In the seven days before his death, Edgar Allan Poe went missing. He was last accounted for on the evening of 26 September 1849 in Richmond, Virginia, where his physician offered him a palliative to sooth a fever. The next morning, he boarded a steamboat making for Baltimore. Though, curiously, he left his luggage behind. Even without his toiletries and spare change of clothes – clearly, he wasn’t too perturbed about wearing the same kit for the duration of his two-week journey – Poe arrived in Baltimore. He had planned to take a train to Philadelphia, then on to New York, his final destination. Here the details of his time spent in Baltimore begin to blur. And the reliable accounts go missing, just like his luggage. Some claim heavy bouts of drinking in local taverns. Others report a train inspector discovered him en route to Philadelphia, babbling away incoherently (whether induced by drink or other design is unclear), and promptly returned him to Baltimore. What we can be certain of (courtesy of Peter Ackroyd’s biography) is that a former editor of Poe’s, one Joseph Evans Snodgrass, received a concerning message alerting him to Poe’s condition on 3 October. The message read:
There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A Poe, and who appears to be in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance.
Snodgrass set off immediately and discovered Poe in a local tavern. Poe was, it seems, certainly worse for wear: he was not wearing any of the clothes with which he had initially embarked on his journey from Richmond. A straw hat sat awkwardly atop his head, a pair of tatty, baggy trousers bounced around his waist and his neck was noticeably naked, bereft of its signature neckcloth. Nor was his black waist coat anywhere to be seen. Poe was escorted to a carriage, or most likely heaved into the waiting vehicle. It wasn’t until the following day that he became conscious, and it was a further two days before he awoke from his delirium. By Sunday 7 October, Edgar Allan Poe was dead.
Poe was certainly haunted by something. Perversion, alcoholism, and poverty always nipped at his heels; however, these were but the outer trappings of a much deeper affliction. I submit that what truly ravaged Poe at his core, which explains his turbulent emotional health and drove the excessive consumption, his disposition towards depravity and fascination with the grotesque, not to mention his delight in devilment, was loneliness. To be sure, Poe was aware of his estrangement from family and community, and how this ate away at his soul. However, it was a former lover who best summarised the spectre accompanying Poe all throughout his lurching life:
He said often that there was a mystery hanging over him he never could fathom.
Such an appeal to mysticism could easily have been a deliberate stunt, a carefully contrived mysteriousness that was reflected in his macabre fiction. Regardless of whether Poe’s claim is an honest expression of torment or a concerted attempt at identity construction, both articulations spring forth from a desire to be recognised, and to be seen. For in his correspondence with his adoptive father, John Allan, and his aunt Maria Clemm, as well as with other members of the surrogate family and sparse community, Poe consistently returns to the motif of the orphan, and his absolute estrangement from the world:
Oh God have mercy on me. What have I to live for? Among strangers with not one soul to love me.
Above all else, I think that it is this psychological detail that is most pertinent to understanding Poe, what drove him, and how he came to pioneer true crime and, perhaps even, science fiction. A desire for recognition propelled Poe’s tendency towards hyperbole, as well as the morbid and extreme: for what better way to capture one’s attention than to appeal to that small, misplaced element of the human psyche which cannot help but to prick its ears at the chilling details of a bloody murder, or at the rumours of another’s beleaguered marital life? For Poe, there was nothing respectable or validating about producing fine writing, unless it was read by other people. He said as much to the editor of the newly established Southern Literary Magazine, Thomas Willis White. “To be appreciated,” Poe told him, “You must be read.” And Poe had a very clear idea indeed about how Mr White ought to manage the magazine to increase its readership. Stories, Poe believed, had to contain:
the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.
Unsurprisingly, Poe’s advice worked. Under his guidance – he was offered a job at the publication – the magazine’s circulation increased from 700 to 3,500. But we might add, at what cost? How did Poe’s philosophy threaten future experimentation with journalism? The Great Balloon Hoax provides a prophetic example. Although it may be an innocent and largely inconsequential one, it is nonetheless possible to infer how such a skit could be slightly more pernicious in its effect in the contemporary context of sensationalism, commercialisation and entertainment.
Back to the Hoax – some years earlier, a veritable aeronaut, flew by big balloon from Vauxhall Gardens (London) to Weilberg (Germany). Contriving the voice of this same man, Monck Mason, in what was a fabricated journal, Poe approached the New York Sun and successfully sold them the story with the following headline: ‘Astounding Intelligence by Private Express From Charleston Via Norfolk! The Atlantic Ocean Crossed in Three Days!! Arrival At Sullivan’s Island of a Steering Balloon Invented by Mr Monck Mason!!’ Two days later, the Sun sheepishly retracted the story. Poe had certainly made his work readable, most of all noticeable. Although, it was only a matter of time before the sinister replaced the foolish.
Truman Capote might as well have been an orphan, like Poe. He was entirely neglected by his mother, who constantly criticised his effeminate mannerisms and assailed him with demands to set aside his reading and writing. And he was desperately lonely. The young Capote suspected, however, that he had a way out – later on in life, he was known to say: “I knew damn well I was going to be rich and famous.” To publish and to be read, as Poe had believed, was to be seen and appreciated by others; and if Descartes believed that thinking was that which confirmed consciousness, Poe and Capote felt that to publish was to be recognised, and to be recognised was not just to exist, but to endure. Following the reception of his true crime novel In Cold Blood (1966), in which he had revolutionised a form first established by Poe in 1842 with his investigative work into the mysterious murder of a teenage girl named Mary Rogers, Capote was catapulted into the limelight. To be sure, Capote was always talking about who he knew and who knew him – a far cry from Poe’s bewailing of seclusion to his father; however, such boasts were clearly a thinly veiled attempt to conceal his own isolation in the paradoxically bustling urban setting that was New York City. (A well-held, well-liked, well-supported person has no need to disclose how deep his roots extend).
Capote had identified early on that “journalism as art was almost virgin territory.” Moreover, there was a gap, he believed, to be filled in the genre:
I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.
Capote had discovered, much like Poe, and the Athenians before them, that art – or perhaps in the contemporary sense, entertainment – should allow people to momentarily step outside themselves. Although Capote riffed on a form of tragedy that cannot be understood in the same context as the form performed in open air arenas a couple of millennia ago and attended by the types of fellas rolling round sporting the Athenian equivalent of birks, the raw presentation of human cruelty marked a new moral juncture. Just as the German scholar Eric Auerbach argued in the mid-twentieth century that “the realistic novel has become the successor of classical tragedy,” British critic Martin Amis described the publication of In Cold Blood as “the start of our present permissiveness about turning tragedy into entertainment.” Capote, who had spent five years researching, interviewing, and investigating the murders of the Clutter family, created a model which was to be co-opted by contemporary journalists on Spotify and other podcast streaming services in decades to come.
The portrayal of the Clutter family murder in Capote’s non-fiction novel was highly controversial: some commentators accused the writer of expediting the execution of the convicted murderers to get his book on the shelves sooner; others simply objected to the material, believing it to be too bleak, too meddlesome. What we can agree upon was its popular appeal. People lost their shit over it. And once he had struck gold, he kept on digging. Between 1967 and 1968 Capote was commissioned by the ABC to interview death row inmates for a new docuseries. It is perhaps telling that the incoming producer pulled the program last minute, believing the content to be too grim. Even before it would have had the chance to air, however, Capote had embroiled himself in controversy. He was caught playing too loose with the testimonies of the inmates, in some cases fabricating quotations. As a result, Capote landed himself a twenty-four-hour stint in prison.
Despite his newfound success and publicity, Capote continued to go after approval and attention. He continued to write true crime in various capacities; he appeared on television and op-eds and other media appearances as a special crime expert. But when the whole underworld thing had run its course, Capote clamoured for an equally potent intoxicant to hold the attention of his readership. His incomplete autobiographical novel Answered Prayers, which was a peak into the lives of the rich and famous of Manhattan, crystallised the latent warning embedded within Poe’s journalistic philosophy and balloon prank. Only four chapters of the novel appeared in print in Esquire magazine in 1975, yet its effect was instantaneously disastrous: relationships were upended, friendships were torched, and one implicated character even committed suicide. Thankfully, Capote wholeheartedly acknowledged the damage:
This aroused anger in certain circles, where it was felt I was betraying confidences, mistreating friends and/or foes. I don’t intend to discuss this; the issue involves social politics, not artistic merit.
Whether or not Capote anticipated the harm inflicted is largely irrelevant. What is more curious is his conviction in his right to publish and his obstinance to do so:
I will say only that all a writer has to work with is the material he has gathered as the result of his own endeavour and observations, and he cannot be denied the right to use it. Condemn, but do not deny.
This is a dangerous precept. And it is difficult not to curl a lip in scorn. How could he believe such a thing? Had he no morals? No integrity? The comments are nonetheless revealing of the crater in his heart and the essence of his art. No where will you find a more honest and raw version of Capote than the one narrating the collection of short stories entitled Music for Chameleons. Here, this same narratorial voice, which we can safely assume as his own, admits to his miserable existence and his unfulfilled project in this world:
But I’m not a saint yet. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius. Of course, I could be all four of these dubious things and still be a saint. But I shonuf ain’t no saint yet, nawsuh.
In the dozen or so fictional vignettes in the collection, Capote proceeds to acknowledge what drives him to publish, even when to do so comes at the expense of others, least of all his friends. In ‘Nocturnal Turnings,’ the last of the stories in the collection, Capote sets a pair of Siamese twins, both with the name Truman Capote, in conversation with one another. Here Truman Capote turns to Truman Capote and asks what Truman is most fearful of, to which Truman responds: “Betrayals. Abandonments.” (Capote might as well have set himself in conversation with Poe: the two never stopped running away from the ghosts of disapproval, rejection and estrangement which had haunted them since childhood). Earlier in the story, one of the twins asks the other who they like most in the world. His brother responds:
Nobody. They’re all dead. Some recently, some for centuries. Lots of them are in Père-Lachaise.
This twin continues, listing all the authors whom he admires who are buried among the art world’s who’s who in the famed cemetery of Paris: “Gertrude and Alice. Proust. Sarah Bernhardt. Oscar Wilde.” Clearly, Capote was willing to sacrifice friendships during his own lifetime to guarantee membership in a lineup of literary artists who would be remembered well into posterity. Poe may have felt similarly. Abandonment in life is a small price to pay, I guess, for company amongst the eternals.
By Nick Bartlett