Saturday, June 2, 2012

Profile of a Cultural Icon

   There are certain people who have an impact which lasts long after they are gone.  This person is almost synonymous with the culture in which they were raised.  I have written articles about several classic Russian authors who would definitely be considered representatives of their culture. 
    In the United States there are several authors who are considered cultural icons.  Men such as Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) [1835-1910] and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) would certainly qualify.  Another author who would qualify as a cultural icon was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
    Poe was born to traveling actors in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809.  He was the second of three children. His brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, would also become a poet before his early death, and Poe’s sister, Rosalie Poe, would grow up to teach penmanship at a Richmond girls’ school.  Within three years of Poe’s birth both of his parents had died, and he was taken in by the wealthy tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife Frances Valentine Allan in Richmond, Virginia while Poe’s siblings went to live with other families. Mr. Allan would rear Poe to be a businessman and a Virginia gentleman, but Poe had dreams of being a writer in emulation of his childhood hero the British poet Lord Byron. Early poetic verses found written in a young Poe’s handwriting on the backs of Allan’s ledger sheets reveal how little interest Poe had in the tobacco business. By the age of thirteen, Poe had compiled enough poetry to publish a book, but his headmaster advised Allan against allowing this. 
    In 1826 Poe left Richmond to attend the University of Virginia, where he excelled in his classes while accumulating considerable debt. The miserly Allan had sent Poe to college with less than a third of the money he needed, and Poe soon took up gambling to raise money to pay his expenses. By the end of his first term Poe was so desperately poor that he burned his furniture to keep warm. 
    Humiliated by his poverty and furious with Allan for not providing enough funds in the first place, Poe returned to Richmond and visited the home of his fiancée Elmira Royster, only to discover that she had become engaged to another man in Poe’s absence.   The heartbroken Poe’s last few months in the Allan mansion were punctuated with increasing hostility towards Allan until Poe finally stormed out of the home in a quixotic quest to become a great poet and to find adventure. He accomplished the first objective by publishing his first book Tamerlane when he was only eighteen, and to achieve the second goal he enlisted in the United States Army. Two years later he heard that Frances Allan, the only mother he had ever known, was dying of tuberculosis and wanted to see him before she died. By the time Poe returned to Richmond she had already been buried. Poe and Allan briefly reconciled, and Allan helped Poe gain an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. 
   Before going to West Point, Poe published another volume of poetry. While there, Poe was offended to hear that Allan had remarried without telling him or even inviting him to the ceremony. Poe wrote to Allan detailing all the wrongs Allan had committed against him and threatened to get himself expelled from the academy. After only eight months at West Point Poe was thrown out, but he soon published yet another book.
   Broke and alone, Poe turned to Baltimore, his late father’s home, and called upon relatives in the city. One of Poe’s cousins robbed him in the night, but another relative, Poe’s aunt Maria Clemm, became a new mother to him and welcomed him into her home.  Clemm’s daughter Virginia first acted as a courier to carry letters to Poe’s lady loves but soon became the object of his desire. 
    While Poe was in Baltimore, Allan died, leaving Poe out of his will, which did, however, provide for an illegitimate child who Allan had never seen. At that point Poe was living in poverty, but had started publishing his short stories, one of which won a contest sponsored by the Saturday Visitor. The connections Poe established through the contest allowed him to publish more stories and to eventually gain an editorial position at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. It was at this magazine that Poe finally found his life’s work as a magazine writer. 
     Within a year Poe helped make the Messenger the most popular magazine in the south with his sensational stories as well as with his scathing book reviews. Poe soon developed a reputation as a fearless critic who not only attacked an author’s work but also insulted the author and the northern literary establishment. Poe targeted some of the most famous writers in the country.  One of his victims was the anthologist and editor Rufus Griswold.
    At the age of twenty-seven, Poe brought Maria and Virginia Clemm to Richmond and married his Virginia, who was not yet fourteen. The marriage proved a happy one, and the family is said to have enjoyed singing together at night. Virginia expressed her devotion to her husband in a Valentine poem now in the collection of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and Poe celebrated the joys of married life in his poem “Eulalie.”
    Dissatisfied with his low pay and lack of editorial control at the Messenger, Poe moved to New York City. In the wake of the financial crisis known as the “Panic of 1837,” Poe struggled to find magazine work and wrote his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
   After a year in New York, Poe moved to Philadelphia in 1838 and wrote for a number of different magazines. He served as editor of Burton’s and then Graham’s magazines while continuing to sell articles to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger and other journals.  In spite of his growing fame, Poe was still barely able to make a living. For the publication of his first book of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, he was only paid with twenty-five free copies of his book. He would soon become a champion for the cause of higher wages for writers as well as for an international copyright law. To change the face of the magazine industry, he proposed starting his own journal, but he failed to find the necessary funding.
    In the face of poverty Poe was still able to find solace at home with his wife and mother-in-law, but tragedy struck in 1842 when Poe’s wife contracted tuberculosis, the disease that had already claimed Poe’s mother, brother, and foster mother. 
    Always in search of better opportunities, Poe moved to New York again in 1844 and introduced himself to the city by perpetrating a hoax. His “news story” of a balloon trip across the ocean caused a sensation, and the public rushed to read everything about it—until Poe revealed that he had fooled them all.
     The January 1845 publication of The Raven made Poe a household name. He was now famous enough to draw large crowds to his lectures, and he was beginning to demand better pay for his work. He published two books that year, and briefly lived his dream of running his own magazine when he bought out the owners of the Broadway Journal. The failure of the venture, his wife’s deteriorating health, and rumors spreading about Poe’s relationship with a married woman, drove him out of the city in 1846. At this time he moved to a tiny cottage in the country. It was there, in the winter of 1847 that Virginia died at the age of twenty-four. Poe was devastated, and was unable to write for months. His critics assumed he would soon be dead. They were right. Poe only lived another two years and spent much of that time traveling from one city to the next giving lectures and finding backers for his latest proposed magazine project to be called The Stylus.
    While on lecture tour in Lowell, Massachusetts, Poe met and befriended Nancy Richmond. His idealized and platonic love of her inspired some of his greatest poetry, including “For Annie.” Since she remained married and unattainable, Poe attempted to marry the poetess Sarah Helen Whitman in Providence, but the engagement lasted only about one month. In Richmond he found his first fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton was now a widow, so began to court her again. Before he left Richmond on a trip to Philadelphia he considered himself engaged to her, and her letters from the time imply that she felt the same way. On the way to Philadelphia, Poe stopped in Baltimore and disappeared for five days. 
   He was found in the bar room of a public house that was being used as a polling place for an election. The magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass sent Poe to Washington College Hospital, where Poe spent the last days of his life far from home and surrounded by strangers. Neither Poe’s mother-in-law nor his fiancée knew what had become of him until they read about it in the newspapers. Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the age of forty. The exact cause of Poe’s death remains a mystery.
   Days after Poe’s death, his literary rival Rufus Griswold (1815-1857) wrote a libelous obituary of the author in a misguided attempt at revenge for some of the offensive things Poe had said and written about him. Griswold followed the obituary with a memoir in which he portrayed Poe as a drunken, womanizing madman with no morals and no friends.  Griswold’s attacks were meant to cause the public to dismiss Poe and his works, but the biography had exactly the opposite effect and instead drove the sales of Poe’s books higher than they had ever been during the author’s lifetime. Griswold’s distorted image of Poe created the Poe legend that lives to this day while Griswold is only remembered (if at all) as Poe’s first biographer.
   Poe is known as “the Father of the Murder Mystery”.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), creator of Sherlock Holmes, borrowed heavily from Poe’s writing when giving voice to his famous detective.  This is also true of any later author who has written mystery stories.  This is a very unique style of writing which Poe was very talented at producing. 
    Like many geniuses, Poe had his own personality quirks.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can make having a relationship difficult.  Based upon his biography, he had several difficulties in his relationships, but he was certainly a very talented man.  His stories have been read by numerous generations.  There have also been parodies made of Poe’s work. 
    For example, in the US television show “The Munsters” which aired in the 1960s, there was a cuckoo clock in the family’s living room which was actually the home of a raven.  Instead of hearing “cuckoo” every hour, the family would hear the raven say, “never more”, which was clearly parodying Poe’s famous story, The Raven.  
    In the US, we would now refer to such works as “psychological thrillers”.  This requires a certain writing style and an author who understands the working of the human mind.  The human mind is a very interesting thing to examine and we really do not understand its workings. 
    What brought about the death of this famous writer?  There is much speculation regarding this issue.  Theories range from alcoholism to Poe being murdered.   The University of Maryland Medical Center actually conducted an investigation into his death.  In an analysis almost 147 years after his death, doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center believe that writer Edgar Allan Poe may have died as a result of rabies, not from complications of alcoholism. Poe's medical case was reviewed by R. Michael Benitez, M.D., a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. His review is published in the September 1996 issue of Maryland Medical Journal.
    "No one can say conclusively that Poe died of rabies, since there was no autopsy after his death," says Dr. Benitez, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "However, the historical accounts of Poe's condition in the hospital a few days before his death point to a strong possibility that he had rabies."
    Poe was 40 years old when he died on October 7, 1849. He had traveled by train from Richmond, Virginia to Baltimore a few days earlier, on September 28. While in Richmond, he had proposed marriage to a woman who would have become his second wife. (His first wife had died). Poe intended to continue on to Philadelphia to finalize some business when he became ill.
    He was discovered lying unconscious on September 28 on a wooden plank outside Ryan's saloon on Lombard St. in Baltimore. He was taken to Washington College Hospital (now Church Hospital).
    Historical accounts of his hospitalization indicate that at first he was delirious with tremors and hallucinations; he then slipped into a coma. He emerged from the coma, was calm and lucid, but then lapsed again into a delirious state, became combative, and required restraint. He died on his fourth day in the hospital. According to an account published in the Maryland Historical Magazine in December 1978, the Baltimore Commissioner of Health, Dr. J.F.C. Handel certified that the cause of Poe's death was "congestion of the brain."
    In his analysis, Dr. Benitez examined all of the possible causes for delirium, which include trauma, vascular disorders in the brain, neurological problems such as epilepsy, and infections. Alcohol withdrawal is also a potential cause of tremors and delirium, and Poe was known to have abused alcohol and opiate drugs. However, the medical records indicate that Poe had abstained from alcohol for six months before his death, and there was no evidence of alcohol use when he was admitted.
    "In addition, it is unusual for patients suffering from alcohol withdrawal to become acutely ill, recover for a brief time, and then worsen and die," says Dr. Benitez, who adds that withdrawal from opiates does not produce the same scenario of symptoms as Poe's illness.
     Dr. Benitez says in the final stages of rabies, it is common for people to have periods of confusion that come and go, along with wide swings in pulse rate and other body functions, such as respiration and temperature. All of that occurred for Poe, according to medical records kept by John J. Moran, M.D. who cared for Poe in his final days. In addition, the median length of survival after the onset of serious symptoms is four days, which is exactly the number of days Poe was hospitalized before his death.
    Poe's doctor also wrote that while in the hospital, Poe refused alcohol he was offered and drank water only with great difficulty. Dr. Benitez says that seems to be a symptom of hydrophobia, a fear of water, which is a classic sign of rabies.
    Dr. Benitez theorizes that Poe may have gotten rabies from being bitten by one of his pets. He was known to have cats and other pets. Although there is no account that Poe had been bitten by an animal, it is interesting that in all the cases of human rabies in the United States from 1977 to 1994, people remembered being bitten in only 27 percent of those cases. In addition, people can have the infection for up to a year without major symptoms.
    The Poe case was presented originally to Dr. Benitez as part of a weekly meeting of medical center physicians, called the Clinical Pathologic Conference. It is an exercise in which a complex case is presented without a diagnosis, and physicians discuss how they would determine a patient's condition and course of treatment. Dr. Benitez did not know that the patient in question at this particular conference was Edgar Allan Poe.
    The idea to analyze Poe's death came from Philip A. Mackowiak, M.D., professor of medicine and vice-chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
    "Poe's death is one of the most mysterious deaths in literary history, and it provided us with an interesting case in which to discuss many principles of medicine," says Dr. Mackowiak, who runs the weekly Clinical Pathologic Conference at the medical center.
    Dr. Mackowiak agrees with Dr. Benitez that rabies was the most likely cause of Poe's death, based on the available evidence. He adds, though, that after Poe's death, his doctor went on the lecture circuit and gave varying accounts of the writer's final days. "The account on which Dr. Benitez based his findings was more consistent with rabies than with anything else, but the definitive cause of Poe's death will likely remain a mystery," says Dr. Mackowiak.
    Edgar Allan Poe is buried in a cemetery next to Westminster Hall at Fayette and Greene Streets, just one block from the University of Maryland Medical Center.2
    It appears that art imitates life.  His own death was certainly mysterious.  He was an American cultural icon who has become synonymous with murder and mystery and left this world with people asking, “What actually happened to him?” I believe that Poe could not have written a better story than was written by his own life.
                                                         End Notes
1) “Poe’s Life”  (accessed 6/1/12)
2) “Edgar Allan Poe Mystery”  (written 9/24/96, accessed 6/2/12)

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