On October 3, 1849, a delirious Edgar Allan Poe was found in a Baltimore ditch dressed in clothes that were, reportedly, not his own. He died four days later at Washington Medical College. There are numerous theories, but the exact cause of death remains a mystery, as does his presence in the ditch.
If Poe interests you, you wish to commemorate him, and you happen to be in New York, be sure to go to the Grolier Club and catch the public exhibition “Evermore: The Persistence of Poe,” which consists of the extensive Edgar Allan Poe Collection of Susan Jaffe Tane. In addition to manuscripts, first editions, personal effects, and letters belonging to the writer, the show has a section devoted to Poe’s portrayals in pop culture, which include everything from John Cusack’s unfortunate turn in 2012’s The Raven to the Unemployed Philosophers Guild’s ubiquitous Poe doll. Particularly arresting is a poster for 1944’s The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, a film that was unknown to me. But I rushed home to remedy that at once, and, luckily for all of us, the whole thing’s available on YouTube:
It’s something to see. Maybe not literally—at least, not if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy or cinematic excellence. Despite cameos by both Thomas Jefferson and Charles Dickens, it cannot be called a rigorous scholarly work. Because of the basic contours of the writer’s life, it’s hard to make the story anything but sad; he does, after all, end up impoverished and dead at forty.
But the focus, as the title indicates, is definitely on romance. Unpleasant biographical details—his hardscrabble upbringing, his mother’s death, his debts—are dealt with via turgid voice-over narration; most of the action is reserved for affairs of the heart. First we see Edgar’s youthful infatuation with Elmira Royster, who spurns him and acts as a muse. When we meet Virginia Clemm, it is in the comely form of Linda Darnell, who, at twenty-one, is approximately eight years too old for the role.
Poe’s fervent worship of the various women in his life is legendary; no study of his work or biography can ignore it. And certainly, his wife’s premature death and his own descent into grief are dramatic enough for any movie. Like most of the details of Poe’s life, those about his marriage are hazy. Some biographers claim his relationship with his wife was platonic; others cite reports that they merely waited several years before consummating their marriage because of Virginia’s youth.
What is documented is the couple’s mutual devotion; as Poe’s onetime boss, the publisher George Rex Graham, wrote, “His love for his wife was a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty,” and her idealized image appears again and again in his later work. It’s also true that Poe’s alcoholism certainly worsened with the illness and death of his Virginia, and he lived only another two years—despite throwing himself into several relationships and even one short-lived engagement. But the marriage was not rosy, in all: in real life, at the height of his fame, Poe was linked to both the writers Frances Sargent Osgood and Elizabeth F. Ellet; the result was a well-publicized scandal. Whatever the facts of the case—they’re murky—it was apparently devastating to Virginia, who’s rumored to have brought up Ellet on her deathbed, referring to her as her murderer.
All that would have made for a really good movie, but it’s not the story The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe attempts to tell. As that film has it, Virginia’s death was serene, with welling strings. Poe dies about five minutes later, sans rebound romances, after some admirers find him in a tavern. The ditch does not appear, credited or otherwise. Instead, we see Poe on his deathbed, intoning, “Virginia, dearer to me than life … you are not wrong who deem that my days have been a dream … all that we see or seem is but a dream in a dream.”
In fact, Poe’s last words were reported variously: “Lord help my poor soul,” he said according to some. According to others: “Reynolds.”