Monumental Anxieties: Homoerotic Desire and Feminine Influence in 19th Century U.S. Literature

By Scott S. Derrick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Edgar Allan Poe and the Purloined Mother

Hawthorne's account of Hester's circulating letter and the effect of this circulation in the construction of authorial identity have a double in antebellum literature: Poe "The Purloined Letter." Like Hawthorne, Poe as an author had complex and ambivalent relations to women, and just as for Hawthorne, these relations made the problem of working out the terms of male authority difficult and complex.

The strength of Poe's mournful desires for idealized lost women, beginning with the early loss of his actress mother, Eliza Poe, has long been a theme of Poe criticism.1 Kenneth Silverman suggests in his recent biography that Poe's obsession with this lost figure inhabits his work not only thematically, in terms of his numerous poems and stories about the death of women, but in the allusions to the stage that honeycomb his works.2 In his later life, Poe's desire to be comforted and cared for by women produces a series of relations to nineteenth-century women poets, whose literary efforts he supported. These include such figures as Sarah Anna Robinson Lewis, Frances Sargent Osgood, and Sarah Helen Whitman, to whom Poe had a tempestuous failed engagement.3 If Poe's life is complexly entangled in nineteenth- century women's culture, however, it is also marked by desires for masculine respect, evident in his early struggles with John Allan, his surrogate father, and in his ambitions, which according to Silverman were palpable as well from an early age: "Those who knew him at school later remembered him as blatantly competitive, 'eager for distinction,' 'ambitious to excel,' 'inclined to be imperious'" (24).4 If Poe's later ambitions would inhabit less conventional forms, they are still evident in the reach and scope of his literary out

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