In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography?
“Once upon a midnight dreary”… so begins one of the most famous poems in the English language, “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem describes the gradual unraveling of the narrator’s mind, hastened by a maddeningly monotonous avian friend, whose response to every question is “nevermore.” Over the course of the poem we see the narrator lament his lost love, Lenore, and try to maintain his sanity in the face of his intense grief, and his increasingly annoying feathered companion. The tale is strangely disturbing, haunting and somehow quite threatening, despite the fact that the scariest thing in it is a talking bird. Perhaps because of this skillful mixture of the otherworldly and the banal, the poem has been a standard text for schoolchildren to memorize, and may be one of the main reasons current generations know the meaning of the word “nevermore.”
In the poem, the raven is a pest, and in real life, Poe’s “Raven” has proved something of a nuisance as well, obscuring the writer’s other accomplishments. While we all know at least a few lines of the rhyming ditty, how many of us can name Poe’s other works? Those who can are usually able to name them all; the rest of us may draw a blank. This is a shame, because the writer’s greatest influence was not as a poet (the merits of “The Raven” remain open to debate) but as the arguable creator of detective fiction, an early adopter of science fiction, and one of the first practitioners of the short story.
Without Poe, there’d be no Sherlock Holmes, no War of the Worlds, no Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In works including The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Telltale Heart, Poe combined an active imagination for the macabre with a fine-grained sympathy for the fact that the scariest creatures are the ones living inside our skulls. His stories, whether grounded in reality or incorporating aspects of the fantastic, display a keen understanding of human psychology, and what can happen to a mind when left to its own devices.
There have been biographies written of the man over the years, including a slanderous, scandalous profile published by his rival (and, weirdly, literary executor), Rufus Griswold, immediately following the writer’s death in 1849, and a painstakingly researched critical biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn from 1941, which sets the record straight on many of the scurrilous rumors from Griswold’s hatchet job. But the poet’s life is so fascinating, and contains such haunting mysteries, he deserves a contemporary, popular biography. And while Poe by Peter Ackroyd is a great gateway into the life of the literary tomb raider, something longer than 180 pages is called for.
Born in Boston in 1809, Poe was an orphan by the age of three, following his father’s abandonment of the family and his mother’s death. Poe was separated from his siblings and sent to be raised by a tobacco merchant and his wife in Richmond, Virginia, from whom he got the “Allan” part of his name. After an unremarkable military career, during which he wrote satirical poems about his commanding officers, Poe attempted to support himself as a full-time writer, publishing short stories, poems, and essays, but struggling financially, though he remained steadfast in his determination to support himself as a full-time writer, unheard of at the time. He married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, when she was just thirteen, and wrote “The Raven” a few years later, when Virginia was showing the first signs of tuberculosis. Though the poem was a hit, he was paid just nine dollars for its publication.
After Virginia died, Poe became increasingly distraught, and starting acting erratically. Two years later he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, incoherent, wearing another man’s clothes. He died four days later, at the age of forty, without ever regaining enough consciousness to explain what had happened to him. A century and a half since, the mystery of Poe’s death remains, with theorists speculating the cause to be everything from syphilis to epilepsy to rabies to, yes, murder. Starting in 1949, one hundred years after Poe’s death, a person appeared at his grave to toast the writer with brandy and leave three roses, a tradition which continued until Poe’s bicentennial in 2009.
Clearly, Poe’s short, unhappy life and tantalizingly mysterious death are great fodder for a modern and definitive tome, as those who know his tale continue to be haunted by it, just like a character in one of his deliciously deranged tales of grief and suspense.