Saturday, October 07, 2006


In early October 1849 on the day of a local election, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious and "in need of immediate assistance," according to the friend who found him, Dr. James E. Snodgrass. The doctor took him to the hospital. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, he was wearing clothes that were not his own. He died early on the morning of October 7. How he died is still a mystery. Many suggest he died of alcoholism. Others suggest foul play, perhaps while Poe was being used as a pawn in a ballot-box stuffing scheme. Perhaps he had cholera, or even rabies.

One of my favorite reads recently has been Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow. The novel addresses Poe's mysterious death in Baltimore in 1849 at the age of 40. Pearl, both a novelist and a literary scholar, attempts to present a historically accurate context of life in mid-nineteenth-century America. He also proposes his own theory of Poe's final days, rooted in extensive historical research. Narrated by fictional Quinton Clark, Pearl's novel is written in a style modelled on the vernacular style of the period, giving it a flavor of the period that is especially appealing.

The story opens with Clark's chance observation of Poe's unceremonius burial. Following the death of the great writer, the press of the time was kind to neither the author's work nor the circumstances surrounding his death. Clark vows to find the real-life inspiration for Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, the brilliant detective from a few of Poe's tales (which perhaps was the first real detective fiction and the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes). By finding the real Dupin and enlisting his help, Clark figures the truth behind the author's demise will be uncovered. His search leads to a convoluted tale of deceit and deception from Baltimore to Paris, set in rich historical detail and an authoritative cultural backdrop.

I love the combination of history, literature, and mystery in this book. As a professional historian and writer of academic monographs, I am intrigued by Pearl's creative way of presenting his own scholarship. His work is especially fascinating because of the way it attempts to transcend our usual categories of fiction and nonfiction. At times, as enjoyable as the book is, this tact seems unfair, giving the book too much authority whether one reads primarily as fiction or history. As one reviewer says of Pearl's novel, "In the guise of fiction he is able to present the various arguments and make sure his belief rules the day."

* * *

Poe keeps warm with Icarus as Son's little eye peers through....


Liz K. said...

You get the prize for best shawl pic ever.

I have been looking for the Pearl book in my local library, but they haven't acquired it yet. Argh!

Rachel said...

There's a new book out on Poe called the Beautiful Cigar Girl--sort of a popular history in the vein of Devil in the White City. It's about Poe's interest in trying to write about and solve a major unsolved murder case--kind of a Black Dahlia case of its time. I picked it up the other day and it looks really interesting. I don't know if it's anything you wouldn't know already, but it looks like a good read.

hillary said...

Great shawl picture. I love the Poe information too. More for my reading list.

Stephanie said...

Now that I've got time to read instead of write...I'll look at that. Huge Poe fan here.

(Fabulous place for a shawl pic too.)

TheAmpuT said...

Very timely, as I am knitting whilst listening to an audiobook collection of Poe this week. Now I know what I'm checking out next! (love the pic, btw)

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I never knew this about Poe--now I'm going to have to go read up...

Absinthe Knits


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