THE TELL-TALE HEART: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe by Julian Symons

THE TELL-TALE HEART: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe

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As a poet, first-class mystery writer, and stylish historian of crime fiction (Mortal Consequences), Symons should have made an ideal soul-mate for the mysterious Mr. Poe. But this biography-followed-by-criticism seems a curiously half-hearted affair, written with the smooth professionalism of benign detachment. Symons says that he has separated the life from the work so that ""long analyses and discussions of poems and stories"" would not interrupt the drama of Poe's life: ""a play in which he half consciously cast himself as a tragic hero."" And, true enough, Symons' brief biography makes a swiftly readable tale of the orphan rejected by his wealthy foster-father, the West Point drop-out who turned to hack journalism and sharp-tongued criticism, the magazine editor who yearned for his own publication, the proud man always urgently in need of money, the would-be Southern gentleman, the idealizer of women, the drinker. Especially in the last years, after ""The Raven"" brought ""something like fame"" but no fortune, after Poe's child-wife's death left him to pursue simultaneous romances that were ""the stuff of French farce,"" Symons summons up an understated pathos. However, lacking both the authority of scholarly documentation and the resonance of those missing stories and poems, all this passes by without much impact: Symons' assumptions (about Poe's sex life, for example) and his summations (""If he could have achieved something of what he wanted in the visible world, those terrors of the soul might not have haunted him so powerfully"") often seem glib. Nor do the succinct critical essays arrive at last with much weight; Symons sees Poe as a creative split personality, Visionary and Logical, who wrote technically dazzling poems that were ""more than a little ridiculous"" and horror stories undistinguished except for the authenticity of their agony. (The ""totally original"" first detective stories are ""extraordinary"" but ""not impeccable."") Symons finishes off by looking rather askance at the psychoanalytic and academic students of Poe's work; he may be right in finding fault with those commentators, but they worked with a vigorous commitment strangely missing from this--a disappointment that is nevertheless the best (mostly by default) compact and balanced overview around.

Pub Date: June 26th, 1978
Publisher: Harper & Row