This Week in History – A Poe Reputation


Edgar Allan Poe

Let’s all wish a happy birthday (January 19) to America’s favorite brooding, depressed, womanizing, alcoholic, drug addicted author: Edgar Allan Poe.

But wait a minute. Is that who Poe was really?

It makes sense, though. After all, who could write such stories as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Premature Burial if he was did not have a bleak outlook on life fueled by drugs and alcohol?

This image we have of Poe, however, is far from accurate. Poe was a joyous person who enjoyed life with no evidence of drug use. He did have a problem with alcohol, but the problem was a very low tolerance level for alcohol—not overindulgence as we’ve been led to believe. Because he couldn’t handle his liquor, he typically avoided it.

So how did Poe become this foreboding character we’d hate for our daughters to date? It is a consequence of Poe’s other works of writing. In addition to his stories and poems, Poe was a literary critic—and a very harsh one at that. Maybe his criticisms were valid. I don’t know, but his critical review of a work by Rufus Griswold really ticked off Griswold.  Poe and Griswold traded barbs publicly, but Griswold got the last dig in.

Rufus Griswold (no relation to Clark)

Rufus Griswold
(no relation to Clark)

When Poe died in 1849, Griswold took it upon himself to write a memoir of Poe. While Griswold praised Poe’s work, he attacked the man’s character. He made up stories and attempted to ruin Poe’s reputation. He succeeded. That memoir was the only biography of Poe for years, and even later biographers used Griswold’s memoir as a source.

And so the false reputation of Edgar Allan Poe lives on.

I see so many life lessons, I don’t know where to start.

  • Critical remarks need to be a solid mix of both truth and love. (Poe could’ve toned down his rhetoric.)
  • Separate what you do from who you are. Even if you’ve done something poorly—worthy of criticism—it does not mean you’re a failure or of poor character. (Griswold should’ve learned from Elsa and let it go.)
  • Putting others down to lift yourself up does not lift you up in anybody’s eyes. (Does anyone remember Griswold today except for his bad attitude and his libelous writing?)

Edgar Allan Poe was not a perfect man, but neither was he the rascal he’s been portrayed to be. I want to live my life in such a way that, should someone write a memoir of me full of false stories and split infinitives, those who read it would know it just ain’t so.

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet 2:12).

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