Friday, August 19, 2016


For a number of reasons – including an upcoming trip to Baltimore next month - I’ve been re-reading some Edgar Allan Poe short stories. Last night’s bedtime tale was “The Man of the Crowd” – which is either the greatest ever fictional depiction of night walking, urban exploration and psychogeographic drifting; or not. 

The plot is simple enough: our convalescent hero, looking at the crowds in the street through his hotel window, spots an evil-looking old man and for no very good reason (but then who needs one?) follows him all over London for the next twenty-four hours.

I thought I was reasonably familiar with the story but I’d forgotten these lines: “Once more he strode onward with elastic tread. Suddenly a corner was turned, a blaze of light burst upon our sight, and we stood before one of the huge suburban temples of Intemperance one of the palaces of the fiend, Gin.”

As so often with Poe, you kind of wish he’d tone it down a bit, but then if he toned it down a bit he wouldn’t be Poe.  But just the term Gin Palace – it sounds so wonderful, so mythical.  It’s a palace!  And it’s full of gin!  The term of course was ironic, although some so-called gin places looked more much appealing than others.

     The old man dashes inside and the narrator follows him, but neither takes a drink, and both remain sober throughout the adventure. 

Then there’s Poe’s story “The Black Cat” in which the narrator, when violently drunk, gouges out the eye of his pet cat: something that today strikes me as far more disturbing than some of Poe's more lurid fantasies.   
“My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame.”  “Gin-nurtured” – well, aren’t we all at one time or another?  And then he finds a replacement cat. “One night, as I sat half-stupefied in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of gin or of rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the apartment. I had been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead for some minutes, and what now caused me surprise was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the object thereupon. I approached it, and touched it with my hand. It was a black cat—a very large one—fully as large as Pluto.”   
He takes the cat home with him and, as you can guess even if you don’t know, it doesn’t end well.

There’s also a column in the form of a letter, one of a series written for the Columbia Spy under the title “Doings of Gotham,” in which Poe refers to the closing down of the “Rum Hovels” of Philadelphia, which he thinks may be a good thing, though he considers it unconstitutional.

So yes, Poe was familiar with gin and rum, at least as literary tropes, and you could say the same for casks of Amontillado: “I broke and reached him a flagon of De Grave. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.”

       It’s easy enough to find something absurd and overwrought about Poe’s descriptions of alcohol and its effects. but Poe’s own battles with the demon drink were real enough, destructive to himself and others, and sometimes downright fiendish.  He belonged to the “one drink’s too many and a thousand’s not enough” school of drinking.  One of his more tolerant supporters, Thomas A. Clarke wrote, “if he took but one glass of weak wine or beer or cider the Rubicon of the cup was passed with him, and it almost always ended in excess and sickness.”

A certain amount of walking and drifting, and no doubt staggering, seems often to have been involved, sometimes ending in Poe having to be carried home by more or less sympathetic friends and acquaintances.

But what did Poe actually drink?  I think the essential answer is: anything he could get his hands on.  When he went to West Point military academy in 1830 he was known as having a taste for brandy. His roommate Thomas W. Gibson, recalled in Harper’s Magazine that he was “seldom without a bottle of Benny Haven’s best brandy.  I don’t think he was ever intoxicated while at the Academy, but he had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.”  Benny Havens (Harper’s or Gibson got the spelling wrong) ran a tavern that was strictly off-limits to cadets but that only made them want to go there, obviously.  Getting there was either a trudge through the woods or a float down the river but Poe (and many other’s too) thought it was worth the risk.

Benny Havens - not a man to tangle with.

Poe also claimed that other people forced him to drink, the poet William Ross Wallace, for instance, “who would insist upon the juleps, and I knew not what I was either doing or saying.”  This was in a letter to his publisher J and HG Langley, explaining why he’d arrived at their New York office in a drunken state.

There’s also an extant Poe family recipe for eggnog but however indiscriminate Poe’s tastes, I can’t imagine that eggnog ever be the number one choice for a serious drinker.  Maybe this would have been better:


  1. I share a birthday with Poe and Patricia Highsmith, another of my favourite writers. Almost enough to make one want to believe in astrology. But not their alcoholism, thankfully. Not yet, anyway.

  2. That's quite a combination. I always think those "which three authors would you invite to a dinner party?" questions are kind of silly - i mean if one of them's Oscar Wilde (as he so often is) nobody else is going to get a word in. But Poe, Highsmith, Belbin - a night to remember.

  3. I had to fill in one of those quirky author questionnaires for a website once, and I nominated Jane Austen as the writer I'd most like to get pissed with (UK sense), and I think that still holds. So add you and those two, it leaves us with one place at the table, if Edgar and Patty haven't already drunk us under it.

    1. "Under the Table With Edgar and Patty" - now there's a title.

  4. One feels that in the 1950s, during one Mrs Cradock's reign of terror, "Under the Table with Edgar and Patty" would have been a perfectly acceptable title for a TV programme. Meanwhile, Fanny pushes her finger into her baked buns to prove they don't contain any goo...

  5. One feels that in the 1950s, during a certain Mrs Cradock's reign of terror, "Under the Table with Edgar and Patty" would have been a perfectly acceptable name for a TV programme. Meanwhile, Fanny pushes her finger into her baked buns to prove they don't contain any goo...

  6. Nice piece. Love Poe's grandiosity. In Baltimore, check out Rocket to Venus, dive-like bar-restaurant. My son worked there a few years back and created a dessert, PBJ Delight, a deep-fried peanut butter sandwich, still on menu. John Waters was a regular, also Steve Earle when he was working on The Wire. May have psycho possibilities.