Poe’s Death

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What killed Edgar Allan Poe?

On Oct. 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious and wearing clothes that were not his own. The man who found him said he was “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance.” He remained incoherent and died four days later. He was only 40.

An acquaintance said it was drunkenness, but he turned out to be a supporter of the temperance movement who distorted the facts. The attending physician wrote that “Edgar Allan Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant, nor was the smell of liquor upon his breath or person.”

Well, what, then? Other theories include a rare brain disease, diabetes, enzyme deficiency, syphilis, even rabies. Some people think Poe was accosted, drugged, and used as a pawn in a plot to stuff ballot boxes that day.

There’s no surviving death certificate, so we’ll never really know. Today Poe lies in the churchyard at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, where mystery follows him even in death: Every year since 1949, the grave has been visited by a mystery man in the early hours of the poet’s birthday, Jan. 19. Dressed in black and carrying a silver-tipped cane, the “Poe Toaster” kneels at the grave and makes a toast with Martel cognac. He leaves behind the half-empty bottle and three red roses.

“Be All My Socks Remembered”

An excerpt from Fox in Socks, Prince of Denmark:

ACT 4, Scene 2
[Enter FOX and KNOX]
FOX: Try to say this my lord Knox, prithee –
Through three cheese trees, or not through three cheese trees,
That is the question –
whether ’tis nobler In the trees for three free fleas to fly,
Or to take a freezy breeze that blew
While these fleas flew and by blowing
Freeze these three trees. To breeze, to freeze –
No more; and by a breeze to blow
we freeze the trees and the thousand natural trees
That cheese is heir to – ’tis a cheese
Devoutly to be freezed.
To breeze, to freeze – To freeze, perchance to sneeze.
Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that freeze of cheese what sneezes may come,
When fleas flew off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
KNOX: Adieu my lord,
This is a speech of fire that fain would blaze
But that this folly doubts it.
[Exeunt]

From the Dr. Seuss Parody Page.

Dickens and Eliot

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A revealing letter of Charles Dickens to George Eliot, 1858:

Dear Sir:

I have been so strongly affected by the two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to send me through Messrs. Blackwood, that I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humor and the pathos of the stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try.

In addressing these few words of thankfulness to the creator of the sad fortunes of Mr. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil, I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one; but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seems to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began. …

Harry Stephen Keeler

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Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) wrote mystery novels so bad they’ve been called “coincidence porn.” In The Ace of Spades Murder he introduces the guilty character on the third-to-last page; in X. Jones of Scotland Yard he explains on the last page that Napoleon Bonaparte is the culprit.

And his gifts extend beyond plotting. His characters are called Criorcan Mulqueeny and Screamo the Clown and Scientifico Greenlimb and Wolf Gladish and State Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck, and he writes titles like Finger, Finger!, The Yellow Zuri, The Amazing Web, Find the Clock, and The Face of the Man From Saturn.

Even at the level of simple prose, he’s entirely helpless. Here’s a typical passage from The Case of the 16 Beans:

The door now opened, revealing, as it did so, a strange figure — a half-man, no less, seated on a “rollerskate” cart! — framed against the bit of outer hallway. But no ordinary half-man this, for he was a Chinaman; quite legless, indeed, so far as the presence of even upper leg stumps went; but amply provided with locomotion, of the gliding kind, anyway, in the matter of the unusually generous rubber-tired wheels under the platform cart.

There’s even an appreciation society now, which is fortunate, because most of Keeler’s numerous works are now out of print. In 1942, the New York Times wrote, “We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.” Amen.

The First Blast of the Trumpet

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) may be the most misogynistic screed ever written:

For who can denie but it is repugneth to nature, that the blind shall be appointed to leade and conduct such as do see? That the weake, the sicke and impotent persons shall norishe and kepe the hole and strong? And finallie, that the foolishe, madde and phrenetike shal governe the discrete and give counsel to such as be sober of mind. And such be al women, compared unto man in bearing of authoritie. For their sight in civile regiment is but blindness; their strength, weaknes; their counsel, foolishnes; and judgment, phrensie, if it be rightlie considered.

That’s ironic, because the author’s real beef was religious: John Knox opposed female sovereigns like Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary Tudor because of their Catholicism. When Elizabeth Tudor succeeded Mary, his plan backfired — she was sympathetic to his cause, but offended at his words. Hell hath no fury.

Voynich Manuscript

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Some writers seem to crave anonymity. None more so than the author of the Voynich manuscript, who invented a mysterious language and an unknown alphabet that has been defying scholars for 500 years.

To judge from the illustrations, the text deals with astronomy, biology, cosmology, herbs, and recipes. Handwriting experts say that the glyphs were written with speed and care, as if the author were facile with them. Statistical analysis seems to show that it’s a natural language, but the vocabulary is unusually small, and in some ways it seems to resemble Arabic more than European languages.

Because no one knows precisely what the 240-page book is, it’s hard to guess who wrote it. Suspects include a who’s who of Europe in the Middle Ages, Roger Bacon and John Dee among them. The cipher has resisted even the National Security Agency, leading some to think it’s a hoax, but even that is hard to prove conclusively.

There’s a great irony at the bottom of this. The mysterious author was one of the most successful cryptologists in history — so successful, in fact, that we may never know who he was.

“I Find You to Be the Only Fool!”

Excerpt from The Eye of Argon, a famously bad fantasy novella written by Jim Theis in 1970:

Utilizing the silence and stealth aquired in the untamed climbs of his childhood, Grignr slink through twisting corridors, and winding stairways, lighting his way with the confisticated torch of his dispatched guardian. Knowing where his steps were leading to, Grignr meandered aimlessly in search of an exit from the chateau’s dim confines. The wild blood coarsing through his veins yearned for the undefiled freedom of the livid wilderness lands.

At science fiction conventions, fans try to read it aloud with a straight face. The “grandmaster challenge” is to read it with a squeaky voice after inhaling helium.

I Think …

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Squashed Philosophers is like Reader’s Digest with a Ph.D. Glyn Hughes takes the high-calorie tomes of 41 world-class thinkers, from Plato to Popper, and squeezes them into tasty little capsules, without losing the flavor of the originals.

René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, for instance, fits into 6,488 words — or even, in the “very squashed” version, into six simple assertions — but they’re all stated in the author’s own words, and nothing essential seems to have been lost.

That’s a tribute to Hughes’ editing skill, but it’s also a pretty scary commentary on the original works. Kant is notoriously unreadable in the original, but Hughes estimates that his 5,700-word condensation of the Critiques of Pure & Practical Reason can be read and understood in 23 minutes. If that’s true — if that’s even close to true — then I don’t see how Kant’s original can be called a great book.