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Issue Date:  November 4, 2005

By James M. Hutchisson
University Press of Mississippi,
290 pages, $30
Poe's role in the story of American literature

Reviewed by ANTONIA RYAN

In his new biography of Edgar Allan Poe, James M. Hutchisson, a professor of American literature and Southern studies at The Citadel, Charleston, S.C., means to provide an introduction to the famous poet for the general reader interested in his life, his work and his role in the shaping of American letters. Mr. Hutchisson’s forays into literary criticism are not always convincing, but he does paint Poe’s daily world well, and he conveys a real affection for his subject.

More than many other biographies, writes Mr. Hutchisson, his focuses on Poe’s workaday existence in the magazine business. By this he means to counteract what he says is a tendency to “shroud Poe’s life in mystery and obscurity.” Yes, Poe wrote the eerie tales we remember him for, but during daylight hours Poe labored away evaluating manuscripts and penning “close to one thousand essays, reviews, articles, columns and critical notices” in editorial positions at several magazines. Mr. Hutchisson calls him “arguably the main protagonist in the story of the building of American literature.”

In 1835, Poe started at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Va., as a right-hand man to the editor. Later, Poe served editorial stints at two Philadelphia journals, Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine (1838-1840) and Graham’s (1840-1842). “Flaubert once famously declared that the writer should be ‘bourgeois’ in his life so that he could be ‘mad’ in his art,” writes Mr. Hutchisson. “That description would fit Poe well at this time.”

Poe, who lived from 1809-1849, once said that the tendency of his age was “magazine-ward.” In America, magazines were a relatively new form, and they differed from the more specialized and literate offerings of British journals. Americans instead wanted brisk articles that could be read in one sitting.

Americans were then also trying to create their own national literature, one that could stand up to critics in Britain and on the Continent. The New England literary establishment constantly puffed books by authors from the United States, no matter their quality. Poe was determined to cut through the hype. He said in one of his reviews that his countrymen “adhere pertinaciously to the ... gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American.”

Poe’s razor tongue boosted the popularity of the magazines where he worked. For example, George Graham started off his new magazine with a circulation of 5,000; by the time Poe resigned, its circulation was 40,000. However, as Mr. Hutchisson points out, Poe and his wife, Virginia, remained poor even when he made his editors rich.

Sometimes it was the salary, but most of the time Poe’s poverty was the fault of his own demons. Everyone knew he had an alcohol problem. His drinking binges led to his break with the Messenger’s editor, Thomas White, and brought constant damage to his reputation. He frequently hit people up for money and couldn’t hold on to friends. Even his reviews could cross the line, as Poe often picked unfairly on writers whose renown he envied.

Poe spent his last years trying unsuccessfully to get support for the literary magazine he dreamed of starting on his own, which he planned to use in order to “elevate the standards of American art.” He died in Boston at age 40 of what Mr. Hutchisson says was actually a brain tumor, though many people at the time thought it was due to alcohol poisoning.

Much of the story of Poe’s life is a sad one. But tormented though he was, no one can be in despair all the time. His satirical story “How to Write a Blackwood Article” shows a lighter side of the man whom many Americans know as the enigma staring out of the famous daguerreotype on the cover of Poe. One of Mr. Hutchisson’s accomplishments in this biography is to show all sides of this complex character.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 4, 2005

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