19 April 2017

Book Review: 'Private Perry and Mister Poe'

Book Review: 'Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831' by William F. Hecker

Nineteenth century poet and short-story author Edgar Allan Poe is one of those Dead White Guys that keeps a dead-hand grip on the American scholastic canon. Even with increasingly diverse reading options in high school, it's unlikely that even the least Goth teenager won't encounter Poe's big 1845 hit, "The Raven," at least once or twice in English classes.

Beyond black birds squawking "Nevermore," however, few are privy to some surprising facts about Poe's early literary life:
  • In 1825, at the age of 16, Poe served as a junior militiaman in a ceremonial escort for a touring French Gen. Lafayette. In 1827, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army as an artillery soldier, under the assumed name of "Perry."
  • Poe quickly promoted first to company clerk, then to the double-pay technical position of "artificer," a manufacturer of bombs and shells.
Poe was at West Point from 1830 to 1831, at which time he decided to return to civilian life in order to focus on his literary career. Even today at West Point, campus myths and legends surrounding Poe's short career often regard drunkenness and other infractions. In reality, he excelled in his studies, particularly mathematics and French. When he decided to leave and his estranged foster-father's permission to leave was not forthcoming, Poe systematically engineered through absences and derelictions a court martial that required his expulsion. On his way out of Army life, he crowd-funded from his fellow cadets money to publish his second book of poetry.

Some historians speculate that his buddies likely expected a volume of satirical light verse, similar to that which he'd entertained them in barracks. What they got was far more serious: A collection of 12 new and revised poems.

Along with the facsimile reproduction of that 1831 poetry collection, a 2005 book by fellow West Pointer William F. Hecker opens the crypt for new insights into Poe's life, work, and motivations. The 248-page book includes an extensive introduction, offering Hecker's insights and analysis of Poe's military career, as well as a afterward by West Point faculty Gerard A. McGowan.

Poe's poetic imagery is never more detailed than an occasional reference to battle, writes Hecker. Poe is also given to evoking martial tradition through the selective use of names, such as "Helen" "Tamerlane". As such, many write off Poe's short time in uniform as little more than an historical hiccup. For Hecker, however, Poe's Army career indicates a desire for validation and glory, and for connection to his grandfather's uniformed service during the American Revolution:
Just as an artificer's failure to construct a bomb properly always results in the failure of the round to achieve its effects and potentially results in injury to the artificer himself, failure to construct a poem well renders its effects impotent and damages the reputation of the poet. The attention to details, the appreciate for minute nuances of sound, and the modulation of rhythm that Poe built into his verse to achieve his aesthetic of beauty were reinforced by the artistic craftsmanship require to build a functional artillery bomb.
For those who celebrate oft-overlooked poetic traditions with the U.S. military, Poe's career was brief but notable. One wonders what soldierly poetry could have been brought to life, had Poe become an officer and gentleman. His favored themes of loss and death and lives cut short, after all, are constant companions to those who serve.

Sadly, William Hecker, the insightful editor of "Private Perry and Mister Poe," was killed in Iraq in 2006. Having met him only through his first and only book, I feel the loss deeply. I have no doubt he had many more words to share with the world.

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