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Junkie Edgar Allan Poe (and his women)

My notes after watching the BBC program last night.  God help us if this is the best program they can make about Poe.  I think the Philly Poe gospel needs to travel across the ocean. 

Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women

Presented by Denise Mina

Produced and directed by Louise Lockwood 

This program sets out to document the tragic relationships Poe had with women (his mother, foster mother and wife all died young of tuberculosis) and how they affected the female characters in his stories.  A bit like psycho-analyzing Poe through his stories, which I rarely find reliable and often leads to erroneous assumptions about Poe’s mental state.  I do like the idea of looking at the women in Poe’s stories through the lens of the women in his life, but I think when one does the reverse (look at his women through the lens of his stories), our vision of his biography is too distorted.  

As it opens, I am immediately suspicious.  There is a voiceover narrating from the short story, “Ligeia,” about the “excitement of my opium dreams.” This first person narration insinuates that it  is Poe himself talking, not a fictional narrator, especially when the narration is unaccompanied by the story’s title.  One not familiar with the story could easily assume this is Poe talking about himself.  Poe the opium taker?  Oh god, let’s hope this show doesn’t take that route (For the non-Poeists out there: it’s highly unlikely Poe ever smoked opium). 

And yes, my worst fears come true.  The program recounts Poe’s mysterious death and it’s complete nonsense.  Even though the actual evidence that Poe was drunk in his last days is scant, we get the proprietor of the Horse You Came in On Saloon (who looks more like the patron of the bar than an owner) talking about how Poe came to Baltimore and his first stop was this bar and he got drunk.  That’s the local lore, but there’s absolutely no evidence for it.  Every bar in Baltimore that was in existence in Poe’s time (and even some that were not) makes that claim.  Then the “proprietor” insinuates that Poe most likely took opium and heroin as well.  Grrr.  Here it comes: Poe the junkie! 

Mina narrates: “To find out why he passes away in such pitiful circumstances, I’m going to look back at his tragic life, exhuming his most significant relationships to see why his heart and his fiction grew so dark.” Pitiful, yes.  Drunk and drug fueled.  There’s no evidence of that.  

In recounting Poe’s Baltimore days, the program uses Poe’s story “Berenice” to help describe Poe’s relationship with Virginia.  Really?  This kind of reading succumbs to the easiest Poe stereotyping: Poe is just like his gloomy narrators. 

Then Baltimore Poe House Museum curator Jeff Jerome shows up and gives a bit of sanity to the film.  Other talking heads appear: Joanne Harris (author), Peter Semtner (Poe Richmond Museum curator who’s also quite good) and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (Poe Studies Association President).  When these Poeists start telling the story of Edgar and Virginia’s relationship, the program gains sound footing again.  So what is it going to be, fanciful extrapolations using fictional characters or factual narration of their actual lives. 

Pedant Alert! “Berenice” is not Poe’s first short story.  It’s not even his first horror story.  

Joanne Harris: “So much of what he writes exposes his own thought processes.”  That sounds like reading biography in fiction.  While that is possible sometimes, especially in the Romantic era in which Poe wrote, one has to be very careful about interpreting fiction as biography.  I think it should only be done if one has a good amount of historical fact to back up the suppositions.  For instance, it’s okay to mine Poe’s stories about the death of women because he not only had several women close to him die, but also because of his statement about the most poetical topic being the death of a beautiful young woman.  When the biography AND Poe’s own non-fictional words AND  the fiction converge, it’s a good idea to start digging.  However, in using a story like “Berenice” to analyze Poe’s marriage with Virginia, then I think the ground is shaky.  Not impossible, but one has to remember that even if you have a convergence, the characters are still fictional creations.  The narrator of “Berenice” is not Poe, nor is Berenice Virginia. 

Another talking head: Elizabeth Petrino (professor, she’s excellent) 

Now the unbelievable happens.  The program skips right over Poe’s career in Philadelphia, in spite of the fact that most of the stories mentioned so far (except “Berenice”) were written there.  The visual has Denise Mina stepping out of Poe’s house in Baltimore while she narrates how Poe goes to NY and starts writing caustic criticism for the Broadway Journal.  Philly Poe, you’ve been completely dissed! 

The story of the onset of Virginia’s consumption is told in front of the Poe Cottage in the Bronx.  I really wonder if the producers of this film were at all aware of Poe’s Philly home. You’d think it would have been a great place to film.  And it’s smack dab in the middle between Bmore and NY.  

I like that there is no character playing Poe in the program.  He exists only as the ghostly narrator’s voice.  The downside: this only serves to reinforce that Poe’s fictional narrators represent his own self as this narrator (Jeff Mash) reads both Poe’s stories and letters. 

And then the program commits the worst sin.  Mina narrates: “For three long years he [Poe] listens to Virginia’s cough or her silence.  Alcohol and writing are the only outlets for his suffering.  He writes compulsively, channeling his emotional turmoil into his work.  These are his most productive and creative years in which he composes works that would later be lauded as the most quintessentially Poe.”  As she says this, the visuals show the titles: “Tell-Tale Heart,” “Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  First of all, if these are the stories he wrote when Virginia was sick, then what was Poe channeling into his macabre works while he was happily married to her?  But the worst sin is that none of this happened in NY.  All of these works were written in Philadelphia.  In fact,  several of Poe’s great stories and his success in Phila were all BEFORE Virginia became sick.  When she did develop consumption, Poe had a hard time writing because he started drinking again.  Alcohol may have been an outlet for Poe’s sorrows, but it certainly didn’t help his writing.  When Poe drank, it seems evident from his friends’ accounts, he couldn’t write.  Alcohol incapacitated him.  If he was drinking, he wasn’t writing.  

Pedant Alert! The Raven “finally earns Poe the critical recognition he craves”  Not so.  The Raven gives Poe “popular” success.  Poetic celebrity is not critical recognition.  

Again the quotation from Ligeia about opium dreams is featured. Then Mina narrates:“Virginia’s death sends Poe spiraling out of control.  He’s back on the drink and starts taking the powerful opiate drug laudanum.”  Then Poe’s voiceover from the story “Eleonora.”  

Pedant Alert: “Ligeia” and “Eleonora” were written before Virginia died.  “Ligeia” in 1838 and “Eleonora” in 1841.  Virginia is not even sick until Jan 1842.  So, the stories do not reflect Poe’s feelings on Virginia’s death.  And cherrypicking moments of madness from Poe’s tales is a dishonest way to illustrate Poe’s psyche.  

But I’m mostly dismayed at the assertion that Poe was taking laudanum.  There’s no evidence he was a regular laudanum user.  In fact, he wrote in a letter that he tried to commit suicide with it, but that might have just been him crying out for help. Are there any records of anyone else saying he did take laudanum?  But most egregious is the sneaky way Poe is made into a drug addict.  First there’s the “opium dreams,” then the “laudanum,”  then Mina comes right out and says it: “In his drug-addled grief, Poe . . .”  The drunk, drug-addled madman Poe stereotype makes its full appearance.  This is a program not just about Poe’s relationships with women, but more specifically about the drunk, drug-addled madman Poe’s relationships with women.  Please.  

Talking head: Sara O’Dowd (Sarah Helen Whitman scholar) 

The actress playing Whitman is frumpy, older and not very attractive, hinting that Poe was now “frantically” pursuing desperate old maids.  Far from it with Whitman.  She was a few years older than Poe, but very attractive, intellectual and sociable.  And the program portrays her as a nutty ether-addict.  Finding the two most eccentric things about someone and using them to define her character is inaccurate biography.  To make matters worse, the program then uses the delusional relationship in the comic story “The Spectacles” to describe Poe’s courtship with Whitman.  Their breakup was sad, not ridiculous.  And again, the story was written before he met Whitman.  Then the actress recites one of Whitman’s love letters to Poe in the most ridiculous, histrionic way.  That’s not only a warped way of looking at their relationship, it’s also a disservice to someone expressing her very personal feelings for another. 

Film concludes with Poe’s mother, Eliza, as representative of all the female archetypes Poe sought in his life.  We finally see Poe portrayed, but it is as a toddler.  

And now we’re in Richmond (at Eliza Poe’s grave).  Three of the Poe cities visited.  But no Philly (nor Boston).  

Nice wrap up about Poe writing about the cataclysm of losing a beautiful woman again and again.  But the program has really failed to demonstrate this.  The evidence in each relationship is often a short story that was not actually about that particular event in his life.  The fictional narrators in each case were not speaking in autobiographical terms.  The theme of a beautiful dying woman is a reoccurring thread throughout Poe’s life.  But this program wrongly reweaves it out of all proportion.  The end result is a kind of bizarre tapestry that instead of  illustrating Poe’s biography, only reinforces the stereotype of the bizarre stereotypical Poe.  Enough already.  Can’t Poe ever be a successful, brilliant writer dogged by poverty?  Why does he always have to be the melancholic nutjob?  Eliza’s boy deserves better.  

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Reader Comments (2)

There's always a danger when one signs up to be interviewed for this kind of production. You do the best you can and say the right things and hope that your statements aren't spliced and reduced to something that fits the agenda of the production.

I haven't seen this yet but I'm already dismayed by what Ed has said in reviewing this BBC product.

I wanted to view this show since I'm in it but my stomach is churning just thinking that I'm associated with this hatchet job on Poe.

Thanks Ed for an excellent review.
November 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Jerome

I do think that's an interesting lens to take, but I agree with you. It's not entirely accurate. So thank you for talking about it here.

May 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Yeri

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