Book Review: The Annotated Poe
Kevin J. Hayes, editor
The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2015
The appearance of The Annotated Poe from the Belknap Press, edited by Kevin Hayes with a Foreword by William Giraldi, prompts the uncomfortable realization that not all annotated editions are created equal. Some of them – far too many – strain at gnats and over-explain trivialities; others pursue foggy academic by-routes that quickly leave open-minded beginning readers wandering way back on the road. Large soup-to-nuts annotated editions are the very nightmare to organize and bring to fruition, so allowances must be made, but even so, there are hits and misses.
The Annotated Poe is a stupendous hit. The annotations – presented in the form of marginalia and printed, delightfully, in red – provided by Hayes are perfectly, uncannily pitched to appeal both to readers who’ve never read a word of Edgar Allan Poe and readers who know his works backwards and forwards. The volume – oversized, jacketed in black – features 24 stories, including the most famous of them all, “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” and 6 poems, including “Eldorado,” “Annabel Lee,” and an obscure little ditty called “The Raven.” And along every page, Hayes’s blood-red annotations run alongside every word of Poe’s, sometimes lagging behind, just as often running ahead (there are, very satisfyingly, several pages consisting only of notes), always intricate, detailed, and interesting. It’s a bravura performance, lavish with illustrations.
In his Foreword, Giraldi sketches in some of the consensus about this author he calls “the saddest writer who ever lived”:
H. L. Mencken referred to Poe as “this most potent and original of Americans.” Van Wyck Brooks was convinced that Poe had birthed an entirely new American literature, wholly apart from Washington Irving’s efforts. (Indeed, it’s difficult to take The Legend of Sleepy Hollow seriously after being jolted and convulsed by the demonic energies of Poe.)
The longer Introduction by Hayes provides in 25 tightly-packed pages as good a biography of Poe as some 300-page accounts have only barely managed to do, with Hayes relating the furtive details of Poe’s shabby, hapless life and coming back always, charmingly, to the one bright thread running through the darknesses and disappointments of Poe’s life: books. Had Poe not died early at the age of 40 (under infamously disheveled, mysterious circumstances), had he instead somehow managed to free himself from the very real-world demons that haunted him from adolescence, he might have been an almost unthinkably daunting combination of H. G. Wells and Walt Whitman, and any such metamorphosis would have turned on the books that flowed constantly through Poe’s life until the end. Hayes never touches on Poe’s literary life without a nice note of sympathy – and he keeps in mind the extensive annotation work he’s done himself:
The conceit here is that Poe’s published marginalia are transcriptions of the pencil markings in his own books. Poe presents himself to his readers as the seemingly well-to-do owner of a personal library, “sufficiently miscellaneous” and “not a little recherche,” consulted in his apparently abundant leisure hours to escape boredom. In truth, Poe never had more than a modest collection of books, about as many as could be accommodated on the hanging bookshelf that was among the spare furnishings in the Fordham cottage. He was never able to afford a good library. As a book review editor, of course, he received many books for free, but always in need of extra income, he sold his review copies almost as soon as he read them. Would he have marked them up when he needed to sell them? It seems unlikely. But it doesn’t matter. Poe’s rationale for recording his thoughts in the margins of his books makes good sense. The margins of a book – literal or figurative – are that place where author and reader meet.
The margins of The Annotated Poe are nice and wide – and they’re full of facts, quotes, arguments, and insights. They’ll provide readers with endless hours of enjoyment even before they get to the stories themselves.