Edgar Allan Poe, Virginian

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I got a lot
of work done on Sunday and Monday, so I took advantage of the beautiful
weather today to drive to the Library of Virginia in Richmond. This
is the 200th anniversary year of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth, and all
year they have had a major exhibit on Poe. It is ending this week,
so I wanted to catch it before it closed. I took the curator’s tour
— the curator of this exhibit was Chris Semtner, who is also curator
of the Poe Museum in Richmond. He was very knowledgeable.

As a long-time
fan of Poe, I knew, of course, that he is the father of the detective
story — that’s why the Mystery Writers of America call their annual
awards “Edgars,” which physically are small busts of Poe. But I
learned that he also invented science fiction, having great influence
on Jules Verne, who then went on to write some pioneering science
fiction himself. Poe loved to have fun with his readers — to see
what he could get away with. He wrote a story for a New York newspaper
about a man crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a hot-air balloon. People
believed it, and the newspaper sold out, so they repeated the story
the next day. I don’t know when (if ever) readers learned that this
was fiction. Calling Orson Welles!

One exhibit
exclaimed that “Poe was the first American writer to earn his living
by writing.” I took that as a cautionary tale, since Poe was impoverished
most of his life.

There was also
a lot of bragging, claiming that Poe was the first American writer
to win international fame, or something to that effect. What about
Washington Irving, I asked. “We’re talking about INFLUENCE,” Chris
answered. Irving, he claimed, echoing Poe, really wrote in the English
style, merely substituting American locales. Poe, on the other hand,
established new writing genres and styles that had great influence
on literature not only in America but throughout Europe. As just
one example, he broke with the Gothic horror tradition of having
a moralistic lesson and ending on a happy note of virtue triumphant.
Poe had no morality lessons in his tales, and often it was just
the opposite, which infuriated the leading Yankee writers. There
was no love lost between Poe and the Yankee scribes — both excoriated
the other in print. (I’m getting to like Poe more and more.)

Poe was quite
a character. In addition to being broke most of the time, he was
also a drunk, of course. He was quite a ladies’ man, and there were
some interesting stories about the lasting impact he had on a number
of ladies before and after he married his 13-year-old cousin, who
died tragically of tuberculosis at, I think, age 24. (That decade
was probably the only happy time in his life — they really enjoyed
life together.) He would write one of his romantic love poems, and
change the name of the woman in the poem to whomever he was courting
at the time. He unabashedly lied about his bio, too — saying he
graduated with honors from the University of Virginia (not!) and
that he fought in the Greek War for Independence (he never got close
to it). Fact and fiction had a way of blurring and merging with
Poe.

Interesting
tidbit: Manet illustrated one of Poe’s books before going on to
become one of the leading French artists.

I asked Chris
for his recommendation as the best biography of Poe, and he said
Edgar
Allan Poe: A Critical Biography
, by Arthur Hobson Quinn.
It’s a fairly old book, but you can get it on Amazon.com.

December
5, 2009

David
Franke [send him mail]
was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s
and 1960s, when Democrats and liberals were the ones who believed
in big government, fiscal recklessness, and an imperial presidency.

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