If you’re after a concise summary of a person’s life, you can generally rely on their last words. Humphrey Bogart’s parting shot (“I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis”) indicates the extent of his excess, while Oscar Wilde’s — hotly disputed — closing quip (“Either those curtains go or I do”) epitomises a man who valued wit and aesthetics above all else.
More telling than both of these, however, is the final utterance of the American master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. He died in hospital on 7 October 1849, having been found, bewildered, wandering the streets of Baltimore five days earlier. His last words? “Lord, help my poor soul.”
He had good reason to seek divine intervention. His 40 years on Earth were dogged by rotten luck, ill health and drunkenness. While he’s now universally regarded as a genius predominantly for his short stories, such as The Pit And The Pendulum and The Fall Of The House Of Usher — and everyone from The Beatles to The Simpsons have paid homage to Poe — his chronology makes for undeniably tragic reading.
At two years old, his father mysteriously disappeared; his mother died shortly afterwards. His relationship with his foster family — the Allans from whom the boy born Edgar Poe took his middle name — was tempestuous from the off.
“His foster father doesn’t appear to have been very paternal,” says Matthew Pearl, author of The Poe Shadow. “He was rough on Poe and was always against him pursuing a writing career. They were constantly fighting.”
This troubled kinship finally came to a head in 1830 when John Allan cut all ties with his foster son after Poe confronted him over his extra-marital affairs. An unhappy stint in the army followed (Poe got himself intentionally discharged in 1831), before he immersed himself in writing, tackling everything from poetry to magazine journalism. However, with the exception of a $100 prize for his 1843 story The Gold-Bug, he never earned more than a pittance for his work.
In 1835, perhaps spotting the chance to shatter two taboos in one fell swoop, 27-year-old Poe wed his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia, doctoring their marriage certificate to boost her age to a more respectable 21.
Ten years later, he unveiled his masterpiece, The Raven — an eerily beautiful narrative poem about a tormented young man’s descent into insanity. The sparkling reception it earned in New York must have seemed, to Poe, to herald a new, brighter chapter in his bleak existence. Instead, it marked the start of his decline.
DRAMA AND DRINKING
“The year 1845 should have been a great year for Poe,” says John Gruesser, president of the Poe Studies Association. “The Raven was published [in January] and became an instant sensation, making him an overnight celebrity. But he got into a difficult situation immediately afterwards, when he was invited to debut a new poem in Boston. He couldn’t come up with anything original, so he made the bizarre decision to try passing off one of his old poems under a new title. He was exposed and it led to a bitter feud with several important editors.”
This was far from the only literary scrap in which Poe was embroiled. According to Professor James Hutchisson, author of the biography Poe, “He made enemies throughout his career. One of the strangest incidents in Poe’s life was his dispute with the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was the most esteemed literary figure in America at the time, but Poe decided he was guilty of plagiarism and launched an attack on him in a newspaper. There wasn’t much basis for Poe’s case and it simply served to isolate him from his fellow writers.”
It wasn’t just Poe’s social status that was hampered by his vitriolic streak; his bank account suffered too. His disregard for the US literati meant that its members felt well within their rights to mistreat and exploit him as they saw fit.
“For most things he wrote, he received piddling amounts of money,” says Hutchisson. “Even more so towards the end of his life, when he was in dire financial straits, because editors knew he would take anything they gave him. They would purposely pay him the minimum.”
Fuelled by the fallout from the Boston spat, Poe’s crippling paranoia worsened. He became convinced people were trying to kill him and would regularly accuse acquaintances of attempting to sabotage his career, marriage or finances. As Pearl notes, “He may have been bipolar. If he were alive today, I think he would be on various medications.”
This increasingly maniacal behaviour was exacerbated by a mounting dependence on alcohol. Virginia had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1842 and as her condition deteriorated, Poe sought solace in the bottle.
“There were periods in those last years when he became violently drunk to the point of hallucination,” says Hutchisson. “However, many people who knew Poe said the same thing about his drinking: that it only took one glass of wine and he was under the table.”
This goes some way towards explaining Poe’s lasting (and, according to Hutchisson, ill-deserved) reputation as a booze-addled incompetent. The tiniest amount of alcohol clearly had a terrible effect on his already sickly constitution and, while it may be perfectly acceptable in 2012 for a young man to spend the evening nursing a cranberry juice, in 19th-century America, it most certainly was not.
“He lived in a time when drinking was expected of you,” says Pearl. “The 1840s were an all-time high for alcohol consumption in the US and you’d be handed a strong drink at any social gathering.”
In 1846, Poe’s fortunes plummeted further. The magazine he owned, The Broadway Journal, had folded due to him drunkenly abandoning an issue before its completion. Far worse, however; Virginia was fading fast. She died on 30 January 1847, and a distraught Poe, who, Hutchisson points out, “always needed some kind of female affection”, set about finding her replacement.
A promising romance with a fellow poet, Sarah Helen Whitman, was swiftly strangled by Poe’s psychotic paranoia. “He went overboard, as always,” says Pearl. “He wrote her a letter, pretending to be someone else, trying to find out whether she was in love with another man.”
On this occasion, however, he was right to believe that forces were conspiring against him. “Poe told Whitman he’d stopped drinking,” says Gruesser, “but his enemies convinced her he’d fallen off the wagon and she broke off the engagement.”
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Poe’s reaction to her decision — a near-fatal opium overdose in 1848 — shows a desire to leave his increasingly painful existence behind. As it transpired, he didn’t have long to wait. On 27 September 1849, Poe left Richmond, Virginia for New York City. Shortly after, he fell off the radar completely before surfacing in Baltimore a week later, looking “rather worse for wear”, according to the man who found him.
The theories about how he arrived in this delirious state are manifold. One of the most commonly accepted is that Poe had fallen victim to a rather unorthodox political tactic known as ‘cooping’. Gruesser explains: “Political operatives would get people drunk and take them around different polling stations so they could vote repeatedly. Poe was found unconscious on election day outside a voting hall, so this theory is certainly a possibility.”
Pearl believes an undiagnosed brain tumour may have been to blame. “There was a hardened lump found in Poe’s skull that had the hallmarks of a calcified tumour. Aside from accounting for his delirium, this would also explain his low tolerance for alcohol.”
Poe passed away in hospital five days later. He left behind him not only a body of work that would see him revered as one of America’s greatest writers, but also — thanks to a scathing, falsehood-filled obituary from one of his many adversaries — a reputation as a debauched, drug-pickled lunatic.
“He wasn’t some bohemian, Jim Morrison-type figure who wanted to skirt the edges of society,” says Pearl. “All he ever craved was stability — a steady job and a wife — but his personality wouldn’t allow it. He truly was a tragic figure.”
(Illustration: John Hopkins)