There has long been thought a link, at least in popular culture, and now it seems in certain clinical circles, between creativity and mental illness. It’s a spurious link, not exactly a fact at this point, but it does seem that a lot of people accept it that way. Being both a writer (of sorts) and of questionable sanity myself, I can vouch for the correlation at least, but that’s as far as I go.
When we look back through the history of creative genius in our culture, a history that spans many centuries, and which has both survived and thrived through untold hardships, tribulations, revolutions, upheavals, and somewhat obvious mental turmoil, it’s plain to see that a certain instability of thought is common among the most celebrated artisans of our kind.
It seems popular today, to associate a tortured soul with literary genius, even though it has been present in virtually every field of creativity, from art, to music, to poetry, to even the forefront of scientific innovation. Perhaps it’s the exposed nature of literature that reinforces this idea that writers must suffer, in order to be writers. Perhaps there really is some reason scribes seem more emotionally eccentric than others. Or perhaps there’s no deeper connection at all.
In any event, there are some figures represented on the bookshelves of any well-stocked library who do fit that tortured genius persona… some more than others.
A few names come to mind: Ernest Hemmingway certainly, William Shakespeare was most definitely a little twisted, but also Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, George Orwell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, and many, many more. There is one that stands out though, for me at least: Edgar Allan Poe.
You might not readily accept that Poe was a tortured creative genius, though I assure you, he was. In addition to being a literary juggernaut, Poe was also a rapscallion, a drunkard, a boor, and sometimes a downright jerk. Of course, that depends on who you ask. But one thing that shines brightly through all his various reputations, is that his mind was of the type to create mysteries. Now, I’m not talking about the mysteries in his books, though they are worthy of mention, I’m referring to actual, real-life, forever unsolvable mysteries, of which there are a number.
One of the more popular mysteries concerning Poe, is that of the Mignonette. That’s an English yacht that sank off the Cape of Good Hope near the tip of South Africa on 5 July 1884. The crew of four, save for one, made it to the lifeboat and survived several days with minimal food and no fresh water. Unfortunately for one among them, a young, inexperienced sailor named Richard Parker, the food ran out in short order, and his fellow sailors saw fit to kill and eat him, in favour of their own survival. A terrible tale for sure, one that ends in a relatively famous English common law precedent pertaining to what’s now known as survival cannibalism. The famed case is known as R. v. Dudley and Stephens.
Of course, as they say, truth is often stranger than fiction, but not in this case.
The above is a true account of real events that actually happened, but it’s not much of a mystery. The mystery is… how did Edgar Allen Poe write an almost identical tale 46 years before it happened? In Poe’s only full length novel, published in 1834 and titled The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe told the entirely fictional story of a young stowaway named Gordon Pym. Pym’s adventure takes him onto three different ships, has him entwined in a major shipwreck, a dangerous mutiny, and participating in the cannibalising of a poor sailor… named Richard Parker!!!
Quite often, when this story is told, some of the details get confused. Storytellers and mystery mongers usually claim that the ships bore the same name. Though as mentioned above, the real ship was the English yacht the Mignonette, and the ship in Poe’s tale was a Boston Whaler named the Grampus sailing out of Nantucket (the three ships in the tale were the Ariel, the Grampus, and the Jane Guy, all three fictional).
Popular embellishments aside, the verified consistencies are strange enough. That’s not the only mystery surrounding Poe, though.
Edgar Allan Poe died of unknown causes on 7 October 1849 while locked in a secure medical institution, after having been found sitting alone on a park bench in Baltimore, Maryland, raving like a lunatic four days earlier. He was found by a Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, who described him as being dishevelled and in a state of delirium. Once in custody of medical officials, Poe wandered in and out of consciousness, but never once gained enough lucidity to explain his condition. He died at 5 a.m.
During his brief convalescence, Poe repeatedly cried out for someone named Reynolds, and made incoherent references to a wife in Richmond, even though his actual wife, Virginia, had died some years before. It’s said that one of the last things he uttered was:
"The best thing my friend could do would be to blow out my brains with a pistol."
If you know nothing of Poe, that may not seem particularly compelling. If you know even a little about him, you’re probably wondering how he came to be in that condition in the first place.
It’s a popular “fact” that Poe was something of a drinker, but this is thought by most of his modern biographers to have been an exaggeration of his character, if not an outright lie, presented by his arch rival Rufus Wilmot Griswold in his unauthorised posthumous biography of Poe titled Memoir of the Author. As such, the idea that he was stone drunk and no longer in control of his faculties isn’t entirely believable. But it is fairly well known that he struggled with depression for most of his adult life. So that he put himself in that position isn’t out of the question.
There are some surprising theories about these events though. Several of his compatriots suggested that he had died of alcoholism, or alcohol poisoning, but this has more or less been ruled out. Others have suggested a suicide attempt, and this has also been mostly dismissed. Ideas about rare and congenital brain deformities and other diseases have been discussed, though it would be impossible to confirm these as cause of death at this point. Interestingly, some have suggested that he was actually the victim of a practice called cooping.
October 3, the day Poe was found, was an election day in Baltimore, and as was a common at that time, many believe Poe had been shanghaied in the streets, beaten, and possible drugged by organised crime gangs, so that he could be used as a pawn in submitting multiple votes for a single candidate. Some claim that his disheveled state of dress, which was very uncharacteristic, is evidence that he had been forced to wear a disguise, perhaps to conceal his relatively famous identity at the polling stations.
Descriptions of his being while in hospital make no mention of wounds or contusions, which seems to refute the idea that he had been beaten up. Though there are ways to inflict pain without leaving marks.
Of course, there is also the notorious murder plot that has been attributed to Poe for years. It has been embellished, twisted, and presented in almost every entertainment medium we have. Most famously, perhaps, in James McTeigue’s 2012 film The Raven, starring John Cusack. An excellent film, to be sure, but not to be considered a truthful accounting of Poe’s last days.
Ultimately, we have no real idea what happened in the days leading up to his death, nor do we know why he died at all. Poe’s writing was of the darkest sentiment in almost all the literature before and after. Central to the Poe Murder Plot is the idea that his writing is evidence of the twisted nature of his mind, and the effect such narratives have on those who read them. Even in comparison to today’s most gruesome and terrifying entertainment choices, Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry remains a most accurate caricature of human depravity and cruelty. But it does not stand that his mind had to be broken to conjure these images, it was his brilliance to be able to entertain a chilling thought, and to scribble it on paper, but not succumb to its influence himself.
I leave you with the following final mystery:
The name Poe uttered repeatedly in his death throws was Reynolds; is it a coincidence that the man believed to have been his inspiration for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was Jeremiah N. Reynolds?