Rehabilitating Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was the finest American writer to be transformed into a "personality" in his own lifetime and, like François Villon, to be known less for his work than for his person. As is so often the case with figures of public celebrity, the facts of Poe's life have been obscured by layers of legend, many of them perpetuated in the learned literature by scholars who should know better. Jeffrey Meyers, a California professor who has given us sturdy biographies of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, makes a valuable contribution to Poe studies with his new life of the writer, particularly by distinguishing fact from long-standing fiction. He had an unenviable task, given the many Parson Weemses who have inserted their agenda into the biographical record.

Poe, as is well known, lived a miserable life. He was born on January 19, 1809, ill Boston (the same year, Meyers points out, as Mendelssohn, Darwin, Gladstone, Lincoln, and Tennyson, all of whom outlived Poe) to an alcoholic actor, David Poe, and an unstable actress, Eliza, who died in a state of semi-lunacy and deep poverty after David deserted the family. Young Edgar was adopted by a family friend, John Allan, a mean-spirited Scottish immigrant who gave the boy an admirable education but little else. The Allan family lived in the English village of Stoke Newington during Poe's childhood, and there he attended the school whose halls Daniel Defoe had graced...

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