January 26, 2014
The Muse And The Booze – More Tales Of Writers And Drink
In a recent redOrbit,I wrote about the association between certain writers and the “demon drink,” in particular Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Today I will look at another writer who hit the bottle hard.
That famous purveyor of the strange and supernatural, Edgar Allan Poe, has often been said to have derived some of his fantastic ideas from the use of mind-altering drugs like opium, although others have claimed that Poe invented or exaggerated his supposed use of drugs as a way to romanticize his life. He even threatened, in a letter to a friend in 1848, to commit suicide by taking laudanum, a common opium containing compound used as medication in his day. But if he ever did try, he was not successful and it is thought this may have been an attempt to draw attention to his despair. What is not in question, however, is his propensity for drinking.
Poe was born in 1809 and his mother died of tuberculosis in 1810. His father, David Poe Jr, and his brother Henry were both reputed to be hard core drinkers, though David abandoned the family in 1810 when Edgar Allan was an infant and died in 1811 leaving him an orphan. The subject of death, not unsurprisingly, became an obsession. One story relates how, as a six-year old, he became “seized with terror” when passing a graveyard and was convinced that the souls of the undead would follow him. Unlike some authors though, Edgar Allan Poe did not follow completely in his family’s footsteps and become totally dependent on alcohol. It seems that his drinking was heavy but sporadic, with long periods of abstinence in between. It probably began in 1826 when he went to the University of Virginia where, although banned, drinking, gambling, and even the occasional pistol fight were common.
By 1835 Poe was finding that his boozing was causing problems at work. He was employed at the Southern Literary Messenger, but his boss (T. H. White, the paper’s owner) eventually had to fire him for his “dissipation”. Poe himself wrote of the incident claiming that he had been drinking hard after giving into the temptation of “the spirit of Southern conviviality.” By 1839 he was often drinking so much that he was found lying in the gutter and had to be taken home by friends. But it was the onset of his wife Virginia’s illness with tuberculosis, the very same disease that had taken his mother, in 1842 that drove him to his worst excesses. In a real life scene redolent of a typical Poe story, Virginia was playing piano at a supper party when she suddenly began to cough violently. Blood spurted from her mouth leaving red stains on her white dress. She died in 1847 and Poe never recovered from the loss.
On October 3rd of 1849 he was found once again in a delirium lying in the street in Baltimore after having mysteriously disappeared for five days. He died four days later. His last words were “Lord help my poor soul.”
A strange twist to this sorry tale is that it is said that every year since 1949 on the writer’s birthday an anonymous visitor has taken three red roses and a bottle of cognac to his grave in the cemetery at Westminster Church in Baltimore.
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