With Edgar Allan Poe: The Ambiguity of Death Guiseppe Cafiero presents a literary non-fiction memoir of one of America’s most celebrated writers and father of detective fiction. Written in the style of a narrative, the book introduces the reader to The Reporter, whose own story mirrors the ambiguous existence and writing of Edgar Allan Poe. After Poe’s death in the mid 19th century, The Reporter investigates his life and writings by meeting at the Old Swan Tavern in Richmond with the writers arch-nemesis, Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and one of the last to see Poe before his death, Dr J. Evans Snodgrass. Translated from Italian to English this surreal bio-fiction brings to life a psychological portrait of Edgar Allan Poe through the characters in his works.
“Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore” was heard in the distance. Thus silence was broken by the rigor of morbid verses. No other breath to comprehend those souls willing to be relegated to obscure omens. Each was what he was, and was determined to seek sensible reasons when, for rash causes or for reasonable motives, he was dragged into a tavern to drink dreadful wines, albeit served well, and reflect upon a man who had received ignominious praise and esteemed criticism and who some time before had been accompanied to the cemetery of the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore so that Rev. William T.D. Clemm, a Methodist pastor, could celebrate an appropriate rite. It was October 8, 1849. A Monday. “Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore” was recited from a distance, or someone thought he had heard those verses.
One member of this small group gathered in the tavern was assuaging his conscience. Another was reflecting upon good and evil, and how good and bad actions could sway his judgment. The third instead was gathering original or spurious knowledge, listening to all the other two had to say, accepting counsel and direction. Resentments as well, long-held and never aged, just as affectionate compassion spurred by the love for a man and his art, because that man had also been a poet.
Best then to find oneself in a tavern to adjudicate, amid healthy or unhealthy beverages, between a man who had an unconscious desire and duty to inquire about the deceased, offering others a series of obscure mysteries so that to someone it might seem legitimate and wise to abstain from tainting his memory, and another man eager for proper or improper knowledge who longed to know about the unfortunate ambiguities of the dead man, a poet who had yielded, both in his writing and in his life, to unjust anxieties and inappropriate inclinations. Certainly that poet had also undertaken tasks superior to his ability in the reasonable desire to understand his longing to antagonize even himself if he could not, or thought he could not, aspire to anything else.
Why die, and not even worthily, in Cooth and Sergeant’s Tavern, there on Lombard Street, next to High Street, leaving unresolved both reproachable and irreproachable inquiries into ambiguous ways of living and other stories? At that time, fools of all sorts and proven ill repute offered free glasses of wine without explaining or even mentioning why, perhaps to facilitate their sinister schemes and nefarious plans. So someone probably wanted him to guzzle liquor to unconsciousness to make him forget facts and actions while the days passed. And the days went by, five of them, without any sense when with urgency and on a promise he determined to take a train that would lead him far away, to a place he yearned for, to forget his worries and embark on a period of intense writing.
Then someone said “Dipsomania”. What? And the doctor and man of letters Joseph Evans Snodgrass, present at that gathering of engaging individuals, replied: “An irrepressible impulse to ingest any type of beverage, particularly alcoholic ones, typical of certain mental illnesses. Benjamin Rush first used the term in 1793. Then the Englishman Thomas Trotter. Then Samuel B. Woodward, superintendent of the Worcester insane asylum here in Massachusetts in 1838.”
Why, why? The ancient and bastard game of living and dying, of dying and living without satisfaction or joy, almost out of oblique necessity.
He was treated at Washington College Hospital upon the recommendation of Dr. Snodgrass, who had come there through friendship and duty to do what was possible, in his incredible incompetence, to yank from the grip of death someone who contentedly remained there.
And before: it’s true, the irreparable had occurred. In Philadelphia, in that tragic summer when, amid debauches and fits of delirium, he had attempted suicide and was later arrested for raucous, crazy and hallucinating conduct and had to spend a night in the Moyamensing Prison, between Passyunk Avenue and Reed Street.
An unfortunate story, even though that prison was a model of humanity, as the architect Thomas Ustick Walter wished it to be in its various wings, despite its somberness due mainly to its Gothic style set among towers and battlements.
Thus losing the consciousness of a real existence. Invoking phantasms, invoking the living as already dead, yielding to the frenzies of a mortal opiate, attempting perhaps to speak with his other self. Doubling himself. Seeing himself. Killing him who pretends to be what he is not, namely another ignominious self. The madness of a madness beyond time and space, when one is lost in the indolence of prostration, in the comforting essence of therapeutic laudanum with its liturgical and revered mix of opium, sugar, powdered cinnamon and cloves in the fragrance of Malaga wine.
Philadelphia was something else and more: losses and unconscious recoveries. Forgiving when it was necessary. Dr. Snodgrass was very generous when speaking to the group. Not so Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold who was also there at the Old Swan Tavern in Richmond, unabashedly uttering bitter remembrances. It was he who, in an obituary in the New York Tribune in honor of the deceased about whom he was gossiping, who went by the name of Edgar Allan Poe, had written unjust words, signing them with a pseudonym: Ludwig: “He had, to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species”.
Someone then confirmed, with bitter animosity and arrogant manners, the story of ambiguous hallucinations and persecutory delusions so that the editor of the Courier and Daily Compiler, the third member of the group gathered at the table in the Old Swan Tavern, might acquire proper knowledge of something bizarre and worrisome. And this was even more than he desired, he who had asked that a group be convened so that he could hear suggestions and stories about the poet, that is Poe, who had died at dawn, at the H hour, at the time when anyone can unite his essence with that of Jehovah in that primal unity into which everyone is dissolved.
After several earnest interviews and informative encounters, this editor felt the need and the will to write a succinct article in homage to the life of this poet whom he had also in some way criticized, albeit without malice. Indeed, in an article of 1836, when Poe was the sole editor of Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger, someone from the Courier had written in reference to the Messenger: “the editors must remember that it is almost as injurious to obtain a character for regular cutting and slashing as for indiscriminate laudation.”
Philadelphia, once again. Philadelphia, where some occurrence perhaps brought about the beginning of an inevitable end. It was July 1849 when strange phantasms began to haunt the poet so that the nights were ineluctably filled with thoughts urging him toward violent suicidal acts. He donned ragged clothes and changed his appearance to escape from his persecutors, from the fierce torturers of his own fantasy, even to the point of shaving his moustache. He hid from the oppressors of improper dreams and sought refuge along a river, in the silence of waters marked by the darkness of night.
Glittering reflections of moonlight. The Schuylkill River. The impalpable figure of a woman suddenly began to turn in the air. A woman. Which woman? Perhaps a mother or even a child-wife. An ethereal appearance. Or only a phantasm of the imagination? Flying over the city. Going, taken by the hand by the low susurration of this ineffable figure. Who? Sweet vision, impalpable and dulcet. Going, without any fear since this girl was splendidly radiant. The sky of Philadelphia, also a river and a hundred city lights. Suddenly dark shadows of the mind and strange wishes perverted any guarded imagination and a black bird seized the girl, a rash scream marking the desperation.
“The beginning of the end began there, in Philadelphia”, said Mr. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and he began to whisper: “Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore.”
Then Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass began to speak with calm and mitigated complacency, observing that it was wise to give a chronological account if one wished to narrate a life. He began by saying that it was best to consider the poet’s ancestry to better understand the story of that short life. Also the obscure and tragic events that had marked the existence of a poet who died not long ago and who left piles of documents with suggestive and ambiguous writings.
“Mere allusions!”, added Dr. Snodgrass. But opportune and logical ones when no one, by experience and by improper wishes, had a desire to recall, in a philanthropic mood and without seeking lucrative benefits, a childhood and a youth of that Poe, lost in the memory of years gone by and certainly in miserly wills. It was best, or so it was believed, to conceal all that it was prudent to conceal in deliberate forgetfulness.
In the meantime the Old Swan Tavern had filled with gauche patrons. Clamor everywhere and also some laughter, with no qualms or moderation. Most were drinking, lost in the accounts of colorful lies, above all to forget the fatigue from physical labor and the road dust that chafed the soles of boots and scorched the metal of wagon wheels. Outside a freezing wind chafed the somber faces and hands. Some stood in the loggia sustained by wooden columns, furiously drawing smoke from stinky cigarettes while awaiting delayed acquaintances.
Scattering dust in their path, cabs, coaches and hay carts traversed a tree-lined road filled with rows of thorny bushes. Suddenly was heard the neighing of skittish horses. Black, dun and spotted horses began foaming at the mouth, held by their bits. Wild bridles abandoned in the wind. The blow of the whip to reestablish an order lost in the chaos of hooves and painful whinnying. Then uncivilized screams and blasphemies. A crowd gathered in a jiffy. The former Reverend Griswold, Dr. Snodgrass and the editor poked their heads out of an open tavern door. And it was then that, in an instant, they saw a shiny black, diabolical cat steal away with the swiftness of a rat.
A witch then? What was it? Perhaps only terror since its intention was, with balanced fear and incoherent boldness, to avoid a madness narrated by others or simply to attempt to dodge a madness that enraptured and imparted lessons of unusual customs.
Who then could have claimed to possess the legitimacy to criticize, with ordinary notes and confidential reports, the miserable life of a poet some deemed to be despicably disturbing and who had precipitated with reckless folly into a labyrinth of affirmations that were only unusual in the ambiguity of displaying fantasy and very singular observations?
“My tormentor came not. Once again I breathed as a freeman. The monster, in terror, had fled the premises forever! I should behold it no more!”, exclaimed Dr. Snodgrass and he invited his companions to return to the Old Swan and sit at the table they had previously occupied. Restoring an order full of acceptable, or at least legitimately tolerable, stories, albeit amid petulant denials, composed quarrels, opposing beliefs. The editor was there ready to acquire partial confidences and confidential partialities; it was he who had gathered two individuals on that same day around a dirty table in a Richmond tavern amid healthy glasses of sherry, certainly Amontillado (chosen not only for its mellowness and aroma but also to render worthy homage to Mr. Poe and his short story The Cask of Amontillado – but why then not drink the red wine from Chios mentioned in Shadow?). These men, certainly illustrious and of renowned intellectual virtues, were invited so as to express beliefs and thoughts, undoubtedly very different, about this poet and novelist named Edgar Allan Poe who had left a mark, for better or for worse it was said, on the intellectual life of that young nation in the years just passed.
Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass and former Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold had been summoned to answer the eager queries of that editor. Thus he would listen, with painstaking attention and healthy skepticism, to the succession of reminiscences very different in nature even when dealing with a unique event and the same man. Discrepancies, in mark and in value. One of the men, Dr. Snodgrass, perceived the unfortunate events that had defined Mr. Poe’s cruel life as an inevitable offence of fate against which nothing else could have been done. The other, former Reverend Griswold, did not deem it obligatory, in any way or for any reason, to absolve Mr. Poe. He proclaimed that the poet had been offered many valuable opportunities but his innate and presumptuous arrogance had prevented him from leading a modest life and from having the humility to be who he could have been, even if, and this was acknowledged by Mr. Griswold without paraphrases or explanations, Mr. Poe had (in his own words) “many occasional dealings with Adversity – but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials.”
Then Dr. Snodgrass began to talk, with no holds barred or untimely hesitations, about Poe’s ancestry. He attempted to speak calmly, despite the frenzy of sherry drinking, saying that it had all begun with Mr. Poe’s parents ranging the east coast from Massachusetts to Virginia plying to the best of their ability the trade of being diligent stage artists. They roamed among challenging destinations gaining only miserable wages and various injustices, especially the cruel slander that accompanies the unusual and wretched lives of actors.
Thus David Poe Jr. and Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins, Edgar’s father and mother, found themselves groveling, with their poor art, on a stage that could at least offer a chance for survival. It was 1803 and they were wandering, interpreting their decadent theatrical scenes from Newport to Providence, from Norfolk to Charleston, from Philadelphia to Washington, from Baltimore to the entire state of Virginia.
A surly city, Baltimore. Ferocious? Maintaining order. Above all preventing slaves from fleeing. Also a splendid city of one hundred fifty thousand inhabitants. Majestic churches and splendid monuments. A monument to Washington as well. Thus he surveyed a magnificent white race from a 50 yard-high column surrounded by gardens and vast meadows. Healthy tranquility, broken only by the daredevil escapes. Meanwhile fabulous sailing ships slid by on the channels of the Patapsco. Barges navigated the river bellowing steam. And carriages, carts and coaches ran frenziedly through the confident, lively city. That was Baltimore! Baltimore Street. Baltimore Museum. The Art Gallery. The Merchant Trust Building. The omnibus in Pennsylvania Avenue. Samuel Kirk & Son silversmiths. Carroll Hall. The Emerson Hotel. Phillips & Co. clothiers. The clock on Calvert Street. A very pretty city indeed. A city of wealth where prosperous landlords multiplied their fortunes a hundredfold. Hunting for Negroes, hunting for Negroes. Not missing a beat. Breeding Negroes and selling them to the highest bidder. In the new states in the far southwest. Hunting for Negroes. Reward: one hundred dollars. Two Negroes to be apprehended: Henry Collins and Charles Collins, young and also of polite manner. Or two hundred dollars for a certain Dan, five feet six or seven inches high, very black and stout made, has a scar on his left temple. Or a young Negro named James Hart, rather stout, about five feet six or seven inches high, with a mark on his arm like a leaf. Or Isaac Dorsey, just 15 years old, rather small for his age. Keeping up with escaped Negroes was hard work.
The editor then learned, when Mr. Griswold spoke up to rudely interrupt Dr. Snodgrass’s speech, that Poe’s lineage was of high origin and confirmed European blood, as well as of apparent respectability ever since one of his ancestors landed on this strange continent. It was John Poe who came to America in 1748 from his homeland: from emerald Ireland, carrying in his genes all the presumed and nefarious peculiarities of his race, above all the fabled reverie and capricious extravagance. John Poe chose to live in Baltimore, in the swampy plain of Maryland on the banks of the Patapsco, a land where in 1749 the “Toleration Act” mandated religious freedom, albeit only for those confessions that recognized the Christian dogma of the Holy Trinity.
It was then, in the sweat of contaminating emotion and in the midst of groggy words, that the group decided to drink another round of sherry, to calm down and better assimilate a past that lived only thanks to mischievous mouths that reported stories that were no longer stories but only gossip and tales having the shameless ambition of being credited as historic memoirs of a life. The life of Poe, who seemed to be famous and thus a source of financial security if one could hastily hold meetings and recount these events to the general public.
A toast as well. And then silence.
It is vile to discredit a lineage in a spirit of duplicitous antagonism and with colorful chronicles. This was the thought of the editor, who thus considered it best to jot down also his feelings and concerns while his two interlocutors were blurting out remembrances too old to be completely true, despite their conviction and facility which rendered them expert conjurers of words and stories. Good people, indeed!
Ancestors that came from faraway lands and became coarsened by frequenting theaters: this could readily be alleged since there was no one willing to discredit these rumors. How was it possible to give credit to such an ambiguous truth? Strange rumors, those! Whom to trust and why? And if it were true that they had wandered as indecorous actors from one miserable stage to another to gain the applause of a wretched audience, it must also have been true that an itinerant troupe, first called the Virginia Players and later the Federal Theater of Boston, had a very distinguished and well-regarded repertoire. In fact Mrs. Poe received enormous praise and authentic acknowledgment, with one critic writing “her conceptions are always marked with good sense and natural ability”. Instead, her husband, Mr. David Poe Jr., was deemed a weak actor, lacking in temperament. Nothing, therefore, to be ashamed of or to be justified in the face of the ill-mannered arrogance of those who blatantly drank sherry in the Richmond tavern, who had the effrontery to disparage the ancestry of a man who, miserably and intentionally, had drowned himself in alcohol.
Someone said: “another round!” And there was another round. Of sherry, obviously!
“Tuberculosis”, said another one. And on to another round.
Sherry numbed the mind but helped to fantasize more rapidly about facts and events.
“Tuberculosis!”, someone said forcefully. Was it Dr. Snodgrass or former Reverend Griswold? They remained in silence for a couple of seconds ruminating. “A biblical plague!”, someone recalled. Was it Dr. Snodgrass or former Reverend Griswold? And it was also mentioned that that plague struck all sinners and descended with “terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart.”
And thus the Poes, David Jr. and Elizabeth Arnold, died young. Of tuberculosis. Struck down by the biblical plague? Divine punishment? Hence someone had to take care of the orphans abandoned amid memories of a happy life, albeit spent in the indigence of a sleazy room in the back of a seamstress’ workshop. The date was December 8, 1811.
But by then David Jr. had abandoned his wife and children. “Perhaps he was already dead”, said Dr. Snodgrass. A truly horrific and sad story, if it were believable. Was it? Recounting what was learned through unreliable gossip and ambiguous stories. Initially he spoke about Elizabeth Arnold’s first marriage to Charles Hopkins, an actor. Then about how, after being widowed, Elizabeth moved on to a new marriage to David Poe Jr. Later about the children born from their union: first William Henry Leonard, soon to entrusted to his grandparents, then Edgar, born on January 19, 1809 in Boston, and finally an illicit pregnancy of Mrs. Poe’s. “Illicit”, muttered someone with malice and a sour gurgle. Indeed Rosalie was born in December 1810 and David had been far away for too long for that baby to be his.
“An indecent death and a shameful life are often accompanied by infamous omens of bad fortune. It is sufficient to read what is written in the Bible, Chronicles II 34: 25; ‘Thus saith the Lord: my wrath shall be poured out upon this place, and shall not be quenched’.” Thus shouted Mr. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, as a good former reverend, compulsively sipping a fair quantity of sweet wine.
What did he mean?
A man was at a nearby table full of dirty bowls of miserable soup and large drinking glasses; he was filthy, his clothes torn in various places and grease-spotted, his hands and face scandalously dirty. Inebriated more than ever and barely able to utter words mixed with foamy spittle, he added to the accusation a legitimate and unexpected observation: “The fire! The famous one of December 26, 1811… Seventy-two victims… Who could forget it?”
And he hurriedly drank a nasty greenish liquid from a dirty mug. Absinthe? Christ! But wasn’t it forbidden to sell that horrible anise-flavored distillate made from an infusion of flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium which should be drunk with ice water and a sugar cube? I want you to stay sober! A lovely story, indeed! From Tarragona by way of the Spanish Antilles, smuggled, overcoming any prohibition. The Europeans: sellers of civilization! A depraved people. And France, in particular, which had spread syphilis throughout the world.
“The fire! I remember it well!”, exclaimed someone in a low voice. Was it truly the Lord’s revenge because “Thus saith the Lord: my wrath shall be poured out upon this place, and shall not be quenched?”
Seventy-two victims. Someone loudly exclaimed: “Richmond the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.” Apocalypse 18: 2. And the death of Mrs. Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, the actress? Miserable innuendo. What happened was meant to happen. For what sins? Purifying fire, someone said with the faintest voice. Peace be on their souls. Seventy-two souls.
The theater, built a year before on the north side of H Street, suddenly became an incandescent trap when the chandelier, illuminated by lit candles, was raised toward the ceiling and brushed against one of the hanging scenes which immediately caught fire. A multitude of sparks began to rain down on the structure built to accommodate up to six hundred people. It was then that Mr. Robertson, the editor, suddenly shouted: “The house is on fire.” It all happened at the start of a performance of the play Raymond and Agnes; Or, The Bleeding Nun which followed the comedy The Father, or Family Feuds. The news was well reported, with a detailed account of the events, by the Richmond Enquirer whose editor was present.
A blazing trap? An Apocalypse then? “Richmond the great is fallen, is fallen”, shouted some puritan. A miserable innuendo attributed the disaster to the behavior of Mrs. Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, the actress, recently deceased. From that moment only screams: “Save me, save me!” among the grim sound of bells and the sizzling of burning wood. The fire was devouring the whole place. Then the nauseating stench of bodies burning amid deafening screams: 54 women and 18 men died in the flames. Cruel fire. Many of the victims belonged to Virginia’s most illustrious families, including the Governor Mr. George William Smith and the former Senator Mr. Abraham B. Venanzoni. There were even several Negroes among the victims but few knew or wished to remember their names. It was true, however, that Gilbert Hunt, a black slave whose blacksmith shop was next to the theater, saved at least a dozen people. For some the deaths symbolized a supreme purifying act. Giving meaning to rigor, to moral intransigency and to the fundamentalism of rank. The fire gave inspiration and occasion for the rousing preaching of Evangelists, Baptists and Methodists against the monstrosities of a dreadful modernism, such as the immoral obscenity of theatrical shows and similar pastimes. Thus each catastrophe became the sign of a divine punishment for transgressive perversions. Mrs. Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, the actress who had conceived a daughter out of wedlock? Someone then spoke of the Black Death and then tried to transform the entire event by talking about a red death.
Another round of sherry. More than one indeed to forget hideous events, when someone, Dr. Snodgrass or Mr. Rufus Wilmot Griswold?, recalled that the terror for that purifying blaze resembled the memory of a tale. Edgar’s spirit seemed to be present at that obscene feast among glasses refilled with slow movements and obscure wills to forget whatever could be forgotten. Edgar, in fact, and a sad masquerade to give breath to the carnival legitimacy of a night. It happened in 1842: “The Masque of the Red Death”, someone murmured. Or was it The Masque of the Black Death?
“Alcohol purifies!”, exclaimed someone who was becoming inebriated with mediocre wine and who had joined the table of the three. “I know everything there is to know about alcohol”, he added, “I also know how to enjoy the shameless whirlwind of drinking myself senseless, even while aware of having to endure a beastly divine punishment. Because suffering a penitential punishment is inevitable if a community becomes infected with insolent strangers, people who are different, men of a different skin color, which is why there’s nothing left but to shamelessly inebriate ourselves.” Black death or red death: it doesn’t matter. It’s just death. Edgar would have smiled gladly.
He spoke no more and walked away. Arriving at his table he started counting the glasses he had before him, because he always drank wine in various glasses, almost to keep score of how much he was drinking.
Hence a sower of death seemed to mark a turning point when a community became debased by its inane and inhumane humanity. Difference was difference like the Red Death. Revenge and death then! Killing whomever attempted to subvert an order. In fact, Deuteronomy 7: 16 stated: “And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them: neither shalt thou serve their gods; for that will be a snare unto thee.” Thus “healthy and wise” friends were called together and they retreated into a healthy isolation. In this way it was possible to defy the contagion, that intruder who was about to appropriate their land, their culture. Outside the Black Death had been isolated. Thus entrenched in their new community, they imagined they could live without fear of contamination while outside there was only a devastated area tainted by men of a different skin color.
“Then there was the story of the slave-trading brigantine Creole that further increased the discomfort and fear of the unfamiliar”, said that man as soon as he had downed a few glasses of vinegary wine. He came to join the three men once again. “You remember, don’t you?”, he asked stuttering. “Facts that prompted a reconfirmation of the faith in their ethical integrity by those who had the craving to rebel, with principled wisdom, against obscenity and immorality, considering despicable and perilous the reckless obsessions and woeful whimsy of granting freedom to slaves without properly protecting the rights acquired by the slavers.”
The Creole indeed, and it was 1841. A slave-trading brigantine transporting 135 slaves along the east coast, from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, where the market was more prosperous and one could obtain a better price for the sale of a Negro. It happened on November 7. It was evening. A band of nineteen slaves led by Madison Washington rebelled and took over the ship. A mutiny with no hesitation or qualms. Only a few wounded. However, John Hewell, a slave-trader, was murdered and one slave died from severe wounds. And the ship was turned toward Nassau, on the island of New Providence in the British Bahamas, a land of freedom since slavery had been abolished in the British colonies. In the American States it was declared that ill wills wished to question the sacredness of slavery.
Who was recounting this story in Richmond’s Old Swan Tavern? Nobody uttered adequate words, for or against. Everyone chose to remain in silence waiting for the man who had spoken about the Creole to retrace his steps and take his place among his glasses of sour wine. However, one by one, each person began to reflect on what that man had said. Pondering without talking to each other. Reconsidering what was ambiguous in that tale Mr. Poe told in The Masque of the Red Death. Purifying fire and slavers’ will? Events, entirely fortuitous, that seemed to intertwine with the premises of a tale. The Masque of the Red Death!
What could come from thoughts wounded by scrupulous people and thrown onto the table of the imagination? There were many considerations in comparing events and lavish words of a tale born under the indelible sign of blood, of death as atonement. Hence the deaths in the fire in the Baltimore theater, hence the shameful and deadly offense against the white crew aboard the Creole which had suffered brutal violence without any respect for the canons of a judicious and moderate civilization.
Thus the conscience of innocence was destroyed by two life episodes that marked the shocking manifestation of a sort of subversive immorality. Contamination by nefarious dishonesty and wearing licentiousness for which it was necessary, in order to restore legitimate morality, to exile oneself from the community and wait for salvation through redemption. Protecting oneself through isolation to prevent further contamination while having to lose, ab initio, those values one had once believed in.
And finally death! Only death and redemption from immorality could bestow healthy salvation. What then? Mask oneself, as the officers of the Creole had to do, hiding behind the infamous dishonor of the mutiny by Negro slaves. Just because they dared defend, respecting the intangible laws in force, the legitimate rights of the slavers. Or like the gruesome masquerade designed by the flames that consumed the Baltimore theater, killing seventy-two people, merely because a certain Mrs. Poe was an actress and had given birth to an illegitimate daughter.
Was this believable?
Some shook their heads involuntarily while a thousand thoughts ran through their minds without yielding acceptable truths or inacceptable lies.
“And after that tragic day, December 26, 1811?”, asked Mr. Griswold breaking a melancholic silence, “was it a true adoption or an irrelevant whim by Mr. Allan?”
Another round of sherry to regain strength. The editor retreated to a corner, not wanting to partake in further drink. Stay sober, right! Transcribe feelings and rumors as best possible. What? “Another father for Edgar”, someone said. John Allan was a wretched man, at least according to the rumors. True? A rich man nonetheless. At least before the crisis of the twenties. The wife was something else. True! Mrs. Frances Keeling Allan was a loving woman and a welcoming foster mother. And Elizabeth? A miniature given to Edgar just before her death remained his sweetest and most durable memento.
“A lovely three-storied Georgian house, between Fourteenth Street and Tobacco Alley, received Edgar with discreet affection in spite of his being the child of nomad actors!”, exclaimed Dr. Snodgrass with a trace of unhealthy presumption. True? Why take on someone’s guardianship when there were other things that needed attention, at least for Mr. Allan?, the editor thought to himself as he recalled the gossip he had heard and had been able to corroborate.
Indeed Mr. Allan led a very active life. In primis he managed his transportation company, whose sailing ships roamed the seas of the east coast and navigated the James River from Chesapeake Bay transporting all types of goods, including slaves destined for the plantations or mines. Yet Mr. Allan also had to manage his private life since he had to attend to his extramarital affairs, with two children born out of wedlock from two different women: a Mrs. Collier and a Mrs. Wills.
“Let’s not forget Mrs. Frances Allan!”, exclaimed Mr. Snodgrass, and he began to expound on the good qualities one was required, for peace of mind, to acknowledge in Mrs. Frances. A good woman, indeed! A very attentive mother! Looking after little Edgar and making a well-behaved child out of him, impeccable in his velvet clothes, his curls that framed a charming face with a lively and intelligent gaze. Edgar, surrounded by unexpected affection, also from patient and devoted servants. A maid all for himself and also a black Mammy (Eudoca or Judith?). A mother-nanny who, as was the custom and good practice in any well-off family, took care of the children. But Edgar also went out, escaping from puritanical vigilance, to walk dangerous streets where a miscreant crowd of Negroes led a wretched life. He went with Mammy to places on the periphery of the city-fortress of the whites to listen to enchanting tunes and tales chanted with languid accents recalling past events and conditions. This was how he knew what pain and anxiety was all about. He also came to understand the concept of dreaming of rebellion. Rebelling? Edgar was pervaded by other people’s wills. He knew the marks of many repressed hopes. He acquired dark desires and impulses. His soul was marked by peculiar ceremonies. Rituals then. Which ones? Ancient magic! Voodoo as well? But that was another story altogether.
“One more drink”, said Mr. Griswold, “to offer a toast to all happy childhoods!”
Nobody accepted his invitation, so Dr. Snodgrass resumed with Edgar’s life, speaking almost breathlessly, with heartfelt, involved tones. Old friendship never betrayed.
Edgar spent his days at the school of Mr. William Erwin, longing for the summer to regenerate his spirit: also in the countryside and in friendly company. “Was it then that he had his first encounter with death and terror?”, asked Mr. Griswold. A deserted place, indeed. Perhaps along Pike Valley in the countryside around Staunton. Of a sudden he discovered an abandoned cemetery. His heart began to pound. Gravestones askew, abandoned in a chilling silence and in the darkness of dusk. A macabre contact with a deplorable burial ground where the dead seemed to want to exit from their graves and abduct the living, dragging them to the oblivion of an appalling torment.
Go away then.
Someone said that it was time to pay a visit to the homeland. Mr. Allan felt the desire and need to return to the land of his forefathers in rugged Scotland. Need or duty? Business certainly, because a trading company’s difficulties could be resolved in old Europe by skillfully playing with the fluctuating prices of tobacco. Thus little Edgar found himself in a new life on the other side of the ocean, in unknown lands. Scotland and England. He spent 5 years of his childhood there, from 1815 to 1820, attending different schools, forging various friendships: some healthy, others less so. “A long, agitated period in some ways”, stated Dr. Snodgrass.
Edgar spent his first year in Scotland, within the few miles between Kilmarnock, Irvine and Flowerbanks, in a school with corporal punishment, extenuating and grim religious functions and the fascinating and deleterious dejection of exploring castles and gardens haunted by ghosts. This is how he lost his childish simplicity, succumbing to dark instincts, to twisted purposes, to cruel wills. “Not even London had therapeutic effects”, observed Mr. Griswold, so that the editor had no choice but to note that London was what it was. Difficult years, it’s true!
Schools of disagreeable appearance and terrible loneliness, as in the old village of Stoke Newington at the Manor House School of Reverend John Bransby. There Edgar learned French, Latin, History and Literature amid linden-lined streets delineating sites full of morbid stories, since the castle of Lord Percy and that of Lord Leicester were close by and were fascinating places. Becoming lost in dark thoughts and grim feelings when somber bells rang, marking the confines of lugubrious emotions. “Also sentimental problems”, someone said and began to recall that it was around that time that Mrs. Frances Allan, a beloved mother, had nearly fatal dizzy spells and that Mr. Allan suffered from disagreeable disorders.
England was left behind then after it was decided to cross the ocean and return to America on the sailing ship Martha leaving from Liverpool.
“I want you to listen to these verses”, said Mr. Griswold, “truly very important to lend some sense to the actions of our Edgar when, with a horrible sensation, he noticed the first signs of a new feeling upon his arrival in Virginia.”
“Helen, thy beauty is to me / Like those Nicean barks of yore, / That gently, o’er a perfum’d sea, / The weary way-worn wanderer bore / To his own native shore. / On desperate seas long wont to roam, / Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, / Thy Naiad airs have brought me home”.
“What was happening then?”, asked the editor.
Helen appeared and induced extravagant inclinations. Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard, a young woman of 30 years. Thousands of problems ever since the first encounter. The madness of an incomprehensible passion. But death was present! A lugubrious aspect of an irrational feeling of love. Was it love, really? Young Edgar was only 15 years old. Drawing forth from his soul the loving madness caused by passion. Also the memory of an eager maternal love. Helen-Frances, yes! Death had to conquer both of them. Madness instead accompanied the last months of Helen’s life. Oh, Helen, a thousand times dreamed of, also desired. Helen lost in the meanderings of a mind that could no longer distinguish present from past. Then visiting a cemetery so that a grave would have flowers. Shockoe Hill Cemetery. A mother, also? She was a mother, yes! No longer discerning the truth: betrayed by obscure disorders. Verses then. He started versifying with unarguable skill. Praise and commendations, it’s true, but incapable of facing an alienation that was overtaking him. That a young man could be devoured in the depths of fear inspired terror.
Better then to drink some good light wine. Why not with a well-chilled “Baltimore Egg Nog”? It was healthy and energizing. Or also a delicious ice-cream created by Mr. Jacob Fussel? Mr. Griswold gestured for the barkeep to serve a jug of light red wine. It costs very little. Down the throat then! Water tinged with vinegary wine. Glasses filled and promptly emptied. Healthy sips. “To boost morale”, repeated Dr. Snodgrass, who did not decline another round. Excellent? Reconciling oneself with an ambiguous conscience. Losing oneself in remembrances, but defending a memory. Just one more sip. Then back to reminiscences and discussions.
“Was receiving a good education perhaps a necessity to consider oneself civilized?”, asked the editor suddenly.
Others continued to drink. Light wine, it’s true! They were engrossed in thought. They tried to bring back memories. Who remembered what needed to be remembered? And Richmond? The James River offered its waters for the transport of large barrels of tobacco and other goods and if necessary also passengers. Up and down the river. Flat-bottomed bateaux, about 58 feet long, without a keel, were propelled by the robust arms of Negroes who forcefully pushed long sticks against the river bottom to provide a solid impulse and tranquil navigation. That was Richmond!
“Edgar studied at the English and Classical School: a private institution”, said Dr. Snodgrass. And so they began to comment on those years. And on Edgar of course. They spoke about Mr. Joseph H. Clarke who taught Latin, Greek, English and French with capricious and pedantic precision. Splendid indeed to acquire an optimal foundation for a versatile and multifaceted education. Some pupils however became lost in the labyrinth of phonemes and strange vocalizations. And also in the Latin and Greek declinations. How to know or guess what ending or other thing to add to a word so that it fulfilled a specific function in a phrase? Latin and Greek, bad business. Especially difficult for the less prepared or enthusiastic pupils. Edgar instead showed off his knowledge from the start. For some he was a perfidious young man in spite of his belonging to the white race. Envy is envy. Vita carnium sanitas cordis, putredo ossium invidia, as the Bible says. Edgar, a dandy and a true Southern youth, joined the highest sectors of society in playing treacherous games, showing skill and courage in doing what no other young man of his age managed to do. Even swimming in the James River, against the flow, from Ludlam to Warwick.
“Any other misdeeds?”, asked the editor while sipping his wine and showing great interest in that unexpected aspect of Edgar’s life. “I mean”, he said, “perhaps there was more, just as there is more now in this land of Virginia!”
AUCTION OF BLACK SLAVES. The usual trade, for profit. Men and women displayed as goods for auction amid swine and mules. To secure the merchandise the slavers were content with locking the slaves in inhumane “Holding Pens”, dirty and uncomfortable rooms to confine them prior to the auction. Chains at their wrists and ropes around their necks. Slavers on horseback: cruel, merciless, unspeakably inhumane. Wide-brimmed or top hats. Dress coats. Golden buttons. Tubular pants. Jabot shirts. Leather gloves. Walking sticks with gold or silver handles. And whips ready to be used. Also loaded guns and sales contracts. Examining the slaves as they pleased, even palpating them. Even stripping them naked! Branding them with scorching irons applied to bare skin. The smell of skin excoriated and torn by the cruel fire. A canonic mark. A sign of ownership! Then carefully examining the merchandise. Healthy teeth. Mighty arms. Powerful muscles: men and women alike. A symbolic iconography? Only a custom frequently practiced in a beautiful district reflected in the James River, with its streets precisely laid out from north to south embracing Shockoe Hill. Around it sprawling gardens reaching the banks of the river. Then the wharves and sailing ships ready to negotiate the waters. A serene pastime to enliven the prosperous tradesmen’s idle time. Elegant homes that lent brilliance and splendor to an illustrious city. Richmond, indeed. Edgar kept giving free rein to his skills. Even writing poetry. And the black Mammy (Eudoca or Judith?)? Time does not look back. Or perhaps it looks back too often.
“Honor of Merit for Marquis de Lafayette. It was a gray autumn in 1824”, said Mr. Griswold interrupting vague thoughts. They were merely the result of personal ambiguities. An extraordinary event. Long live Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier Marquis de Lafayette, enemy of despots, indomitable warrior at Yorktown. He came to Yorktown on March 14, 1781, a Major General at only 24 years of age, to conduct a military campaign against the British that would culminate six months later in their defeat, thus liberating American soil from their dominion.
A cult to the Marquis in Richmond in memory of the Battle of Yorktown. It was 1824. Edgar felt the duty to participate in the honors reserved for the Marquis. The plan was to welcome him in a shining carriage drawn by four magnificent horses with silver harnesses. There would be a large crowd gathered at both ends of the city. The cavalry and a large brass band would accompany the general and his retinue. In the rear the artillery would be followed by a crowd of common citizens. All Richmond’s doors and windows would be adorned with banners saying: “Welcome, Lafayette! Welcome, Lafayette!”
“Edgar was a lieutenant on that occasion!”, said Mr. Griswold while drinking some wine. He was a lieutenant in the Junior Morgan Riflemen: volunteers trained to pay homage to a hero. Lafayette! With good sense and an ardent spirit. All residents of that place were enthusiastic about the event, for the graces received. Above all the Richmond community was celebrating the hero who had made the bourgeoisie rich, freeing them from the British. And it could, with pride and without hesitation, display its ability to amass wealth and conduct the most shameless affairs, professing its slave-trading aspirations with no false recriminations or seemingly iniquitous restraints.
“John Allan also received unexpected generosity”, said Mr. Griswold glancing at his two interlocutors with a mischievous frown. Satisfied with what was being said? Also malice. Perhaps unjust animosities. Poverty of spirit. What to do, then? Complain about everything? The truth was the truth. Everyone knew it. There was no other topic of conversation in Richmond. There was also talk about the death of William Galt Sr., a wealthy landowner and uncle of John Allan. It was March 26, 1825 when “William Galt Esq. one of the oldest and most respectable Inhabitants … breathed his last, profoundly impressed with the truths of the Christian Religion, and perfectly resigned to his lot.”
Going on and on? Saying what had to be said. William Galt left his native Scotland because he was involved in contraband. With dangerous people. The English or the smugglers? It was customary then to seek refuge and start a new life. Virginia welcomed Mr. Galt with open arms. A new spirit and a sly wheeler-dealer. It allowed him, in the spirit of free enterprise, to become a very rich through business which, as is well known, is a noble art of deceit and lies when well practiced.
“And John Allan?”, someone asked while ordering another round of wine. A low grade of alcohol, it’s true, but still alcohol. To reason better or not wish to reflect. The editor was alert and wisely drank with moderation. Diligent in acquiring gossip and truths. Then distinguishing the purposeful ambiguities of gossip from truths. Difficult! Meanwhile it was better to be willing to collect rumors. An old hand at journalism? One did what one could. And Mr. Allan then? He received unexpected generosity. A nice gesture. Indeed the uncle Galt died at the best possible time. A considerable inheritance for old swell-foot. About 750,000 dollars. Thus he recovered the luster lost in sordid misadventures and failed enterprises by receiving an inheritance in dollars, real estate, land, goods and slaves. Which he then spent in the best possible way. 14,950 dollars for “Moldavia”, the splendid brick house at Main & Fifth Street. A double portico in front. A large living room. Four large rooms on the ground floor. Flower gardens and a vineyard. And Edgar? He would become a prestigious personality, thought Mr. Allan. Manus manum lavat, Edgar would have said as a good Latin scholar. Studies then. Thus spoke Mr. Allan. A man of letters could be useful on any occasion. Even for improper affairs. And it was the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, on Moore’s Creek a few miles from his house, that gave meaning to this young man’s future.
“To measure himself against the scions of the wealthiest Virginian families?”, Dr. Snodgrass asked and glanced at the bottom of his glass. A liquid marked by horrible dusky red spots. A very inexpensive drink. Hence the headaches! Recovering from the effects of a hybrid mix! Drinking in company! Listening too. Perhaps Edgar had a good reason to feel so dejected. All his fellow students had their pockets full of dollars, plus a retinue of horses, dogs and black slaves. Servants in fact. Whiling away with a course of studies meant merely to complement a dissolute life. Youth demanded that and more. Edgar had to tighten his belt and implore Mr. Allan for pecuniary generosities. He also had to seek loans he could not pay later. It was true. Meanwhile Mr. Allan gave no commitment. But there were his studies: that was true. After seven mandatory hours of classes, Edgar spent entire days in his books, closed in his room, number 13 in the west wing. A “peach and honey”, someone said. And Edgar could no longer resist the loneliness of an elitist discrimination. Fraternities in fact and of the worst kind. Drinking and card playing. Poque? Euchre? Whist? Compulsive excitement. Perhaps compensating for his nature corrupted by anxiety? Perhaps envy of his rich and spendthrift companions? Or perhaps an irresolute death wish? Or ardently wishing to abandon an opportunity that seemed an unjust offer? Mr. Allan also! Or dreaming of controlling his destiny? Or aspiring to be a part of a small community? Perhaps a fraternity of idle individuals. It was almost necessary then. Playing and drinking. Booze and play. Mr. Allan meanwhile said nothing. Willingly or out of ignorance? Or simply the desire to disavow an adopted son?
“2,500 dollars in gambling debts. It doesn’t take much. Very little. Meanwhile, on the streets of Charlottesville, people were demanding that accounts be settled. Tradesmen, bartenders, habitual gamblers”, Mr. Griswold suggested while groping for his glass of wine. A bad sign being already drunk. Talking for the sake of talking about Edgar’s life without assuming any responsibility for what was said? Mr. Griswold never liked Edgar even though he had secured the rights to publish his works after his death. That is to say, his literary executor. It’s difficult to sort out the ambiguities of feelings and enmities caused by resentment and jealousy. Saying what had to be said. Nothing else? Yes, more indeed. Alcohol and debts. Nobody could deny the evidence. “One also had to reckon with greed”, someone added. Yes, Mr. Allan, it’s true! Bad business. Videte et cavete ab omni avaritia, quia si cui res abundant, vita eius non est ex his, quae possidet, it was written in the Gospel of Luke: 12, 15. Offering no way out. Debts belong to those who run them up. Better to abandon the studies than to come up with a couple of thousand dollars so that Edgar could be readmitted to university. The madness of a remissive alienation. Paying what was owed was the responsibility of the one who had squandered the money. This was the only way to save one’s honor. Meanwhile someone openly accused Edgar of “eating the bread of idleness”. The only possible solution was to return to Richmond. Lanam petierat, ipseque tonsus abii, as Mr. George Long, a highly esteemed Latinist and former professor at Cambridge, would have told his student Edgar Allan Poe with a hint of irony.
“A dreadful Christmas that of 1826”, added Dr. Snodgrass. Renouncing any possible Christmas cheer in some filthy tavern. Drinking heartily and shrugging off the hostilities one believed to have suffered. Meanwhile John Allan fought against his unfortunate injunctions. Duties especially. Losing himself in discourses that remained unheard. Different desires, different intentions. For the moment, gambling debts were set aside among other memories. Thinking about the future! What future? An excellent student in the past. Nobody could credibly deny it. Why not retrace one’s steps? University then! However Mr. Allan asked him to occupy himself in a concrete manner. Writing? A waste of time. Nothing. Page after page. Also poetry. Horrible resolutions. Finding himself in an existential abstraction. Make ends meet as best possible? Thus leave aside all laziness or forever leave the protective nest? Extrema conditio, Mr. George Long, distinguished Latin professor, would have sarcastically suggested.
“What was left if not to forget what one couldn’t manage to forget and try at least to lie in the best possible manner?”, wondered the editor glancing at glasses that were emptying after voracious, inebriating, disconcerting gulps. It was true: it was difficult to work out the reasons for such inappropriate and ambiguous behaviors. There was no pretension of being the judges of an existence but at least that there be stories about events that could be formed into a future account. To be able to write about a certain life, about a certain poet. Did they perhaps rebel against such a task?
Suddenly, while the editor was wallowing in wretched thoughts among foul drinks and confused reflections, the ever more inebriated man at the nearby table crammed with bowls of now finished soups and with huge glasses for abundant drinking approached the three conversers once again asking if he could recite some verses he had just composed concerning the disturbing and irreparable dispute between Edgar and John Allan, so ferocious and unhealthy as to prompt Edgar to leave Richmond. To leave as a wandering nomad. It was March 19, 1827.
“How to undo the knot of eating / the bread of idleness? Dawn of the new year. / Richardson’s Tavern corrupted him / in the voice of old ghosts from childhood. / The snow of Boston was pure, like a mother. / Fate turned over the enlistment paper / beyond the spirit of the dead, of the lake. And Eddie? / The sea of conquered scents anointed / Fort Moultrie, Sullivan’s Island, Port of Charleston, South Carolina. / Thus he donned the jacket / of the First Artillery: Battery H.”, the man recited while drinking that insipid red wine amid repeated sobs and obscene burps. Also words pronounced with fatigue and at times slurred final syllables. Then he left swiftly, tripping at each step, to return to his dirty table immersed in the penumbra of a candle consumed by time, not far from the three tablemates.
“A wretched year, 1827!”, exclaimed Dr. Snodgrass in an altered tone. “The definitive conquest of Georgia… Or am I wrong?… Can we lend credence to the rumors that this was the reason why Edgar enrolled?”
There may have been some truth to Joseph Evans Snodgrass’s words, since George Gilmer, the governor, took pride in determinedly declaring: “Even if we were to grant the same citizenship to acculturated Indians, would this mean we place you in an intermediate position between the Negro and the White Man?” What hope can we give the natives? Individuals of the lowest order really! The whites acquired all rights on the battlefield. The army was well equipped. Hence the Cherokee were forced to yield a hard-won sovereignty. Thus, if within the limits of the jurisdiction of a State it was not allowed to form or establish new States, it was possible, indeed desirable, even right and proper, that the whites enjoyed the full right to take possession of every acre of land in Georgia. Even by the force of arms: the Charleville musket or the Brown Bess rifle, or the Springfield Model 1795 musket? .69 or .71 caliber. Also because the Indians were weakened by a deadly poison. Indeed whiskey flowed like a river. Terrible medicine, since the natives’ culture was lost in the despair of a barricading coercion. The actions of the uniformed men were decisive. A war of conquest in fact! The Festival of Forgiveness made no sense to soldiers. Not even the propitiatory chants of the medicine men or the potions consumed for purification. It was impossible to ward off the carnage. Invading and occupying lands. Then came gold. Unexpected wealth. Away, away toward the “trail of tears” since the holocaust was perpetrated during a forced march. One thousand miles to be confined in reservations. Hands bloodstained with diligence and profit. The white man was and remained virtuously incorrupt. No purifying ritual. The army also came out into the open with reckless audacity. And thus arrived the smoothbore cannons. The best. And Mr. Poe, private?
“Seeking a path forward… or perhaps forgetting other paths… and the acquired father?… Is it good to acquire a father?”, asked Mr. Griswold amid the facetiousness and aggressiveness of an alcohol-laced speech. Phonemes spoken with fatigue and disturbed by false memories. Babbling as well. And he continued to drink alcohol in the hope of renewing the thread of his discourse. It was hard to notice the losses of memory. More and more glasses of wine to regain the ability to say what he wished to say but could not because of the unfortunate amnesia. The tongue and the mind could no longer find harmony. And Mr. Edgar?
“A strange thing…”, added Mr. Griswold and fell silent, intent on avoiding discussion and on drinking alcohol.
“Truly strange…”, said Dr. Snodgrass, also worn down by the vacuity of chatting now overcome by heavy drinking.
What else to say? Recall a life destined to dejection? Force the hand and be abused by memories. A sad affair, roaming by sea and by land as a private and under the name of Edgar A. Perry. To places near and far. All the way to South Carolina. He was stationed for months at Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, to protect the port and city of Charleston. From incursions by pirates, by the British, by the Yankees? His imagination was occupied mainly in uncovering unusual legends. Lively, pulsating images. What else, if not this? Fathoms of sea and palm trees as far as the eye could see. And the silence of distance. Then dunes and various types of birds. Burrowing creatures that dominated the sand. Frightened beetles and turtles. All around the incessant fluttering of colorful butterflies. And penetrating odors. The inebriating fragrance of myrtle and the acrid scent of salt. In time though he was consumed by a cruel loneliness, by the refusal to accept the vulgarity, the benighted stupidity of his comrades, and the sadness of wasting his youth leading a banal life in the First Artillery Battalion. Must he seek succor from a father with whom he had impulsively fought?
“Words in defense of Mr. Allan?”, asked Mr. Griswold, choleric denigrator of lives gone astray but eminent advocate of irreverent beverages. “Mr. Allan did what he could as a person of healthy tranquility and rigorous profile”, Mr. Griswold added, gripping a glass full of weak wine.
What did he do? He reasonably began to imagine some benefit since Ma Frances was now on her deathbed. Exerting his authority so that a son would participate, in an equivocal manner, in a tragic bereavement. Debilitating any tendency to rebel against fatherly wishes and assiduities. A son acquired and no longer loved. In fact consciously rejected. Legitimately thinking about his other children. Even though they were all illegitimate, it’s true.
“What did he do then?”, asked Dr. Snodgrass in a faint voice debased by a savage but pleasant alcohol-induced prostration. He was unable to say anything else, nor did he wish to speak.
Prudent perspicacity. Preventing Edgar’s arrival before Ma Frances died and was interred. Denying an irreverent son any kind of complaisance. Letting him be consumed by his pain. As much as possible. That Death could be the tormenting and inseparable companion of his life when, with precise determination, he was not allowed to assimilate his grief. And to share the prescribed mourning rites? For Edgar, only a grave on which to cry. At Shockoe Hill in fact. The rest of what came afterwards was a tragic fatality. Even West Point! No other option. A military life defined by healthy canons. Mr. Allen was convinced of that. Mr. Poe reluctantly accepted this belief even though he wandered for months awaiting the call. He lost himself in aimless roaming. Cities and poverty. After a final goodbye to Mr. Allan, he set out on the road to Baltimore. And then he found a new mother. In Baltimore. Aunt Maria Clemm Poe. As well as a young cousin. Virginia! Death was always lurking.
“Was it then that Edgar became devoted to disaster?”, asked Rufus Wilmot Griswold while drinking the very last drop of two glasses of cheap wine. He was rather inebriated and perhaps wished to be so as to no longer be involved in sensible conversations or in remembrances he would have liked to recount with sly malice. Pretending that nothing had happened and trying to give Dr. Snodgrass the honor of being the narrator of indecently confusing events. Which events? Nothing but finding the right means to offer the editor tangible and intangible possibilities of writing about events that had transpired in a life that was extinguished on October 7, 1849. And what about January of 1831, when Edgar was dishonorably discharged from West Point Academy? A shameful affair. Neither the one nor the other, neither Mr. Griswold nor Dr. Snodgrass was capable of narrating plausible events. Perhaps they wished to hide behind dulling beverages. And the memories? Forgetting what one wished to forget. And alcohol was very useful in stimulating desires of surrender. It also confused the mind. Intentionally obscuring memories and traces of memories. Not trusting then, not even yourself? Resorting to something else. Different inspirations and intuitions. But what? Someone then remembered a name. Was it Mr. Griswold or Dr. Snodgrass? Perhaps the simple gurgling of wine falling into the glass, which was quickly emptied. The unconscious? Only the consciousness of an uncontrolled desire. This is how it sounded: Eudoca or Judith. The black Mammy in fact! Managing time then! Jumping conveniently upon the ground, as the ancient ritual went. Ifá, ifá, it was murmured. Getting lost, in the meantime, in the vapors of alcohol. Mumbling words. Laughing as well. Forgetting. Letting others recount what one wished to be recounted. Mammy, yes. Tricks of time. Mammy. Eudoca or Judith? The same thing. A black Mammy. Knowing how to chase time and space. Playing with them at one’s pleasure. Overcoming the impossible? The editor in fact! A black Mammy so that a ritual would make a miraculous characteristic believable. Magic. Becoming a Griot as well in order to convey, as a minstrel, everything that had been seen and understood. Where? Beyond time and space. Meanwhile Mr. Griswold and Dr. Snodgrass were becoming accustomed to the poorest wine. A pitiful story. Talking without understanding what was being said. Thus evoking a black Mammy. Eudoca or Judith, the same. Allowing others to become the priest of an unrepeatable ritual. Making even improbable characteristics believable. All for the editor! Going beyond all imaginable limits! “Negress!”, someone said with violence. A necessary ceremony. How to explore and enter a man’s life? Edgar Allan Poe. Other events and gossip had been intentionally forgotten in vulgar debauches. There was nothing left. “The writings”, someone said. And he began to laugh. Vile insinuations. Feasible though. And in the midst of strident, alcohol-fuelled shouting, someone said that it was quite possible. Who? With whom? “Negress!” Yes, indeed! The black Mammy! Bringing ancient rituals to light. Possible in fact. The editor gave in to the deceit of ambiguity. Where? In the ritual saga hidden in divination. Neither space nor time. Going, going. Being able to invent a plausible and believable patakín. Writing as a mirror of a life story. Entering it. Browsing through its pages? Perhaps it was more acceptable to ask what was necessary to ask. Going. Going away from the now deserted Old Swan Tavern. Only a single table was full of the remains of chronic debauches. Mr. Griswold and Dr. Snodgrass remained in the insolence of alcoholic deliria. “Negress, Negress, Negress!”, was said several times to encourage the editor to ward off those inebriating euphorias. An invitation to avoid cruel, offensive phonemes. Mammy: the only one who could offer a path for an acceptable life story. A patakín in fact! A ceremony able to reveal what was hoped to be revealed. Also a priestess who could give impulse to the desired testimony. Mammy, who could be a sort of babalawo, ready to turn what was truly implausible into something plausible! A ritual. Unique, primitive. The ritual of a return to the unimaginable. Beyond time and space. A ritual that could have offered a peculiar method suitable to be able to roam among the written pages and capture the meaning of a life. Edgar’s in fact!
The editor then thought it time to leave the tavern and the imprudent, noisy drinkers to head towards literary explorations with the help of an old Mammy and to begin to examine Edgar’s life by means of his stories. To narrate his life and his writing starting from 1833.