A Pale Blue Eye

Pale Blue EyeEdgar Allen Poe. The name is one of the most alluring and tragic in the annals of American Literature.  He is, after Mark Twain, the most widely read American author ever (Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code not withstanding). His fertile and weird imagination created an entire new kind of literature—the horror story. He invented the short story as we know it—that extremely tight, condensed literary form where everything leads to a single point; every action, every word spoken, every gesture brings the story inexorably towards its conclusion—as implacably as fate itself. The cold ripples of his literary explorations lap at our feet even today:

No Poe, no Alfred Hitchcock.

No Poe, no Stephen King.

And he ruined ravens for all of us.

But although he may be one of the most familiar writers in America, Edgar Allan Poe is also one of the most misunderstood. The facts of his life have been buried under mountains of spiteful invective. What most folks know, if they know anything at all, is that Poe was an alcoholic and a drug addict. That he died like a dog drunk in a ditch.

Unkind and unfair and inaccurate. Poe’s reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated of late, but he still suffers from the most dreadful misapprehensions about his character.  It is one of the reasons why I picked up Louis Bayard’s novel The Pale Blue Eye with the tell-tale beat of a conflicted heart.  My admiration for Poe’s writing borders on worship; it wasn’t likely that I’d be able to resist a novel centered around one of my favorite writers. But I was prepared to be both distressed and disappointed.

Instead I was gratified and captivated.

“Drunk in a ditch” may be the (declining) common perception of Poe, but not many people realize that he spent for years in the military, including a year as a cadet in (the then very young) West Point Academy.  Poe joined the military for the same reason many people today join the army—it promised a respectable career for someone can’t afford other education. This obscure fact becomes the central setting for Bayard’s novel, which does a wonderful job of capturing the very “Poe-ness” of Poe—his passion, his weirdness, his genius, his vulnerability, the “overweening dignity” of his youth.

West Point Academy in 1830 was not the hallowed institution we know today.  It was regarded with suspicion by a new country that wasn’t convinced of the need for a standing army. Its future rested precariously in the hands of politicians who still remembered the depredations of British rule and the suffering of the War for Independence. So when a young cadet is found hanged on the grounds, an apparent suicide, it brings unwelcome attention to the Academy. More is at stake than the fate of one despairing young man—the future of West Point itself may be at risk.

The Commandant sends for a retired New York City detective to investigate (and hopefully bury) the incident. Augustus Landor, in ill-health, world-weary and thoroughly prepared to molder away his final days in his isolated farmhouse in the Hudson River Valley, reluctantly agrees to help, especially after he discovers the cadet’s body has been oddly, horrifically desecrated.   Landor recruits a helper for himself–a young cadet with a penchant for poetical observation named Poe.

I think there are two kinds of historical fiction. There is the kind that treats the reader as a tourist and shows them around the era, showing off their research and happily explaining the little details of life in another age.  Then there is the kind that dumps the reader in another time and leaves it to them to sink or swim, which is a much more effective way to bring a different era “to life”. Bayard definitely leaves us to sink or swim.  Any history lessons the reader wishes to draw must be inferred through the eyes of the story’s finely drawn characters—even the most minor ones have weight and solidity. There is a contemplative feel to the novel that elevates it beyond terms like “mystery”, “thriller” or “suspense”. Landor’s logical and “Holmesian” approach to finding the truth struggles against, and eventually gives way to Poe’s passion and poetical grasp of evil.

Bayard pays tribute to the gothic atmosphere that saturates Poe’s work: there are dark nights, mysterious and tragic women, frightening scientists and even a witch doctor.  And he seems to understand that the “horror” we feel in Poe’s stories is less about ghosts or dark ruined buildings and more about the worm in the apple, the inescapable ruin in our own souls. The suspense and horror builds much faster than the body count, and although the author can’t resist throwing in a few plot twists and turns nothing twists and turns quite so horribly as the young men Landor keeps finding hanging from the trees. And when you think you finally know what happened, you don’t.

It’s a tricky thing, fictionalizing a real person, especially one so famously distorted as Edgar Allan Poe. But Bayard does a lovely job. He captures Poe’s passion and untempered genius, his penchant for falling instantly in love, his frailties and intolerance for alcohol, his justified faith in his own intelligence and his belief that to be a poet is to surrender yourself to the spirits of an unseen world. The events of the novel are completely made up (no hangings ever occurred at West Point in the 1830s), but the Edgar Allan Poe of the story feels completely real.

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