The Man Who Was Poe is set in the port city of Providence. It is recreated by Avi in rich images of old neighborhoods and wooden ships that traded with the other ports of the world. Woven into the images of the city are historical figures such as Edgar Allan Poe and Mrs. Whitman, the woman he hoped to marry. Fog plays an important role in events, hiding or disguising figures who move about dark streets and across the city's piers.
The Man Who Was Poe resembles a play, with its events taking place in discreet scenes such as Edmund's room and the cemetery; each setting serves as a stage, limiting the action to its boundaries. Within each setting are clues to be discovered. At first it is the mysterious Dupin (Poe) who spots the important details and interprets them, but the logic he uses seems to be a habit of thinking, because Edmund picks up on it and eventually is able to identify clues and make some conclusions of his own. Organizing The Man Who Was Poe as if it were a drama gives the novel a strong you-are-there tone, with characters and clues standing out in high relief from scene to scene, making the settings and people easy to visualize.
The Edgar Allan Poe of The Man Who Was Poe is an alcoholic whose heavy drinking makes him abusive and delusional—he frequently mistakes people for the spirits of the dead. His alcoholism is ruining his life, making him seem like a low-life to many who meet him. His emotional intensity is almost like insanity, wherein he imagines amazing events in his surroundings, but this socially acceptable artistic temperament is distorted by his alcoholic hazes, and he often forgets what he has been doing. As a portrait of how alcohol abuse can destroy even a great mind, Avi's Poe is a striking figure—one unlikely to make alcohol abuse appear to be anything better than stupid, and often downright sickening.
1. At present, there are two competing images of Poe the man. One depicts him as a dissolute alcoholic and drug abuser whose tales evoked his sexual fantasies. The other says that he was beset by a genetic disease, and that he was a strong, determined man whose reputation was ruined by people who disliked him. Why the disagreement? What is the evidence, either way?
2. Who is Poe's Auguste Dupin? Where may he be found? What is his historical importance? What is his importance to literature?
3. Edmund's Providence has a system of law enforcement that seems very different from modern ones. The events of The Man Who Was Poe take place between 1847 and 1849. How was law enforcement organized in Providence at that time? Where would Throck fit in?
4. Why would Edmund's mother have to come to America from London to get a divorce?
5. How close does The Man Who Was Poe come to reading like Poe's stories of Auguste Dupin? Does the character Poe use techniques similar to those of Dupin?
6. Where does Avi do his better work, in historical novels such as The Man Who Was Poe or in modern realistic novels such as Nothing but the Truth?
7. A few of Poe's stories of detection are mentioned in The Man Who Was Poe. Which ones? What is each about? Why would each stir the imaginations of readers, maybe even making them want to become detectives themselves?
Avi has written several historical novels for young people, with eighteenth-century America being of particular interest to him. For instance, The Fighting Ground is an account of a day in the life of a thirteen-year-old boy during the Revolutionary War. His experience of battle is harrowing and dispels his romantic notions of combat. Since 1987, Avi's historical fiction has tended to focus on his adopted home town, Providence. In 1988, he set his ghost story Something Upstairs in Providence; where the ghost of a slave haunts an old house. The ghosts in The Man Who Was Poe are imaginary, products of Poe's feverish, alcohol-clouded mind, but in The Man Who Was Poe, Avi captures some of what early nineteenth-century Providence was like. The Man Who Was Poe also indicates some of Avi's interest in the history of seamanship: There is a daring chase across bay waters in a storm. In 1977's Captain Grey, a boy is kidnapped by pirates, and the novel indicates Avi's early interest in the sea. He revisits the sea more sweepingly in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, 1991, in which a young woman learns to take charge of her life while surviving a mutiny, storms, and other dangers.
Benson, Sonia. "Avi." In Something about the Author. Volume 71. Ed. Diane Telgen. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993, pp. 7-15. Benson lists Avi's books and summarizes his life. She includes an informative interview with Avi.
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An introduction to Poe's works for students.
Carlson, Eric W. Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. A gathering of essays about different aspects of Poe's writings.
Dayan, Joan. Fables of the Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Dayan's study of Poe as a philosopher can offer insight into his portrayal in The Man Who Was...