Wednesday, October 07, 2009

What Happened to Edgar?

(Editor’s note: In 1998, while working for American History magazine, I reviewed a then new non-fiction book called Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, written by John Evangelist Walsh. I also had the chance to speak briefly with Walsh about his longstanding interest in Poe. With today being the 160th anniversary of the American macabrist’s perishing, I’ve decided to republish both pieces here for your entertainment.)

Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe
by John Evangelist Walsh
(Rutgers University Press, 180 pages)

It seems only fitting that the demise of 19th-century writer, poet, and critic Edgar Allan Poe--the man who was so instrumental in creating mystery fiction as we know it today--should itself be shrouded in mystery.

The bare facts of the case are these: In the fall of 1849, Poe, then 40 years old, left Richmond, Virginia, bound for his home in New York City. He was in the midst of a lecture tour, designed to introduce audiences to his planned new literary magazine, The Stylus, but his Richmond stopover combined business with pleasure: While there, he had been visiting the widow Elmira Shelton, a childhood friend he was soon expected to marry. Only his need to complete a minor editorial commission and retrieve an elderly guest for the wedding had sent him from Elmira’s embrace back to New York. He was expected to be gone a couple of weeks, returning to Virginia in plenty of time to complete the nuptial preparations.

But he never made it back. In fact, after departing Richmond, he disappeared. Only a week later did he resurface in Baltimore, in “shocking condition”--dressed shabbily and suffering from severe inebriation. He died a few days later, after periods of “violent delirium,” never saying where he’d been since he started north ... or with whom.

For the last century and a half, it’s been thought that Poe perished from complications of an alcoholic debauch (despite his having just sworn to his fiancée that he would remain sober). Or, more incredibly, that he’d been drugged by political thugs and forced to vote at multiple Baltimore polling booths in a congressional election, before being abandoned to overexposure. However, literary sleuth John Evangelist Walsh, author of the award-winning Poe the Detective: The Curious Circumstances Behind the Mystery of Marie Roget (1968), makes thorough use of the scant evidence available to arrive at an unexpected--but well thought out and articulated--solution, one that blames both Poe and others for the writer’s fate. Midnight Dreary is a fine piece of scholarship, with twists and turns and hidden agendas enough to keep even veteran whodunit readers enthralled.

* * *

Although John Evangelist Walsh has written biographies of other historical figures, from Robert Frost to Emily Dickinson to Abraham Lincoln, Midnight Dreary is his third study of Edgar Allan Poe. Why does this 71-year-old Wisconsin resident find Poe so intriguing? “It’s hard to say exactly,” Walsh remarks. “I think I read my first Poe story when I was about 12 years old, and I’ve appreciated him ever since. I believe he was a great writer, and if he had lived even another 10 years, he might now be considered America’s greatest literary talent. He had that much potential.”

Walsh explains that he has been thinking for “at least 20, 30 years” of writing a book about the peculiar circumstances of Poe’s death in 1849. “But I didn’t start investigating the case way back then. The idea just sort of grew on me, and occasionally I would do a few weeks of study on the matter, then the project would fade into the background as I wrote other books. It’s remarkable that more people haven’t been interested in this subject before, considering that Poe is probably the most actively studied American literary figure.”

Even after all his years of research, though, Walsh admits that one question about Poe’s death still haunts him: “In the book, I say that alcohol was forced on him at the end, and that he died in part from a head injury, perhaps as a result of a fight. But I’ve often wondered if the men who made him drink didn’t also give him a beating. And did they realize that he might die from his injuries? In that case, it wasn’t just manslaughter. It was murder.”

No comments: