Wednesday, January 28, 2009

EDGAR ALLAN POE: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories - Harry Lee Poe

It's an ungainly thing, this Illustrated Companion: hardbound, eleven inches wide by eight-and-a-half tall, 160 heavyweight pages. Awkward to read in bed, say, and in narrow quarters like an airplane seat. It's purple, ye gods, purple! Impossible to read without drawing attention: conspicuous.

And (at least for a certain sort of Poe aficionado) pure pleasure.

Despite the subtitle's implication, the Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories does not include the stories themselves. The pictures, for the most part, illustrate people and scenes from Poe's life; the text is a compressed biography, with brief forays into how the life informed the poetry and fiction (and sometimes vice-versa).

I thought I knew a lot about Poe's life but this book brought a good number of surprises. I didn't know, for instance, that the familiar haunted-mustachioed stereotype was an image which Poe didn't cultivate until the last couple years of his life. (At right, an oval miniature of Poe in his 20s or 30s.)

Of course, all the familiar stuff is here, too: the fractious relationship with his adoptive father, John Allan; the deaths of various beloved women, most often to consumption; his sister, her mind frozen in childhood throughout her long life; his term at West Point and subsequent expulsion for dissipation; his battles with alcohol, his nearly constant desperation over money, and his fights with other authors and editors; and the mean-spirited scheming of his literary executor/executioner, Rufus Griswold, who came close to ensuring that we today would be asking, "Edgar Allan who? Oh, you mean the drunk?"

It's all as sad as it is familiar. The book's author, one-time director of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, is Harry Lee Poe, a distant cousin of Edgar. And except for that minor twist, because it is so familiar you might wonder how he managed to convince a publisher to undertake yet another bio, however "illustrated."

I don't know the route he took to publication, but I know what makes reading -- handling -- his book an exceptional experience. Take a look:

Scattered throughout the book, five translucent envelopes. In each envelope, facsimiles -- "copies" doesn't do them justice -- of archival Poe materials. For instance:
  • In envelope #1, the "marriage bond" -- a certificate of payment -- for the marriage in 1806 of David Poe, Jr., to the widow of Charles D. Hopkins. (Little Edgar would come along three years later.)
  • In the second envelope, a four-page letter from Edgar to John Allan, dated 1831, tearing into his "father" for ensuring yet again that he'd fail at something (in this case, West Point). (Allan had sent him off to West Point with just enough money to enter, but despite Poe's pleading didn't provide enough to continue.) The letter ends, "From the time of this writing I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution -- if I do not receive your answer in 10 days -- I will leave the point without -- for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission." Scrawled along one tiny side of the folded letter is a note from John Allan:
    I recd this on the 10th and did not from it [sic] conclusion deem it necessary to reply... I do not think the Boy has one good quality. He may do or act as he pleases, tho I wd. have saved him but on his own terms & conditions since I cannot believe a word he writes.
    Poe did indeed leave "the point" shortly thereafter -- broken in spirit as well as in funds.
  • An entire page, folded, of the New York Daily Tribune from October 9, 1849. All of column 3 and most of 4 is taken up by an item which begins, "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it." This "scathing obituary," as the book's text refers to it, bears the pseudonymous byline LUDWIG; the author's real name: Rufus Griswold. (That's RG over at the right.)
The contents of these documents fascinate. And if all you care about is those contents, you can satisfy yourself with their transcriptions -- in what looks to be sub-8-point type in the back of the book. Yet it's not what they say, but their presentation, which really sets them apart.

The pages have ragged edges. Stains blot their surfaces. Folds and creases are worn, as though from many months' abrasion against pocket or purse. In spots, some of the documents even have holes in them, where the aged, brittle paper has simply fallen away. (Below, Poe's 1829 army enlistment. Note that at the time he was calling himself Edgar A. Perry. Click for a larger version.)

Now, from their description here as aged, brittle, and so on, do not assume these inserts are really aged (etc.). No, the paper on which they're reproduced is just as new and strong as that on which the text itself appears. The edges are truly ragged, you can (if you want) put your finger through the holes, but the pages are simply reproduced to appear as old as the originals, in the same sizes, even with the same folds.

(Like many gadget geeks, I look forward to my first e-book reader, an Amazon Kindle or whatever. The experience of reading the Poe Illustrated Companion, though, is the sort which no e-book reader anywhere on the horizon will be able to duplicate. On the other hand, its shelf life in a busy public library is probably a matter of months, if that long. And you might want to reconsider if you're thinking of buying a used copy!)

Not interested at all in Poe? Bored by his stories, confused by his poems, confounded by his criticism, and maybe feeling -- with Griswold -- that, honestly, the world is a better place for having lost Poe at age 40? You might want to give this one a pass.

But if:
  • you've an open mind about Poe's work, his life, his reputation, or
  • you like handling books as well as reading them, or
  • you're even remotely curious about how people (especially authors) lived and interacted with others 200+ years ago
-- in any of those cases, you will love it.

Note: All images in this review are taken from the Illustrated Companion.


Cheryl said...

I am now totally intrigued by Poe. I have an anthology of his work, but I never learned much about his life. I'm betting there are some novelizations of his life out there because he certainly had some ups and downs, didn't he? Do you know of any?

In the meantime, I might have to check out this book...

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Thanks for the review. I've just got to see this one.

JES said...

Cheryl: I don't know of any novelizations of his life (although, like you, I suspect there must be at least one). If no one's tried it, it's probably because they're imagining the downstream critical response: C'mon -- quit making stuff up! :)

Jules: Glad you stopped by... It's a fun book to read -- I was torn between wanting to share all the letters etc. with The Missus, and not wanting her to see them at all (lest she swipe the whole book from me -- which would be interesting, since she's the one who gave it to me in the first place). I bet you'd like it.

JES said...

P.S. Re: novelizations... Here's a link to an NPR story from a few years back, about two fictional treatment's of Poe's life.

Rob Velella said...

Thanks for posting this! When people asked me, "What's a good book on Poe?" I used to answer "There aren't any." Then, Harry Lee Poe published this one, and it's damn near perfect. As you might guess, most books on Poe are heavily biased, and H. L. Poe explains why in this book. I think this book finally got it right.

As for Poe novelizations, there are many, many, many. Poe in fiction shows up in works by Matthew Pearl and Harold Schecter as well as more obscure (out-of-print) ones like "My Savage Muse." My senior thesis was on Poe in fiction. Most are just awful!

(Sorry for a late reply to an older post.)

Charlie said...

An exquisite piece of work.

MidniteCheery said...

I certainly agree with Jes' estimation of this book -- it's a lovely and informative job all 'round, and, being a Poe-phile & serious collector from way back, this delightfully tactile treasure trove of EAP goodies set my own Tell Tale Heart racin'!

But I must both agree AND disagree with Rob. I do indeed agree that most, though not all, of the fictionalized books either about Poe or in which he appears as a character have been pretty weak stuff. I haven't yet read Matthew Pearl's 'The Poe Shadow', though I've heard that one's a cut above. But there is one I've read which truly stands out as a quality piece of literature -- 'The Lighthouse At The End Of The World' by Stephen Marlowe which, at one time, David Lynch had optioned for film adaptation. (Boy would I have loved to see THAT!)

However, I must strongly disagree with Rob's statement when asked "What's a good book on Poe?" -- i.e. "There aren't any".
Or weren't until Harry Lee Poe's book came along.

To this day 'Edgar Allan Poe - A Critical Biography' by Arthur Hobson Quinn remains unsurpassed as the definitive biography of Poe. Written with insight, restraint, remarkable detail and clear focus, it brings Poe to vivid, multifaceted life in the lively context of his time (1809 - 1849). Conceived and executed with a degree of scholarly breadth and rigorous depth which none of the umpteen other biographies have been able to match, it's also a groundbreaking book in that Quinn uncovered a number of crucial Poe letters which had been re-written (forged) by his nefarious literary executor, Rufus Griswold, and were exposed to the world for the first time in the pages of this crucial book. It also sets the record straight on Poe in numerous other ways as well, without going to the opposite extreme of a fawning, hero-worshipping, whitewash job.

Even Kenneth Silverman's very readable and quite popular biography -- 'Edgar Allan Poe - Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance' -- suffers by comparison, despite a wealth of excellent information and detail, due to its' author's sporadic (and odd) antipathy toward his subject.

But luckily the Quinn bio, though originally published in the 1940's, is still very much in print thanks to the new soft cover edition by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bottom line: This is the one that's considered to be THE Poe biography by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, which is good enough for me.

And while it's admittedly not light reading, you won't learn more about Poe -- or find a more reliable book on the subject -- anywhere else.

marta said...

Now I absolutely want this book.

JES said...

Marta, you might like PRODUCING a book like this almost as much as READING it.

In fact, hmm, there's an idea: a book of artifacts like this... from the life of a fictional person. (Surely that's been done???)