The strangely similar deaths of Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe


Okay, after having recently read Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde, and just finished Kenneth Silverman’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe, I’m getting a little tired of authors dying miserably in extremely squalid circumstances.

Oscar died poverty-stricken in a seedy, not so seedy now, Parisian hotel. Edgar died broke in hospital after having been rescued from a dive bar drunk or stoned/medicated out of his tree wearing someone else’s clothing. Oscar was diagnosed with encephalitic meningitis, probably brought on by syphilis contracted as a young man. Here’s Ellmann:

“At 5.30a.m., to the consternation of Ross and Turner, a loud, strong death rattle began, like the turning of a crank. Foam and blood came from his mouth during the morning, at ten minutes to two in the afternoon Wilde died…He had scarcely breathed his last breath when the body exploded with fluids from the ear, nose, mouth and other orifices The debris was appalling.”

And, from the epilogue:

“It was ostracism – more or less – by two groups, those who could not bear his homosexuality and those who could not bear his requests for money.” “English law had misdone him by punishment, and English society finished him off by ostracism”

According to Joseph Evans Snodgrass, the Baltimore editor and physician who rescued him from Gunner’s Hall tavern in Baltimore, “Poe was sitting in an armchair surrounded by onlookers”. As Silverman puts it “Poe had a look of “vacant stupidity. He wore neither vest nor tie, his dingy trousers fit badly, his shirt was crumpled, his cheap hat soiled. Snodgrass thought he must be wearing castoff clothing, having been robbed or cheated of his own.” A Dr. John J. Moran at the Washington Medical College hospital, to which Poe was driven, “diagnosed Poe’s condition as encephalitis, a brain inflammation, brought on by “exposure.” This explanation is consistent with the prematurely wintry weather at the time, with Snodgrass’s account of Poe’s partly clad condition, and with Elmira Shelton [a love interest]‘s recollection that on leaving Richmond Poe already had a fever. Both explanations may have been correct: Poe may have become too drunk to care about protecting himself against the wind and rain. Whatever the cause, the poet who above all others worshiped Poe also keenly sensed how much his death at the age of forty was demanded of him. “This death was almost a suicide,” Charles Baudelaire remarked, ” a suicide prepared for a long time.”

Both Oscar and Edgar were buried with fewer than 15 people attending each of their funerals. Today both graves receive the attention of thousands of literary pilgrims. I’m hoping the subject of the next literary biography I read wont end quite so tragically.

You can visit Oscar in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France, and Edgar in the Westminister Burying Grounds in Baltimore, MD, but watch out for the mysterious Poe Toaster.

For information on planning your trip to Paris, click here. Baltimore, here.

Audio: Novelist Edward Rutherfurd on Paris and Literary Tourism


One of 250 Bouquinistes by the Seine in Paris

Edward Rutherfurd was born in England, in the cathedral city of Salisbury. Educated locally, and at the universities of Cambridge and Stanford, he subsequently worked in political research, book-selling and publishing. Abandoning this career in the book trade in 1983, he returned to his childhood home to write Sarum, a historical novel with a ten-thousand year story-line, set in the area around Stonehenge. It was an instant international bestseller remaining on the New York Times Bestseller List for 23 weeks. Since then he has written (at least) six more bestsellers: Russka, a novel of Russia, London, The Forest, set in England’s New Forest which lies near Sarum, and two novels which cover the story of Ireland from the time just before Saint Patrick to the twentieth century. In 2009 New York was published, and in 2013, Paris.

Rutherfurd is the quintessential Literary Tourist. He ‘walks’ the cities he writes about, researches them, imagines them, and arrives at a personal understanding of them. We talk here about this process, about the importance of learning about the ordinary lives of people from the past, of ‘active learning’ and writing short stories about the places you visit, about James Michener and the fascination of historical and cultural roots,  about history as reconnaissance, as “finding out what happened to the last army that went there”, about the campfire and stories of the hunt, the Musee Carnavalet and Le Procope restaurant. Listen here


Photo of Edward Rutherfurd looking like a Parisian

What they don’t tell you about Victor Hugo’s home in Paris

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by David d’Angers

Victor Hugo lived on the second floor of the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée in Paris from 1832 to 1848. He wrote some of his major works here, including a large part of Les Misérables…and received, among many friends, Lamartine, Vigny, Dumas, and Gautier, along with other noted writers and artists. But he didn’t just dine with them. Apparently he had peepholes installed into guest bedrooms so he could watch their amorous activities. Hugo in fact did more than watch. His mistress Juliet estimated that in one two year period he had sex with more than 200 different women.

The 5/6 room apartment at Place des Vosges presents three separate periods in Hugo’s life: before, during and after exile in Guernsey. You’ll find displays of the gothic furniture he designed, family portraits, memorabilia and some astonishing interior decoration he designed during his exile. There are temporary exhibitions of his photographs and drawings, and first editions of various famous books he wrote. A library is open to the public by appointment. The museum organizes talks in the apartment, and provides guided tours. Plus, entry is free. A visit here gives you a sense of what a multi-talented colossus the man was!

For more information, click here.