Poe’s False Friend

Edgar Allen Poe may have drunk himself to death but his tastes reveal a staggering ignorance about alcohol

Saintsbury

There is no doubt that Edgar Allan Poe, like his father and his brother, drank a lot, and that he drank indiscriminately. His cousin, William Poe, would later warn Poe about the “great enemy to our family . . . too free use of the Bottle”. At 16 Poe was enrolled at the University of Virginia, studying ancient and modern languages. Although his academic reports were very good, he had already acquired the habit, which would stay with him throughout his life, of turning to drink to calm the nervous excitability to which he was prone. One of Poe’s fellow students recalled his fondness for a local mixture of peach brandy and honey.

From the University of Virginia Poe enrolled as a cadet at West Point, where a fellow student noted that he had acquired the “dangerous habit of constant drinking”; as one of his friends recalled, “if he took but one glass of weak wine or beer the Rubicon of the cup was passed with him, and it almost always ended in excess and sickness.” Poe soon became disenchanted with the military life, and he resolved to get himself discharged by ostentatiously neglecting his duties. Drink was a useful ally in this cause. Poe would drink steadily for afternoons, days, even weeks at a time. Unsurprisingly, at the end of January 1831 he was court-martialled for “gross neglect of duty”.

Poe next turned to journalism. In 1835 John P. Kennedy had recommended him to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, Thomas Willis White. White accepted some of Poe’s early tales for publication, and in the summer of the same year offered him an editorial position on the journal. The work was hard, because Poe was required to write most of each issue himself. Predictably, when under pressure Poe turned once again to his false friend, alcohol. One of the tales he published in the Messenger during those months — “King Pest”, which is set in a terrible and macabre drinking den, and culminates in a mass drowning in beer — translates this biographical circumstance into literary material. 

It was not a trick which could be played too often. White was soon obliged to confess to a correspondent that Poe’s drinking was more of a problem than an asset. Poe, he said, was “rather dissipated, and therefore I can place very little reliance upon him”. And one of the printers of the journal testified that:

Mr. Poe was a fine gentleman when he was sober. He was ever so kind and courtly, and at such times everyone liked him. But when he was drinking he was about one of the most disagreeable men I have ever met. 

After a brief period when Poe absconded from the journal, White was charitable enough to take him back, but as he did so he gave him some good advice which is also startling evidence of the scale of Poe’s drinking: 

No man is safe who drinks before breakfast. No man can do so, and attend to business properly.

Good advice — but also advice Poe found it impossible to follow. At the beginning of 1837 Poe was “let go” by the Southern Literary Messenger when periods of incapacity brought on by drinking bouts had made his unreliability as a contributor no longer tolerable.

It was the same story a few years later, when Poe was living in Philadelphia and contributing to the Gentleman’s Magazine. A friend, Thomas English, saw one evening “someone struggling in a vain attempt to raise himself from the gutter. Supposing the person had tripped and fallen, I bent forward and assisted him to arise. I found it was Poe.” Poe had been drinking on an epic scale, and needed several days at home in bed to recover. The debacle was not long in coming, and in May 1840 Poe was sacked from the magazine, the publisher William Burton noting euphemistically that Poe’s “infirmities” had caused much annoyance. During the final illness of his wife Poe had written that:

I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank — God only knows how often or how much.

By now Poe’s drinking was becoming notorious outside the circles of his immediate family and acquaintance. In 1841 Thomas English would lampoon Poe in his novel The Drunkard’s Doom. A New York magazine would publish a spoof list of forthcoming books, which included “A treatise on ‘Aqua Pura’, its uses and abuses, by Edgar A. Poe”.

Those “infirmities” and their consequent annoyances ran through Poe’s life until his death on October 7, 1849 after a six-day drinking bout in Baltimore. So, given his extended experience of alcohol, it is surely surprising that Poe’s most celebrated tale involving wine, “The Cask of Amontillado”, should display extraordinary ignorance.

“The Cask of Amontillado” was one of Poe’s later tales, first published in November 1846. Montresor has endured a “thousand injuries” from his rival, Fortunato, and he takes revenge on him during “the supreme madness of the carnival season”. Fortunato piques himself on his connoisseurship of wines, and Montresor (who was “skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could”) uses this foible to entrap his enemy. Saying that he has bought a pipe of amontillado on which he would be grateful for Fortunato’s opinion, Montresor takes him down into the cellars under his palazzo, manacles him to a prepared niche in their dankest, deepest part, and then bricks up the opening.

Several details of the story jar. Montresor’s expertise in “the Italian vintages” would not dispose him towards amontillado, which is of course a Spanish wine. Fortunato’s contemptuous dismissal of Luchesi, another connoisseur — ”Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry” — is again troubling, since amontillado is a kind of sherry. On their way through the cellars, Montresor offers Fortunato a draught of Medoc to “defend us from the damps”. A few moments later, Fortunato asks for more Medoc, and Montresor obliges by giving him a “flaçon of De Grâve”. Graves is a Bordeaux wine, as is Medoc; but they are not the same.

These blunders do not of course detract from the power of Poe’s tale — indeed, they point us towards its biographical sources. Poe was addicted to the narcotic effects of alcohol, and seems to have been indifferent to whichever vehicle it was that happened to deliver it. The dismally-misnamed Fortunato’s tantalising situation at the end of the tale — imprisoned by a false friend in the midst of alcohol, none of which can be drunk — is a potent combination of the horrors Poe actually experienced, and of those he could only fearfully imagine. 

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