I have not read a good book in months. After suffering through The Hunger Games series and the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, I was craving something straightforward, so I turned to nonfiction. A few weeks ago I had the misfortune of viewing a travesty of a film titled The Raven; this spiked my curiosity regarding the actual life of Edgar Allan Poe, so I invested in James M. Hutchisson’s aptly titled biography, Poe. You can’t really mess up the plot with a biography, so I felt relatively safe as I started this book, and overall it was a refreshing and educational change of pace.
Hutchisson smoothly outlines a life marred by tragedy and poverty, as Poe always seemed to reside right on the periphery of success. Starting with the death of his birth mother, Elizabeth, Poe systematically lost every instrumental woman in his life (with the exception of his aunt, Marie Clem). Constantly seeking approval, young Edgar grew up deprived of maternal affection while dealing with the hatred of his foster father. Poe was forced to abandon an education at the University of Virginia due to gambling debts and general debauchery, and later he managed to get himself dishonorable discharged from West Point. In the midst of these failures at organized institutions, however, Poe became increasingly grounded in his writing style and technique, and thus spent the majority of his career crafting stories and poems by night and working as an editor and critic by day for one magazine or another.
While Poe ultimately achieved a brief glimmer of success upon his publication of “The Raven,” he was primarily known in his time as a harsh and often cruel literary critic with a penchant for over-indulging in alcohol. It was not until after World War I that American literature become canonically acceptable, and thereby analyzed; thus Poe finally came to be respected as a talented and innovative author.
The only aspect of Poe to leave me marginally annoyed was the somewhat one-sided analysis of Poe’s works. Biographies of this nature tend to emphasize only one type of analysis with a disregard for the other dozens of interpretations available. I understand that it is a biography and not a book of criticism, but my obsession with analysis forces me to take note of this sort of thing. Hutchisson specifically calls out the Poe critics that interpret all Poe protagonists as a version of Poe himself (geez how many times can I say “Poe” in one sentence?!) However, Hutchisson himself interprets every character and place as a veiled discussion of Poe-specifically, of the author’s attempt to deal with the death of his wife, Virginia. There is no doubt in my mind that out of the dozens of poems and stories written by Poe, some of them concern his marriage and the subsequent death of his wife – the problem is that Hutchisson struggles to force most of Poe’s works into this paradigm, which makes for a rather uncomfortable fit. Sure, Poe was haunted by unfortunate death and almost constant loss throughout his life, but maybe sometimes he just felt like writing a story about nothing more than a murderous orangutan.
All things considered, Poe is an enlightening look at the life of one of America’s most impressive storytellers. Poe as a man seems to be most widely remembered for his cruel criticism, melodramatic tendencies, and his love of the bottle, but through his countless dedication to his stories, poems, and essays, he has finally attained the respect he deserves as a writer.