October 7, 2010

Guest post: Death of Poe and Holmes

*Today's guest blog is by novelist Matthew Pearl, whose historical fiction mysteries include The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow. His third novel, The Last Dickens, follows the publisher James R. Osgood in pursuit of the last manuscript of Charles Dickens. Matthew has also written a two-part guest blog for The Edgar Allan Poe Calendar. For more information, please visit his web site.

Edgar Allan Poe and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. both died on October 7, one in 1849, the latter in 1894. There are many interesting ways to compare and contrast Holmes and Poe from the points of view of a biographer, a historian, or a reader. I have some thoughts on the two figures from the perspective of a fiction writer who has used both as characters in novels.

I chose Holmes as the central figure in my first novel, The Dante Club. This was not an obvious decision, because the story (as the title suggests) really is an ensemble, and I had my pick of terrific historical personalities from a small group that helped complete the first American translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. For a while, I leaned toward James Russell Lowell, another colorful poet and close friend of Holmes's. Why did I end up hitching my wagon to Holmes? Holmes's strength as a character reflects one of his personal strengths in life: versatility. In writing a novel about poets who must embark on a dangerous investigation, the historical novelist could ask for no better recruit than Holmes: not only a popular poet, but a Harvard Medical School professor, a physician, and himself a novelist — not to mention a savant at conversation, wit and socializing.

Think of the challenge of writing about writers and trying to make it engaging and dramatic. A writer's central occupation involves sitting at a desk and, well, writing, and their personalities are often introverted. Not material that necessarily lends itself to external drama. Being one myself, I know I'd make a pretty boring character! No wonder doctors, lawyers and police officers are such frequent choices as protagonists for books, films and television. But Holmes erases these worries, and grants you wonderful settings for scenes, as well, other than a writer's library. I'm not the only one to think so, either: check out Tess Gerritsen's The Bone Garden for another Holmes adventure.

Poe presents such a different profile to the fiction writer. His persona is so larger than life and enigmatic, many novelists are tempted to make him come off as somewhat demented, similar to some of the characters he created. Fellow novelist Louis Bayard and I actually contributed a joint article about the appeal of using Poe as a character for Poe Studies journal. Unlike Lou, whose novel The Pale Blue Eye caught up with Poe as a young cadet at West Point, in my novel, The Poe Shadow, Poe has just died and the intrigue surrounding his death animates the story. I've told Lou I think he's very brave by using Poe as a character. For me, trying to compete with reader's own ideas of what Poe would be like as a person was too daunting, and a hit-or-miss proposition. Unlike Holmes, whom many of my readers discovered for the first time in my novel, everyone has their "own" Poe. That's part of the way I wanted instead to use Poe's "shadow": to show how unattainable the real Poe is, and how that could send my characters on an adventure of discovery that, in the context of my novel, becomes a matter of life or death.

I also liked the idea of reminding my readers that enjoying and caring about Poe in 1849 took courage and originality, that he was not the icon he is today. Having this distance from Poe, rather than placing him center stage as a character, also allowed my characters to realize, as I did, that, unlike the mythical Poe, at the end of the day Poe was looking for a normal, stable, family and financial life... one that might have looked something like Holmes's, had Poe survived long enough to see his plans through.


  1. Matthew, thank you very much for the unsolicited plug! I think the experience of having our books come out together really reinforces for me the multiplicity of “Poes” out there – everyone has his own, steeped in myth – as well as the multifariousness of Poe himself. I catch him at the brink of adulthood, you catch him at the end of his life (and beyond), and there are times we could be talking about two entirely different men. Poe refuses to come down on either side of the spectrum. He was a poet; he was a fierce critic of other poets. He was insecure; he was vainglorious. He was a devoted family man; he was a stubborn individualist. I sometimes think his very indeterminacy is what gives him his enduring fascination.

    Well, that and those amazing stories. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could….” I only have to hear those words, and I’m transported back to the catacombs of Montresor’s palazzo. And I marvel all over again at Poe’s ability to get under our skin.

    Great blog, thanks!

    Lou Bayard

  2. Matthew, thank you for mentioning THE BONE GARDEN!

    I was drawn to Oliver Wendell Holmes as a character because of his contributions to science and medicine. As the first American physician to point out the link between childbed fever and the unclean hands of medical practitioners, he alone probably saved the lives of thousands of women.

    I also felt a personal attachment to him because we have something in common. While I was growing up, my father gave me the same advice that Holmes heard from his father: "There's no money to be made as a writer, so you'd better find a career that will support you!" Like Holmes, I too ended up studying medicine, at the urging of my father. And like Holmes, I too finally found my way back to writing, which was always my first love.

    How I wish I could have met him!