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You mean Edgar Allan Poe wasn’t a degenerate creep?!?

January 21, 2010

A new image of Poe

Of course he was: Wastrel, gambler, spendthrift, racist, deadbeat, morbid neurotic, possible necrophiliac, hopeless drunk. Married a 13-year-old cousin, the same kind of thing that got Jerry Lee Lewis in so much trouble. But as a newly revealed portrait shows, he did not always look like a creep–indeed, for most of his career, he may have appeared robust, even charming.

This week Poe scholar and collector Cliff Krainik unveiled a watercolor by A.C. Smith, a portrait artist of the day, that shows a very different Poe –at work with pen and paper in hand, healthy, the hint of a smile on his lips, and without the cocked caterpillar mustache of more familiar images.

Krainik discovered the picture, which the AP reports has been authenticated, at an estate sale in 1978 in Charlottesville, Va. Immediately recognizing the subject as Poe, Krainik bought the painting for a few dollars. It’s expected to bring $30,000 to $50,000 when it’s sold at auction later this year.

Poe as we've known him.

“It actually represents Poe as he appeared to his contemporaries — a handsome, sophisticated young man on the rise,” Krainik says. “The daguerreotypes show him in his rather dissipated state, where he has gone through the difficulties of his life.”

The legend of Poe as a twisted degenerate who died in 1849 at age 40 –after being found delirious on a Baltimore street– is largely the work of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor, critic and literary enemy who wrote a biographical essay describing Poe as a depraved drug addict.

The macabre stories for which Poe is most famous also contributes to the mythology.

But those familiar daguerreotypes, made in the last years of Poe’s life, contribute to the image, too.

Griswold’s depiction was disputed by people who knew Poe well, but it held sway for generations. The Smith portrait, painted in Baltimore or Philadelphia about six years before Poe died, seems to show the man as his friends remembered him.

Indeed, let us remember that Poe was a genius, the greatest literary critic of his time, an endlessly inventive Romantic poet and short story writer. He virtually invented the horror story and the detective story –he coined the term “ratiocination” for the kind of deductive reasoning made famous by Sherlock Holmes.

Further, of his more than 60 short stories, about half are comic tales, with little or no hint of the macabre.

As Peter Ackroyd reports in his brief 2008 biography, Poe: A Life Cut Short, Poe produced his innovations by dint of hard, steady work under the direst conditions of poverty, hardship and his own self-destructive tendencies. Though it’s now known he did not abuse drugs, Poe was, clearly, a first-rate alcoholic.

Kraikin’s portrait of Poe goes on public display Saturday  and Sunday at Baltimore’s Westminster Hall, a former church. Poe’s grave is in the adjacent churchyard. Poe lived in Richmond, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, but Baltimore has the greatest claim on his legacy. His birthday, he would have been 201 on Tuesday, is celebrated in Charm City all week long.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. DeeBishoff permalink
    January 21, 2010 2:22 pm

    This year, for the first time since 1949, the “Poe Toaster” did not show up to leave the customary 3 red roses and bottle of cognac. Many fans are wondering why, perhaps he will come back next year.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 21, 2010 2:40 pm

      Yes, I saw that on the Internet, and would have mentioned it, but time did not allow. As a Baltimore native with a keen interest in reading and books, do you have any inside knowledge on who the Toaster is, or whether he’s part of some group or something?

      • DeeBishoff permalink
        January 21, 2010 3:45 pm

        There has been much speculation through the years. At one point, the former historian of Westminister Hall, Sam Porpore said he was the former toaster but someone else took over. Many do not believe him, they say his story changed with each telling. Some believe the current curator carries on the tradition but he steadfastly denies that. The current speculation, which I believe could be true, is that it was David Franks, a Baltimore poet who died last week. He was a Poe fan and according to an article I read, was an “outrageous prankster”. There are those however, who have seen the toaster and say Mr. Franks does not look like the person they have seen. Also, some people believe the toaster may have felt that the 200th anniversary may have been a good stopping place for the tradition. We will just have to wait until next year to see if anyone shows up.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 21, 2010 2:33 pm

    Still, the creepy image only serves to help sell Poe’s work, considering a lot of his subject matter. Always figured he liked that image.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 21, 2010 2:44 pm

      Except for his literary journalism, Poe was pretty much a wretched failure in life. It’s a mistake to think his genius was widely recognized by his peers. Apart from his reviews and essays, he was hardly known, and he made very little money from his writing. He had the rare success here and there, but like any garden-variety drunk, messed it up one way or another. I think he was a dandy, though, or as much of one as his poverty allowed.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        January 21, 2010 4:03 pm

        Yankee Doodle Dandy.

  3. Oline permalink
    January 21, 2010 2:36 pm

    Interesting. The annual Edgar Awards for mystery authors was just announced this week. Come visit mysteryscenemag.com/msblog for the list.
    Thank you, Chauncey, for writing this blog and keeping books coverage alive

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 21, 2010 2:45 pm

      Thanks, Oline. You, too. I understand Robert Crais will be in Delray, at the Murder on the Beach bookstore. I wish I’d known sooner. Just found out last night.

  4. Connie permalink
    January 21, 2010 5:08 pm

    I like my image of Poe as a degenerate. I’m glad you have allowed me to cling to it further.

    My favorite Poe story? Has to be “Cask of Amontillado.” Because it’s a great story. Just great! Or perhaps because I can name a few people I wouldn’t mind seeing bricked up in some alcove.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 22, 2010 12:14 pm

      Hmmm. A favorite Poe story…Well, I always liked The Imp of the Perverse, because it illustrates a bedeviling aspect of human character that few of us can — or want– to name, but which all of us experience. Some more often than others.

      Ah, Connie, we should have an amontillado party, eh? Say in the Herald basement? Right next to the dungeon where they used to keep the agate clerks?

  5. January 22, 2010 11:23 am

    I always loved the way the guy wrote. I figured he was this way in life to. It just seemed to close for him to not be talking about his dark side. Whooooooaaaa.

    The toaster has traveled to PurpleUmpkin. He is on his way. Scare Laugh Wooooaahhhahhh. Poe like an old English author did. Should of put on his grave “I told you I was sick” I think the guy is a ghost.

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 22, 2010 2:12 pm

    Chauncey and Connie–

    Can I join your party? I have a few acquaintances as well I think would fit quite comfortably in the alcove.

  7. Sarah Cruzen permalink
    November 7, 2011 7:18 pm

    I love Edgar Allan Poe , He is my favorite Writer . I don’t completely agree with the first paragraph however . He went through MANY MANY tough things through his life and them calling him a creep is just selfish and crude . And I have the maturity of knowing that they did that back in the 1800s , marry people younger than them . I am 13 . My favorite poem of his either Annabel Lee (In which he dedicated to his wive , Virginia Clemm Poe , who died of tuberculosis) or For Annie . Poe is , to me , A gentleman . He is a person that speaks from the heart.

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