A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe

  • By Mark Dawidziak
  • St. Martin’s Press
  • 288 pp.

The subject’s demise, like his tales, was spooky and unsettling.

A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe

What we know about Edgar Allan Poe’s final days comes across like the setup tease of a present-day thriller: an unknown man, apparently drunk, turns up semiconscious and zombie-like on a midnight street in Baltimore. He’s unkempt and dirty, in cheap, ill-fitting clothes. There’s something off about that; the clothes clearly belong to another.

He’s recognized, and a relative is called in to take charge. This relative coldly demurs: My nephew is drunk yet again. He’s all yours. Send him to the hospital.

There, the patient hovers between comatose stillness and garbled conversations with the blank walls of his room. When he comes to — in fits and starts over the next few days and nights — he manages a cogent exchange or two with the attending physician and his wife. But he sheds no light on the days leading up to his current plight. And as for the strange clothing, he’s at a loss to explain.

Then the patient suffers a stunning setback. After crying out through the night for an unknown “Reynolds,” he dies. The doctor is convinced that alcohol is not involved; some other affliction is to blame.

The perplexing demise of Poe, abuzz with bizarre details, may be enticing enough in its own right, but strange occurrences — suspicious, creepy, or downright melodramatic — seemed to bedevil him at every turn. Mark Dawidziak chronicles these lowlights in A Mystery of Mysteries, his brief biography of the 19th-century poet, essayist, and master of a nascent genre, the short story.

Dawidziak focuses first on Poe’s death, then backtracks, attempting to unpack and explain the curious events of his weirdly troubled life. Orphaned as a toddler, Poe loses his beloved foster mother while still a teenager, only to have his newly well-off foster father, with a Dickensian flourish, cut him off financially.

Dawidziak describes Poe’s crushing hand-to-mouth poverty with particular vigor. He’s forced to drop out of the recently established University of Virginia, enlists in the U.S. Army for a time, performs with distinction, then quits, again for financial reasons. Spinning off on another pipe dream, Poe tries to trade up through an appointment to West Point but soon abandons his place there, deliberately washing out after only a few months. As Dawidziak suggests, for Poe, it’s all shifting success schemes and blunted hopes, all desperate, youthful confusion.

Barely into his 20s, Poe then turns to editorial jobs, writing on the side. There’s not much money in this game, but there is a measure of celebrity as he finds his métier first in literary criticism and then in gothic horror inlaid in a pioneering frame. Aping Byron — and maybe the sullen, avenging Hamlet — Poe adopts black garb, and the brooding, malevolent narrators of his tales emerge, vicious to the bone. So, too, does his coolly rational detective, C. Auguste Dupin, the very first in a following horde of our culture’s literary and cinematic gumshoes, from Holmes to Marple to Spade to Starling.

But for all of Poe’s reputational gains, the penury persists. He moves in with his aunt, her young daughter, and his shut-in grandmother, living off the old woman’s pension as an Army widow, contributing support where he can. He’s found a happy menage at last, but not without a cringeworthy development: He weds his cousin Virginia, who is 13.

Dawidziak notes the buzz of scandal this creates but also cites a Poe authority or two who suggests the marriage was a platonic match. Judge for yourself here, but Dawidziak’s sources generally affirm that Eddy and Virginia’s was a deep and lasting love. When Virginia dies 11 years later, he is shattered, and the unnerving decline that marks his last two years begins.

Though bereaved, Poe is bleakly inspired to pursue a few wealthy widows with the aim of achieving comfortable domesticity. Dawidziak identifies three of them. If this revelation seems to underscore Poe’s unsteady state of mind in these moments, try this one: Only a few months before his demise, a bedraggled Poe turns up at the door of a friend, a Philadelphia artist. He tells the friend that three men were shadowing him on the train. He overheard them plotting to kill him, so he gave them the slip by jumping off midway through. The skeptical friend takes Poe in.

Dawidziak produces one stalwart academic who fingers the trio of brigands as the brothers of one of Poe’s matrimonial prospects, but most of his other authorities pooh-pooh the whole episode as hallucination, primly slipping it into the crazy file.

This bio’s mode of presentation is almost as striking as its subject’s life in that it departs, in the interest of drama, from the standard birth-to-death progression of the genre. Dawidziak’s chapters proceed in pairs, with short narratives from Poe’s final year alternating with flashbacks to significant moments from his life.

Equally distinctive is Dawidziak’s presentation of his research. He quotes sources in a unique way, supplying some citations from published Poe scholarship, but more often opting for “live” quotes from commentators interviewed directly. This produces a documentary effect akin to magazine journalism or even a podcast. It’s more au courant but might unnerve some purists. Still, casual readers may find it vibrant as they trace the eventful saga of the man who’s arguably influenced today’s popular literature, from Ruth Rendell to Stephen King, more than any other.

Bob Duffy, former academic and retired advertising agency vice president, is a Maryland-based author and critic.

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