A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe

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Release Date: 
February 14, 2023
St. Martin's Press
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“seeks to uncover that elusive cause of Poe’s death, hoping that his life, tortured as it seemingly was, might provide the critical clues. But, Dawidziak says, ‘[a]s irresistibly as we are drawn to how he died, it’s far more crucial to understand how he lived.’”

For more than a century and a half, the death of Edgar Allan Poe has remained shrouded in uncertainty, befitting the genres of mystery and horror that he mastered. Trailblazed, even, for the likes of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Anne Rice, and H.P. Lovecraft.

Where was he during those misplaced days in the fall of 1849 between his last sighting in Richmond, Virginia, and his discovery, half-conscious and delirious on the streets of Baltimore before drawing his final tortured breath on October 7? And how did he really die? Speculation abounds, with potential culprits running the gamut from binge drinking to syphilis to cholera to a brain tumor to tuberculosis, with no consensus as to cause.

One theory regarding those final days was that he was a victim of a practice in Baltimore known as “cooping.” Political gangs were known to kidnap people off the streets, get them drunk or high, then drag them from polling place to polling place to vote. Between votes, they were kept in rooms referred to as pens or coops; hence the name “cooping.” Poe arrived in town just prior to an election for congress and the state legislature and was later found dressed in clothing not his own. Since the “cooped” voters were also repeat voters, the practice was to force them to change clothes between visits to the polls.

Although cooping—if Poe, in fact, had been in fact been cooped, a topic of nothing more than speculation—might explain his absence for a period of days, as well as why he was ultimately discovered in someone else’s clothes, it still offers no explanation for the cause of his death.    

The mysteries surrounding his death—a certainty that Poe seemed perpetually cognizant of as he experienced periodic bouts of melancholy and often included a “favorite device in his letters: a hint that death soon will find him”—often overshadow his life and legacy, the same way his works of horror supplant his others in popular history.

Poe considered himself, first and foremost, a Byron-inspired poet, but to this day the hoi polloi more readily remember being terrorized by “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Poe surely would have been sorely disappointed, but there is no accounting for taste.

To the rescue comes Mark Dawidziak in his new work, A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe. As if channeling the 1965 musical hit by The Animals, “Please Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood,” he undertakes to separate myth from reality and to paint a picture of Poe as Poe, himself, longed to be remembered.

The author also seeks to uncover that elusive cause of Poe’s death, hoping that his life, tortured as it seemingly was, might provide the critical clues. But, Dawidziak says, “[a]s irresistibly as we are drawn to how he died, it’s far more crucial to understand how he lived.”

Understanding how Poe lived is a task made even more difficult by Poe himself, who bears much responsibility for any misperceptions, at least as to his personal history. The author tells us that, in an autobiographical note Poe penned eight years before his death, “he started with a lie”—the year of his birth—and thereafter engaged in “romanticizing, dramatizing, exaggerating, and, yes, fabricating for his public. . . .”

“Apocryphal incidents” claimed by Poe include supposedly joining the rebellion by Greeks against the Ottoman Empire and being rescued by an American consul in Russia—and those are just a few. It almost leads one to wonder if perhaps New York congressman George Santos is Edgar Allan Poe reincarnate—but that is a discussion probably better left to another time and place.

Born the second child of stage actors, by the time Poe reached the age of three, he had experienced abandonment by his father, the death of his mother, and had already been “exposed to but also surrounded by four possible causes that would be given for his own death: drink, drugs, poverty, and tuberculosis.” Those four would be later joined by myriad other suspects.

Poe’s writing career was influenced to some extent by the theater, but also the love/hate relationship he had with his foster father, John Allan, from whom he adopted his middle name. No doubt, too, poverty, with which he was well acquainted, also contributed. Though he longed to be thought of primarily as a poet, he had to put food on the table, often in the form of nothing more than bread and molasses, which resulted in his reliance upon other forms of writing, primarily short stories, and genres with more commercial possibilities.

To earn a dollar, he also attained notice as a literary critic, which often put him at odds with others of his ilk. He claimed to have been inspired by the works of Shakespeare and Daniel Defoe, particularly Robinson Crusoe, and he revered Charles Dickens. But in his lifelong insecurity, Poe managed to pick fights with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists, whom he referred to as the “Frogpondians,” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom he attacked relentlessly in his critical writings. The author tells us that it “became known as the Longfellow War, but, as literary feuds go, it was a one-sided affair. Longfellow refused to engage.”

That insecurity likely also fueled Poe’s attraction to the mystery and horror genres, in which he excelled. Despite his lack of financial success, he experienced the occasional commercial breakthroughs with works like “The Raven” and “The Gold Bug,” as well as his mysteries. The author writes: “The two forms he crafted into literature have one thing in common: both horror and mystery are an attempt to uncover a truth. . . . We may well be on the trail of the unknowable, the insolvable, the impenetrable.”

A Mystery of Mysteries is, itself, a mystery worthy of Poe’s fictional sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, hero of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” The author anoints Dupin as the “archetype for the super sleuth” and notes that both Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot bear the fingerprints of Dupin in their stories.

In the end, the author returns to his thesis of attempting to uncover the cause of Poe’s death. He parses through his subject’s life in search of clues through ratiocination—a term and process the author attributes to Dupin, which means forming judgments and conclusions via reason and logic.

Taking a page from Dashiell Hammett’s Nick Charles in The Thin Man, who asserted that “probably” is a “word you’ve got to use a lot in this business,” Dawidziak reaches his own conclusion as to the “probable” cause of Poe’s death. Other terms he uses for his conclusion, which you’ll have to read the book to discover, are “feasible” and “plausible.”

Ultimately, though, quoting from “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the author summarizes his effort as the search for “a mystery all insoluble.” A fitting end for Edgar Allan Poe.