Sunday, August 10, 2014

Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living

Author: Paul Collins
Genre:  Biography

Five Stars

Looming large in the popular imagination as a serious poet and lively drunk who died in penury, Edgar Allan Poe was also the most celebrated and notorious writer of his day. He died broke and alone at the age of forty, but not before he had written some of the greatest works in the English language, from the chilling “The Tell-Tale Heart” to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—the first modern detective story—to the iconic poem “The Raven.”
Poe’s life was one of unremitting hardship. His father abandoned the family, and his mother died when he was three. Poe was thrown out of West Point, and married his beloved thirteen-year-old cousin, who died of tuberculosis at twenty-four. He was so poor that he burned furniture to stay warm. He was a scourge to other poets, but more so to himself.

In the hands of Paul Collins, one of our liveliest historians, this mysteriously conflicted figure emerges as a genius both driven and undone by his artistic ambitions. Collins illuminates Poe’s huge successes and greatest flop (a 143-page prose poem titled Eureka), and even tracks down what may be Poe’s first published fiction, long hidden under an enigmatic byline. Clear-eyed and sympathetic, Edgar Allan Poe is a spellbinding story about the man once hailed as “the Shakespeare of America".


Okay, let's first say that I'm probably prejudiced in the fact that I own all of Poe's works:  not once, but twice - having bought them for myself and then again been given as a gift from my darling mother-in-law.  I am such a fan of his, in fact, that on a recent trip back east I insisted on traveling to Baltimore for the main purpose of visiting his grave.

That being said, I will acknowledge that this is not an intense biography; it does not run hundreds of pages.  But what it does cover are intense periods of Poe's life; his early life with his parents, his living with a stepfamily (he was never formally adopted) and the strained relationship with his stepfather; his marriage to Virginia; and his untimely death at the age of forty.

It covers a vast amount of his youth and the events and people that shaped him into the person he was.  While only four, he went to live with the Allans, while his older brother and younger sister were also adopted out to others.  Though the Allans were rich; he did not have a warm relationship with his stepfather once he grew older; it seemed that more was expected of him than he was able to give.  Their personalities were too different - John Allan was a businessman; Edgar was a dreamer.  He began writing poetry at an early age, and this was so well-received that he continued to do so throughout his life.  Unfortunately, it permanently removed him from any deep rapport he might have had with Allan.  It seemed Edgar was too much like his father - theatrical, and a dreamer.

While he did try working at regular jobs, none of them seemed to ever work out.  And every time he attempted to work at newspapers, his criticism of fellow writers caused problems.  But none of this ever seemed to bother him, and he plodded on.  In fact, the only real thing that ever mattered to him was his wife, Virginia; who was his cousin and who he married when she was but thirteen and he was twenty-seven.  (Before you think that this is a terrible thing you must remember that it was common back then - plus, it has been noted that Edgar waited years before consummating the marriage.  His reasons for marrying her so young are more than this, but I will not go into them here).  Yet there is no doubt that she remained the Great Love of His Life once and forever.  There is also no doubt that she loved him as much as he loved her.

Although it was true that he was an alcoholic, he did have periods where he didn't drink and produced some wonderful works, among them The Raven - arguably his most famous work.  So famous that it was satirized by many, yet today remains the definitive work of Poe.  His stories have even been turned into film - Murders in the Rue Morgue remaining a timeless classic.

While I knew much about Poe to begin with - chief among them that he was a genius well ahead of his time - still Mr. Collins offers others, including the fact that he inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  He was friends - and sometimes enemies - with authors such as Longfellow and Dickens.

Perhaps we will never know the truth of Edgar Allan Poe and who he was.  Perhaps it is better if we do not.  But, as Mr. Collins states, in Poe, there was definitely The Fever Called Living.  The end result is that this biography, while short, is well-written and well-researched.  It 'cuts to the chase', as it were and gives us an essential knowledge of Edgar Allan Poe, not only the writer, but the man; and, if it can be said, what drove him to be the person he was.

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