Engraving by Robert Anderson based on 1848 daguerreotype.
Credit: Courtesy of Brown University Library
In dying under such mysterious circumstances, the father of the detective story has left us with a real-life mystery which Poe scholars, medical professionals, and others have been trying to solve for over 150 years."
—From "Death Theories" on the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum of Richmond, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia
"[The passing of Bierce was] terribly beautiful and fitting [and the mystery of his disappearance a] tragically appropriate conclusion to a life of erratic adventure and high endeavor" (pp. 49-50).
—From Ambrose Bierce (Starrett, Vincent. New York: Kennikat Press, 1969.)
Both Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce wrote stories with—as Poe noted in "The Philosophy of Composition"—the "consideration of a novel effect … a vivid effect" on the reader as a central goal. Ironically perhaps, the lives and especially the deaths of Poe and Bierce have also had a vivid effect on readers, spawning a cottage industry of theories and biographies, some of questionable reliability. We are, naturally, curious about the authors and the mysterious demises that seem to some observers "tragically appropriate" to their lives and art; biographical and first-hand accounts of Poe and Bierce are undeniably fascinating. But do they—should they—add in any way to our understanding or appreciation of their work? Can we really know the truth about Poe and Bierce? How can we gain insight into how they created? The stories of Poe and Bierce, far from being autobiographical confessions, are works of art deliberately and carefully crafted to evoke a response in readers. Such conscious crafting must make us wonder about the relevance and significance of details about their lives—whether mundane or intriguing—to our understanding of their work.
Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a sequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Unreliable Narrator; although designed for a younger audience (grades 6-8), many of the activities and resources in Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Unreliable Narrator can be adapted for high school students as well.
Through some less-than-ethical arrangements with Maria Clemm, Poe's mother-in-law, he [Griswold] secured the rights to publish a posthumous collection of Poe's works. (Technically, the rights to Poe's estate belonged to his sister Rosalie. Mrs. Clemm, unaware of his deep hostility towards Edgar, may have first approached Griswold.) The initial two volumes appeared towards the end of 1849, with a brief preface pronouncing the edition as a charitable act to benefit Mrs. Clemm. In actuality, instead of the promised money, Mrs. Clemm received six sets of the two volumes to sell at whatever she could get. Griswold even kept all of the manuscript material Mrs. Clemm had sent to him, all worth far more than one-hundred sets would have been. It was long claimed that Poe himself had appointed Griswold his literary executor, but no real evidence of this has ever been produced.
… In this "Memoir" Griswold cleverly manipulated and invented details of Poe's life for the least favorable account he could create. He even forged letters from Poe to exaggerate his own role as Poe's benefactor and to alienate Poe's friends. (A. H. Quinn provides an exacting account of these forgeries in his 1941 biography of Poe.) No lie was too great for Griswold, no slander too outrageous. Poe's choice not to return to the University of Virginia became expulsion for wild and reckless behavior. Poe's honorable discharge from the army became desertion. The 1827 publication of Tamerlane and Other Poems was dismissed as a lie. He even accused Poe of engaging in some dark secret with the second Mrs. Allan and invented a scheme by which Poe supposedly blackmailed an unidentified "literary woman of South Carolina" (presumably Mrs. Ellet). By praising Poe's writings and attacking Poe's character, Griswold managed to make himself appear to be a sincere admirer and to attain a false sense of fairness in his general approach to Poe. In short, it was a brilliant piece of character assassination. Poe's literary executor had become his literary executioner.
Was Poe drunk when he was found on the street in Baltimore on October 3, 1849? Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass, the man who sent Poe to the hospital in a carriage, said in 1856 and 1867 that Poe was indeed intoxicated. Dr. John J. Moran, however, Poe's attending physician for the final few days of his life, insisted in 1875 and 1883 that Poe had no trace of alcohol in his system and had probably been beaten by thugs.
…Moran has the advantage of having spent more time examining Poe, but he has partially discredited himself by leaving us at least three romanticized and somewhat contradictory accounts. Snodgrass, having left a more coherent account, has generally been accepted by biographers, but he was a radical temperance man and saw in Poe's death a means of persuading others to abandon alcohol entirely.
Assign the reading of one of the following works of Poe to individuals or small groups based on your knowledge of your students (and without identifying the author). Ask students to consider what kind of person is likely to have written each; tell them they will be creating psychological portraits of the "authors."
If desired, students can use descriptions of personality types provided by the Department of the Interior (a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library via USA.gov) to create a profile of the author. Students pick one each of the following:
to create an alphabetic representation (ENTP, for example) of "their" author's personality.
Compare student profiles and solicit evidence from the texts that influenced student choices before revealing Poe as the author of all the selections. What did the students already know about Poe? What's surprising about the selections? If we know the writing, do we know the author? What effect would knowing Poe was the author have had on the students' reading? Would it have made it more difficult to read any piece objectively?
If desired, take this opportunity to share with students a short biography of Poe such as Edgar Allan Poe (Biography by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia), a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.
Reviewing some brief biographical accounts will demonstrate to students their unreliability and, by extension, one very practical problem with attempting to use biographical information in interpreting literature. If we don't really know what the author was like or what happened to him/her, how can we use that information reliably? To answer this question, the class will look at the following four biographies of Edgar Allan Poe:
Divide the class into groups of four students each. Download, copy, and distribute the chart "Unreliable Biographers" on page 1 of the PDF. First, all group members should read the brief biography Edgar Allan Poe on The Sesquicentennial of the DEATH OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia. Using key words from the chart questions, and dividing the tasks among group members, students should skim the other three biographies for answers to the questions. Directions are provided on the chart. What did students learn about the reliability of the biographies?
As Gioia and Kennedy noted in their brief biography Edgar Allan Poe:
Poe's posthumous reputation sustained grievous and long-lasting damage from a libelous biography by Rufus Griswold, whom Poe himself had appointed his literary executor, and rumors, mostly unfounded, circulate to this day about Poe's mental state and personal habits.
Poe's famous tales of the grotesque made it easy to believe Griswold, easy for readers to associate Poe with his mad characters. Is that a useful connection?
Reading authors' letters can give us information about and insight into their lives. But even when authors make direct statements about their work, readers have to be careful how they use the information for interpretation. Even personal letters are not absolutely reliable. People sometimes remember events incorrectly or fabricate to make themselves look better. However, Poe did confide in his "Muddy," Maria Clemm, the mother of his deceased wife. Letters are certainly helpful in documenting Poe's activities and state of mind shortly before his death. They could help eliminate some of the theories about his death that have been advanced; however, the question students should keep in the forefront of their minds is the extent to which such material can help readers understand Poe's work.
Have student groups scour the following letters from the Edgar Allan Poe Society, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library, for answers to the questions on the chart "Can Poe's Letters Provide Any Answers?" on page 2 of the PDF (see Preparing to Teach this Lesson for download instructions):
The most commonly accepted theory of the cause of Poe's death has been the effects of alcohol. Having looked at the letters Poe wrote toward the end of his life, are students more or less inclined to believe that theory?
If students are not already familiar with it, have them read (or read to them) "The Tell-Tale Heart," available on the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia. In it, the narrator denies that he is mad. What in the text belies that claim? How does something as craft-related as sentence structure (passages such as "I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously") reflect the apparent madness of the narrator?
Next, share the letter Edgar Allan Poe to Maria Clemm - July 7, 1849 with the entire class. In it, Poe writes, "I was never really insane," sounding quite a bit like the narrator of his story. Does Poe's claim (as well as any other evidence in the letter) make the students think he was or was not insane? Is there any chance the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" was never really insane?
Now share with the class at least the opening sentence of the article "The Trial of James Wood." which is attributed to Poe, though not with certainty. Written in 1840, before the publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart," the article (regardless of its authorship) establishes that the insanity defense was used in the mid-19th century. Is it possible the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is relating the story to establish an insanity defense? Interested students will find the entire article quite intriguing, especially if Poe is the author.
The class has discussed the story based solely on the text and in connection with a Poe letter and a contemporaneous news article. Do the students feel any approach was more valid (or enlightening) than another? Was any approach invalid? Is it best to cast a wide net and read all available materials, or does that take away from the power of the text itself?
The article "Death Theories" on the website of the The Poe Museum of Richmond, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia, lists—and provides the sources for—15 different theories about Poe's death proposed over the years, including beating, epilepsy, diabetes, carbon monoxide poisoning, and even murder. Why so much interest?
Poe is said to be perhaps the only author with whom virtually every American is familiar (a century and a half after his death!). Share with the class a work characteristic of Poe's grotesque tales such as "The Cask of Amontillado" or "The Tell-Tale Heart" Why do students think these stories have endured? Why are we less familiar with Poe's work that is not in the horror/mystery genre? Could it be because of our morbid fascination with Poe's life? Because Poe was so in touch with madness that he could write about it convincingly? Because people are simply drawn to good tales about the morbid side of life? Is there a connection between the morbid nature of Poe's most familiar work and the morbid fascination with his death? Does knowing something about Poe's struggles in life or the mystery of Poe's death make students feel any differently about his tales? Do they believe authors' lives should be studied to better understand their work?
Students interested in the controversy over Poe's death can conduct further research on the issue. Some suggestions may be found in the first bulleted section under Extending the Lesson.
Have the students read (or read to them) "The Raven," available from the Edgar Allan Poe Society, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library. Then, share excerpts from Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" on pages 3-5 of the PDF (see Preparation Instructions for download instructions). How does Poe claim he composed "The Raven?" Do students believe Poe when he describes how he created the piece? Does that knowledge change their reading of "The Raven?"
Ambrose Bierce was also a master of the macabre and grotesque, and a similar controversy swirls around his death. Students who have read some of Bierce's work and who want to try out their newly practiced literary sleuthing abilities can, after getting some background, evaluate a purported account of Bierce's death.
For background on Bierce, students should consult the Ambrose Bierce Chronology available on Don Swaim's The Ambrose Bierce Site, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. The website of the Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society, also a link from Internet Public Library, features articles on The Life of Bierce and The Death of Bierce (see left-hand content links).
Now students are ready to read California copy, by George F. Weeks - Part 32, CHAPTER XXXI, available from the collection California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900 on the EDSITEment resource American Memory, and to make a judgment about its accuracy. Though much of the chapter is about Bierce, especially page 289, you can scroll or use the FIND function in the EDIT menu of your browser to locate especially relevant portions.
The contemporary author Salman Rushdie lived under a death threat for years because some people were offended by the content of his work. In support of another author faced with a similar reaction, Rushdie said, "Anyone who cares about literature should…at once defend the autonomy of the literary text, its right to be considered on its own terms, as if the author were as anonymous as, well, the authors of the sacred texts. And within a literary text, it must be possible to create characters of every sort. If novelists can't depict Nazis or bigots without being accused of being Nazis or bigots, then they can't do their work properly."
Having looked at a variety of Poe material, do students now agree or disagree with Rushdie? Was any of the Poe material outside of the texts indispensable? Would we do better to keep authors anonymous and find meaning only in the texts themselves? Ask each student to formulate a written statement representing his/her stand on the issue.
5-6 class periods