Archive for October, 2013

Quoth the Maven, “Valdemar”

I am still puzzling over an entry made by the literary critic, Evert Duyckinck, on the heels of a visit to Edgar Allan Poe. The latter, in dire financial distress as always, was living in a tiny rented cottage in the Bronx with his invalid child bride, Virginia, and her mother, Maria Clemm.

Duyckinck describes the occasion.

June 24, 1847

Visited Poe at Fordham whom the wondrous Mrs. Clem [sic] has domiciliated [sic] in a neat cottage near a rock overlooking the pretty valley with its St. John’s College of Jesuits, contiguous hill and forest, the Sound and the blue distance of Long Island. The purity of the air, delicious. At night the whole agreeable impression of the afternoon reversed by dreams, into which it might have been supposed Poe had put an infusion of his Mons Valdemar with the green tea, the probable cause of them. All the evil I had ever heard of him took bodily shape in a series of most malignant scenes.

I explained in an editor’s note that the “Mons Valdemar” must be a “hallucinogen” relating, perhaps, to one of Poe’s lesser-known stories, “The Strange Case of M. (Monsieur) Valdemar.” But it’s occurred to me since that Duyckinck might simply have had his mind jarred by hearing Poe read from the work. This would make more sense if Poe had been in the process of writing it, but Valdemar was completed and published two years earlier. We can’t know for sure if Poe slipped Duyckinck a drug. Poe had laudanum and possibly opium at his disposal for personal use. But without a third-party corroboration, the matter remains open for speculation.

Regarding “The Strange Case of M. Valdemar,” sometimes referred to as “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” I’ve now both read the story and listened to it read by an actor on YouTube. The experiences are vastly different. Try it. Reading it to yourself, you focus on the strangeness of the experiment: a hypnotist entrances a dying man to see if it will arrest the progress of death. When it is read to you aloud, however, the juxtaposition of the hypnotist’s voice with that of Valdemar’s whispering from beyond the grave is truly terrifying.

Note: The Morgan Library and Museum has just mounted an exhibit entitled “Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul.” It includes, among other items, manuscripts, first editions and even Poe’s first casket. He was re-interred in surroundings more appropriate to his literary status. I was hoping to make it to the Morgan on November 5 for a reading by Lou Reed. But unless Lou was mesmerized before his demise last Sunday, we will probably not be hearing from him.