The Poe Log

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849 is not a new biography of the life, loves, and literary misadventures of Edgar Allan Poe, nor is it a new critical study of the gothic stories that he made famous in nineteenth century American literature. It is instead, as the title so succinctly suggests, a log, a compilation, an edited series of miscellaneous bits of biographical data which chart Poe’s life (at least those aspects of his life which can be validated by means of publications, letters, public records, and so on) on a year-by-year, month-by-month, almost day-by-day basis.

This book alone will not put the lie to those who relegate Poe to the realms of adolescent literature. It does not really have to, however, for recent studies by phenomenological, structuralist, and poststructuralist critics have already begun to justify and give respectability to what loyal Poe followers have always intuitively believed—that Poe was a tortured genius who, perhaps more than any other writer of fiction in the nineteenth century, understood the nature of narrative at its most complex. Stories by Poe which once were the province of teenagers looking for a mysterious yarn, tales such as “The Gold-Bug,” “The Purloined Letter,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Ligeia,” have more recently been analyzed carefully for their self-conscious manipulation of narrative devices. Consequently, Poe is no longer seen as a third-rate hack who wrote some clever, but not really profound, gothic short stories, but rather as a master of fictional technique.

The general reader, if asked about Poe, is likely to fall back upon a stock of half-remembered biographical lore: that Poe was a heroin addict; that he married his prepubescent cousin; that he was an alcoholic who died in the gutter, a compulsive gambler, a charlatan, a cheat, an altogether vicious, vindictive, psychotic little man.

If nothing else, The Poe Log, by the sheer massiveness of its bulk and the authority of its detail, should set straight all these gossipy and titillating claims about Poe’s life. For example, he was not addicted to heroin, but rather probably read about it in the works of other writers and thus could refer to it knowingly in his own stories. Although he did gamble during his university days and became indebted to some of his classmates, this was only a youthful indiscretion. Although Poe did indeed have a drinking problem, he was not a heavy drinker; he was simply one of those people for whom even a glass or two of wine was too much. He was not a charlatan, although he did perpetuate more than one playfully successful hoax on the American public with his writing. Yes, he did marry his cousin when she was only fourteen years old, but marriage between cousins was not that unusual in the mid-nineteenth century, and it certainly was not unusual then for a fourteen-year-old girl to be considered marriageable. Moreover, although it is true that Poe apparently died after being found drunk and wandering about on the streets of Baltimore, such a drinking spree was far from characteristic. Finally, in spite of the fact that Poe’s stories are filled with characters who exhibit psychotic or extremely neurotic behavior, there is no indication that Poe himself suffered from any form of mental illness.

The Poe Log is divided into eleven sections, each one representing a major unit or period in Poe’s life, and each one prefaced by a brief narrative summary of the major events referred to in that section. To further orient the reader, the book also contains seventy daguerreotypes, engravings, and photographs of Poe and those who knew him; thirty-five pages of biographical notes on all those persons mentioned in the text; twenty pages listing all the sources of all the material (including its location in libraries, archives, and private collections); and a fifty-page, double-columned, small-print comprehensive index. All told, it is a formidable piece of work, valuable for the scholar and interesting to the layperson.

The first major period of Poe’s life was dominated by his always tense relationship with his guardian, John Allan, and his short-lived experiences with military life, first in the army and then at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The items that Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson include in these early sections are typical of the rest of the volume; they range radically from the significant to the trivial. Nevertheless, even the trivial details—for example, a note that John Allan ordered a crib made in 1812 just after he took in the orphaned Poe, or a citation of a ledger entry in 1814 that Allan paid...

(The entire section is 1923 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, September, 1987, p. 130.

The New Criterion. VI, November, 1987, p. 17.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 8, 1988, p. 40.

The Virginia Quarterly. LXIV, Winter, 1988, p. 8.