Mythopoetic Justice: Democracy and the Death of Edgar Allen Poe

Article excerpt

AFTER MORE THAN 150 years, the strange death of Edgar Allan Poe continues to attract the kind of attention worthy of a tale of mystery and imagination by Poe himself. Discovered in the streets of Baltimore on Election Day, October 7, 1849, in a combined state of exhaustion and alcoholic stupor, did he simply meet his end, as asserted by contemporary detractors, as a form of drunken just deserts? Or, as the more charitable were prompt to suggest, was there an underlying physical cause: epilepsy, perhaps, or brain fever? Recent medical readings of the evidence have pointed to diabetic hypoglycemia and even hydrophobia, the consequence of being bitten by a rabid animal. Alternatively, interpreters of a detective bent have postulated extreme physical ill treatment: a series of beatings or some fatal blow to the head. One of these, John Evangelist Walsh, has now gone further to posit a murder scenario where, on a northward journey to complete arrangements for his marriage to Elmira Royster of Richmond, Poe is pursued and waylaid by that lady's brothers, forcibly made to ingest whiskey, and thereby launched on what turns out to be a fatal binge.

One can hardly fault the speculation; indeed one can hardly resist it when the mysterious circumstances in question and the complex of events surrounding them involve the demise of a writer who himself had made a career asserting the essentially mythopoeic character of existence in nineteenth-century America--the essential reciprocity, in a world largely void of the traditional markers of cultural identity, of myth and reality, imagination and experience, art and life. Poe, mourning the death of his beloved Virginia, undertakes a set of increasingly frantic and hallucinatory peregrinations, revisiting the locales of his luckless career. Leaving New York one last time, he sets out for Richmond. Along the way he becomes convinced that he is being pursued by shadowy assassins.

In Baltimore, he reverses course, returning to Philadelphia, where a drunken spree lands him in prison. In a humiliating legal spin on the literary-cultural celebrity he has so long coveted, he is released by a judge who recognizes him as "Poe, the poet" and resumes his southward progress. In Richmond, he alternates between decorous social intercourse and visible binge drinking. Persuaded that he may be able to marry Elmira Royster, a sweetheart torn from him during his youth, he makes a great show of joining the Sons of Temperance and undertakes a headlong return journey to New York to settle outstanding business and to fetch Virginia's mother back with him for the ceremonies. He never gets there. Possibly again going as far north as Philadelphia this time and then reversing course for Baltimore, he gets off the train in that city, the place of his paternal ancestry. He then disappears for a week before he is discovered in the street outside a tavern doubling as a "crib" for repeat voters. Taken to a hospital, he lives for four days, where his last communications with the world comprise a series of oracular, melancholy utterances, some of them with seemingly literary connections to his own mysterious texts.

The whole business is all almost too Edgar Allan Poe-like to be true. It is Poe's last gothic tale of terror: the great exegete of American existential and aesthetic loneliness vanishes into one of his own nightmare worlds of self-creating and self-annihilating reflexivities. Alternatively, it is his last great tale of detection: afoot in some master final conjuration of plot, simple and odd, the ghost of Poe awaits the Dupin who will accomplish the great unriddling, find the obvious, single thing, there for all the eye to see, that will set everything in place.

As importantly, however, at its obdurate circumstantial core--Poe, discovered dead drunk, or nearly so, in front of a tavern notorious as a collecting point for derelicts herded from polling place to polling place to cast fraudulent multiple votes--it also becomes the realization, I would propose, of a single political nightmare that Poe had been fabulating with increasing obsessiveness in the last decade of his life: the vision of sottish, addled, irrational homo democraticus in general and of tumultuous, anarchic nineteenth-century American participatory democracy in particular. …