What Caused the Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe?: A Brief Investigation into the Poet’s Demise 171 Years Ago Today

Edgar Allan Poe died 171 years ago today, but we still don’t know why. Of course, we all must meet our end sooner or later, as the literary master of the macabre would well have understood. His inclination toward the mysterious would have prepared him to believe as well in the power of questions that can never be answered. And so, perhaps, Poe would have expected that a death like his own — early, unexpected, and of finally undeterminable cause — would draw public fascination. But could even he have imagined it continuing to compel generation after generation of urban-legend and American-lore enthusiasts, whether or not they’ve read “The Raven” or “The Fall of the House of Usher”?

Poe’s end thus makes ideal material for Buzzfeed Unsolved, a video series whose other popular episodes include the death of Vincent van Gogh, the disappearance of D.B. Cooper, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In 25 minutes, “The Macabre Death Of Edgar Allan Poe” summarizes the writer’s remarkably unlucky life and gets into the detail of his equally unlucky death, beginning on September 27th, 1849, when “Poe left Richmond by steamer, stopping the next day in Baltimore. For the next five days, Poe’s whereabouts are unknown.” Then, on October 3rd, he was found “delirious, immobile, and dressed in shabby clothing” in “a gutter outside of a public house that was being used as a polling place.”

“Rapping at death’s chamber’s door, Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital that afternoon.” (The narration works in several such references to his writing.) “Assumed to be drunk, the weak and weary Poe was brought to a special room reserved for patients ill from intoxication.” Alas, “Poe never fully regained consciousness to be able to detail what had happened to him,” and expired on October 7th at the age of 40. The hosts examine several of the theories that attempt to explain what happened (nineteen of which we previously featured here on Open Culture): did a binge trigger his known physical intolerance of alcohol? Did he have a brain tumor? Did he get beaten up by his fiancée’s angry brothers? Was he a victim of “cooping”?

Cooping, a “violent form of voter fraud that was extremely common in Baltimore at that time,” involved roving gangs who “would kidnap a victim and force him to vote multiple times in a variety of disguises.” This jibes with the location and state in which Poe was found — and because “voters were often given some alcohol after voting as a celebration,” it also explains his apparent stupor. But none of the major theories actually contradict each other, and thus more than one could be true: “Edgar Allan Poe may very well have been beaten and kidnapped in a cooping scheme, sent into a stupor with alcohol after voting, and unable to recover due to a brain tumor.” However it happened, his death became a final story as enduring as — and even grimmer than — many of his tales of the grotesque.

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5 Hours of Edgar Allan Poe Stories Read by Vincent Price & Basil Rathbone

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Download The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Macabre Stories as Free eBooks & Audio Books

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When Shostakovich Adapted Gogol’s “The Nose” Into an Opera: Watch Giant Noses Tap Dancing on the Stage

The first-time reader of a story called “The Nose” may expect any number of things: a character with a keen sense of smell; a murder evidenced by the titular organ, disembodied; a broader ironic point about the things right in front of our faces that we somehow never see. But given its conception in the imagination of Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose” is about a nose — a nose that, on its own, lives, breathes, walks, and dresses in finery. The nose does this, it seems, in order to rise in rank past that of its former owner, the run-of-the-mill St. Petersburg civil servant Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov.

Written in 1835 and 1836, “The Nose” satirizes the long era in Imperial Russia after Peter the Great introduced the Table of Ranks. Meant to usher in a kind of proto-meritocracy, that system assigned rank to military and government officers according, at least in theory, to their ability and achievements. The fact that those who attained high enough ranks would rise the to the level of hereditary nobles created an all-out status war across many sections of society — a war, to the mind of Gogol the master observer of bureaucracy, that could pit a man not just against his colleagues and friends but against his own body parts.

Nearly a century after the story’s publication, a young Dmitri Shostakovich took it upon himself to adapt “The Nose” into his very first opera. In collaboration with Alexander Preis, Georgy Ionin, and Yevgeny Zamyatin (author of the enduring dystopian novel We), the composer rendered even more outrageously this tale of a nose gone rogue. Incorporating pieces of Gogol’s other stories like the “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” as well as the play Marriage and the diary Dead Souls — not to mention the writings of other Russian masters, including Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the 1928 opera combines a wide variety of musical styles both traditional and experimental, and among its set pieces includes a number performed by giant tap-dancing noses.

You can see that part performed in the video above. The venue is London’s Royal Opera House, the director is Barrie Kosky of Berlin’s Komische Oper, and the year is 2016, half a century after The Nose‘s revival. Though completed in the late 1920s, it didn’t premiere on stage in full until 1930, when Soviet censorship concentrated its energies on quashing such non-revolutionary spectacles. It wouldn’t be staged again in the Soviet Union until 1974, nearly a decade after its premiere in the United States. (Just a couple years before, Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker had adapted the story into the pinscreen animation previously featured here on Open Culture.) The sociopolitical concerns of Gogol’s early 19th century and Shostakovich’s early 20th may have passed, but the appeal of the former’s sharp satire — and the sheer Pythonesque weirdness of the latter’s operatic sensibility — certainly haven’t.

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The Bizarre, Surviving Scene from the 1933 Soviet Animation Based on a Pushkin Tale and a Shostakovich Score

George Saunders’ Lectures on the Russian Greats Brought to Life in Student Sketches

Why You Should Read The Master and Margarita: An Animated Introduction to Bulgakov’s Rollicking Soviet Satire

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Animated Reading of “The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s Nonsense Poem That Somehow Manages to Make Sense

“I can explain all the poems that ever were in­ vented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” —Humpty Dumpty

“The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s classic poem from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There—the second installment of the most famously nonsensical adventure in literary history—is “full of seemingly nonsensical words that somehow manage to make sense,” says narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott in the animated reading above from TED-Ed Animation. That word, nonsense, is associated with Carroll’s fantasy world more than any other, but what does it mean for a story to be nonsense and be intelligible at the same time?

Carroll, a mathematician by training, understood the fundamental principle of nonsense, which “T.S. Eliot reminded us, is not an absence of sense but a parody of it,” as J. Patrick Lewis writes at The New York Times. “Some of the portmanteau words Carroll invented—chortle, burble, frabjous and others—are now fully vested members of the lexicon. And the verse’s structure is a mirror, as Alice discovered, of classical English poetry.” Carroll composed the first four lines ten years before Through the Looking Glass, as a parodic “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” to amuse his family.

It may help, or not, to keep in mind that Carroll is not only mocking English poetic forms and conventions, but a particular historical form of English that is mostly unrecognizable to modern readers, and certainly to Alice. But the poem’s syntax and structure are so familiar that we can easily piece together a monster-slaying narrative in which, as Alice remarks, “somebody killed something.”

The ever-humble Humpty Dumpty is happy to explain, as was Carroll in his original composition, to which he attached a glossary very similar to the egg’s definitions and gave “the literal English” of the first stanza as:

“It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill side; all unhappy were the parrots, and the grave turtles squeaked out“.

There were probably sun dials on the top of the hill, and the “borogoves” were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of “raths”, which ran out squeaking with fear on hearing the “toves” scratching outside. This is an obscure, but yet deeply affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.

Does this help? It does explain the mood Carroll is after, and he achieves it. The Jabberwocky is funny and playful and all the rest, but it is also deeply unsettling in its obscure mysteries and frightening descriptions of its title character.

In John Tenniel’s famous illustration of the beast, it appears as a scaly, leathery dragon with a face somewhere between a deep-sea fish and an overgrown sewer rat. The animation by Sjaak Rood gives it a more classically dragon-like appearance, in the crazed style of Ralph Steadman, while the Bandersnatch looks like something Paul Klee would have invented. The choice of artistic influences here shows Rood connecting deeply with the nonsense tradition in modern art, one which also turns familiar forms into nightmarish beings that fill our heads with ideas.

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O Frabjous Day! Neil Gaiman Recites Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” from Memory

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Lewis Carroll’s Photographs of Alice Liddell, the Inspiration for Alice in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Illustrated by Salvador Dalí in 1969, Finally Gets Reissued

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cultivate Our Garden”: An Animated Introduction

“Voltaire’s goal in writing [his 1759 satire Candide] was to destroy the optimism of his times,” says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “an optimism that centered around science, love, technical progress, and a faith in reason.” These beliefs were folly, Voltaire thought: the transfer of faith from a providential God to a perfect, clockwork universe. Candide satirizes this happy rationalism in Doctor Pangloss, whose belief that ours is the best of possible worlds comes directly from the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Leibniz.

The preponderance of the evidence, Voltaire made abundantly clear in the novel’s series of increasingly horrific episodes, points toward a blind, indifferent universe full of needless cruelty and chaos. “Hope was, he felt, a disease,” de Botton says, and “it was Voltaire’s generous goal to try and cure us of it.” But as everyone who has read Candide (or read a summary or brief notes on Candide) knows, the novel does not end with despair, but on a “Stoic note.”

After enduring immense suffering on their many travels, Candide and his companions settle in Turkey, where they meet an old man sitting quietly under a tree. He tells them about his philosophy, how he abstains from politics and simply cultivates the fruits of his garden for market as his sole concern. Invited to feast with the man and his family, they remark upon the luxurious ease in which they live and learn that they do so on a fairly small plot of land.

Voltaire loved to goose his largely Christian readers and delighted in putting the novel’s parting wisdom, “arguably the most important adage in modern philosophy,” in the mouth of an Islamic character: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, “we must cultivate our garden.” What does this mean? De Botton interprets the line in the literal spirit with which the character known only as “the Turk” delivers it: we should keep a “safe distance between ourselves and the world.”

We should not, that is, become overly engaged in politics, and should devote ourselves to tending our own livelihood and welfare, not taking more than we need. We should leave our neighbors alone and not bother about what they do in their gardens. To be at peace in the world, Voltaire argued, we must accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be, and give up utopian ideas of societies perfected by science and reason. In short, to “tie our personal moods” to human affairs writ large is to invite endless misery.

The philosophy of Candide is not pessimistic or nihilistic. A happy, fulfilled human life is entirely possible, Voltaire suggests, if not human happiness in general. Candide has much in common with the ancient Roman outlook. But it might also express what could be seen as an early attempt at a secular Buddhist point of view. Voltaire was familiar with Buddhism, though it did not go by that name. Buddhists were lumped in, Donald S. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, writes at the Public Domain Review, with the mass of “idolaters” who were not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Yet the many Jesuit accounts of Eastern religion reaching Europe at the time circulated widely among intellectuals, including Voltaire, who wrote approvingly, though critically, of Buddhist tenets in his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique. As the secular mindfulness movement has done in the 21st century, Lopez argues, Voltaire sought in the age of Enlightenment to separate miraculous legend from practical teaching. But like the Buddha, whose supposed biography Voltaire knew well, Candide begins his life in a castle. And the story ends with a man sitting quietly under a tree, more or less advising Candide to do what Voltaire had heard of in the “religion of the Siamese…. Meditate in private, and reflect often on the fragility of human affairs.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Sylvia Beach Tells the Story of Founding Shakespeare and Company, Publishing Joyce’s Ulysses, Selling Copies of Hemingway’s First Book & More (1962)

Revisiting Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast a couple of decades after I read it last, I notice a few things right away: I am still moved by the prose and think it’s as impressive as ever; I am less moved by the machismo and alcoholism and more interested in characters like Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore that served as a base of operations for the famed Lost Generation of writers in Paris.

“Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s,” Hemingway wrote of her in his memoir. “She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” Indeed, Hemingway also “recounts being given access to the whole of Sylvia Beach’s library at Shakespeare and Company for free after his first visit,” notes writer RJ Smith.

Beach founded the shop in 1919, encouraged (and funded) by her partner Adrienne Monnier, who owned a French-language bookstore. Beach’s mostly English-language Shakespeare and Company would become a lending-library, post office, bank, and even hotel for authors who congregated there. She supported the great expatriate modernists and hosted French writers like André Gide and Paul Valéry. She also published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 when no one else would, after earlier published excerpts were deemed “obscene.”

Joyce was shaped by Paris, and owed a huge debt of gratitude to Beach, just as readers of Ulysses do almost 100 years later. Forty years after the novel’s publication, Beach traveled to Ireland to celebrate and sat down for the long interview above in which she remembers those heady times. She also tells the story of how a Presbyterian minister’s daughter—who went to church in Princeton, NJ with Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson—became a pioneering out lesbian modernist bookseller in Paris.

Beach remembers meeting “all the French writers” at Monnier’s shop after her time studying at the Sorbonne and how American writers all came to Paris to escape prohibition at home. “For Hemingway and his most of his friends,” says Harvard historian Patrice Higonnet, “Paris was one long binge, all the more enjoyable because it wasn’t very expensive.” For Beach, Paris became home, and Shakespeare and Company a home away from home for waves of expats until the Nazis shut it down in 1941. (Ten years later, a different Shakespeare and Company was opened by bookseller George Whitman.)

“They were disgusted in America because they couldn’t get a drink,” Beach says, “and they couldn’t get Ulysses. I used to think those were the two great causes of their discontent.” Her interviews, letters, and her own memoir, Shakespeare and Company, tell the story of the Lost Generation from her point of view, one animated by an absolute devotion to literature, and in particular, to Joyce, who did not reciprocate. When Ulysses sold to Random House in 1932, he offered her no share of his very large advance.

Beach was forgiving. “I understood from the first,” she said, “that working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine—an infinite pleasure: the profits were for him.” She was doing something other than running a business. She was “cross-fertilizing,” as French writer Andre Chamson put it. “She did more to link England, the United States, Ireland, and France than four great ambassadors combined.” She did so by giving writers what they needed to make the work she knew they could, at a very rare time and place in which such a thing was briefly possible.

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Beginnings Profiles Shakespeare and Company’s Sylvia Beach Whitman

The Shakespeare and Company Project Digitizes the Records of the Famous Bookstore, Showing the Reading Habits of the Lost Generation

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Nina Simone Writes an Admiring Letter to Langston Hughes: “Brother, You’ve Got a Fan Now!” (1966)

Nina Simone’s creative and political community meant everything to her, and the many losses she suffered in the 60s sent her deeper into the depression of the last decades of her life. “Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry [were] prominent,” writes Malik Gaines at LitHub, “among… socially engaged writers and dramatists” whom she considered not only her “political tutors” but also her heroes and closest friends. She never stopped grieving the loss of Hansberry and Hughes and frequently memorialized them in tributes like “Backlash Blues.”

Written by Hughes, and one of Simone’s fiercest and most timely civil rights songs, “Backlash Blues” represents the significant influence the poet had on her and her art. In a live 1967 recording, she sings, “When Langston Hughes died—He told me many months before—Nina keep working until they open up that door.” The two first met when Simone was still Eunice Waymon from Tryon, North Carolina: an aspiring classical pianist, “president of the 11th-grade class and an officer with the school’s NAACP chapter,” explains Andrew J. Fletcher, a board member of the Nina Simone Project in Asheville.

This was 1949, and Hughes had come to Asheville to address Allen High School, the private school for African American girls Simone attended through a scholarship that her music teacher and early champion collected from her hometown. The poet “could not have known,” Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, “that [Simone] would soon revolutionize the music canon under her stage name.” But nearly ten years later, he recognized her talent immediately.

On the release of Simone’s first album, Little Girl Blue, Hughes was “so stunned that he lauded it with lyrical ardor” in his column for the Chicago Defender.

She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis, and John Donne. So in Mort Sahl. She is a club member, a coloured girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows — and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone.

They would become close friends and mutual admirers. Hughes sent her “books he thought would inspire her,” including several of his own, and wrote “words for her to set to song.” She wrote to him with earnest expressions of appreciation, especially in the letter here, penned in 1966 just before Hughes’ death.

Simone had just read Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea. The book, she says, “gives me such pleasure—you have no idea! It is so funny.” She also writes, with candor:

Then too, if I’m in a negative mood and want to get more negative (about the racial problem, I mean) if I want to get downright mean and violent I go straight to this book and there is also material for that. Amazing—

I use the book—what I mean is I underline all meaningful sentences to me…. And as I said there is a wealth of knowledge concerning the negro problem, especially if one wants to trace the many many areas that we’ve had it rough in all these years—sometimes when I’m with white “liberals” who want to know why we’re so bitter—I forget (I don’t forget—I just get tongue-tied) how complete has been the white races’ rejection of us all these years and then when this happens I go get your book.

Hughes’ is rarely “mean and violent,” but Simone brought to her reading her own despair and rage and raw sense of rejection, emotions she was never afraid to explore in her work or talk about with humor and fierce ire in her life. “Brother, you’ve got a fan,” she gushes. The Big Sea “grips my imagination immediately plus everything in it I identify with, even your going to sea and I’ve never been to sea.” She had not been to sea, but she had been adrift, “depressed, alienated and low,” as she sang at Morehouse College in 1969 in a performance of her civil rights anthem and tribute to Lorraine Hansberry, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

The adlib framed Simone’s feelings with the same “emotional and political dimensions,” writes Gaines, she found in Hughes’ work. Though she does not mention it in her letter, her annotated copy of The Big Sea surely marks up the passage below, in which Hughes’ describes his early unhappiness and his transformative encounter with art:

When I was in the second grade, my grandmother took me to Lawrence to raise me. And I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books–where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.

For Simone, music gave her suffering purpose, but not the music she played for audiences and on record. One of the saddest ironies of her career is that the woman dubbed “The High Priestess of Soul” had little interest in playing soul. She embarked on her popular music career to fund her classical education. However, the opportunities to play the way she wanted to did not arise. “Nina closed her letter on a strangely down note,” writes Nadine Cohodas in Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. “Her melancholy overwhelmed any excitement about playing for the first time in France and Belgium. ‘No pleasure,’ she told Langston, ‘just work.’”

So much of Simone’s frustration and burnout in the music industry came out of a deep sense of alienation from her work. The shy Eunice Waymon had never craved the spotlight, something Hughes must have come to know about her in the years of their acquaintance. In his first note of praise, however, he gets one thing wrong. As she was always the first to point out, Simone did not do it “mostly all by herself.”

The support of her mother, her teacher, and her small “down home” community took her as far as it could. Her relationships with Hansberry, Hughes, and other artists/activists carried her the rest of the way. Until they were gone. But when Hughes died, Popova writes, “a devastated Simone turned her coveted set at the Newport Jazz Festival into a tribute and closed it with an exhortation to the audience: ‘Keep him with you always. He was a beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with us, of course.’” See much more of their correspondence at the Beinecke.

via the Beinecke

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Nina Simone’s Live Performances of Her Poignant Civil Rights Protest Songs

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Back to the Arena: Battling the Hunger Games Prequel with Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast (#57)

Remember when The Hunger Games was everywhere? Its author Suzanne Collins has decided that young people could benefit from more exploration of Just War Theory through the world of Panem, and so has published The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel covering the early years of future president Coriolanus Snow during the 10th Hunger Games.

Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt give their spoiler-free reviews of the new book and look back on the original book trilogy and its adaptation into four films (and do spoil those, in case you want to go watch them). We talk about what makes these novels “YA,” the function of adapting them to film, and the limits of the franchise’s premise and world-building. Does the work critique yet glorify violence at the same time? Will the film version of the new novel be our next Phantom Menace?

Some articles we looked at included:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

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