Thursday, November 28, 2013

Christmas 2013 Books Reading List – Ten Books (plus a few more)

Last year I put together a list of 10 Christmas books for 2012 so I decided to put out a new list of 10 plus for 2013.  I recommend all of these books to the discerning reader who wants to be a bit less mainstream or looking for a challenging read. 

This year’s list seems to have a good bit of non-fiction but I have no apologies.  I have read all of these books (some decades ago mind you) and they were good enough to stick with me over the years to recommend this year.  These are no particular order of preference and my plan is to present challenging non-mainstream books or works no longer commonly read.  There is stuff there for everybody:  SF fans, steampunks, fantasy, biography, history, and surrealism.  2014 looks to be a wild year, so stock up with decent books in case of a zombie apocalypse. 

Fool On the Hill by Matt Ruff (1988) A book I read years ago when it was new, but I think that the average reader is savvy enough to catch the (what was then) obscure and geeky literary references.  It’s a little bit dated but still a fun read.

The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje.  Forget the movie, read the book!  The portion based on North African archeology of early people is partly based on the fascinating true story of László Ede Almásy.  For background, I had previously read Ralph Bagnold’s Libyan Sands, Journeys in a Dead World (1935) and Johann Ludwig Burchardt’s Travels in Arabia (1839) which gave The English Patient a lot more definition.   

Lola Montez, A Life by Bruce Seymour (1996) an absolutely perfectly and meticulously researched biography from original sources of one of the Victorian Era’s most outrageous rogue women.  Fans of Victorian history and Steampunks need to read this book!

Love In the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985), and The General in his Labyrinth (1989).  Marquez one of the masters of South American magical realism (but with more violence than Borges).  Try reading Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and comparing it to Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) for a bit of fun.

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness by (1969) and The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away (1972) Kenzaburo Oe with disturbing stories from modern Japan.  OK, so that is two books – I cheat at lists, so what.

Private Perry and Mister Poe (2005) edited by William Hecker.  This is a collection of poems by Edgar Allan Poe which were written while at West Point.  Along with a nice facsimile printing of Poems of Edgar A. Poe (second edition) printed in 1831 and dedicated to the cadets of West Point.  For that matter part of the cost of printing was raised by subscription from those cadets before he departed.  The real meat of the book is an excellent and well researched section on Poe’s short military career often overlooked by biographers.  If you are a Poe fan, you need this book.  I used this book as an important portion for my research in my previous blog entry:

Skunk Works by Ben Rich (1994) about the mythic secret Skunk Works by one of the top engineers there.  The Skunk Works in Burbank produced the U-2, SR-71, and the F-117 stealth fighter among others.  It puts a human face on the people who made science fiction into reality. 

Heaven’s Command, an Imperial Progress (1973) by James Morris about the early years of the British Empire and how the Empire became Victorian.  It covers most of the personalities of Empire, although it delves mostly on India and later South Africa, there is a lot information to pursue and follow up.  You steampunks need to read this to get a grip on history 19th century English history.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1974) a masterpiece of surrealism and fantasy by a famous surreal artist.  I read this in the middle 70s and has been out of print for years but is back in print again. 

The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire (1979) by Lord Kinross.  A sprawling view of the Ottoman Empire:  why it worked, why it failed and why it was important to Western history.  Although an older book, it is your one-shop-stop for a definitive read on this juggernaut of history.  You might be surprised by what you find.

Armageddon 2049 A.D. (1928) and Airlords of Han (1929) by Philip Francis Nowland  two novels about Buck Rogers transported to the dim future.  Now wait, this has little to do with the B movies serials and the comic strip characters.  These two novellas often published together as a single book.  It is very advanced for the late 1920s and worth the read when taken in context of the era.

A little lagniappe      
Also if you are into obscure (in America) Japanese science fiction try out Inter Ice Age 4 (1959) by Kobo Abe – it compares interestingly to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963).  

Have a happy and safe holiday season.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Edgar Allan Poe: Writer, Poet, Literary Critic, and Soldier

FIRST, A RATHER OVERLENGTHY FORWARD    For this Veteran’s Day I thought I would cover the short career of a veteran that is known to every American although his military career was short and obscure.  I would also like to mention another, more recent veteran, who was also an artillerist. West Point attendee, and connected to writing, specifically about Poe, but I’d like mention that portion at the end of the article.  Let me say am no Poe scholar by any means, but I have cobbled together as many facts as possible from reliable sources about this forgotten period of Edgar Allan Poe.  I am not going to recap Poe’s whole life as there are plenty of sources available.  Frankly, if you are unfamiliar with the basics of Poe’s biography, you are probably reading the wrong blog.

AND NOW ON WITH THE SHOW    In addition to being a writer, well-known poet, literary critic, editor, and early SF writer as well as the creator of the modern detective story, Edgar Allan Poe also had a military career.  His influence on Jules Verne, H. P. Lovecraft, Baudelaire as well as detective writers and poetry in this century and in the previous ones.  His contribution to the literary world is well known, but his military career outside of his dismissal from West Point is obscure and seldom mentioned.  In fact, few people know that he had a promising military career.  The scope of this article is very narrow, following just his military career and its impact on him personally and his subsequent writing career.  There are plenty of Poe biographies good, bad, and fantastically incorrect and I have found the later the biography of Poe, the more scholarship and less folklore was involved.  

Many Victorian biographies completely leave out Poe’s military service outside of references to his abortive West Point career of 1830-1831, but the two years he was an artillerist in the regular Army was an important period of his life and proved to be a turning point.  Had things gone differently, he might have remained in the army become an officer of distinction fighting in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican War and through the American Civil War, probably as a Confederate.   Destiny had a different path for Edgar Allan Poe.

Anyone familiar with the typical Poe biography knows that Poe’s parents were actors and died when he was a child.  But Poe’s grandfather had a profound influence on him even after his grandfather’s death.  David Poe Sr. was a renowned Revolutionary War hero who was a Major involved with logistics and procurement.   For his efforts was made a Brigadier General and very highly regarded.  Edgar Poe seemed destined for a career in the military himself.  As a youth, Poe was the Lieutenant in charge of the honor guard of the Richmond Junior Volunteers for the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited Richmond in October of 1824.  Young Poe would have been 15 at the time.   Lafayette visited David Poe Senior’s grave on grave in Baltimore and exclaimed, “Ici repose coeur noble!” 

After a disagreement with his foster father, John Allan in March of 1827 about gambling debts incurred while at the University of Virginia, Poe left for Baltimore and enlisted in the regular army there on 26 May 1827 under an assumed name: Edgar Perry.  An image of his original enlistment document is at the end of this post.  Poe was just 18 although he showed his age as 22 on the enlistment.  Along with being strapped for cash, he may have also been disappointed in the publication of his first book Tamerlane and Other Poems in 1827 as well.  The booklet had been published by an obscure printer with no real distribution and no literary reviews, selling for only 12 and ½ cents per copy.  Needless to say, the book did not sell well and only 50 copies were printed.  He would not be able to use writing to pay his debts nor would his foster father help.  The irony is that now this obscure edition sells now for a small fortune with only a handful known.

So then he was enlisted in the 1st ArtilleryRegiment, Battery H and his first duty station was at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor.  He would be there only eight months, but clearly his superiors noted something different in Private Perry and soon appointed a clerk in July 1827, filling out paperwork and tending to the typical day to day paper chores of a military unit. 

The practice of the time was to rotate individual batteries of artillery regiments to different posts around the nation and Battery H was ordered to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina part of the important coastal fortifications of historic Charlestown harbor on 31 October 1827.

It took time to arrange transportation so the unit did not leave Boston until the 8th of November on the brig Waltham, arriving on 18 November 1827 at Charlestown harbor.  Little did artillery private Perry (Poe) know but that his time on Sullivan’s Island would reap benefits for his writing career later.  His experiences there provided the settings and mood for later writings such as The Gold Bug, The Balloon-Hoax, and The Oblong Box.  Many people don’t realize that Poe might be considered an Antebellum southern writer,  at the time America was just beginning to create its own literature distinctive from English literature. By the way, Baltimore is south of the Mason Dixon Line, along with Washington DC.

The fortifications on Sullivan’s Island included Fort Moultrie, which had a long career as a battleground during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and would again be the focus of combat in the Civil War much later.  In fact the opening shots of the Civil War would be fired from Charlestown harbor defenses on a ship attempting to relieve the consolidated Union garrison on another fort in the harbor, Fort Sumter some of which had been evacuated from Fort Moultrie, but that’s over thirty years in the future.  By the way, the town library on Sullivan’s Island is part of a post-Civil War fortification, Battery Gadsden, a Spanish American War construct, which has Poe section and several streets on Sullivan’s Island are named in honor of Poe.

Poe prospered at Fort Moultrie and rose to the rank of Artificer on 1 May 1828, which doubled his pay from $5 to $10 a month.  Lieutenant Howard who commanded Battery H, wrote that Perry (Poe) was good in habit, “good, and entirely free of drinking,” and the adjutant of Ft Moultrie indicated Perry (Poe) was “highly worthy of confidence.”   No doubt Poe visited Charlestown when on leave and met a number of people.  Being a polished and gentlemanly young man he didn’t find doors closed to him despite being a lowly army sergeant.  No doubt his grandfather’s name opened a few doors as well.

He became friends with a prominent Charlestown resident, War of 1812 veteran, and member of the House of Representatives for South Carolina from 1825 to 1833, Colonel William Drayton and continued the friendship when Drayton moved to Philadelphia in 1833, later president of the 2nd Bank of the United States.  Poe dedicated Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque to Col Drayton in 1840  

Poe may have also met young Caroline Howard Gilman, who was later a very famous southern writer and poet who lived in Charlestown from 1819 to 1858, along with her husband who was the minister of the Archdale Street Unitarian Church.  Poe certainly would have known here name years later when he was an editor and literary critic.  
But all good things come to an end and Battery H received orders to move and they left for Fort Monroe on Old Point Comfort in Virginia overlooking Chesapeake Bay, on the Harriet on 11 December 1828 and landing 15 December.  Poe did well as a regular soldier, he eventually achieved sergeant major effective 1 January 1829, the highest NCO rank possible in only 19 months of service. 

On the home front, Fanny Allan, wife of David Allan Poe’s estranged foster father was very ill and Allan wrote Poe telling him to come to her sickbed, but by the time Poe got leave Mrs. Allan had already died.  Poe arrived the day after her burial and was overcome with grief that he had to be assisted from the grave site. 

Reconciliation with David Allan came soon after and on 15 April of 1829, Poe secured his discharge from the five-year regular army enlistment by paying for a substitute for $75 to finish out his enlistment.  In order to get an appointment, Poe procured letters of recommendation from important citizens, including former governor of Virginia, James Preston who was also familiar with Poe’s poetry.  Poe also got the Speaker of the House of Representatives to write recommendation letters for him.  Poe presented the letters to Secretary of War James H. Eaton in person.

In March of 1830 he received his formal acceptance to attend West Point Military Academy and began attending in June of the same year.  Poe may have thought having some practical years as a soldier would help him as a cadet but the Academy proved to be far different than he had expected.  Many previously enlisted members attending the Academy can attest to this, even at this late date.  Discouraged, Poe regretted his decision to make the military a career and began to look for a way out.

Poe was discharged from West Point, 6 March 1831, but despite his failure, he continued to have visits from his old West Point comrades years later.  A good deal has been written as to why Poe was discharged from West Point, but that is not the focus of this article.  Although I would mention that Poe left with some good feelings from his brother West Pointers.  131 of his brethren paid $1.25 each to subscribe to his newest book of poems and a number remained in contact with him over the years and sometimes visited. 

A number of things have come to light about Poe that is not often mentioned in his biographies.  He was athletic and an excellent swimmer and was good in mathematics, which stood him in good stead as an artilleryman.  He was clearly mechanical and resourceful as he became Battery H’s artificer and has been company clerk.  This is quite a different Poe depicted later by biographers just after his death. 

He was well liked by children, a joker, prankster, and humorist.  He also had visits from his West Point comrades from his military days.  Due to being cut out of David Allen’s will, Poe was left with little resource later in life outside of this ability to write.  Who knows as a military officer with a large inherited fortune, he might have later gone into politics after the military.  But it was not to be.
Let me point out that the terms Romantic and Sentimentality had very different nuance and connotations in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s than they have today.  Remember it was the period of the Gothic story so Poe’s works would not have been considered morbid or the product of a depressed mind by the standards of the day.  Most importantly, Poe's body of work helped to make the short story a distinct literary form.  Remember that Poe was born before the start Victorian era and died well before its peak.  His belief in unity of idea, specific word use, objective technique in poetry writing and pulled it out of the Georgian era of fancy embellishments and witticisms.  

Personally, Poe could be charismatic and persuasive.  He was certainly perceived as a joker and possibly even a hoaxer, but that is another story.  He developed life-long friendships along with the inevitable enemies endemic of a career of literary criticism.  There is a lot of nonsense written about Poe, some of it just lazy copy work and others are calculated spite.  There is plenty written for an against these views and I leave it to the academics to hash it out, but your best one-stop-shop source of largely unbiased, good quality Poe scholarship is The Poe Society.  

Again, there are a number of Victorian biographies filled with spurious and unsupported allegations   words take out of context purposely.     Some of those are mentioned here:  and .

AND NOW A LITTLE BACKGROUND AND RAMBLING,    I became interested in running down Poe’s military career decades before the internet, when information had to be dug out of distant and obscure libraries and repositories. Most specifically I had heard Poe had been in some sort of Richmond artillery militia group in the 1820s but had little to go on with traditional biographies.  A little while back while doing some research on early 19th century militias, I tuned up (for me) the holy grail – Poe’s original enlistment that some good person had put on the internet.  From there it became a chase thorough sources and internet sites finding a bread crumb trail of information (and misinformation) about Poe’s elusive military career before West Point.  I’m sorry that I didn’t start looking much sooner as many of my questions were answered and gaps filled in of Poe’s forgotten life.

This article is a sort of Frankenstein of a number of sources that I have tried to cross check for accuracy by using original documents whenever possible.  I have found the best scholarship seems to be set as remotely far as possible from period articles or those written in the first decades after Poe’s death.  A spate of fresh and new scholarship has been yielding up a lot of information in the past several decades. 

One important source I have used was Major William F Hecker’s, Mister Poe:  The West Point Poems.  As part of this Veteran’s Day post, I would like to mention Maj Hecker for his service and accomplishments as a Poe fan.  Sadly just a year after editing and publishing this work he was killed in Iraq on 5 Jan 2006 while serving his country.  He probably has more in common with Poe/Perry than a good number of other Poe researchers.  He, like Poe, was an artillerist, attended West Point, a man of letters, and had his career ended early.  I’d like to dedicate this memorial in electrons and photons to both Poe and Maj Hecker who are two American veterans here on this Memorial Day of 2013.


A site about Poe bios

The Defense of Charlestown Harbor (Civil War) book:

In conclusion I would like to point out that a good many of Edgar Allan Poe’s works are available on line for free download, in a number of electronic formats from Project Gutenberg, this making Poe’s works accessible to everybody: .


Update Aug 2014:  I recently turned up a couple of articles about Poe’s artillery career posted on the web:

Author, Poet Edgar Allan Poe Had Little-Known Career as Artillerist, The Artilleryman Magazine, Winter 2003, Vol 25, No 1

Seeds of a Soldier, Army Space Journal, Fall 2003, PDF