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 Historical Fiction Review   



Poe and Fanny: A Novel
By John May
Hardcover, Algonquin Books, 2004 $24.95  ISBN: 1-56512-427-8
Trade paper, Plume, 2005 $14.00 ISBN: 0-45228-601-8
352 pages

John May has composed an historical novel that will please fans of one of America’s foremost antebellum writers: Edgar Allan Poe.  Using a few details from the factual record on Poe and a whole lot of make believe to fill in the gaps, May’s novel centers on Poe in New York during the year 1845.  “The Raven” is published to general acclaim, and Poe lurches toward literary stardom; however, the spotlight dims on Poe as May details the historically dubious romances and the retold-to-the-point-of-cliché alcoholic abuses of Poe’s life using a fictional technique reminiscent of A. S. Byatt’s Possession: love poems hint at the story Poe’s undocumented affair with Frances “Fanny” Sargent Osgood and clippings from New York’s various periodicals provide skeleton details that are fleshed out through fictional chapters that culminate in a love child allows May to hypothesize that house of Poe perhaps did not fall after all.   

At its best Poe and Fanny allows readers to glimpse antebellum New York’s vibrant cultural scene: theatre flourished and America’s greatest writers (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Maria Child, and James Russell Lowell amongst them) converged on the city.  May deftly details the dominant, suffocating mores of the nineteenth century, particularly as they applied to women.  However, Poe and Fanny also suffers somewhat by what could be called an over allegiance to nineteenth-century dialogue: there is almost nothing natural or convincing (and very little even interesting) about the characters and their interactions with each other.  A monologue from Fanny is illustrative of the poor adaptation of a Henry James novel that May deploys for his characters: 

“My shame makes me want to turn away from you, but I can’t.  It would be cowardly to turn away; I won’t do it.  That’s why I want you to be my mentor—because you make me realize that I’ve written nothing to compare to what I might have written…”   

Ay caramba! That said, readers who enjoy the torrid fluff of period romances will probably be able to overlook May’s characters for a truly daring telling of Poe’s life.   

Poe and Fanny is recommended for Poe buffs who feel the macabre pull of “The Raven” and for readers who enjoy historical fiction and period romances. 

John May received his MFA from Bennington College.  He currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Poe and Fanny is his first novel. 


Sean Wells
Southern Scribe Reviews


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