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