(While my detective character Duponte expresses his opinions on the matter in The Poe Shadow, I've actually never shared my own opinions on Poe's drinking in writing, so here we go.)
This is a question more difficult than many people imagine. To address it, you must throw out caricatures of Poe and combine actual historical evidence with common sense.
I read a scholarly article once that applied to Poe a modern medical questionnaire, the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test. According to the writer, Poe scored 37 points, seven times above the minimum number to diagnose alcoholism. The usage of the word “alcoholic,” in the way we mean it for someone addicted to alcohol, did not exist in Poe's time, by the way. Indeed, the concept of addiction itself would not begin to be understood for years after his death in 1849.
We must be careful with questions like “was Poe an alcoholic?” not to become anachronistic, ahistorical or unhistorical, as that journal article teetered on doing. It was fashionable to declare Poe a drunk at the time of his death, and for various reasons it has come back into fashion.
There is no question, Poe drank. There is also no question that Poe's drinking was seen as a problem by people around him. He himself saw it as a problem.
Fourteen years before Poe's death, one of his employers, T. W. White, wrote, “You have fine talents Edgar, and you ought to have them respected, as well as yourself. Learn to respect yourself, and you will very soon find that you are respected. Separate yourself from the bottle, and bottle companions, for ever!” When another employer, Burton, spread the word that Poe was drinking at the office, Poe wrote in a letter defending himself that “it is now quite four years since I have abandoned every kind of alcoholic drink” and told his friend Joseph Snodgrass that “nothing stronger than water ever passed my lips” while working for Burton.
Approximately four years before his death, a colleague of Poe claimed more incidents of drinking interfering with his work. He wrote about Poe that “I believe that he had not drunk anything for more than 18 months until within the past 3 months, but in this time he has been very frequently carried home in a wretched condition. I am sorry for him. He has some good points, but taken together he is badly made up.”
Poe declared his intention to stop drinking again and again, conflicting with his denials that he was drinking. In 1839, correspondent James Heath patted him on the back with approval: “It gives me sincere pleasure to understand that your own good sense and the influence of high and noble motives have enabled you to overcome a seductive and dangerous treatment which too often prostrates the highest and best by its fatal grasp.” Poe looked into joining at least one temperance (or anti-alcohol) organization that he did not end up joining, and did join one in the last months of his life. Poe wrote, in 1845, “I am resolved not to touch a drop as long as I live.” That sounds like the language of an addict, not someone who abstains to begin with.
Case closed? Poe the alcoholic?
I actually think Poe was the opposite of alcoholic. I'll explain.
Let us look more at what Poe himself has to tell us about his drinking. In the summer of 1846, he writes to Thomas Chivers something I've always found intriguing. “There is one thing you will be glad to learn: It has been a long while since any artificial stimulus has passed my lips. When I see you—should that day ever come—this is a topic on which I desire to have a long talk with you. I am done forever with drink—depend upon that—but there is much more in this matter than meets the eye.”
What does Poe imply as more than meets the eye about his drinking? Perhaps his wife Virginia's deteriorating health (she would die a few months after he wrote that letter). But Poe might refer to a peculiarity about his drinking.
Poe, referring again to drinking alcohol, once explained to Snodgrass that “my sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an everyday matter to my companions.”
Friend Elizabeth Oakes Smith later wrote of Poe, “I am convinced he was not habitually addicted to any kind of intoxicating drink, and am well persuaded that a very little might excite nearly to madness a brain of such volume and delicacy of fiber.” Maria Clemm, the person closest to Poe at the time of his death, wrote: “my darling Eddie was not entirely perfect, and when he had indulged in a glass or two of wine, he was not responsible for either his words, or actions.”
Mayne Reid, poet, wrote that “a single glass” of champagne “used to affect” Poe “so much that he was hardly any longer responsible for his actions.” Literary critic and Poe friend N. P. Willis, expanded on this in 1846 in an article: “The least stimulus – a single glass of wine – would produce this effect upon Mr. Poe, and that, rarely as these instances of easy aberration of caution and mind occurred, he was liable to them, and while under the influence, voluble and personally self-possessed, but neither sane nor responsible. Now, very possibly, Mr. Poe may not be willing to consent to even this admission of any infirmity. He has little or no memory of them afterwards, we understand. But public opinion unqualifiedly holds him blameable for what he has said and done under such excitements; and while a call is made in a public paper for aid, it looks like doing him a timely service, to at least partially to exonerate him.” Willis repeated this description after Poe's death in 1849, writing that “with a single glass of wine his whole nature was reversed.” Thomas Clarke wrote “I have seen men who drank bottles of wine to Poe’s wine glasses who yet escaped all unpleasantries of intemperance.”
What exactly was going on with Poe when he had a drink?
Here is a vivid description from William Gill, a clergyman, describing a meeting with Poe. “I was thirsty and invited him to take a glass of wine with me. He declined, but finally compromised by taking a glass of ale. Almost instantly a great change came over him. Previously engaged in an indescribably eloquent conversation, he became as if paralyzed, and with compressed lips, and fixed, glaring eyes, returned without uttering a word to the house which we were visiting.” George Lippard, Philadelphia friend of Poe's, wrote that “he was not an intemperate man. When he drank, the first drop maddened him; hence his occasional departures from the line of strict propriety.” Descendant Elizabeth Ellicott Poe, in 1909, wrote that “There is a legend in our family that stimulant in the lightest form would excite him and act almost instantly on his nerves.”
Alcoholics typically can drink a large number of drinks before showing intoxication, and that tolerance usually grows with the degree of alcoholism.
For many years in the 20th century, the medical community studied what they called “pathological intoxication,” “complicated intoxication,” “atypical intoxication,” or “alcohol idiosyncratic intoxication.” The terms have gone out of favor, but their definitions are useful in looking at the contemporary evidence of Poe's drinking habits. As one writer in a medical journal summed it up as recently as 1986, “the essential point of all the definitions is the marked change with minimal alcohol intake.” The intolerance was classified as a direct effect of alcohol, rather than some other underlying physical disorder or condition.
It was said, in studying this phenomenon, that “small quantities bring about disproportionately strong reactions” and could result in blind rage and confusion, amnesia or ecstatic state, absence of motor coordination, slurred speech, occasionally accompanied by “ideas of ownership of the world and omnipotence,” behavior that seems “fantastic, unreal, complete misunderstanding,” “wild rages with delusions of persecution,” and suicidal tendencies.
As I say at the beginning of this consideration, I am hesitant to apply a medical textbook to Poe. But those familiar with the details of Poe biography would raise an eyebrow at the above list.
Putting aside whether this should be classified as a condition and what it should be named, it seems like common sense to me that some people do become intoxicated more quickly than others. We all know people who can drink large amounts without showing many signs of being intoxicated. There are others who start feeling intoxicated or disoriented pretty quickly. The most obvious differences often seem to be in how much people weigh. The more recent scientific literature concentrates on genetic and ethnic heritages affecting absorption and effect of alcohol in our bodies.
We must keep in mind the social culture of Poe's era. Particularly in the South, alcoholic drinks were constantly offered as social ritual. Poe spoke of the “temptation held out on all sides by the spirit of Southern conviviality.” Perhaps more importantly, there was not a cultural expectation of men declining drinks, and in many circles there was derision of the temperance movements. One Poe acquaintance even alleged that people enjoyed triggering Poe's peculiar sensitivity as a sport: “I have been told that it was an amusement in some quarters for persons to present Poe with wine for no purpose but to watch its effects upon his sensitive nerves... Thoughtless persons amused themselves at his expense, by urging him to drink, when they knew a single glass would upset him.”
Poe, who grew up in the South, did not like to be rude. One little girl in Fordham, where Poe lived in his final years, remembered that Maria Clemm “came to our house and asked us not to offer wine to Edgar, as his head was weak, but that he did not like to refuse it.”
Scholars have shown that in the 1830s and 1840s, American males drank more alcohol than any portion of the American population before or after in our history. Just as important to remember, alcohol itself was very different back then. It was not diluted. It was far stronger than it is now. What a terrible combination with Poe's sensitivity.
Could the claims about that sensitivity and rapid intoxication have been fabricated by Maria Clemm, as Poe biographer R. H. Stoddard argued in 1872? I suppose it's possible. Certainly some of the names I quote above are more reliable or unbiased than others. But the claims and eyewitnesses are very spread out, both before and after Poe's death, and if it truly was a type of damage control, it would be the sole example of Poe advocates managing successfully to coordinate a story in his favor!
Keep in mind that one of the most important clues into Poe's death, in my opinion, was his cousin Neilson Poe's private correspondence that a “single indulgence” led to the chain of events that left Poe hospitalized. This takes on a whole new significance if put in the context discussed in this post. Neilson, by the way, was not particularly a friend to his cousin.
None of this is to say Poe did not have instances of binge drinking, but if the accounts of his peculiar sensitivity are true, I'm not sure it made a difference whether Poe had X drinks or Y drinks (Y being some greater number, and X being a very small number). Once he had reached X, which might have been even one drink according to many eyewitnesses, Poe was in trouble.
I do not think Poe was addicted to alcohol, and I do not think he was habituated to drinking large quantities. Everything I see in the historical records points the other direction. Poe had a low sensitivity to alcohol in a time when men were pressured to drink often and to consume very strong drinks. This is why I say Poe was, in a way, the very opposite of an alcoholic. He had a problem with drinking, yes, but something very different than people imagine. There is, as Poe promises, more than meets the eye.
Yet, on the anniversary of Poe's birthday each year the “Poe toaster” in Baltimore gets publicity for leaving a bottle of cognac at Poe's grave. Pretty tasteless, in my opinion. Pretty silly, too.
Why is there still so little nuance in understanding Poe's drinking? Do we simply prefer the romantic idea of the alcoholic genius?