Angels and Demons

By Robert Morgan

The author of Fallen Angel: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe muses on the fascinating life of the beloved writer.

The Whitman daguerreotype, courtesy of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum

Much we assume we know about Edgar Allan Poe turns out to be wrong. He was not a drug addict, though laudanum plays a part in several of his stories. Though famous for narratives of horror, where bodies are sometimes tortured and mutilated, he was himself gentle, courteous. Critical of rational thought and scientific method, he was nevertheless fascinated by science and kept abreast of discoveries and theories.

In research for the biography Fallen Angel, I was surprised to learn that Poe, celebrated for his Gothic fiction and poems such as “The Raven,” was a lover of the natural world and spent much time walking in fields and woods. Stories such as “The Domain of Arnheim” and “Landor’s Cottage” portray the natural world with enthusiasm much like that of his New England contemporaries, though with a southern flavor.

I did not know, until I studied his life in detail, that Poe appears to have believed his mother’s family of actors, musicians, and composers were Jewish. In the antisemitic United States of the nineteenth century he did not dare say so, but he could not resist dropping hints.

Poe was the only southerner among the pantheon of the American Renaissance. There has been a flood of Poe biographies since John H. Ingram’s Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions of the 1880s. It seems we feel that to understand the work we need to know the life, and to know the life we have to study the work. This is partly because Poe is unique, unlike anyone else.

Though we associate Poe with the horrific, the bizarre, he has been referred to as “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe.” What is it about Poe that makes readers feel kinship, given the tragic events of his life and in much of his writing? No one has referred to “Our Cousin, Mr. Whitman.” One clue may be found in the poem “Alone,” written when Poe was about twenty, expressing alienation and isolation. We all feel alienated at times. The young especially cherish melancholy and are sick with love. Poe reawakens those emotions. Poe’s popularity is partly based on sadness that seems to free us from illusions.

I structured Fallen Angel around women in Poe’s life. First was his mother, Eliza Arnold Poe, the beautiful actress who died when Poe was almost three. He had seen her made up for many roles, yet always return as herself. He wanted to believe she had been buried prematurely, would come back. All his heroines die, and many return in some fashion.

Eliza Arnold Poe, courtesy of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum

Poe wrote that the perfect subject for a poem is the death of a beautiful woman. But besides grief, he would feel guilt for possibly causing Eliza’s death. In “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” and several stories, this drama would be repeated.

At the age of seventeen Poe fell in love with a pretty neighbor, Elmira Royster. Her father broke up the attachment. That loss would haunt Poe for the rest of his life. But just before his death he would again become engaged to Elmira.

Among the writers of the American Renaissance, Poe had the greatest range. In his fiction he helped develop the horror story and science fiction, and invented the detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”  His poems would influence the symbolist movement. He was instrumental in inspiring analytical criticism, foreshadowing the New Criticism and deconstruction, and would be claimed by both the modernists and postmodernists. Because of his harsh reviews, Poe was labeled “the Tomahawk Man.”

Poe became famous for “The Gold-Bug” of 1843, where he mixes southern landscapes, placing the hills of the Blue Ridge on the coast of South Carolina. He became even more famous for “The Raven” in 1845. A notorious part of Poe’s legend was his marriage to his thirteen-year-old first cousin, Virginia Clemm, called “Sissy,” in 1836. Some say the marriage was never consummated, but the story “Eleonora” suggests the union became physical when Sissy was fifteen.

Poe was drawn to intellectual women, accomplished women. He would have an affair with the poet Fanny Osgood and perhaps father a child. After Virginia’s death in 1847, he would seek a capable woman to put his life in order, becoming engaged briefly to the poet Helen Whitman. He adored the already married Annie Richmond, a Madonna figure who seemed to offer absolution for his guilt.

Sometimes Poe sabotaged his best opportunities, victim of what he called “the Imp of the Perverse.” Seeking a government post in Washington, DC, he appeared drunk, coat wrong side out, and was escorted away. In 1842 Poe met the Rev. Rufus Griswold, who edited a popular anthology of American poetry. Griswold had little taste in poetry, but he did influence Poe to concentrate on poetry again, to write “The Raven” and “Ulalume,” and essays such as “The Poetic Principle.” Poe also began to lecture on poetry, and lecturing became his best source of income. After his death, the pious Mr. Griswold claimed to be Poe’s executor, and his attacks on Poe’s character increased Poe’s notoriety and fame.

In 1849 Poe returned to Richmond and became engaged to Elmira Shelton, now a widow. To please her he took the pledge to never drink again, and may have kept the promise. The mystery of his death has fascinated readers. When he left Elmira on September 26, 1849, she noticed he was feverish, ill. The next day he took the boat for Baltimore, and he was not seen again until October 3, barely conscious. Poe died on October 7. There are many theories about what killed him: alcohol poisoning, a rabid bat, diabetes. Those who suggest he died of tubercular meningitis are probably closer to the truth. He’d been exposed to TB all his life.

Throughout his life Poe had felt alienated, an orphan. The marriage to Virginia left him guilty, unsatisfied. His friendships did not prevent him from craving more. Poe’s deepest bond was with memories of his mother and with readers, whose affections reach across boundaries of time, language, and geography. For almost two centuries, readers have treasured Poe’s mysteries, wit, lyricism, exotic scenes, and playfulness. Poe is fun.

Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan has published more than twenty-five books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including the bestselling Boone: A Biography. His novel Gap Creek was a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book, and an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He is the Kappa Alpha Professor of English Emeritus at Cornell University.

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Cover of "Fallen Angel"

In Fallen Angel: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, acclaimed novelist and poet Robert Morgan offers a new biography of this gifted, complicated author. Focusing on Poe’s personal relationships, Morgan chronicles how several women influenced his life and art, from his mother, Eliza Poe, to Elmira Royster Shelton, his first and last love. Morgan also shows that Poe, known for his Gothic and supernatural writing, was also a poet of the natural world who helped invent the detective story, science fiction, analytical criticism, and symbolist aesthetics. Though he died at age forty, Poe left behind works of great originality and vision that Fallen Angel explores with depth and feeling.

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