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American Literature 73.2 (2001) 418
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According to the back cover, Midnight Dreary is catalogued in bookstores under the heading “True Crime.” In this case, the appropriateness of the adjective is debatable. More than 150 years later, Walsh attempts to account for Poe’s whereabouts during “five lost days” preceding his death and thereby lay to rest “the greatest Poe mystery of all.” He begins by debunking the legends surrounding Poe’s demise. The most persistent of these is “that Poe was captured by an electioneering band [in Baltimore], ‘cooped’ [imprisoned in a cellar], drugged, dragged to the polls, and . . . after having voted the ticket placed in his hand, was ruthlessly left in the street to die” (quoted in Walsh, 58–59). Having shown that this theory acquired its authority merely through repetition, Walsh proceeds to offer an alternative solution. Marshaling evidence from newspapers, letters, and memoirs, he proposes that Poe was followed on a fateful boat and train trip by three brothers of Elmira Shelton, a wealthy widow of Richmond, Virginia, to whom Poe had recently become engaged. In Walsh’s reconstruction, the brothers first confronted Poe in Philadelphia and warned him against marrying their sister. Badly shaken by the encounter, Poe disguised himself in secondhand clothes, cut off his mustache, and hid for several days in Philadelphia. In the end, according to Walsh, Poe attempted one last visit to his fiancée. But her brothers intercepted him in Baltimore, where they beat him, forced whiskey down his throat, and dumped him near the saloon in which he was ultimately found.
Despite his meticulous research, careful presentation of the facts, and detailed delineation of circumstances and motives, Walsh’s solution to the mystery is only plausible, not wholly persuasive. While describing the imagined confrontation in Philadelphia, for instance, Walsh interjects: “For what happened next, immediately on [Poe’s] arrival and for the ensuing twenty-four hours, no specific clue points the way. Yet here probability—strong probability, to be sure, amounting almost to certainty—confidently fills the gap” (112). In his prologue, Walsh notes that he resisted the temptation to quote Poe’s detective fiction, with one exception. He employs as an epigraph a passage from “The Mystery of Marie Roget” in which Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, observes that “not the least usual error in investigations such as this is the limiting of inquiry to the immediate, with total disregard of collateral or surrounding events.” The surrounding events to which Walsh attends are mostly related to Poe’s engagement to Mrs. Shelton. Although they do not enable him to forge the ironclad argument he intends, these “contemporary circumstances” often make for good reading. Indeed, his evocation of the manners and customs of mid-nineteenth-century Richmond is among the book’s best features. Midnight Dreary is interesting and entertaining, but its value to literary scholars is limited and oblique.
Edwin J. Barton , Bakersfield College