A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe
By Mark Dawidziak
St. Martin's Press; hardcover; $28.99
Mark Dawidziak is an internationally recognized Mark Twain scholar, and the author or editor of about 25 books, including The Columbo Phile, The Night Stalker Companion, and Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone. He spent 43 years as a television, film, and theater critic at the Akron Beacon Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
In the new, deeply-researched book, A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe, Dawidziak investigates the facts of Poe's strange passing in 1849, which has been surrounded in enigmas for over a century and a half, which is fitting for the writer who originated the mystery and the horror genres.
Dawidziak revisits the moments of his storm-tossed life that led to that fateful day when Poe was discovered half-conscious in the streets of Baltimore, when he was supposed to be in Philadelphia, wearing another man's clothes and supposedly calling out for someone who has never been identified. Friends offered wildly conflicting accounts of what had happened, and enemies pushed relentless smears of him.
Poe had a definite morbid side, but he was also athletic, charming, and often comic. While he was known for his tales of doomed mansions and terrifying apparitions from the grave, he also penned countless works of comedy, adventure, and literary criticism.
Despite enduring many tragedies in his life, Poe didn't seem to be self-destructive. He had problems with alcohol, but had long periods of his adult life, which sometimes spanned years, where he didn't drink at all.
There are many theories around Poe's death as he investigates the facts surrounding it. Dawidziak surveys the many suspected causes of Poe's death, from sickness to a relapse, a kidnapping, a vendetta, and mercury poisoning, by speaking with historians, literary scholars, forensic pathologists, and others to come to a sound explanation of how Poe died.
Dawidziak dismisses several misconceptions on the life and death of Poe, including: Poe's disappearance and rediscovery in Baltimore wasn't the result of a drunken bender. The doctor caring for Poe during his final days changed the account of Poe's passing twice. For years, people speculated about the identity of "Reynolds," the name Poe called out on his deathbed, but there's no evidence he actually called out that name. Poe's first biographer and the executor of his estate filled his account of the writer's life with defamatory lies, repeated by every subsequent biographer as the truth for at least a century. In his lifetime, Poe was far from a morbid recluse, as he was healthy, athletic, sociable, and a well-known member of several literary circles.
The strange case of Poe's death, and even the character assassinations from his critics calling him a madman, only increased Poe's fame. In addition to being one of America's great literary talents, there also is a view of Poe in the public imagination as a barely-sane doomed artist, which is inaccurate, but one that added to his considerable intrigue.
In this excerpt, Dawidziak writes: "Poe's death has become so much a part of his mystique that it is often the first topic broached by visitors to the major destination sites devoted to the writer: the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, where, in the early 1830s, he discovered both a family that accepted him and a gift for short fiction; the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, the city where he did much of his growing up and where, in 1835, he launched his often-controversial career as an influential literary critic and magazine editor; the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the only one of his five Philadelphia residences from 1838-44 still standing; and the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, his rented home from the spring of 1846 until his death. 'I would be a millionaire if I had a dime for every time I've been asked how he died,' said Steve Medeiros, a Poe scholar and former National Park Service ranger whose regular duties include greeting those who passed through the door of the Philadelphia house.
During an interview conducted for this book, Matthew Pearl, author of the acclaimed 2006 novel The Poe Shadow, observed, 'His biography doesn't really start where most biographies traditionally start, with his birth; it starts with his death.' Is there a hint here of Poe's observation that romance writers could learn from Chinese authors who had 'sense enough to begin their books at the end'?
The ongoing fascination with his death is understandable. It is, after all, one of the great literary stage exits of all time - right up there with Moliere, the actor-playwright who, suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, overcame an onstage collapse and hemorrhage to finish a final performance before dying a few hours later in 1673, and Mark Twain, who correctly predicted that, having been born when Hailey's Comet visited the Earth in 1835, he would die when it returned in 1910. Poe's death, however, takes on added significance because it is undeniably one of the major factors keeping him alive as one of the most instantly recognizable writers of all time and the most-read American author around the world. Here, too, Twain is in the running, but Poe probably is better read while Twain is more frequently quoted (although often inaccurately). Poe's death is not only a source of continuing fascination; it is also symbolic of what became his deeply entrenched literary identity. He died under haunting circumstances that reflect the two literary genres he took to new heights.
Poe might as well have been writing his own epitaph with the first line of his story 'The Assignation': 'Ill-fated and mysterious man! - bewildered in the brilliancy of thine own imagination, and fallen in the flames of thine own youth!' His death is a moment shrouded in horror. Poe died in a lingering, painful manner that would not have been out of place in one of his own incredibly influential terror tales. It is also a moment surrounded by mystery. It is, in fact, a double-barreled mystery. What was the cause of Poe's death, and what happened to him during those missing days before he was found 'in great distress' on the streets of Baltimore, wearing ill-fitting clothes that were not his own? Why did he look so disheveled, his hair unkempt, his face unwashed, and his eyes'lusterless and vacan'? Pale and alternately described as both cold to the touch and burning up with fever, Poe in his delirium held conversations with what resident physician Moran said were 'spectral and imaginary objects on the wall.' Sound like the description of a character in one of his stories? It also sounds like a mystery worthy of Poe's master detective (and the model for so many super sleuths to follow), C. Auguste Dupin. Here, to be sure, is both mystery and horror aplenty. 'The haunted writer and the father of the detective story leaves us with grim mysteries that have defeated every attempt to solve them,' Medeiros said. 'It's almost as if a publicist stepped in and said, 'Hey, you know, the best thing for you to do for the career is to die under mysterious circumstances at forty.'
It has been suggested that one reason Poe was drawn to the horror genre was an attraction to the American nineteenth-century death culture, which resulted in increasingly elaborate mourning rituals, grander and more extensive cemeteries, and heartrending songs and poems dwelling on grief and loss. So perhaps it's fitting that something of a death culture has developed around him."