Thursday

Oct. 3, 2013

Eldorado

by Edgar Allan Poe

   Gaily bedight,
   A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
   Had journeyed long,
   Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

   But he grew old—
   This knight so bold—
And o'er his heart a shadow
   Fell, as he found
   No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

   And, as his strength
   Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
   'Shadow,' said he,
   'Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?'

   'Over the Mountains
   Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
   Ride, boldly ride,'
   The shade replied,—
'If you seek for Eldorado!'

"Eldorado" by Edgar Allan Poe, from Poems and Poetics. © The Library of America, 2003. Reprinted by permission. (buy now)

It's the anniversary of the 1895 publication of Stephen Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage (books by this author), the story of Civil War private Henry Fleming. The story begins late at night around a campfire: "The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So tomorrow they were at last going to fight. There would be a battle, and he would be in it. For a time he was obliged to labor to make himself believe. He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth. He had dreamed of battles all his life."

It's the birthday of Emily Post (books by this author), born in Baltimore (1873), whose marriage broke up when her husband lost his fortune in a stock panic, and then it came out that he was having an affair. Post became one of the first divorcees in her high-society circle, and she started writing to support her two children. She published several novels, and an editor suggested that she write an etiquette manual when he noticed that her novels were full of observations about etiquette. She thought etiquette manuals were awful, so she set out to write a different kind of book, more about treating people decently than just following rules. The result was her book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (1922), and she wrote about etiquette for the rest of her life — Emily Post, who said: "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

Today is the birthday of novelist Thomas Wolfe (books by this author), born in Asheville, North Carolina (1900), the youngest of eight children. His father was a stonecutter; his mother ran a boardinghouse and had a knack for real estate speculation. Wolfe's parents appeared in his novels as Oliver and Eliza Gant, the parents of his literary alter ego, Eugene. Wolfe originally wanted to be a playwright, and he wrote and acted in several plays at the University of North Carolina and, later, at Harvard. He moved to New York in 1923 and taught playwriting at New York University's Washington Square College; it was on a trip abroad in 1926 that he first turned to fiction and began what would become his most famous novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929). The book, like his later work, was a thinly veiled autobiography, and his depictions of people and places caused a fair amount of turmoil in his family and among the citizens of Asheville.

On this date in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe (books by this author) was found unconscious outside a pub in Baltimore — "in great distress and ... in need of immediate assistance," according to the man who found him. Poe had been en route from Richmond to Philadelphia on a business trip, and stopped off in Baltimore on September 28 for an unknown reason. He was found on Lombard Street, outside Ryan's Tavern, dressed in dirty and ill-fitting clothing. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he lapsed in and out of a coma until he died four days later. When he was conscious, he had brief periods of coherence, but mostly he was either combative or delirious. He was never able to tell how he came to be in such a state; newspapers reported "congestion of the brain" as the cause of death, which was a common euphemism for fatal circumstances that were socially unacceptable. There was no death certificate and no autopsy, so the reason for his demise remains a mystery.

Naturally, because he'd been found outside a tavern, alcohol was the first scapegoat, and one the temperance movement was quick to use to their advantage in Poe's time. It's true that he had a complicated relationship with the bottle. He first took up drinking back in his college days at the University of Virginia, and though he had long periods of sobriety, his reputation as a drunk followed him. He was dramatically affected by alcohol, becoming insensible or ill after only a couple of drinks, but he was aware of the problem and fought it his whole life. Even in college, his reputation as a drunkard far outstripped the reality. One professor recalled: "I often saw him in the Lecture room and in the library, but never in the slightest degree under the influence of intoxicating liquors. Among the Professors he had the reputation of being a sober, quiet, and orderly young man." Medical records also indicate that Poe had been sober for the six months leading up to his death.

Poe could have been the victim of "cooping." Political gangs would kidnap people, drug them, beat them, and force them to vote repeatedly at different ballot boxes all over the city, wearing an assortment of disguises. The cooping theory is supported by the fact that Ryan's Tavern was also a polling place, and Poe was found on election day; what's more, his clothes were dirty, threadbare, and didn't fit him. Poe always prided himself on his neat and stylish appearance, so this was not at all like him. Opponents of this theory argue that he was too well known a figure around Baltimore, and someone surely would have recognized him at one of the polling places.

There's a relatively recent theory that says Poe might have died of rabies. Dr. R. Michael Benitez, a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, reviewed Poe's case. There's no way to prove anything without an autopsy, of course, but Benitez thinks that first-person accounts of the author's last days make a strong case for rabies. It's not unusual for people in the final stages of the infection to be combative and disoriented, with periods of lucidity. Poe also refused water — hydrophobia is another common symptom. He had several pets, one of which could have bitten him at some point. It's possible to be infected for nearly a year before serious symptoms develop, and once they do, the average life expectancy is four days—the amount of time Poe was in the hospital before he died.

Other possible causes that match his symptoms to varying degrees include syphilis, diabetes, brain tumor, epilepsy, and cholera. Poe's hair was analyzed in 2006, and the results ruled out lead and mercury poisoning, but in the absence of a thorough autopsy report, we will probably never know for sure.

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