Did Poe ever fear his own sanity was deteriorating?

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Many of Poe's characters are portrayed as mad or, over the course of events in the plot, become mad. The unfortunate series of events throughout his life taken into account, it seems to me as if this character trait may have a personal link, as many elements of his works do. Did Poe ever fear his sanity was deteriorating; that he may actually be going mad? Please feel free to comment ASAP. :) thanx, Tasha

-- Anonymous, May 24, 2000


I think most people suffer from this fear at some point in their lives. I have read some accounts of Poe's life that state he had a fear of going mad.

I must state that I never read anything written by Poe himself wherein he stated that he suffered from such a fear. Poe's reputation and life have suffered from sensationalism and rumor that seems to have built over the years.

But it cannot be denied that the desperate financial straits he was in much of his life, and the bad health of his wife, and the stormy relationships he had with editors, fellow writers, friends and family may have led him in times to dramatic and emotional outbursts that some might have characterized as mad.

-- Anonymous, May 26, 2000


It would be impossible for me to take issue with a single word of Chriss comments above. I fully agree with his assessment and remarks. However, please accept the following as merely additional thoughts and comments that may aid in answering your question. There is an old quote by Alexander Poe that goes something like, What thin partitions, sense from thought divide. And, taken slightly out of its intended context, it may be somewhat applicable here.

Seriously though, I have long believed that a sense of Poes disposition and his character could be gleaned from his works. Yet, in so doing, the most burdensome tool to employ is caution when drawing fair and just conclusions. I have, therefore, always maintained that to draw parallels between Poes life experiences and his writing is, at the very best, guesswork. After all, Poe was a master of works of fiction and fiction, by its very definition, is imaginary or make-believe or fantasy or pretence or contrived literature or any other comparable synonym which one may prefer to use. Nevertheless, there are those times when reality and fantasy are themselves separated by the thinnest of veils.

Now having said all this, I will attempt to answer your question as it relates to historically documented specifics. There was a period late in his life when Edgar Poe was characterized as severely troubled and distracted by his friends and associates. Following the death of his wife, Virginia on January 30, 1847, Poe was said to have been overwhelmed with grief and fell very ill. He was tended to and counseled by Marie Loiuse Shew, a friend and nurse that had attended Virginia as well. Poes behavior was said to be erratic and unpredictable with periods of lucidity when he would express his fears of living without Virginia and of losing his mind. There may have been other times, but to my recollection, this was the period when Poe seemed most concerned with his sanity. Mrs. Shew, based on her medical training, apparently concluded from his behavior that Poe suffered from a lesion of the brain.

As it relates to his writing, it is clear that Edgar Poe had an interest in psychosis and the thin partition between sanity and madness. His somewhat comic tale, The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether describes a visit by the narrator to an asylum in France. Initially unrecognized by the narrator, he is welcomed by the inmates, pretending to be the keepers, who have taken over the asylum and tarred and feathered the keepers and locked them away. The truth slowly dawns on the narrator during a wild dinner party when one custodian after another tells of an inmates tendency for strange behavior. The reader, of course, recognizes that the custodian is actually the inmate being described. His awakening is confirmed when near the end of the meal, the room is attacked by the tarred and feathered keepers who have escaped their cells to retake the asylum. I do not recall the specific title of the show, but it seems there was an old Star Trek episode that used a similar theme.

I tend to feel that Poes interest in the psyche had less to do with any personal fears of madness specifically and more to do with the effects upon the mind by thoughts of despair and delight, of love and loathing and of fear and contentment. He also had an interest in the effects of mesmerism (hypnosis) on the mind and wrote of this in The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. If I recall correctly, this fictitious tale was taken as factual by the public and caused no small measure of wierdness in England. Frankly, I would like to think this was intentional on Poes part for I am confident that he enjoyed a good joke now and again.

Best Regards,

-- Anonymous, May 26, 2000

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