AND “THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO”

Edgar Allan Poe
(Smithsonian)

Born in 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, to stage actors, David and Eliza Poe. He was named after “Edgar”, the good son of Shakespeare’s mad “King Lear”. His father left the family when Edgar was one. His mother, desperately poor, died of tuberculosis shortly after, while on a theater tour in Richmond, Virginia. This left Edgar and his siblings orphans in foster care when he was three.

Early Years

Poe was raised, but never adopted, by a childless couple, Scottish tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife, Frances. Though given a good education, he had a troubled early life, at odds with his foster father over his abusive treatment of his sickly wife. He was given enough money to leave the house and attend the wild and raucous University of Virginia. There, while dazzling his friends with his art work and writing, he took to gambling and drinking. Unable to continue at UVA because of his debts, he left to enlist in the army. He was successful there, and even attended West Point with the intention of becoming an officer, but became disillusioned and devised his own dismissal by refusing to attend classes. It was about this time that his dear foster mother died, like his natural mother, of tuberculosis, “The Red Death”.

Marriage to Virginia Clemm

Poe declared his intention to become a poet and writer. He wrote stories and caustic criticisms for magazines, while  living in Baltimore, Maryland with his relatives, the Clemm family. At the age of 27 he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, who was 13. His writing took them to New York and Philadelphia, but they never strayed far from her Baltimore roots.

Virginia (“Sissy”) and Edgar (“Eddie”)
(Dead Poets Society)

“We loved with a love that was more than a love…”

Though accounts of their life together vary. Some said it was more of a joyful brother/sister relationship than a marriage. Virginia’s early death at the age of 24, again from tuberculosis, had disastrous effects on Poe’s psyche. His guilt over his dissolute lifestyle and illicit affairs drove him to despair and his drinking increased. His failure to save the women in his life inspired his poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” They immediately launched his popularity, though not his fortune.

Poe the Romantic

Poe is considered a seminal writer in the American Gothic style of 19th Century Romanticism, which was a reaction to the rationality of The Enlightenment of earlier centuries. Romanticism championed Nature, passion and emotion.. It led to dramatic expressions of fear, horror and the unknown, in such later works as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.

Attempts to innovate gave rise to the “short story” form. “Detective fiction” was born in Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue”, later influencing Arthur Conan Doyle. The Mystery Writers of America’s “Edgar” is still the top award in that genre. His characters were driven by psychological motivations, and his work foreshadowed 20th Century psychoanalysis. Poe also joined the “science fiction” genre with his “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” which later influenced Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Horror

But his works in the horror genre are what influenced H.P. Lovecraft and Alfred Hitchcock, and kept a kid from Philadelphia enthralled. His short horror stories were just the ticket for an imaginative youth, and when, in the 5th grade, I discovered “The Premature Burial” I knew I had found my guy.

The Cask of Amontillado

“The Cask of Amontillado” was written in 1846, and echoes Poe’s themes in his “Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Black Cat”. It also encompasses everything a Catholic 5th grader in a small town near Philadelphia could want in a story – murder, revenge, mystery, torture, and vindication – set in a tomb, at midnight, during a medieval Italian Carnavale.

Published, ironically, in the extremely popular “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, “Cask” was Poe’s response to his bitter rival, author Thomas Dunn English, who had mocked Poe and his work in his own revenge novel “1844 or the Power of the S.F.” published earlier that year, and whose character Marmaduke Hammerhead is the drunken author of “The Black Crow”.

There are many hidden references to English throughout “Cask”, as well as to Poe’s own life – the names Montresor, “my treasure”, Fortunato , “good fortune”, the condemnation of drinking, the gullibility of the would-be connoisseur, dressed as a fool and a victim of his own indulgence.

The End

Poe lived his final years alone, in a small white cottage that still stands in a park near Fordham University, where he had befriended the Jesuits. He died in 1849, found passed out in a Baltimore street, at the age of 40. He was wearing clothes not his own. The death certificate has disappeared, but the causes may have been anything from alcohol, the bane of his existence, to syphilis, epilepsy, or cholera. He was not mad, as jealous critics later labeled him. He was ill.

Poe’s Grave

On a personal note, I was fortunate to perform in a number of productions at the acclaimed Baltimore Center Stage in the early 1980s, and took great pleasure in discovering the historic and beautiful “City with the Harbor”,  from the glamorous Hotel Belvedere to H.L. Mencken’s hangout, the now gone Peabody Book Store and Beer Stube. One of my favorite “haunts” was Poe’s grave in the little cemetery of Westminster Church. It’s all spruced up and gentrified now, with lighted brick walkways, but at that time it was right out of a Peter Cushing film, deserted, with grey, cracked headstones overgrown with weeds, and open crypts, including Poe’s, with coins in the crevices and loving fan messages scrawled everywhere. Some left a dead raven on his tomb. Poe was a rock star.

Poe’s Grave, Winchester Church, Baltimore

The Midnight Visitor

And then there was the “Poe Toaster”, documented since the 1930s. Each year, at some time of the night of January 19, Poe’s birthday, a black clad figure would slowly appear and leave a bottle of cognac and three roses in a particular pattern, on his Baltimore tomb. In 2007 the Westminster Church historian Sam Porpora claimed to have been the ghostly visitor, but his facts and dates did not correspond with known evidence. The visitations ended, fittingly, on the bicentennial anniversary of Poe’s birth, in 2009, to be repeated “Nevermore”. – LD