Post Road Magazine #9

Note: E.A.P -Peter LaSalle

I.

Among the little-known oddities of Poe's life, one that scholars seem to eschew, is that he had dreams about two university press books that would be published well over a hundred years after his own death. It is interesting that scholars have long chosen to maintain such reticence on this matter, despite the fact that he recounted the dreams in detail to personal acquaintances and literary colleagues. Actually, reports show that Poe was quite specific on the two volumes in question.1

In the first dream, he was sitting at night by the sea, alone, and the landscape he described strikingly resembled that of the sepulchral setting of the poem “Annabel Lee.” He spoke of cliffs and waves whispering against rocks very far below. Also, he said there was a strangely bright moonlight, more than enough to read by, though at that stage in his life he was constantly complaining of oil lamplight (and certainly candlelight) never being bright enough for his eyes that had strained so long in the years of not only working on his own stories and poems, but the seemingly ceaseless reading of, and writing on, the works of others—the outright hack labor that supported him. The dream, according to sources, was quite literal, almost as predictable as anything else in the everyday, except that sitting there on the cliff's edge in the moonlight, probably in his usual black boots and black frock coat, he was reading from a book, as was said, that wouldn't be published until long after his own death. He was specific with respect to the title and other details of the volume in his description of the dream as given to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, his literary executor, and Maria Clemm, his mother-in-law. He said the title was Edgar Allan Poe: sa vie et ses ouvrages by Charles Baudelaire, edited with commentary for this scholarly edition by W. T. Bandy, University of Toronto Romance Series, #22; Poe included as well the place and year of publication, according to Griswold, as being Toronto and Buffalo, 1973. To Griswold he also described the book in physical detail. Poe marveled at its sturdy blue-and-black marbleized cloth binding and the quality of the heavy, creamy paper itself, the strong black of the Palatino type. Griswold, who would later be known for spreading exaggerated stories of Poe's debauchery, even madness, can in this case be found as very reliable, because the description of the book Poe related to him from the dream by the sea is uncannily accurate, a perfect representation of the book eventually published. Griswold reported how Poe noted that judging from the book, he, Poe, had become quite famous posthumously, and, apparently, to a large measure the fame could be attributed to a keen interest in France in his works; that interest came after the translation of some of his tales and poems into French by a certain Charles Baudelaire, who himself would prove, in time, quite recognized too. Poe told Griswold that according to Bandy's commentary in the book, there appeared to have evolved a genuine controversy in subsequent years on whether Baudelaire had possibly plagiarized the bulk of his long essay on Poe from biographical and critical sources back in the United States, Baudelaire allegedly doing little more than translating the material for much of his entire piece. The essay “Sa vie et ses ouvrages,” which was reprinted in its original French in this University of Toronto Press volume, was approximately half of the book; the editor Bandy's introduction and prolific footnoting comprised the remainder of its 126 pages. Griswold provided not much beyond that, and one may only conclude that he didn't capitalize on it with more of his own exaggeration simply because, for once, he perhaps considered this dream too esoteric: Griswold probably dismissed it as an alcohol- or drug-induced somnambulistic vision that wasn't worth touting, even for a scoundrel such as himself who had met Poe when he, Griswold, was a decidedly profit-minded newspaperman and printer, Griswold gradually working his early influence to gain complete control of the author's literary legacy. Maria Clemm's account of the dream had many similarities, yet other than notation of the title, author, and publisher, she was not as exact in the actual physical description of the book; she made no mention of Poe's opinion on the text of the essay by Baudelaire either, its arguments. But she did provide valuable information, a personal response from Poe of the variety that might be expected to be given to her as an intimate family member. Clemm recounted that in the dream Poe was particularly struck by the editor Bandy's dedication page: “In memory of Alice.” She said that in the dream Poe didn't seem to be fazed by the incredibility of the entire project, with its annotated study by a then-unknown Frenchman who would be largely responsible later for the widespread recognition that Poe never received in his own lifetime.

Poe simply told Clemm, maybe in his whispery, gentleman's voice that has been documented so well,2 “Alice, a lovely name, isn't it. I wonder if Bandy himself loved her truly.”

II.

For information on the second dream, we have only a single source to rely on, but in the telling this source is so precise and vibrant that the material offers a fullness that was lacking in the combined accounts of Griswold and Clemm on the first dream. (Concerning the second dream, we do have considerable supporting corroboration, though there are no names; nevertheless, many persons were reportedly baffled during Poe's lifetime when he apparently referred to this dream at least several times in the course of public lectures, the delivering of such lectures for Poe a task easily as distasteful as that of his literary journalism.3) John Sartain, the Philadelphia engraver and editor, gave the details outright. Poe told him that in this dream he was locked in a mansion, darkened, that maybe metamorphosed into a cavern, darkened; in the dream he read by flickering candlelight, wishing the illumination were much better—this was a book that consisted mostly of illustrations. Once more Poe was exact on the title and the physical detail, to Sartain, anyway, if not in the public lectures. The book was The Portraits and Daguerrotypes of Edgar Allan Poe by Michael J. Deas; it was published by the University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1989.4 Poe spoke in even more complimentary terms this time of the large folio-size format and the brown cloth binding with lettering in fine raised black and gold—for the title, author, and publisher—along the spine. And, so, in the dream of that darkened space,5 Poe sat at an ornate carved mahogany desk that somehow appeared to have been provided for such study of the book; he flipped through the big pages in which Deas—to repeat, well over a hundred years after the death of Poe— had gathered (and dutifully annotated with information on the circumstances surrounding the creation and production of) all existing sketches, oils, etchings and daguerreotypes that portrayed Poe at different stages in his life. (Deas even goes as far to list in detail “Rejected Depictions,” those that hucksters claimed, in the full thrust of Poe's later notoriety, to be genuine but were obviously sham, and “Lost Depictions,” those that have turned up in reprints over the years, but for which the originals are not to be found in any library or private collection.) It would seem surprising that Poe was not struck once more by the very truth that the book testified to his literary importance to this degree, how his reputation would be such that a whole volume would one day be devoted to cataloguing these images of himself, as he examined the book and as, let's say, a raven called outside or a huge antique clock ticked and echoingly ticked away the mortal hours, the kind of “things” that were always transpiring in Poe's tales (or as Richard Wilbur tells us, read “dreams” for “tales”). Poe related to Sartain what those other secondary reporters also have him relating in the lectures. First, concerning the famous “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype that has provided us the baggy-eyed, dark-haired, mustached6 Poe that is the most common image today, Poe remarked that it was true: “I looked, and I thought, He seems to have gotten the mouth right.” The “he” referring to Edward H. Manchester, the daguerreotypist, who made the plate at his studio on Weybosset Street7 in Providence, Rhode Island in 1848. None of rest appeared to greatly interest Poe (Deas' extensive commentary or the reproductions themselves) except for what Poe considered, while reading some of the text of the book in the dream, Deas' excellent and concise explanation of the daguerreotype process itself; it is a process that needs explanation to Deas' modern readers and, apparently, it wasn't always entirely clear to somebody in Poe's era, either, a time when it was quite popular. Actually, Deas' prose here is remarkable for its exactness: “Exposures—which ranged anywhere from a few seconds to up to half a minute—were made by uncapping the lens. The plate bearing the latent image was then removed from the camera, developed over a tray of heated mercury, and stabilized in a bath of sodium trisulfate. The completed image was usually matted and framed in a leather-bound miniature set lined with satin or velvet. Because no negative was used in the process, each plate is essentially irreplaceable.”

Poe's comment to the Philadelphian Sartain, a part-time daguerreotypist himself by trade, was as obliquely intriguing as his being quite fascinated—as he told Maria Clemm—with the dedication page of the other volume he dreamed about.

Poe said to Sartain: “That daguerreotyping, it's really quite simple in terms of chemicals and precise times involved. Nothing magical about it whatsoever, old chap, when you think of it.” •

  • Two early biographies give the most notice of this: Edgar Allan Poe, The Man by Mary E. Phillips, two volumes, Chicago, 1926, and Poe and the Southern Literary Messenger by David K. Jackson, Richmond, 1934. Also, to a lesser degree, there is some discussion in the very early, and, in the words of Julian Symons, “the passionate and eccentric,” Edgar Allan Poe and His Critics by Sarah Helen Whitman, New York, 1860. (Symons is a detective novelist who himself has written a popular biography of Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart, New York, 1978.)
  • Though there has been much discussion of the sheer “handsomeness” of Poe's speaking voice, the best treatment of this occurs in The Histrionic Mr. Poe by N. Bryllion Fagin, Baltimore, 1949. Fagin immerses himself in the topic, with his basic argument holding that Poe's being the consummate actor in life and also in his works was to be expected, seeing that he was descended from theater people on both sides.
  • Any documentation as to the content of the lectures themselves becomes difficult; the talks were never titled, merely headlined as “An Evening with Mr. Edgar Allan Poe” or the like. Jackson (op. cit.) in his brief mention of this dream, however, does maintain that many present in those auditoriums had reported hearing Poe speak of this dream.
  • It is not surprising that Poe did not link the place of publication with the very university he had attended for the tumultuous academic year 1826-1827, the period of such legendary gambling and sizable debt for him: the press's official name being “University Press of Virginia” is a bit oblique; also, when he was enrolled, the university itself was known to most students as “Thomas Jefferson's University.”
  • This coincides with his constant use of contained, claustrophobic spaces in the tales. Surely the most interesting treatment of this issue is in Marie Bonaparte's The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, London, 1933, complete with its famous introduction by Freud himself for this ultra-Freudian reading. Bonaparte's study, while rigid and markedly dated as to its unflagging, psychoanalytical tenets, is still very valuable in establishing the basic themes concerning Poe's obvious sexual impotence, his idealization of his dear mother who died so young, and his obsession, therefore, to constantly return to a tomblike/womblike environment with her or any other deceased female, a space symbolized by the cellar in “The Cask of Amontillado” or the very house in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Bonaparte tells us: “That Poe was a potential sado-necrophilist is something all his work shows, and only his most purely literary devotees would deny it.” Her analysis of Pym is most fascinating in terms of this remembered and longed-for realm of darkness, the substitute for a more normal sexual gratification, as the hero there encounters islanders who are black, simply, and logically, because the whole world would appear black if seen from inside the womb; the fact, too, that the islanders in that tale have specifically black teeth “represents a displacement upward to the mouth of qualities appropriate to the real or, rather, cloacal vagina, with, for instance, its darkness and the imagined presence of teeth.” The impotent man often envisions teeth as anatomically part of, and so “guarding,” the female sex organ.
  • Poe was clean-shaven on the upper lip until the last few years of his life, strangely enough.
  • Manchester's establishment was, according to city directories of the time, on Weybosset Street and not Westminster Street, as so often has been mistakenly reported in relation to the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype.

Peter LaSalle's most recent book is the story collection Hockey Sur Grace (Breakaway Books/Lyons Press, 1996), and his work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Best of the West, and Sports' Best Short Stories. He divides his time between Narragansett, Rhode Island and Austin, Texas where he teaches creative writing at the University of Texas.

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