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Poe and the Biographers

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

Israfel: the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe. By Hervey, Allen. New York: Doran and Company. 2 vols. $10.00.


Count no man happy till you know the manner of his death.” The Greeks believed in that epigram. Today we might paraphrase it: Connt no man happy till you know the manner of his biographer. In Hervey Alien, Edgar Allan Poe has for the first time fallen into the hands of a biographer reasonably sympathetic, reasonably industrious, and able to write both inteUigently and agreeably. Mr. Allen is a poet; he is of the North with the outlook of a Northern man but he has lived and learned sympathetically in the South; and in addition he is educated without being a devotee of erudition. Such a biographer and such an opportunity rarely meet. The result is a triumph for Mr. Allen. It is a nine-days wonder that the first edition of a two-volume, ten dollar life of an American poet should be exhausted in a few months. But the triumph of success is heightened by the recollection that already six or more ambitious lives of Poe were on the shelves of every self-respecting public library. Hervey Allen deserves his success. “Israfel” is the best life of Poe for the general reader yet written. It comes nearer than any other biography to telling accurately the whole story of Poe’s life; and it is entrancingly interesting to read. Such a book is entitled to an evaluation more rigid than would be the case of a mere biography of the year. And such a consideration reqnires at least a brief survey of earlier Poe biographies.


Poe has been the victim of many biographers. Of those who have written his life few have been either trained or gifted in methods of investigation or pleasing literary expression. And the writing of nearly all has been qualified either by an outspoken distaste for their subject or by a conscious determination to select or suppress material unfavorable to Poe or to some of those who came into contact with him. The first real biographer of Poe was the Englishman, John H. Ingram—for Rufus Griswold though he did a notable service to American literature in editing the first collected edition of Poe’s writings, spared himself all real investigation for his memoir and vitiated such facts as he did present by his mendacious malignancy. It is easy today to discount Ingram’s work, but he was the pioneer and uncovered the chief sources from which later biographers were to draw. He was a partisan and he tempered his evidence to what he believed were the ends of both justice and mercy. He had to depend upon the men and women who knew Poe and many of his conclusions later investigation has proved wrong, but much of what he gathered —-the “Annie” letters, for example, and the valuable Eveleth correspondence—has remained available to biographers only in the copies which were made for him. Gill’s biography succeeded Ingram’s memoir but was published before Ingram’s two volume biography. The story of Poe biography like the man’s own life is a tangled skein of controversy. Gill and Ingram made charge and countercharge but the Englishman’s priority on most counts could be proved. Nevertheless Gill made his own contributions to the fuller knowledge and juster understanding of Poe. Each lessened his own trustworthiness by dipping his hands with his brush into the whitewash. George Edward Wood-berry, a poet and a thoroughly trained and truthful investigator, was later reluctantly set to write Poe’s life for the American Men of Letters series. The one-volume life which he first wrote was years later expanded, after he had unearthed much new material, into the “standard” two-volume life. No other biography of Poe except Ingram’s has had so much fresh material, and none has had such careful sifting of material or given evidence of a method or a conscience so informed with scholarly reverence for accuracy. Its qualification was that its author had an instinctive distaste for the personality of his subject. He disliked him so that try as he might—and the evidences of his effort are everywhere apparent—to be fair, he instinctively believed the worst of a very complex character that had very much that was nnlovely in it. The delicate, beautiful, poetic nature of Woodberry could not nnderstand, could not even present without an involuntary shrinking, the un-beautiful side of the delicate, poetic Poe. None the less, Woodberry’s later edition has not been wholly superseded and is still the safest single authority for the student of Poe to depend upon. Professor James A. Harrison—who edited the best edition of Poe ever printed—published his life of Poe in the interval between the two Woodberry biographies. He had gathered many reminiscences about Poe but he was neither as successful in his investigations nor as critically sound in his judgment as Woodberry. His book was poorly, organized and written in a rhetorically ornate style. As a special pleader he exceeded Ingram: white-wash is not the figure; he wrote the book in white ink.

Other studies of Poe have been made: John Macy’s brief biography, Killis Campbell’s and J. H. Whitty’s prefaced memoirs to their excellent editions of the poems; more recently Joseph Wood Krutch’s brilliantly written but inaccurate and misleading adventure into psycho-analysis. Last year the long projected two volumes by Miss Mary E. Phillips (John H. Winston. $10.00) were published. They contain a collection of pictures, assembled carefully over many years, that are worth to Poe investigators more than the price of the book. This biography too is a monument of years of painstaking collecting of everything obtainable to the author relative to Poe. Jt is a book that Poe collections must contain to be complete but it is not for the general reader. Its author does not possess the qualities of style or of critical acumen necessary for the writing of biography.

The time was ripe then for a new and a full biography of Poe. Since Woodberry’s edition of 1909 there had really, been no competent effort to reinterpret the strange life and character of America’s most famous literary figure in the light of a careful and impartial study of all the new or corrected material that had been assembled by a number of carefni investigators. That the demand was equal to the need was shown when Hervey Allen undertook in “Israfel” to tell entertainingly in two costly volumes the whole detailed story of Poe’s life—and triuniphed.


It was Poe’s own practice with a work that he generally admired to point out first his objections. To apply the method to Hervey Allen’s “Israfel” requires the admission at the beginning that its faults are in large measure the result of the method chosen. And to object to a method is almost to commit the unpardonable sin of criticism: to blame a writer for not doing what he did not set out to do. The author of “Israfel” might have made a more consistent book if he had written a one-volume interpretative life of Poe for the general reader; or if he had undertaken with critical restraint to retell the whole story, of Poe in two authoritative volumes. The one might have been an “Ariel” or at least something as interesting and far finer than Rupert Hughes’ “George Washington.” The other might have been as notable and as entertaining a book as Cross’s “Laurence Sterne” or Cushing’s “William Osier.” But “Israfel” attempts the complete biography for the general reader. The result is an unqualified success from the point of view of the general reader, but a slightly qualified one for the Poe student. Mr. Allen has read with painstaking care almost all of the vast library that has grown up around Poe’s life. He has visited and reconstructed with a vital imagination the scenes of Poe’s struggles. He has eliminated much of the gossip with its sickly sentimentality or its prejudiced rancor. Where he has depended upon untrustworthy sources like Mrs. Weiss’ “Home Life of Poe,” he cautions his readers and tries to discriminate between imagination and memory. The very aim of his book, however, to be vivacious and detailed; to put the whole daily life before us of a man whose home was withdrawn and little reflected in his own writings, has led to a readiness to accept as material for the vivid creation of the entire setting much that is at best of doubtful authenticity. The same willingness to draw from a fact all the probable circumstances of the fact, until we see just where Poe’s cat, Catarina, was lying or see her with tail erect crossing the room, may, lead a fertile imagination into traps of credulity until a whole picture is created which may be wholly deceptive, any detail of which is a probability. Mr. Allen is careful to keep on the windy side of caution, but the critical scholar must be more cautious yet. There are so few slips in accuracy of actually positive statement in “Israfel” that it would be ungracious and of little service to point them out. They are as slight as an obvious mistake in the conjecture of a later composition date for “Silence,” which Poe mentions in an 1835 letter, or a slip in a reference to Longfellow’s “Hyperion”: of little more importance than typographical errors. Mr. Allen, I felt, has an almost uncanny sureness in his judgment of men. R. H. Stoddard, Thomas Dunn English, and a host of other small birds of prey, he properly estimates; and yet a large part of the mass of details from which he builds his interpretation of Poe is based upon their evidence. He is on his guard because he knows his men; but he does not always tell us when they are in the witness chair. Through the vista of ten years I fear, too, that readers will find something tinsel in chapter-headings like “The Raven and His Shadow,” “Elmira and the Enchanted Garden,” “Israfel ;Salutes the Marqnis,” ‘The Literati and the Fordham Pastoral.” Few readers can enjoy Harrison’s flowery language of a quarter-century, ago; is there something that may prove as distasteful and sentimental in the method these chapter-headings suggest and in the recurrent use of “Israfel” and “the Raven” as names for Poe, as there was in the pastorally florid diction now so happily deceased in poverty? And have not these things influenced and weakened the presentation of the facts and the conclusions the author draws from them? Mr. Allen fortunately doesn’t try to make Poe’s life simple by the use of a Freudian complex, but he is influenced by such interpretations to a slight extent that may, “date” too definitely his work when the psycho-analytical method has become as outmoded as the spirit of moral partisanship has become today.

Having thrown so much away as a libation to the gods of criticism (I paraphrase from a half-remembered sentence of Poe’s used in a like case), and stipulating that no Poe student will agree entirely with all the conclusions of any other Poe student, I repeat myself in saying that I admire the hook in almost all other respects. The story of Poe’s life is told in “Israfel” with completeness, and with a human interest that holds the attention to the end. Mr. Allen has availed himself of the recently published letters between Poe and John Allan and has by, printing Allan’s will uncovered more fully the sordid complications of Poe’s relations with his foster-father. He has for the first time made a satisfying synthesis of Poe’s life as it was affected by the circumstances among which it was lived. He is neither an advocate excusing nor a moralist denouncing the man. He attempts rationally to present and to explain Poe as he finds him. He shows that he was born with a peculiar nature and that the hard conditions of his life made him more peculiar. He describes with dramatic climax Poe’s career in which his own failings at each crisis wrecked his opportunity. The Poe that emerges from these pages is a changing figure, battling with life conditions which tortured his sensitive and erratic nature into strange shapes and threw him at last a battered derelict into a hospital to die. The Poe of these pages is not a lovable nor even a romantically attractive person but neither is he repulsive or blameworthy. His life has the compelling pity, of the inevitably tragic. His native character was his fate; but not only, so, the conditions of his life exposed him to “unmerciful disaster that followed fast and followed faster.” And Mr. Allen has so built up his cumulative study out of carefully amassed details, arranged with such a mastery of artistic unity, that his figure of Poe is convincing. Whether the Edgar Poe of these pages is the real man who was born in 1809 and died in 1849 or not, the man of these pages becomes real to a reader’s imagination; a being is created consistent within its own inconsistencies. More real still is the personality of Mrs. Clemm. With dispassionate analysis, Mr. Allen shows that while Poe might not have survived at all without her, yet she is the explanation of much that appears unexplainable and inconsistent in Poe’s behaviour. Though she might promise in advance his favorable criticism for a sum too small to buy more than a bone to qniet the wolf at the door, Mrs. Clemm is the heroine of Allen’s “Israfel.” Without understanding her, it is impossible to understand Poe. “She washed for him, begged for bim, nursed him and comforted him. Before her simple ‘Eddie, Oh God, my dear Eddie’—all the mud of Mrs. Ellet, the vitriol of Griswold, and the sugar of Helen Whitman is dried up and blown away while Mrs. Clemm’s cry, remains to keen in our ears.”

It is Mr. Allen’s triumph that he has recreated the Ajnerica of a hundred years ago and in its center shown the contortions of a Titan, manacled by poverty and mental disease, his vitals torn out by vultures of his own rearing, but yet a Titan—who brought the fire of the gods to men. It is an unusual book, a moving book—a book delightful to read.


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