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Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl

Posted: October 28, 2009 04:25 PM

Top Five Myths About Edgar Allan Poe

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2009 marks the bicentennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Instead of celebrating Poe, we often celebrate a caricature that has developed of him over time. Here are some of the most commonly repeated myths about Poe.

Myth #1. Poe was infatuated with young girls.

Poe did marry his cousin Virginia Clemm when he was 26 and she was 13. This was not as outrageous as it sounds today, but evidence suggests it was not entirely comfortable either. The marriage certificate lists Virginia as being 21. Big leap! One wonders what motivated the lie, if it were anything beyond embarrassment. However, something people tend to forget is that Poe and Virginia were married for more than ten years before she died, and she did not remain 13. Also, Poe had flirtations with different women after his marriage (during it, too), none of whom were alarmingly young. In fact, his final romance was his engagement to Elmira Royster just before his death. She was his age, 40. This is not to say Poe had all healthy relationships, but the record of his life does not exhibit a pattern of being attracted to young girls.

Myth #2. Poe was a Southerner.

Partial myth, anyway. Funny how this has seeped into the public perception. Poe was born in 1809 in Boston. You can't get more Yankee than that! He lived in many places throughout his life, most notably, Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. (I have always been intrigued by the way each of these cities plays a role in his strange death narrative.) Poe was raised in Richmond by his foster family, and adopted many Southern mannerisms, philosophical and political beliefs. Had Poe lived long enough to witness the Civil War, it is likely he would have sided with the South. He had been planning to move back to Richmond when he died. So his association with the South is legitimate, but it is strange to see how the fact he was a Bostonian by birth is largely overlooked (including by Poe himself, who did not want to be associated with the literary establishment in Boston).

Myth #3. Poe was a racist.

This is harder. There are offensive stereotypes in Poe's depictions of non-white characters, such as the clownish servant Jupiter in "The Gold Bug." On the other hand, the attribution to Poe of several anonymous articles used as proof of Poe's racism have been debunked. One thing I incorporated in my novel The Poe Shadow was the little-known fact that documents show Poe inherited a slave and decided to free him. At the time, freeing a slave was a costly process in order to deter the practice. As an alternative, whites who wanted to free a slave sold the slave to a free black individual or family. This is what Poe chose to do. We have very little on record about any direct interaction between Poe and members of other races, so this incident may speak volumes.

Myth #4. Poe was an addict.

As for Poe as drug addict, I'm not sure how this entered the ether of popular culture. There is zero contemporary evidence. The only evidence of Poe using an opiate comes from Poe himself, describing a suicide attempt in which he ingested a relatively small amount of laudanum. Assuming Poe's account is accurate, had he been a habitual user, the suicide attempt would have been rather pointless with such a tiny amount. Yes, some of Poe's characters were alcoholics or addicts. Poe is not one of Poe's characters. My guess is the Poe-as-drug-addict meme was revved up by drug users in the 1960s. See my separate post on whether Poe was really an alcoholic.

Myth #5. Poe was a weirdo.

Poe had his quirks. Some of them were exaggerated by observers, some might have been affectation by Poe. But what struck me investigating his life and death was that he craved normalcy. He was not someone who cultivated weirdness like, say, Michael Jackson, who incidentally thought of himself as having an affinity with Poe (and wanted to play Poe in a movie). Even Poe's strange marriage to his cousin Virginia, in my opinion, was driven by a desire to find a connection with a family that he had lost when his mother died when he was two years old. Remember, marrying your cousin was not entirely taboo back then. Even after Virginia's death, he continued to live with and be loyal to his aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, whose nickname Muddy speaks to her role as a mother figure (as his nickname for Virginia, Sissy, also enhances the overlapping family ties). When he died, he was planning another marriage and to start a magazine. Poe was plagued and haunted most of all by something pretty banal: poverty. Probably the most eccentric decision in life was to become a writer in an age when making a living at it was nearly impossible.

 
 
 

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