Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy by Jeffrey Meyers

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Edgar Allan Poe

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Poet, critic, creator of the detective story, one of the leading progenitors of horror fiction, author of some of the finest and most widely read tales in the English language, Edgar Allan Poe still awaits a biographer who will combine a penetrating study of his works with a narrative of his life, the one illuminating and illuminated by the other.

In 1991, Kenneth Silverman published EDGAR A. POE: MOURNFUL AND NEVER-ENDING REMEMBRANCE, the first full-scale biography of Poe in some fifty years. In addition to his own extensive research, Silverman had the benefit of Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson’s THE POE LOG: A DOCUMENTARY LIFE OF EDGAR ALLAN POE 1809-1849 (1987), an extraordinarily detailed factual chronicle of Poe’s life. Silverman writes with a historian’s respect for evidence. Unlike many contemporary biographies, his thoroughly documented life of Poe avoids irresponsible conjecture on matters both large and small. Silverman’s interpretive reading of Poe’s life and works, however, heavily influenced by psychoanalytic theory, is less satisfactory.

Jeffrey Meyers, a prolific biographer whose recent subjects include Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Ernest Hemingway, has produced a life of Poe which is much shorter than Silverman’s, less cautious, with more narrative drive. (Meyers notes that he had completed his book before Silverman’s was published.)

Like Silverman, Meyers fails to deal adequately with Poe as a writer. The single most striking fact about Poe’s writing is the extent to which, throughout his career, he appropriated for his own use the words of others, sometimes refashioning them, often interweaving them virtually intact with his own words and other borrowings. Here is a pattern that cries out for elucidation by a biographer/critic. To acknowledge this pattern is not to deny Poe’s genuine originality; to ignore or downplay it is to perpetuate a significantly distorted understanding of his life and works.

Meyers’ text is supplemented by illustrations, notes, a brief bibliography, and an index.