Sunday, June 27, 2010

Oh, Poe

When a new biography of Edgar Poe comes out it gets right onto my to-be-read list, so I suppose it's some measure of how far behind I am that I am only now reading James M. Hutchisson's 2005 book, Poe. If you've been waiting all this time for my opinion I'm sorry. I'll try to read faster in the future.

Hutchisson's is the third major biography of the writer to come out in the last twenty years. Kenneth Silverman's Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance and Jeffrey Meyers' Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy were both excellent books. Silverman's study has been described as psychological, focusing on the mind of the man. Meyers looked more closely at Poe's writing and used it to illuminate events in his life. I wondered, what would Hutchisson bring that hadn't been covered before?

The answer, it seems, is his own point of view and interpretation of Poe's work. It makes for a pretty good read. Hutchisson's opinions are interesting, thought provoking, and occasionally frustrating.

An example would be his interpretation of what he sees as sexual imagery in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The fact that the narrator is excited by Dupin's imagination and the fact that they walk arm in arm is, we are told, Poe's signals that they are desirous of a “homosexual fling.” Similarly, the murdered women, who sleep in the same bed (not at all uncommon in the nineteenth century), are named L'Espanayes, which sounds a bit like “lesbians.” And their gate is “forcibly penetrated” by a man with a crowbar. Poe, it seems was giving his work sexual overtones that the common reader might miss.

I'm sorry, but . . . phooey. A twenty-first century scholar may see these things, but that's only because he is living in our post-Freudian world. To think that Poe deliberately intended this symbolic interpretation is almost as absurd as Marie Bonaparte's Freudian psychoanalysis of Poe by reading such symbolism as being unintended revelations.

There are a few other annoyances. Poe, we are told, was not a racist. I'm not sure what definition of racist is being employed here, but Poe definitely supported the institution of slavery based on the notion that black men were inferior. He was probably no more of a racist than the average slavery-supporting antebellum southerner. But as a man who had once helped a relative sell a slave (a fact not mentioned in this book) and a man who objected to northern writers partly because many of them were abolitionists, he was certainly no less of a racist.

And I may be nit-picking here, but I was disappointed when James Russell Lowell's famous description of Poe as “Three-fifths of him genius, and two-fifths sheer fudge” was misquoted with the wrong fractions. Not the worst mistake in the world, but since he gets the quote right only 76 pages earlier it does suggest the need for a bit of copy editing.

It sounds like I'm coming down a bit hard on this book.  In don't want to leave the impression that it isn't quite readable and interesting. Nonetheless, if you are looking for a biography of Edgar A. Poe, pick up the Silverman and the Meyers first.


Undine said...

Hutchisson's book has a lot of weird errors like the one you mentioned (although not as many as Nigel Barnes' recent bio.)

Me, I'm a traditionalist. I still maintain that Arthur Quinn wrote the only halfway decent Poe biography in existence. (Although, if you haven't read it, Edward Wagenknecht's "Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend" is worth a look. It's not a biography, exactly, but it's fairly interesting.)

Glenn Whidden said...

New stuff for my to-be-read list. Thank you.