait of a man who “walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses,” and asserting that Poe “felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned.” A “memoir” of Poe, also penned by Griswold and published the following year, portrayed Poe as a drunkard, a drug addict, and a madman.

Biographers ever since have struggled to correct Griswold’s inaccuracies and exaggerations, but readers are likely to find some seductive resonance between those persistent images of Poe — augmented by the mysteries still surrounding his death — and the impressions made by the author’s most frequently anthologized works like “The Raven,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the seminal work of modern detective fiction. Reading those macabre, sensational, and blissfully horrible schoolroom staples, a lot of us have fallen under the sway of the myths.

All of which makes Paul Collins’s new book, Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, such a joy to read.

Collins’s streamlined treatment of Poe’s life aims more for the casual reader than for the serious scholar, but the book also serves as an elegantly nuanced portrait of an intensely complex man: born to struggling artists but adopted by a successful businessman; schooled by presidents in the University of Virginia’s second year, accepted at West Point, but also on the lam under an assumed name in the wake of gambling debts; rich in imagination, but continually struggling against poverty; endlessly ambitious but perhaps also his own worst enemy when real opportunities presented themselves. Though Collins admits that “the life of an author may say much about a work of art; the reverse is a shakier proposition,” throughout this biography he also turns a well-trained critical eye on those works themselves, both the well-known and the widely forgotten — ultimately tracing not just the contours of Poe’s life but also charting his fitful, uneven evolution toward becoming one of the most influential writers of his time.

Collins is the author of eight books, most recently including Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery. His work has been published in The New York Times, Slate, and New Scientist, and he has frequently appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition as the “literary detective,” talking about odd, antiquarian books. He teaches at Portland State University.


ART TAYLOR: While your previous books and articles have often dealt with historical stories and with writers, Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living marks your first book-length biography. Why Poe, and why now?

PAUL COLLINS: I keep running into Poe in almost anything I write. He turns up two or three times in my first book, a collection of essays called Banvard’s Folly, and really in various stories there — one about a moon hoax, and another about a fascination with hollow-world theories. And anytime I write about American literature, he keeps turning up as well. I did a piece for Slate four or five years ago about semicolons, about how they’d gone into decline as a form of punctuation, and Poe was actually one of the first people to complain about their overuse. And then writing about crime and crime history over the last few years, he’s come up a lot, because of being at that formative stage of detective fiction.

Another reason [for my interest] is that Poe tends to be defined in pathological terms. People seem to know a lot more about how messed up he was than about his work. And that’s something I wanted to address, not to avoid speaking about his very tumultuous life, because that’s part and parcel of his work. But I really wanted to dig into how much he was of his time and of his profession.

Biographers and readers always have to struggle against that image of Poe as drunken and drug-addicted. I know getting people past that simplistic portrait is key. But he did struggle with alcohol, and he was an uneven craftsman and frequently not really a nice person — either to fellow authors or to his readers, as you present here. If Griswold tarnished Poe, isn’t the truth as you’re presenting it also a little unpleasant?

Poe’s not a nice guy when he’s drunk, but you could say that about a lot of people. And there are lots of people who have screwed-up personal lives, but all of them don’t create great art. When the lives of artists are dramatized, the stories tend to focus on their personal triumphs and personal failings, and those things are kind of a distraction from the art. I don’t think it’s possible to write about his work without delving into the many bridges he burned and the many opportunities he fumbled, many of which did have to do with alcohol, but that doesn’t really explain the work or explain him. I didn’t want this book to be a pathology, but I also didn’t want it to be a whitewash.

In your notes, you mention several previous Poe biographies. What does your book offer that others don’t?

This was very specifically intended to be part of a “brief lives” biography series. If someone were seeking an introduction to Poe’s life, this would be a very accessible first volume — and a bridge to those larger volumes of work to those who wanted to keep running with it.

I did have my own biographical agenda. I wanted to have a volume that focused on Poe as an artist and a professional writer in his time — in the context of what else was being written at the time and what he was responding to as a working writer. The model for my work was probably Henry James’s biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne — which is probably the least known of his works. James does deal with Hawthorne as a person, but he’s also dissecting and critiquing his craft, and he looks at both the major works and the lesser works — on the theory, and I think it’s the correct one really, that to understand a writer, you need to look at the full body of their work. The “greatest hits” approach doesn’t give you the full sense of how a writer develops. It’s the lesser-known work that helps you see how a writer is evolving.

Hitting the greatest hits. Many readers probably think they know Poe because of having read “The Raven” or those best-known titles, but a lot of Poe’s work doesn’t get anthologized for good reason. You call the poem “Al Aaraaf” “the archetypal artistic sophomore slump” and a “pretentiously footnoted mess,” for example. Do you hope that readers of your book might seek out a work like that or Eureka, or is it really better to just read about those misfires rather than actually read them?

It depends on what they want to learn about Poe. If they’re looking to read great literature, then the stuff that normally gets anthologized is probably going to be fine for them. If they’re really interested in him as an artist, then at some point you do need to start engaging with that wider body of work. That’s one of the strange things that I think about art. Artists have the pieces that they value, and whether or not the public values the same pieces is a different question. Also, the ones that seem a big deal when they came out or sold well, those aren’t necessarily the ones that are read 50 years later. If someone wants to understand Poe, then reading the lesser-known works — and especially the letters — gives a lot of insight in ways that reading “Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” wouldn’t necessarily give you. Having that understanding of what else he wrote gives you a different sense of him as an artist. The tendency is you just look at the major works, then they seem to come out of nowhere. But if you look at the lesser works, you see the near-misses and the failed experiments, and how those lead to the pieces that really click.

It’s like what you write about the play Politan. It was a flop, but it served a purpose in Poe’s development as a writer. That seems a key insight.

And that came right out of not only my own experience as a writer but also as a teacher. Right after college, I wrote a couple of screenplays, which immediately went to the bottom of my desk drawer, never to reemerge — and rightfully so. But it was one of the best things I ever did for my writing, because it’s a merciless format. It forces you to learn dialogue and to think in scenes. When I have students now, I urge them to take a class in playwriting and screenwriting, whether or not they have a desire to work in that form. It’s like working a different set of muscles, and you become a better writer. To me that’s really apparent from Poe’s development. He got noticeably better, and, over the course of a few years, more confident in his own work, where he didn’t have to bob and weave around and be clever. He could take the conceit of a particular narrative voice and run with it

Speaking of Poe’s earlier works, the book here reiterates some possibilities you explored in The New Yorkerlast year, using stylometric analysis to determine whether Poe might actually have been the author of works which were originally published under his brother Henry’s name. That seems groundbreaking in many ways. What’s been the reaction from Poe scholars?

Scholarship tends to move very slowly and carefully — as it should. That was one reason I tried to downplay this here. In the book, for instance, I give it a paragraph and then a footnote —

And really more attention to it in the footnote than in the paragraph.

To the chagrin of my publisher, I’m sure, when they would’ve preferred to have it on the front cover! To me, it’s an interesting possibility. The texts [by Henry] seem suggestive in that sense, but it’s just suggestive. I didn’t want to indulge in too much speculation. I wanted to stick to the knowable facts of his life. To me what often mars biographies is when they get too far afield into what someone might’ve thought or might’ve done — that telltale vocabulary of “would have” or “surely.” But I think there’s a good proper study in there for a peer-reviewed journal at some point.

With the possibilities surrounding those works attributed to Henry Poe, you’ve relied on a scientific analysis of style. Elsewhere, the biography depends on extensive documentation. But there are also times when you seem to draw simply on a little common sense. For example, in talking about why the wealthy John Allan didn’t pass along enough money to help his adopted son during his time at the University of Virginia. As you write, “Biographers ever since have puzzled over” this situation, but it’s “hardly a mystery to any first-generation student.” How do you balance relying on common sense here versus sticking to something that you could actually footnote?

In my teaching, I see students grappling all the time with being first-generation college students, with being in a situation where parents don’t understand the time and money necessary to undertake a college career — in some cases, families that are as financially successful as Allan was, but who haven’t gone to college, so they don’t understand. When I thought about it in those terms, Poe’s situation made a lot of sense.

But that’s the kind of thing I don’t want to indulge in too much. The basic test for me was: do people puzzle over this because it happened, or because it happened to Edgar Allan Poe? In other words, his work is extraordinary, his life is also extraordinary, but it’s also the life that anyone in that period might have been living. When you look at his college career and wonder why did this happen, the fact that he’s Edgar Allan Poe has some bearing on that, but to me the bigger question is why might that happen to anyone in that time. That also came up in looking at his marriage. There’s a great deal of biographical commentary on the … well, weirdness and disturbing idea of this guy going and marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Digging around in some of the laws of that period and the marriage practices, it seems it had become a big deal just because it was Poe, but it was amenable to a simpler explanation — and one that we would give to anyone living in that time.

Throughout the biography, you make it clear how Poe’s great artistry was unfolding at the same time that he was publishing hackwork to pay the bills. As you point out, “The Fall of the House of Usher” appeared in the same issue as one of Poe’s columns on “Field Sports.”

[Laughs] “And Manly Pastimes. By an Experienced Practitioner.”

Exactly. So do you find yourself more impressed by Poe’s accomplishments in the midst of all that hackwork? Or do you find yourself speculating about what he might have accomplished if he hadn’t had to struggle at simply making a living?

I take it in some ways as the writer’s lot in life. They have to struggle with cash flow and securing royalties and figuring out what to do next. Most writers today have a partial career along with a day job, which is what I do. To actually subsist off of writing is terrifying! It’s exhilarating because it’s very freeing. But it’s terrifying because you’re self-employed and in one sense you have no guidance. I teach at Portland State. I was hired as an assistant professor, and then I got tenure and became an associate, and I’m trying to become a full professor someday. There’s a clear route to promotion and career development for most day jobs. But for art, there is no clear set of guidelines. You wind up patching things together, jumping from one project to the next as opportunities arise. Some of those opportunities ideally give you the chance to focus on what feels like important work. In others, you try to do the best work you can with what might be a minor assignment. Poe’s lot in life is the freelancer’s lot in life. To me, what’s amazing is that he wrote as much as he did — and as much good work as he did — considering just the incredible financial and physical difficulties that he had. I think it’s kind of miraculous really.

Poe’s importance in the development of the modern detective story is, of course, unparalleled — and to that end, you call “Murders in the Rue Morgue” “literally the most influential story of the nineteenth century.” Do you think that Poe is more noteworthy for his influenceon literature or for his own writings in and of themselves?

The scholar in me wants to say, “Well, it’s the influence,” because he’s fascinating — how many writers he influenced and how much he created, and newly created, especially with crime writing. But I think it’s the work itself. There are school kids who can memorize “The Raven” or read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and they just get it. They’re not reading it with any context of why this is historically important or with the realization that he had a key role in the development of American fiction, and that’s an indication to me that his work really holds up.


Art Taylor’s short fiction has been published frequently in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, among other journals and anthologies. A professor at George Mason University, he also reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Washington Post.