Allan Massie

A Gentleman and a Drunk

Poe: A Life Cut Short


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There’s a story by Malcolm Lowry in which an American writer in Rome is sitting in a bar drinking grappa and leafing through an old notebook. He comes upon some jottings he had made in the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. ‘Excerpt from a letter by Poe – after having been dismissed from West Point – to his foster father. Feb 21, 1831: “It will however be the last time I ever trouble any human being. I feel I am on a sick-bed from which I shall never get up.”’ Actually, the writer reflects, Poe ‘had risen from it to change, thanks to Baudelaire, the whole course of European literature, yes, and not merely to trouble but to frighten the wits out of several generations of human beings with such choice pieces as “King Pest”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom”’.

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