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Quoth the Raven . . .

The psychological horror in the works of poet and mystery writer Edgar Allan Poe are often thought to be a reflection of his own life . . . is it fact or fiction? For genealogists, the story behind the "official" biography of Edgar Allan Poe illustrates how error and bias can linger regardless of efforts to set the record straight.


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Many years ago, my son Scott, who was then 11, having seen a movie in which a the inside of a book had been carved to fit a gun so it could be hidden and covertly drawn, decided that would be a good way to hide his electronic football game, which he could then take with him and no one would be the wiser. As he tells it, he carefully examined each book in the little office library just outside his bedroom door, measuring to see which book was of the right thickness to bury the game. Borrowing a razor from his dad's paint truck, he commenced carving the pages, layer by layer until he had whittled out a rectangle to fit the width, length, and depth of his game.

Imagine my surprise, some months later when pulling a favorite book from the shelf, to find a gaping hole cut through the middle. It didn't take much deduction to figure out who was the culprit. The book? The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, at the time, my only copy. I'm sure I did not take his venture as lightly then as I would today, being older and hopefully wiser, but I did have enough sense of history to keep the book, which can be found today, where else, but on the bookshelf in my son's own library.

The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth, which the U.S. Postal Service is honoring with a 42-cent postage stamp featuring the poet. So I decided a little research on Edgar Allan Poe might be just the ticket this Halloween. I began reading Poe at a very young age — I actually read him, contrary to my son's use of the writer's work — and Poe's haunting stories are among those that stay with you over time.

Much is written of Poe's life and the tragedy of his death, but common perceptions of Poe may be be the lingering impressions of a vendetta aimed at defaming his character. Here is the rest of the story.

Poe's greatest dream was to be a poet, a dream realized during his lifetime with publication of "The Raven," the work by which he is, perhaps, most commonly associated.

He was born Edgar Poe, on 19 January 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. Abandoned by his father, Poe's mother died when he very young. Edgar and his two siblings were split up, and he was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. Although never formally adopted, Allan was given as Poe's middle name. Writer, editor, poet, Poe is known for his macabre short stories and is credited with inventing the modern detective story. Poe is said to be the first well-known American writer to try making a living through writing alone, and to say he suffered financial hardship would be an understatement.

Poe first came to the attention of the literary world as a magazine editor and critic, but his severe reviews made enemies among fellow writers, who referred to him as "the man with the tomahawk." Although resented by some, others felt his reviews were accurate. Among those offended by his reviews was Rufus Griswold, who through veiled slander and under the guise of friendship, took his revenge by defaming Poe's character after the poet's sudden death in 1849 at the age of 40.

Through a three-volume "memoir," Griswold painted Poe as a drunkard and dope addict who suffered from insanity, an impression that lingers today. Many of Poe's friends were outraged by the charges, but over time Griswold's work was accepted as fact and became the official biography used in succeeding editions of Poe's works. Later research proved many Griswold's allegations to be without evidence. Nearly one hundred years later, in a closer examination of Poe's life, biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn, revealed Griswold malice and the tampering and forgery of Poe's letters. Quinn's book, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, first published in 1941, stands today as one of the most reputable works on Poe's life. A more recent work, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, by Kenneth Silverman is also recommended.

What is significant here, and what this story brings into focus is the potential for error and bias in writing, until somebody comes along and takes the time to examine the evidence. And even when attempts have been made at correction, false information is difficult if not impossible to eradicate and untruths continue. While family history researchers may not encounter such malicious intent, errors and falsehoods are perpetuated and worm their way like a computer virus into other histories and genealogies. . . . yes, even writers of family history and local history can have a bias that colors information. For this reason, it is imperative that researchers carefully evaluate their sources and work acquired from others.

I am happy to report that my son did get around to reading Poe, and in discussing Poe's works, it is clear to see the stories have stayed with him.

Hmmmm, let's see if I can find it . . .

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

. . . wait, there's a hole in my book!

Only this, and nothing more.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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