"He had, to morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species; only the hard wish to succeed
- not shine, not serve - succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit." He was "irascible, envious..." He possessed "hardly any virtue."
Daniel Stashower wrote Teller of Tales, the widely acclaimed award-winning biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. Stashower is a winner of the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective and Crime. In this painstaking examination of the life of Edgar Allan Poe seen through the mystery of the cigar girl, Mary Rogers of New York, he has again excelled in his field.
"Just think of what he did in his offhand, prodigal fashion, seldom troubling to repeat a success, but pushing on to some new achievement."
"This marvelous lord of rhythmic expression..."
The first quote above was composed by Poe's enemy after his demise. Rufus Griswold was a fellow writer whose work Poe had slammed venomously, yet if acrimonious and vengeful, it is hardly unfair. Poe was a shameless drunkard and a whiner when down, arrogant and solipsistic when at the top of his game. He was down a great deal more than he was up, and neither condition won friends. American newspapers at his death were quick to point this out. But in England, where he was known mainly for his literary gifts and not for his slimy dealings with his creditors or his questionable
affaires de coeur, Poe was mourned. The second and third quotes are from Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. Doyle unconditionally praised Poe's prodigious skill as perhaps the first American mystery writer, certainly the first of any note, while Wilde admired his dark, alliterative poetry.
Poe would certainly be vindicated to know that Americans now recognize his abilities. In his lifetime, he made only a small splash here and there, always destroying his good chances by making bad choices. He was, for example, sought after as a reader of his own poems, notably
"The Raven," which he presented with elegant and dramatic gravitas, but "the imp of the perverse" about which he once wrote provoked him to show up at one important occasion and read one of his early and egregiously turgid works, so that much of the audience was gone in ten minutes. His reading engagements dried up.
An orphan who was deeply scarred by the tragic death of his delicate mother, Poe never believed that he was loved and tested the limits of every relationship to the breaking point and beyond. Adopted by a wealthy entrepreneur, he took the college education his benefactor had sworn to give him and stomped it in the dirt, acquiring towering gambling debts and gaining a reputation as a hard-drinking punkster. Yet he also garnered kudos for some of his academic work from two former presidents of the United States who sat on the boards of the University of Virginia. It was either feast or famine with Poe. He flourished for a time as a literary editor, and at another time was seen in ragged attire collapsed in front of a barroom, where he had been hanging about hoping to get free drinks in exchange for his votes in a local election.
His saving grace was a remarkably analytical mind, possibly of genius proportions, which allowed him to perfect the art of deduction. He took a special interest in the shocking slaughter of a beautiful young lady named Mary Rogers whose occupation, selling cigars, had brought her the attentions of dozens of men, some of them less than wholesome. Mary was on display in the cigar store, a draw to the customers, and eventually this semi-respectable occupation led to her violent death, apparently strangled by her own petticoats after being savagely raped, her dead body tossed into the river. Poe turned Mary Rogers into Marie Roget, altering the location and the names but keeping the facts nearly intact. He wrote the story as a serial, fully confident that his final installment, in which his detective resolved the case by artful deduction, would at last secure him the fame he longed for. However, real events intervened in a most ironic twist, leaving the mystery master bamboozled by undeniable fact.
This is a story told by a master tale-teller. Stashower has taken well-known documentation and turned it into a true story about a fictional story, interweaving the happenings in Poe's life, his literature, and the scandalous forensics of a true-crime thriller. He makes his case: Poe broke new ground when he attempted to investigate by fictional means a factual murder. That it backfired is the essence of Poe - the imp of the perverse seemed always to be sitting on the poet's shoulder, directing him to do that which would, in the end, turn his finest efforts into abysmal failure.
No wonder Poe's raven cried, "Nevermore."