BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete WorksThe Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are quite a number of volumes entitled “the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe,” or something to that effect. It’s almost always inaccurate, but most include more than the casual Poe fan would enjoy reading. The book I read included Poe’s one novel (some include a partially written 2nd novel,) many of his essays, all of his short stories, and all of his poems (in that order.) Note: I’m not complaining that the book didn’t include every single piece that Poe published. That would include a large amount of literary criticism of writing that has long been forgotten (in most cases, for good reason.) It does include a biographical sketch of Poe’s life and a “History of Horror” essay by an unnamed individual as ancillary matter.

The ideal reader for such a work has an interest in Poe as a person or an interest in literary history (and, particularly, the history of stories of the weird, dark, or surreal.) That isn’t to say that there is no value in reading beyond Poe’s greatest hits (i.e. stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”) I found some treasures among the lesser known works (e.g. for story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for beautiful writing “Landor’s Cottage,” and for insight into Poe as a writer “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”) That said, such “complete” works include pieces that: a. have not aged well; b. are experiments that didn’t turn out spectacularly; or c. beat to death one of Poe’s obsessions (e.g. being buried alive.) This is particularly noticeable regarding his essays, which largely violate item “a.” If you just want to read the very best of Poe’s stories and poems, you can probably find a more selective volume. (Though I would recommend reading his novel.)

Poe only completed one novel, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It’s my contention that this book would be much more widely known and read if it had a title that was less wordy and more exciting. It’s the gripping tale of a young man who stows away on a ship that suffers a mutinous and ill-fated journey. It can be broken into two parts. The first part, which I found the most intense, covers the period from when the ship launches until it becomes unseaworthy after a storm. The second part takes place after the protagonist is rescued, and the rescue vessel eventually experiences its own dire fate involving crossing paths with indigenous people.

The essays are – as one might expect – the least engrossing part of the book, but there were only eight of them. There is an article on a chess machine hoax and other happenings that might have been quite well received in Poe’s time. There are also some pieces on philosophy and theory of literature that might be of interest to literary historians, but few others. There’s an essay on “Philosophy of Furniture” that I have a hard time imaging was of interest to any one in the past, or in the present, but I could be wrong.

Poe is most well-known for his short stories (even the poem “The Raven” tells a story,) so unsurprisingly this is the biggest section with about 67 stories. Besides his many spectacular macabre and strange tales, Poe is known as the inventor of detective fiction. Poe’s Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes by about a half a century, and the two sleuths are veritable twins – excepting the former is of Paris and the latter from London. It’s not only that Dupin has the whole, “from the flour dust on your cuff I can tell you were near the La Vie en Rose bakery last night at nine o’clock” thing going on, the two stories are told in a similar fashion (Dupin has his own less well-developed Watson to tell his tales and serve as a foil.)

The final section of the edition I read was Poe’s poetry. As was the norm at the time, the poems were rhymed and metered. (Whitman didn’t publish his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” until about six years after Poe died, so “free verse poetry” was still considered a nonsensical oxymoron.) Many of Poe’s poems are intermediate in length, though “Al Aaraaf” is fairly long and there are several that are sonnet length or thereabouts.

Apropos of his time, Poe’s writing can be wordy and needlessly complicated. You’ll find a lot of untranslated quotes that assume any reader will be fluent in French, Latin, and German. I enjoyed reading the “How to Write a Blackwood Article” in part because I learned that Poe’s pretentiousness wasn’t just his preference. In that article, he rails against some of the practices that he uses copiously because it was the only way to get his work published. I don’t necessarily buy that Poe was completely opposed to pretense (he wrote a “Philosophy of Furniture” for heaven’s sake.) He was no Mark Twain. But at least he recognized that greater simplicity was possible ideally, and he was by no means one of the more ponderous or plodding writers of his day.

If you decide to read the complete works, you might want to pay attention to the book’s organization. As I said, the version I read was organized: novel, essays, stories, and poems, and, within each category, alphabetically. I have no problem with the macro-organization (though I would have shunted essays to the back.) However, there are more useful ways to micro-organize than alphabetically (chronologically by publish date, for example.)

I have bizarrely eclectic tastes and interests, and Poe is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this volume immensely and found it well worth reading (enough to read a “Philosophy of Furniture.”) If you just enjoy Poe as a storyteller and weaver of dark tales, you may want a more selective volume.

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BOOK REVIEW: Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins

Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called LivingEdgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most intriguing writers in American literature. His short life (he died at 40) was productive and inventive. He’s often credited with the invention of the detective story (i.e. “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), and was prolific as a writer of stories, poetry, and criticism. We know him for macabre tales like “Tell-Tale Heart” and the poem, “The Raven.” Few authors invoke such a benighted image.

Yet the popular image of Poe is a bit of a dark caricature, reflecting truths but exaggerating features for effect. Part of this exaggeration probably owes to our collective desire to romanticize the tortured artist – and Poe is as tortured as they come. However, some of the exaggeration of Poe’s faults owe to the fact that he was a harsh critic, and at least one of the authors who felt the sting of his pen found an opportunity to amplify the “drug-addled lunatic” aspect of Poe’s nature in a biography after the great author’s death. That’s not to deny that Poe had an addictive personality. He was both an alcoholic and prone to gambling away whatever funds graced his pockets.

This short biography (less than 150pp.) gives one insight into Poe’s life from birth to death in five chapters. The first of these chapters describes Poe’s childhood, which was marred by the death of his mother, abandonment by his father, and being taken in — but not adopted — by a foster couple. Granted the foster couple was wealthy, but Poe’s foster-father could be a harsh man and the uncertainty of not being formally adopted seemed to have weighed on Poe’s mind.

The middle chapters give special attention to Poe’s life as a writer, noting under what circumstances he was published, starting with a self-published chap book and moving through to becoming one of America’s great men of letters (though he never made enough money to live in comfort.) Poe famously married a cousin who was very young (though of legal age) at the time, and we get some insight into that relationship, which ended not terribly long before his own death. The last chapter gives the details of Poe’s demise.

I found this book interesting and educational. Collins neither gets lost in the minutiae nor give’s Poe’s life short shrift, and it feels as though he reveals the true Poe and not the T-shirt version. I would recommend this book for fans of Poe’s work and for those who are interested in the literary history of America.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Complete Poetical WorksComplete Poetical Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Gutenberg page

 

The title is self-explanatory with respect the book’s content. However, if one is just expecting all of Poe’s poems bound together, one may be pleasantly surprised by some relevant bonus material in the form of scenes from plays and a few essays on poetry.

The works included are divided into seven sections. The first is entitled “Poems of Later Life” and includes many of the author’s most famous works such as: “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” The book then follows an inverse chronological order with the section entitled “Poems of Manhood” coming next. Next there are scenes from a drama entitled “Politian” that emulates classic Greco-Roman plays. Then there are the poems written in Poe’s youth. There are two more sections of poetry with only a few pieces each. The first is the “doubtful poems’’ – i.e. poems that may or may not have been penned by Poe. The last chapter of poetry consists of Poe’s prose poems. Finally, there is a section consisting of three essays about poetry. This is a nice inclusion as it offers the reader insight into Poe’s thoughts on poetry. For example, Poe believed in a poetry Goldilocks zone. That is poems that were too long would not be able to maintain the emotional experience, but one’s that were too short would not be able to convey meaning.

I enjoyed this book. Not all the poems are of the caliber of “The Raven” by any means, but the book is insightful nonetheless, and there’s a mix of Poe’s trademark darkness with pieces that might strike the reader as decidedly uncharacteristic. As I said, it’s fun to have Poe’s essays on poetry next to his poems so that one can consider his verse in that light. The inverse chronological order provides an interesting way to view the evolution of a poet – Benjamin Button style. (Plus it offers one some strong momentum by starting the reader off with some of Poe’s most exceptional work.)

There’s a brief biography in the front of the book, and there are a surprising number of detailed notations for a collection of poetry. That’s all the ancillary matter. There are editions with illustrations, but the edition that I read didn’t have them (i.e. the version on offer from Gutenberg Project .) Amazon seems to have editions both with and without illustrations. (I don’t think they would offer much value-added.)

I’d recommend this for poetry readers and poets interested in Poe’s approach to the art.

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POEM: If I Was…

Edgar Allan Poe

If I was as Mad as Poe,
could I summon the Raven?

 

If I was as radical as Blake,
could I build myself a tyger?

 

If I was as shut-in as Dickinson
could I be Nobody, too?

 

If I was as doomed as Radnóti,
could I pen my elegy on a death march?

William Blake





Emily Dickinson





Miklós Radnóti