Edgar A. Poe Analysis

Edgar A. Poe (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

There have been several stimulating reinterpretations of Poe’s writing in recent years, but a full-fledged, accurate, scholarly and readable life has not been available. Kenneth Silverman has remedied this deficiency by producing an engrossing life of the artist, rooted in a sensitivity to psychology and sources, an providing succinct, perceptive reading of the entire Poe canon.

As his subtitle indicates, Silverman traces the biographical thread in Poe’s poetry, criticism, and fiction, contending that he never recovered from his mother’s early death and his ambiguous plight as an orphan supported but never actually adopted by John Allan. Over and over again, Poe returns to the death of the loved one, the ideal woman, beautiful and maternal, the ethereal creature to whom Poe and his various narrators look for sustenance even while dreading the inevitable approach of death and the reanimation of the beloved dead one in the imagination of the bereaved one.

Silverman is no heavy-handed Freudian, and his biography is not thesis-ridden. On the contrary, he approaches Poe’s life and work as a single story upon which Poe worked an extraordinary number of variations. In the notes, Silverman reveals the body of psychological theory on which his interpretation rests. It is too important to ignore, but he does not claim more for it than he can demonstrate in his narrative.

Silverman also solves the problem of potting the plots of Poe’s work by giving summaries in several appendices. Poe aficionados, on the other hand, can relish the narrative as it plunges directly into interpretation which assumes basic familiarity with plot elements.

This is an exemplary biography, a major contribution not only to Poe scholarship but to American literary biography.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXVIII, December, 1991, p. 127.

Boston Globe. November 10, 1991, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, September 15, 1991, p. 1210.

Library Journal. CXVI, October 15, 1991, p. 82.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 24, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, December 22, 1991, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 27, 1991, p. 50.

The Village Voice. November 19, 1991, p. 71.

The Wall Street Journal. December 27, 1991, p. A8.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, November 24, 1991, p. 1.

Edgar A. Poe (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

There have been several stimulating reinterpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing in recent years, but a full-fledged accurate, scholarly, and readable life has not been available. Kenneth Silverman has remedied this deficiency by producing an engrossing life of the artist, rooted in a sensitivity to psychology and sources, and providing succinct, perceptive readings of the entire Poe canon.

As his subtitle indicates, Silverman traces the biographical thread in Poe’s poetry, criticism, and fiction, contending that Poe never recovered from his mother’s early death and his ambiguous plight as an orphan supported but never actually adopted by John Allan, a prosperous businessman and landowner. Silverman does a superb job of gleaning from meager evidence a picture of Allan as a hard man who nevertheless wanted to do right by his charge, believing that Poe should have a good education and a reasonable amount of monetary assistance. At the same time, Allan seems to have resented supporting a child not his own, holding the view that somehow Poe should make his own fortune as Allan had made his—although Allan, in fact had also dealt with a grudging guardian who deprived him of the advanced education and other refinements that befitted a man destined for success.

For his part, Poe seems to have resented his ambiguous status in the Allan home, at once demanding that he be treated like a son and yet remaining aloof, finding it hard to hold a place in his heart for Allan, who Poe sensed had made no room in his own for him. On the one hand, Allan made it possible for Poe to attend a year at the newly established University of Virginia. On the other hand, Allan shorted Poe in financial support, perhaps assuming that through frugality and resource (the chief distinctions of the self-made man) Poe would thrive. Poe, however, regarded himself as a gentleman; when he lacked funds, he did what the other gentlemen at Virginia did: He gambled. Then he blamed his losses on Allan’s miserliness.

So it would be for the rest of Poe’s youth and early manhood: constant appeals for Allan’s support, elaborate explanations for his poverty. Circumstances, in Poe’s view, always conspired to deprive him of his rightful place in the world. He would forsake the university after a year, then abandon a promising career at West Point, because he could not abide living with his contemporaries in a style lower than theirs. If Allan bore some responsibility in these early years for only half-outfitting Poe for success, Poe made matters worse by miring himself in self-pity and playing the beggar. Silverman reveals these aspects of Poe’s character without making overt judgments, preferring to show how Poe’s behavior led to wretchedness.

Feeling abandoned by the Allan family, Poe turned to Baltimore and to the remnants of his mother Eliza’s family, particularly to Maria Poe Clemm, his aunt, and to Virginia Poe Clemm, his first cousin, whom he married when she was thirteen. He never seems to have expressed an interest in his father, David Poe, who abandoned the family before Eliza’s death. Instead, Poe idealized women, transforming them into spiritual symbols. He was particularly attracted to ethereal creatures, who, like his mother, were doomed to die at a young age. Virginia would die in her mid-twenties, an invalid for years, and versions of her would figure in many of Poe’s tales of consumptive women destined to haunt his narrators’ imaginations—sometimes even returning from the grave and expressing the death-in-life, life-in-death syndrome that Silverman believes began with the death of Poe’s mother, whom he would mourn never-endingly, as fixated on the loved one as was the narrator in Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.”

Silverman is no heavy-handed Freudian, and his biography is not thesis-ridden. On the contrary, he approaches Poe’s life and work as a single story upon which Poe worked an extraordinary number of variations. In the notes, Silverman reveals the body of psychological theory on which his interpretation rests. It is too important to ignore, but he does not claim more for it than he can demonstrate in his narrative.

Poe began writing poetry in his teens, producing long poems by the age of fourteen and fixing on a definition of poetry as the production of pleasure that he was to reiterate throughout his career. Poetry should not be didactic; it should be about itself and claim an intensity of interest and unity of impression that captured the reader irrevocably, as though the work of art could itself function as a piece of eternity, complete in itself in a way that life...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)