Skip to main content

Truth About Poe

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. By Arthur Hobson Quinn. D. Ap-pleton-Century Company. $5.00.

Arthur hobson quinn is on the right side of the Poe question; that is, on the side of truth, jus-tice, and conformity to facts. This associates him with the late James A. Harrison, the late great Poe scholar Killis Campbell, and others, such as James Southall Wilson and T. O. Mabbott, who have sought to discover the facts and let the facts speak for themselves. Dr. Quinn has not joined the ranks of a usually friendly group who have sought to make Poe’s life into a romance. He has brought into the field of Poe biography excellent talent and sound scholarship and has devoted them to the purification of the record. He has corrected literally hundreds of errors and has been careful to give his reasons for every correction.

To accomplish his purpose the author has had to load his book with meticulous detail, not always in itself important, but necessary for his job. There is not much doubt that, although the author has abundant literary appreciation and profound insight into the history of literature, the positive, connected, critical depiction of Poe’s development has suffered in this biography. The task of handling difficult documents and of determining the credibility of numerous witnesses has been almost too great for extended literary criticism. Let it be said that although the author is from a human point of view deeply sympathetic with Poe and although he entertains unbounded admiration for Poe’s genius, the book is not primarily a defense of Poe except in the sense that by defending truth it defends him. All readers will be surprised, and many no doubt gratified, by Dr. Quinn’s annihilation of R. W. Griswold; but it is not Griswold only, although he is worst of all, who needs to be refuted. The truth about Poe has to be defended even against Poe himself. Friends and foes alike have united to blast the reputation of Edgar Allan Poe. Errors about him have settled into the popular mind, and it may take generations to obliterate them. We shall probably never see the last of the falsehoods and misconceptions that cling to him, any more than we shall live to see the last of the calf-killing, deer-stealing, horse-holding yarns about Shakespeare, but something has here been done to rid the mind of the world of these vermin.

This life presents a good deal of new information, much, for example, about Poe’s parents. In Poe’s mother one gets a picture of courage, industry, and perseverance which Poe may have inherited. Note his lifelong struggle to found a magazine. “The Stylus” obsessed him. “It is the grand purpose of my life,” he says, “from which I have never swerved.” No array of failure and disappointment, hunger and hostility, could prevent him from declaring towards the end of his life, “Depend upon it, after all, Thomas, literature is the most noble of all professions.” “It is not in the power of any mere worldly considerations to depress me,” he declared. If many of Poe’s fine qualities came from his mother, it is also credible, according to the author, that Poe’s vacillation, his perversity, and his misfortune with drink were inherited from his father.

Dr. Quinn has cleared up doubtful matters with reference to Poe and Allan; he has refuted false statements and added new light. Both men emerge from the ordeal in rather better shape. John Allan seems to have been a man whose character underwent degeneration, a thing which is understandable. The author thinks that Allan was anxious to get Poe out of the way because he feared that Poe might find out or disclose certain disreputable actions of which he himself had been guilty. No one can of course acquit Allan for his conduct, since it was his cutting Poe adrift in the dangerous years of his later adolescence that began Poe’s ruin; but one can at least see that Allan was acting on intelligible motives. The author has cleared up in some degree Poe’s career at the University of Virginia and has done original research in the matter of his experience in the army. He has attacked the foundations of the story of Poe’s improper behavior to the second Mrs. Allan and has done much to destroy the romance of Poe and Mary Devereux. He has rendered accessible Poe’s letter to Mrs. Clemm of August 29, 1835, and has disposed of the rumor of the secret marriage between Poe and Virginia. In a series of deadly parallels he has revealed the iniquity of R. W. Griswold. Indeed, he is Griswold’s nemesis, and the trail of the forger is now seen to lead over a lot of hitherto unquestioned documents. He has confirmed Mrs. Whitman’s honorable character and has removed from Poe’s shoulders some of the obloquy of his last years. The author’s studies of Poe’s use of liquor are for the most part restatements of matters already known, but he deserves credit for the clear way in which he has presented the case. It seems that Poe was a sober and particularly hard-working man during most of the days he spent in this world and that he excused himself in his letter to Eveleth of January 4, 1848, on the ground of the excess of his cares and troubles. He mentioned also the conviviality of the age. The silly belief, not yet totally vanished, that Poe’s genius comes in and goes out with drunkenness would seem to be effectually contradicted.

It is still a matter of perplexity to the reviewer why Poe made so many enemies, why men who feared him during his life hounded him with persistent animosity after his death. Poe was a severe critic and was known as such, but he was not more but rather less abusive than other critics of his time. His criticism is usually on an objective and rather lofty plane. It is not like human nature to fail to respect honesty and thoroughness wherever they appear. The attitude of Graham and Willis and the recognition of Poe’s genius granted by both Longfellow and Hawthorne show that better minds were not absent from the world in Poe’s own time. One sees that other factors must have come in to rob Poe of the respect that a fair judgment of his performance would have given him. Many of these factors Dr. Quinn with commendable breadth of mind provides. He stresses the fact that Poe was an alien in the North at a time when the sectional hatreds that preceded the Civil War were gathering head and that the spectacle of such towering pride in the midst of poverty, misfortune, and near-disgrace robbed him of authority in that age and time. Dr. Quinn understands what a good many of Poe’s critics have not understood, that poverty and pride are not infrequently intimately associated within the same human heart. Certainly few men have ever got less material benefit from a worldwide literary fame than Poe got.

The truth of the matter with reference to all the lamentable controversies over Poe’s character was hit off by Graham at once, and it is a pity he could not have been listened to. “For mentioning his vices at all,” he says, “except in the slightest and most casual manner, much less for dwelling on them pertinaciously and almost malignantly, there can be no earthly apology or justification; for they were in nowise reflected in or connected with his writings.” We should, after a hundred years, have some gratitude for Poe’s appearance in our literature and for the works he has left behind. When Wordsworth visited the grave of Burns in 1808, he wrote a very generous poem of apology for Burns, but on the day following, when he was on the banks of the Nith near El-lisland, he wrote another poem about Burns which is not an apology. It ends with the lines,

The best of what we do and are, Just God, forgive I

Dr. Quinn shows a distinguished knowledge of versification and of the translation of feeling into harmony of sound and believes that Poe was greatest as a poet. His study of the poems, including “Al Aaraaf,” is excellent, but reveals no acquaintance with an important study of that poem by Floyd Stovall, “An Interpretation of ‘Al Aaraaf.’” He contends that Poe’s genius was present from the beginning and that even Poe’s earliest prose works, such as “Metzenger-stein,” show his characteristic mastery of unity of construction and tone, ability to suggest the supernatural, the preservation of suspense, the handling of climax, and the marshaling of the resources of the English language. He believes that Poe made an early study of the forms of the short story then current, but seems to have ignored the work of the late Margaret Alterton, “The Origin of Poe’s Critical Theory,” a book which contains studies of Poe’s knowledge of the short stories in Blackwood’s and elsewhere, as well as of the question of the influence of the Schlegels on Poe. It also has some materials bearing on Poe’s possible authorship of “The Atlantis.”

With reference to “Eureka” Dr. Quinn is at pains to show that Poe’s cosmological speculations anticipate the findings of some of the most recent thinkers in that field and that such scholars do not despise Poe’s ideas. This is most interesting and is about all that can be done by those of us who cannot enter into that difficult field. It is plain that Poe had the mind of a mathematician and was fairly well informed in the science and mathematics of his day. His intuitions, guided by these factors and by a marvelous logical ability, constructed a super-hypothesis to account for what he saw in the universe and knew about it. This is the ancient way of procedure. Long before the birth of experimental science man repeatedly made these colossal intellectual structures, some of which, such as Plato’s “Timaeus,” have gone far in consistency and completeness and have served the world as guides to truth.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading