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October 29, 2009

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Rob V

Just to be clear, Poe was not a drug abuser or even a user, as your first paragraph implies. Second, your description of his works is very one-sided and far too generalized. Judging him by his horror works is unfair considering that the majority of his works are not horror - you ignore the sci-fi, the adventure tales, the detective stories and, most importantly, his comedy works. In fact, Poe wrote more humor than horror.

When he did write horror, it was for the sake of his mainstream reading audience, not for any internal struggles or issues - Poe never wrote an autobiography, after all.

Additionally, Poe was aware of his alcohol problem and, so, did the best he could to avoid drinking - including one period of 18 months at the end of his life (despite the assertion here that Poe "frequently abused alcohol, especially toward his end"). Evidence also suggests he went four years without a drop of alcohol. Of course, he was not found drunk in Baltimore - the doctor who attended him made that clear. He was found sick and dying in Baltimore, likely due to medical reasons (not so unusual, is it?).

200 years after his birth, we simply must stop abusing Poe with lies, rumors, and exaggerated truths. The man was not perfect, nor was he so simple as these stories - and, as you say, these clichés - imply. Especially from a reputable organization, I expect more.

Rob V

My previous comment was, apparently, not approved. I was trying to correct some of the misinformation in this article. Rumor-mongering about Poe has existed for over 160 years but, I think, the true Poe is just as interesting as the Poe Myth which this article perpetuates.

National Portrait Gallery

Thank you for your comments.

However, we stand firmly by our post.

First, the inclusive disjunction in the first paragraph places Poe within a large set of creative individuals who have abused either drugs or alcohol or both, a subset of which is the number of artists who have abused alcohol. Poe abused alcohol; it is widely documented.

Second, though Poe may not have abused opium to the extent he abused alcohol (historians generally agree that much discussion of Poe’s alleged use of opium is based on hearsay), Kenneth Silverman records in EAP: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance the following story of a Poe encounter with laudanum in November of 1848:

"Instead of returning to his hotel, Poe bought two ounces of laudanum… Poe then swallowed about half the laudanum. It is a solution of powdered opium in alcohol, weaker in opium content than morphine or heroin. In Poe’s time it was administered through cotton earplugs to hallucinating patients in mental hospitals, but was easily obtained and also widely used as a tranquilizer. The drug works quickly, producing maximum respiratory depression in ten minutes, and its peak effect in twenty minutes. The ounce or so that Poe said he took, equivalent to about 300 milligrams of morphine, represents some thirty times the average dose. The quantity is by itself enough to be fatal, although he intended… to swallow the remaining ounce."

Although it might not be considered evidence of long-term abuse, taking a dose of laudanum thirty times the size of a typical dose could easily be construed as opium abuse. That Poe intended to take another dose of the same quantity would certainly mitigate most anyone’s claim that Poe, at least in this one instance, abused opium, though it was never our intention to make that claim in our original article.

Third, we paid great homage to Poe’s detective fiction; it was central to our article.

Fourth, we used the word “horror” twice; once in reference to Roderick Usher’s face, second when we said, “Typical of his horror is The Tell-tale Heart, an economically written…” And although we discussed Poe’s work as the unparalleled master and creator of the genre, the subject was hardly the isolated one in our discussion. It was noted, however, that the subtitle of your calendar included the word macabre, which is an archaic French term connoting nothing less than horror.

Fifth, yes, we chose to omit a discussion of Poe’s lighter works. We also tend to leave out of most of our discussions on Abraham Lincoln that he was a riverboat pilot; like Poe, he is simply known for greater works.

Sixth, we did not in any way abuse Poe with “lies, rumors, and exaggerated truths.” A reading list and references were at the bottom of our article and they serve well to document our discourse, though all items in our article fall under the general knowledge of Poe as discussed in multiple biographies.

For your reference, please consider the following from an article pending publication by NPG historian David Ward:
"Like the raven itself, Poe was a dark presence amidst the optimism of early American culture. Not for Poe the glorification of the individual or the celebration of nature as life-giving. He peeled back the underside of America and sketched a gothic world in which nothing, especially human motivation, was transparent, predictable, or even knowable . . . In America, his voice is still singular for the strength with which it spoke against the spirit of the age. Poe’s great subject was death and he seemed to court it in life as well as in art, dying early after proving himself unable to function in the society he anatomized remorselessly."

Seventh and last, no, it is not unusual to be sick or to die “due to medical reasons.” By definition, everyone will be sick or will die from some medically defined cause.

- Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery

Rob V

I know this is old news and I hope you'll pardon my passion for Poe! "General knowledge about Poe," as you say, is more wrong than not, usually based on a misunderstanding that Poe's works are not indicative of Poe the man.

Regarding Poe's death: the blog entry asserts that he was found drunk in Baltimore. Not true. As I was saying, he was likely sick, not drunk. That's all. Your response - "By definition, everyone will be sick or will die from some medically defined cause." - does not rescind the incorrect claim that Poe was found drunk before he "succumbed to death, embracing his obsession permanently." I think that one phrase is the biggest one I'd challenge here, hence my harping on rumor-mongering and horror works. Poe was not obsessed with death; he was obsessed with pleasing his readers. So, he occasionally gave them death (quite masterfully, hence the nickname "Master of the Macabre"). It does not, however, acknowledge his many works which are not death-related or which are not horror-related (again, he wrote more humor than horror). Call them "light" if you will, but they are among his greatest works. Still, I'd argue that his absolute greatest works ("The Fall of the House of Usher," "Tell-Tale Heart," "The Raven") are not great because of their macabre aspect, but because of their aesthetic perfection.

Oh, and please don't use Kenneth Silverman as your best Poe source. His connecting of the dots is suspicious at best. He presents facts quite well, but over-analyzes Poe (including the possibly untrue laudanum incident in November 1848) to the point where it reflects more of Silverman's pysche than Poe's. I recommend the work of Arthur Hobson Quinn or Scott Peeples. Really, no one should comment on Poe without them.

All the best! I love what you folks do there, and I think this blog is a nice touch (just read about Chester Arthur and Millard Fillmore; well done!).

National Portrait Gallery

As always, thanks for reading the NPG blog and for commenting. We stand by our original blog and subsequent comments, however. To address your recent comment, we posit the following:

1. From The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849 (Thomas & Jackson, G. K. Hall & Company, Boston, 1987):

7 October. Dr. Moran calls on Reverend William T. D. Clemm, a cousin of Poe's wife Virginia, at the parsonage of the Caroline Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Moran asks Clemm to perform to perform the services at Poe's funeral tomorrow, explaining the circumstances of his death: "Mr. Poe," said the Doctor, "came to Baltimore on his way to Philadelphia...Upon landing on the wharf from the Norfolk steamer, Mr. Poe was greeted by some of his old and former associates, who insisted that they should take a sociable glass of ardent spirits together for old acquaintance sake. To these persuasions the unfortunate poet yielded. This was the first drink he had taken for several months. Sad enough for Poe; it revived his latent appetite for drink, and the result was a terrible debach which ended with his death. He lost all his wardrobe; was clad in tattered garments, and had on, when found, an old straw hat which on one would have picked up in the street. His appearance and condition were pitiable in the extreme, and in that drunken and stupefied state he was brought to my hospital. Everything that medical skill and faithful nursing could suggest was done for him, but all to no purpose. He was unconscious or delirious during the entire time… with but one short interval."

Jackson and Thomas note that this statement of Moran's is reconstructed in Reverend Clemm's letter to E. R. Reynolds, February 20, 1889. Also cited is a corroborating letter by Joseph Evans Snodgrass who states that prior to Poe's hospitalization, he was "utterly stupefied with liquor" and had to be carried to a carriage "as if a corpse." Snodgrass lectured on temperance later on, and used Poe as an example of alcoholism; some scholars argue that Snodgrass imbued his temperance lectures with the Poe example, trying to give credibility to his arguments. However, this begs the question that if Poe did not give Snodgrass the ammunition, why would Snodgrass have used the author as an example in his temperance talks?

And while Silverman writes that when Poe was "apparently flooded with drink" when he was found out of doors and dismantled, physically and mentally, early biographer Hervey Allen notes, "When or how he took the drink is a futile discussion. There is no doubt he did."

2. Poe did not "occasionally" use death as a theme. It was a constant in his work. We would add that we agree with you in that Poe wrote many, many works of mighty aesthetic merit.

3. Kenneth Silverman's credibility as Poe biographer is not debatable. Silverman not only has a Pulitzer Prize in his pocket, but he also holds a Bancroft Prize in American History. Also, it should not be lost on us that Silverman was awarded the Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America for best critical and biographical work for Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance in 1992.

- Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery

Kevin Lyons

Who cares if Poe used drugs or not! He wrote good stories and thats all that matters. . .

Cathrine

Nearly all the artists for some drugs, because they could live a creative. No one shall be condemned because of the dependencies.

Anonymous

I have to agree with the earlier commenter. Kenneth Silverman, though a great biographer (hence the awards), did not do great work for his Poe biography. Though his "facts" are correct, he makes strange conclusions based on his misreading of those facts. Like most who do not spend a great deal of time studying Poe, he also overinflates Poe's alcohol use - we should all agree by now that his drunkenness was not perpetual, that when he drank it was merely one drink and, in truth, Poe took many steps to stay sober. Further, Silverman's psychological profile of Poe is, like the poster said, somewhat comical in how it reflects on the biographer more than the biographical subject.

John E Stapleton

Poe was actually a drug abuser but I do not agree the article was actually defamatory. As Kevin Lyons noted, it is actually quite common for geniuses from whatever background to exhibit some really quirky characters.

Recent research has also shown this to be liked to a mild form of autism.

Christopher Sandman

That's an interesting Daguerreotype of Poe. I have his description of the process on my website if anyone is interested along with the last Daguerreotype of him. It's pure Poe and an interesting read.

Here's the url:http://sandmancincinnati.com/fontayne-and-porter-daguerreotype

Zeke Fabian

This was very great and it was so interesting, I remember when I was in High school, our teacher required us to memorize the poem entitled "The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe". All of his poems was very great,and same thing with his biography. He is a very good biographer.

Apentium

He was a drug abuser you cannot deny that. As some others before noted, it is actually quite common for geniuses from whatever background to have publicly disliked behaviour - poets, artists are just like that. We adore them not because they are/were faultless people - we all love them for what they have achieved.

Pikalaina

Most of the people who are the greatest abuse drugs/alchohol. Just check out van gogh etc. It wont make them any less artist because of that. They create something beautiful and it wont matter on what influence they are.

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