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  • Written by Matthew Pearl
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A Novel

Written by Matthew PearlAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Matthew Pearl

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On Sale: May 23, 2006
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-517-0
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“I present to you . . . the truth about this man’s death and my life.”

Baltimore, 1849. The body of Edgar Allan Poe has been buried in an unmarked grave. The public, the press, and even Poe’s own family and friends accept the conclusion that Poe was a second-rate writer who met a disgraceful end as a drunkard. Everyone, in fact, seems to believe this except a young Baltimore lawyer named Quentin Clark, an ardent admirer who puts his own career and reputation at risk in a passionate crusade to salvage Poe’s.

As Quentin explores the puzzling circumstances of Poe’s demise, he discovers that the writer’s last days are riddled with unanswered questions the police are possibly willfully ignoring. Just when Poe’s death seems destined to remain a mystery, and forever sealing his ignominy, inspiration strikes Quentin–in the form of Poe’s own stories. The young attorney realizes that he must find the one person who can solve the strange case of Poe’s death: the real-life model for Poe’s brilliant fictional detective character, C. Auguste Dupin, the hero of ingenious tales of crime and detection.
In short order, Quentin finds himself enmeshed in sinister machinations involving political agents, a female assassin, the corrupt Baltimore slave trade, and the lost secrets of Poe’s final hours. With his own future hanging in the balance, Quentin Clark must turn master investigator himself to unchain his now imperiled fate from that of Poe’s.

Following his phenomenal debut novel, The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl has once again crossed pitch-perfect literary history with innovative mystery to create a beautifully detailed, ingeniously plotted tale of suspense. Pearl’s groundbreaking research–featuring documented material never published before–opens a new window on the truth behind Poe’s demise, literary history’s most persistent enigma. The resulting novel is a publishing event that, through sublime craftsmanship, subtle wit, and devious twists, does honor to Poe himself


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

I remember the day it began because I was impatient for an important letter to arrive. Also, because it was meant to be the day of my engagement to Hattie Blum. And, of course, it was the day I saw him dead.

The Blums were near neighbors of my family. Hattie was the youngest and most affable of four sisters who were considered nearly the prettiest four sisters in Baltimore. Hattie and I had been acquainted from our very infancies, as we were told often enough through the years. And each time we were told how long we'd known each other, I think the words were meant also to say, "and you shall know each other evermore, depend upon it."

And in spite of such pressure as might easily have pushed us apart, even at eleven years old I became like a little husband toward my playfellow. I never made outward professions of love to Hattie, but I devoted myself to her happiness in small ways while she entertained me with her talk. There was something hushed about her voice, which often sounded to me like a lullaby.

My own nature while in society as it developed was markedly quiet and tranquil, to the degree that I was often asked at any given moment if I had only just then been stirred awake. In quieter company, though, I had the habit of turning unaccountably loquacious and even rambling in my speech. Therefore, I savored the stretches of Hattie's animated conversation. I believe I depended upon them. I felt no need to call attention to myself when I was with her; I felt happy and modest and, above all, easy.

Now, I should note that I did not know that I was expected to propose marriage on the afternoon with which we begin this narration. I was on my way to the post office from the nearby chambers of our law practice when I crossed paths with a woman of good Baltimore society, Mrs. Blum--Hattie's aunt. She pointed out immediately that the errands of retrieving waiting mail should be assigned to one of my lesser and less occupied legal clerks.

"You are a specimen, aren't you, Quentin Clark!" Mrs. Blum said. "You wander the streets when you are working, and when you're not working, you have a look upon your face as though you were!"

She was your genuine Baltimorean; she suffered no man without proper commercial interests any more than she would tolerate a girl who was not beautiful.

This was Baltimore, and whether in fine weather or in this day's fog it was a very red-brick type of place, where the movements of the people on well-paved streets and marble steps were quick and boisterous but without gaiety. There was not much of that last quality in supply in our go-ahead city, where large houses stood elevated over a crowded trading bay. Coffee and sugar came in from South America and the West India Islands on great clipper ships, and the barrels of oysters and family flour moved out on the multiplying railway tracks toward Philadelphia and Washington. Nobody looked poor then in Baltimore, even those who were, and every other awning seemed to be a daguerreotype establishment ready to record that fact for posterity.

Mrs. Blum on this occasion smiled and took my arm as we walked through the thoroughfare. "Well, everything is quite perfectly arranged for this evening."

"This evening," I replied, trying to guess what she could be referring to. Peter Stuart, my law partner, had mentioned a supper party at the home of a mutual acquaintance. I had been thinking so much of the letter I anticipated retrieving, I had until then forgotten completely. "This evening, of course, Mrs. Blum! How I've looked forward to it."

"Do you know," she continued, "do you know, Mr. Clark, that only yesterday I heard dear Miss Hattie spoken of on Market Street"--this generation of Baltimoreans still called Baltimore Street by its former name--"yes, talked about as the loveliest unmarried beauty in all Baltimore!"

"One could argue the loveliest above all, married or not," I said.

"Well, isn't that clever!" she replied. "Oh, it won't do at all, twenty-seven and still living bachelor and--now don't interrupt, dear Quentin! A proper young man doesn't . . ."

I had trouble hearing what she said next because a loud rumble of two carriages grew behind us. "If it is a hackney approaching," I thought to myself, "I shall put her into it, and offer double the fare." But as they passed I could see both were private carriages, and the one in front was a sleek, shiny hearse. Its horses kept their heads low, as if in deference to the honorable cargo.

No one else turned to look.

Leaving behind my walking companion with a parting promise of seeing her at the evening's gathering, I found myself crossing the next avenue. A herd of swine swarmed past with belligerent shrieks, and my detour ran along Greene Street and across to Fayette, where hearse and mourning-carriage were parked together.

In a quiet burial ground there, a ceremony began and ended abruptly. I strained through the fog at the figures in attendance. It was like standing in a dream--everything blurred into silhouettes, and I swallowed down the vague feeling that I should not be there. The minister's oration sounded muffled from where I stood at the gates. The small gathering, I suppose, did not demand much effort from his voice.

It was the saddest funeral ever seen.

It was the weather. No: the mere four or five men in attendance--the minimum needed to lift an adult coffin. Or perhaps the melancholy quality came chiefly from that brisk, callous completion of the ceremony. Not even the most impoverished pauper's funeral that I had observed before this day, nor the funerals of the poor Jewish cemetery nearby, not even those exhibited such unchristian indifference. There wasn't one flower, wasn't one tear.

Afterward, I retraced my steps only to find the post office had bolted its doors. I could not know whether there was a letter waiting for me inside or not--but I returned to our office chambers and reassured myself. Soon, I'd hear more from him soon.

That evening at the social gathering, I found myself on a private stroll with Hattie Blum along a field of berries, dormant for the season but shadowed with summer remembrances of Champagne and Strawberry Parties. As ever, I could speak comfortably to Hattie.

"Our practice is awfully interesting at times," I said. "Yet I think I should like to choose the cases with more discrimination. A lawyer in ancient Rome, you know, swore never to defend a cause unless he thought it was just. We take cases if their pay is just."

"You can change your office, Quentin. It is your name and your character hanging on the shingle too, after all. Make it more like yourself, rather than make yourself more suited to it."

"Do you believe so, Miss Hattie?"

Twilight was settling and Hattie became uncharacteristically quiet, which I fear meant that I became insufferably talkative. I examined her expression but found no clues to the source of her distant bearing.

"You laughed for me," Hattie said absently, almost as though I would not hear her.

"Miss Hattie?"

She looked up at me. "I was only thinking of when we were children. Do you know at first I thought you were a fool?"

"Appreciated," I chuckled.

"My father would take my mother away during her different sicknesses, and you would come to play when my aunt was minding me. You were the only one to know just how to make me smile until my parents returned, because you were always laughing at the strangest things!" She said this wistfully, while lifting the bottom of her long skirts to avoid the muddy ground.

Later, when we were inside warming ourselves, Hattie talked quietly with her aunt, whose entire countenance had stiffened from earlier in the day. Auntie Blum asked what should be arranged for Hattie's birthday.

"It is coming, I suppose," Hattie said. "I should hardly think of it, typically, Auntie. But this year . . ." She trailed off into a cheerless hum. At supper, she hardly touched the food.

I did not like this at all. I felt myself turn into an eleven-year-old boy again, an anxious protector of the girl across the way. Hattie had been such a reliable presence in my life that any discomfort on her part upset me. Thus it was perhaps from a selfish motivation I tried to cure her mood, but at all events I did wish her to be genuinely happy.

Others of the party, like my law partner, Peter, joined in attempting to raise her spirits, and I studied each of them vigilantly in the event that one of them had been responsible for bringing Hattie Blum into a fit of blues.

Something was hindering my own role in cheering her on this day: that funeral I had seen. I cannot properly explain why, but it had thoroughly exploded my peace. I tried to call to mind a picture of it again. There had been only the four men in attendance to listen to the minister. One, taller than the others, stood toward the rear, his gaze floating off, as though the most anxious of all to be somewhere else. Then, as they came toward the road, there were their grim mouths. The faces were not known to me but also not forgotten. Only one member delayed, staying his steps regretfully, as though overhearing my private thoughts. The event seemed to speak of a terrible loss and yet to do it no honor. It was, in a word, Wrong.

Under this vague cloud of distraction, my efforts exhausted themselves without rescuing Hattie's spirits. I could only bow and express my helpless regrets in unison with the other guests when Hattie and her Auntie Blum were among the first to depart from the supper party. I was pleased when Peter suggested we bring an end to the evening, too.

"Well, Quentin? What has come over you?" Peter asked in an eruption. We were sharing a hired carriage back to our houses.

I thought to tell him of the sad funeral, but Peter would not understand why that had been occupying my mind. Then I realized by the gravity of his posture that he referred to something altogether different. "Peter," I asked, "what do you mean?"

"Did you decide not to propose to Hattie Blum this evening, after all?" he demanded with a loud exhalation.

"Propose! I?"

"She'll be twenty-three in a few weeks. For a Baltimore girl today, that is practically an old maid! Do you not love the dear girl even a little?"

"Who could not love Hattie Blum? But stay, Peter! How is it you came to assume we were to be engaged on this night? Had I ever suggested this was my design?"

"How is it I--? Do you not know as well as I do that the date today is the very same date your own parents were engaged? Had this failed to occur to you even once this evening?"

It had indeed failed to occur to me, as a matter of fact, and even being reminded of this coincidence provided little comprehension of Peter's queer assumption. He explained further that Auntie Blum had been sagely certain I would take the opportunity of this party to propose, and had thought I had even hinted such earlier in the day, and had so informed Peter and Hattie of this likelihood so they would not be surprised. I had been the unwitting, principal cause of Hattie's mysterious distress. I had been the wretch!

"When would have been a more reasonable time than tonight?" Peter continued. "An anniversary so important to you! When? It was as plain as the sun at noon-day."

"I hadn't realized . . ." I stammered.

"How couldn't you see she was waiting for you, that it is time for your future to begin? Well, here, you're home. I wish you a restful sleep. Poor Hattie is probably weeping into her pillow even now!"

"I should never wish to make her sad," I said. "I wish only that I knew what seemed to be expected from me by everyone else." Peter gruffly muttered agreement, as though I had finally struck upon my general failing.

Of course I would propose, and of course we would marry! Hattie's presence in my life had been my good fortune. I brightened whenever I saw her and, even more, whenever we were apart and I thought about her. There had been so little change all this time knowing her, I suppose it had just seemed odd to call for it now with a proposal.

"What do you think about?" Peter seemed to say with his brow as I closed the carriage door to bid him good night. I pulled the door back open.

"There was a funeral earlier," I said, deciding to try to redeem myself with some explanation. "You see, I watched it pass, and I suppose it troubled me for a reason I had not . . ." But no, I still could not find the words to justify its effects on me.

"A funeral! A stranger's funeral!" Peter cried. "Now, what in heaven does that have to do with you?"

Everything, but I did not know that then. The next morning I came down in my dressing gown and opened the newspaper to distract myself. Had I been warned, I still could not have predicted my own alarm at what I saw that made me forget my other concerns. It was a small heading on one of the inside pages that caught me. Death of Edgar A. Poe.

I would toss the newspaper aside, then would pick it up again, turning pages to read something else; then I'd read again and again that heading: Death of Edgar A. Poe. . . . the distinguished American poet, scholar, and critic in the thirty-eighth year of his age.

No! Thirty-nine, I believed, but possessed of a wisdom worth a hundred times that . . . Born in this city. No again! (How questionable it all was, even before I knew more.)

Then I noticed . . . those four words.

Died in this city.

This city? This was not telegraphed news. This had occurred here in Baltimore. The death in our own city, the burial, maybe, too. Could it be that the very funeral on Greene and Fayette . . . No! That little funeral, that unceremonious ceremony, that entombment in the narrow burial yard?

At the office that day, Peter sermonized about Hattie, but I could hardly discuss it, intrigued instead by these tidings. I sent for confirmation from the sexton, the caretaker of the burial yard. Poor Poe, he replied. Yes, Poe was gone. As I rushed to the post office to see if any letter had arrived, my thoughts revolved around what I had unknowingly witnessed.


From the Hardcover edition.
Matthew Pearl|Author Q&A

About Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl - The Poe Shadow

Photo © Beth Kelly

Matthew Pearl is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens. He is the editor of the Modern Library editions of Dante’s Inferno (translated by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Matthew Pearl

Q: The Poe Shadow can be read as a celebration of Edgar Allan Poe. Which came first, an enthusiasm for Poe, or your idea for the novel?

MP: My high school English teacher in junior year, Dr. Robert Parsons, assigned us some Poe stories, including The Black Cat and The Purloined Letter. Being an animal person, I had trouble with The Black Cat! I got hooked instead by The Purloined Letter, a Poe story with detective C. Auguste Dupin. I had already been a Sherlock Holmes fan, and it was eye-opening for me to “discover” Sherlock’s prototype in the form of Dupin. So my entrée to Poe was through his detective stories, and from there I read more. When it came time for me to decide on what to write as a second novel, Poe returned to my mind. If it were not for those first interactions with Poe, I would probably have been less likely to be committed to studying literature in high school and then college, and then less likely to ever write fiction. I still have my high school copy of the collected Poe — missing its covers and pretty worse for the wear. On the pages of The Purloined Letter, I wrote in big letters: RATIO SENTIAN. I was taking notes from my teacher and trying to write “ratiocination,” a word I had never heard.

Q: “Ratiocination” is an important concept in your novel.

MP: Now I know how to spell it! It’s a term that Poe uses in the second (and most challenging) Dupin tale — The Mystery of Marie Roget. The basic definition of ratiocination would be similar to “deduction”: logical, methodical reasoning. Ratiocination is a much richer and stranger word, though, exotic to the modern ear (the pronunciation is rash-eo-sen-ation), and in Poe’s vision it is a process that involves not just logic but also creativity. To me, it is the crux of Poe’s larger modus operandi: exploring imagination with great care to logic and detail, and using logic to expand imagination (some of his wildest stories — for example about resuscitating the dead through hypnotism — were so detailed they were thought true when first published).

Q: The central mystery in The Poe Shadow is the death of Edgar Allan Poe. Was his death really so strange and mysterious as the novel claims?

MP: Absolutely! Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849 while visiting Baltimore. All of the questions and puzzles about his death presented in the novel are real. First, his “lost days”: he was in Baltimore for about five days, when we don’t know why he was in Baltimore for more than a few hours (he had very concrete and important plans to be in Philadelphia and New York). Let’s call these Poe’s “lost days” since we known almost nothing about his activities or whereabouts. Second, he was found wearing ragged clothes that did not appear to be his, and holding a walking stick with a sword hidden inside (whether or not the cane remained with Poe until he was discovered is debated). Next, the little Poe manages to say once he’s found is quite odd (even for Poe!), including shouting the name “Reynolds” from his hospital bed over and over again, and crying out that his best friend would blow his brains out. He could not account for where he was or how he got there. Finally, there is strange behavior and comments by other parties surrounding him, including relatives of Poe’s in Baltimore. Poe invented the modern detective story with Dupin, and this story of his own death is worthy of the genre. Because it can never fully be “solved,” it reflects the genre and also transcends the genre.

Q: True mysteries can’t be solved then?

MP: Perhaps they can be resolved but not solved. Or vice versa?

Q: You present some historical findings about Poe’s death not previously published before The Poe Shadow. Have Poe scholars taken issue with you for seeking new conclusions about Poe’s death?

MP: I’m happy to report I’ve had enormous support from the Poe community. A long essay I wrote on Poe’s death, called “A Poe Death Dossier,” is set to appear in two parts in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, an academic journal devoted to Poe studies. Certainly, scholars of Poe — as with all scholars — don’t agree with each other about every issue, and that applies to Poe’s death, too. Part of what interests me about Poe’s death is the spectrum of different perspectives people bring to it, and the way those perspective shape our vision of Poe. I expect not all Poe scholars and readers agree with my approach and conclusions; in fact, I hope they don’t. I think respectful conflict is intrinsic to the spirit of literature. It reminds us that literary history is living and evolving and thrives on us being active participants. One important idea I hope is reflected in The Poe Shadow is that fiction can add as much to history as nonfiction does.

Q: Is writing a second book harder than writing the first one?

MP: I am grateful to my readers and my publishers for my experience with The Dante Club. When it came time for me to move on from The Dante Club, I felt lucky to be in a position where I could devote myself full time to a second novel, and the fact that The Poe Shadow has been well received makes me newly grateful. This probably goes against the grain, but I think in some ways my second novel was easier. I felt like I knew what I was doing a little bit more, and I had confidence that I could actually finish an entire novel because I’d done so before. That doesn’t make the writing itself easy — writing is always hard labor. If pressed, I would admit that writing a second novel, on the other hand, is difficult in the sense that you are more aware of the investment of time and money that other entities (publishers, booksellers, etc.) put in your work. I had already signed agreements for The Poe Shadow to be published before I had written a word of it. This is very different than writing in private or even, as with my first book, writing virtually in secret. Writing, itself inherently private, becomes a more public act.

Q: The Dante Club has some pretty violent sections. This novel has almost none. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

MP: I didn’t set out to avoid depictions of violence in The Poe Shadow. By the same token, I had no premeditated plan for The Dante Club to include violent scenes. The stories took their shapes organically, and one included violence and the other did not have much use for it. Also, the stories are partially grown out of the moods of their respective author subjects — I mean Dante and Poe. Dante’s Divine Comedy, and particularly the Inferno, uses violence as a way of jolting cultural, political, spiritual and artistic questions. We tend to associate Poe with horror and shocking images — and, indeed, there are terrifying moments in stories like The Pit and the Pendulum (and, for me, even more frightening tales like Berenice). However, Poe was also concerned with psychological order/disorder, and that’s the energy I chose to channel for The Poe Shadow and its protagonist, Quentin. I don’t have much interest in violence for its own sake; it should have a context, as Gregory Maguire (Wicked) stresses.

Q: Should a reader think of Quentin Clark, the novel’s main character, as a version of Matthew Pearl?

MP: The Poe Shadow has an opposite orientation from my first novel: in The Dante Club, I wrote about (mostly) historical characters investigating a fictional mystery, the Dante-inspired murders… in The Poe Shadow, (mostly) fictional characters investigate a real-life mystery, Poe’s death. This gave me the freedom to choose my characters, and so putting Quentin in a position and life stage that in some ways resembled my own was not accidental. Quentin is a young lawyer who feels dulled by his work and wants to pursue this quest — which people around him think is pretty crazy — that is connected to literature and the unknown. My own unplanned entrance into writing and the creative life came at a similarly incongruent time in my life, when I was at law school (like Quentin, people didn’t think I was being too practical either). That said, Quentin took on a life of his own and was as much inspired by other lives, real and fictional (including Poe’s own characters) as by my own. An author puts some of himself or herself in every character. But I’m not looking to explore my own life in my novels, at least not for now — I’m not that exciting!

Q: You started writing fiction while at Yale Law School. Unlike Quentin, you did not become a lawyer. Have you abandoned law for good at this point?

MP: I never practiced law (aside from one summer during law school). I have no plans to practice and, besides, I’d have to take the bar exam and that is not on the top of my to-do list. However, my strong interest in law as a cultural force continues. I am teaching a class at Harvard Law School called “The Literary Vision of Copyright.” The class examines the experience of nineteenth century writers (including Poe, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde) who grappled with the vague and often nonexistent legal protections for their work. These intersections between literature and reality — in this case, hard-nosed business and legal realities — are more important to shaping culture than we tend to acknowledge, in my opinion. Aesthetics of literature are never completely separate from the practical concerns of the authors and publishers of that literature.

Q: Talk about research. Was the research for this very different from the research for The Dante Club?

MP: The Dante Club was set in Boston, and nearly all research was available to me in the archives and libraries of Boston and Cambridge, which was mercifully convenient. Not so for Poe. The novel is set in Baltimore and, for one of its five sections, Paris, and these are cities I studied (in person and in books) in order to recreate. Moreover, Poe himself lived in many cities through the course of his life — Boston, Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore — and when he died, his personal papers and possessions were destroyed or scattered. So my archival studies took me to six different states. In fact, while I was touring to speak about the paperback edition of The Dante Club, I would sometimes stop in nearby archives. This sort of comprehensive research is very important to me in creating historical fiction that I feel proud to share with readers. There was also 150 years of research into Poe’s death, and I could not have launched my own “investigation” without mining the amazing work of past Poe scholars and enthusiasts. Quentin’s middle name, Hobson, is actually an homage to one of the best Poe biographers of the twentieth century.

Q: Do you hope readers of this novel will crack open their own editions of Poe after reading this novel?

MP: Well, readers aren’t required to know anything about Poe in order to enjoy the novel, nor are there any assignments after reading it! However, I always remark how gratifying it is when I hear that readers are motivated by what I have written to seek out and read or reread some of Poe’s stories and poems (same goes for Dante). That’s the teacher in me, I guess. Book clubs that choose The Poe Shadow actually sometimes assign each member of the group a Poe story to read and report on to the rest of the group. In particular, I do hope some readers will make an effort to discover or rediscover the three Dupin stories by Poe: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letters. To this end, I have edited and written an introduction to a collection of these Dupin tales for Modern Library that is published in conjunction with The Poe Shadow. Not only are the stories enjoyable mysteries, they are the ancestors of all modern mystery fiction.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Aside from Quentin, most of the novel’s characters in this 1849 setting do not appreciate or read Edgar Allan Poe's works, and this fact in part provokes Quentin to try and rescue Poe's name. Why do you think Poe means so much to Quentin?

2. If you have read Poe, what are your thoughts about his work? Is there any author, from past or present, whom you would "fight" for as much as Quentin does for Poe?

3. In addition to serving as physical locales, Baltimore and Paris may be said to serve as "characters" in the book. What do the cities add to the novel, and what kinds of details bring alive their histories?

4. As the historical note at the back of the novel explains, the book uses authentic details about Poe's strange death. Had you heard anything about Poe's death before reading The Poe Shadow? After reading the evidence and theories throughout the novel, do you agree with all of the conclusions presented by the characters in the final chapters, or do you have any of your own theories?

5. Auguste Duponte and Baron Claude Dupin can be seen as doubles or doppelgangers, and the book discusses Poe's use of doubles in works such as "William Wilson," a tale that features two identical characters with the same names. Discuss the use of doubles and doubling in The Poe Shadow. Are there any other doubles besides Duponte and Dupin? Does Quentin have any doubles? Does Edgar Allan Poe?

6. The word "shadow" is used in many different ways in the novel. Quentin tells us, "Poe once wrote in a tale about the conflict between the substance and the shadow inside of us. The substance, what we know we should do, and the shadow, the dangerous and giggling Imp of the Perverse, the dark knowledge of what we must or will do or secretly want. The shadow always prevails." What are possible meanings of the title The Poe Shadow?

7. If you had been in Quentin's position at the end of the novel, would you have made the information on Poe's death public, or kept it private?

8. What do you think would have happened if Quentin had met Poe before Poe died? Do you think this would have made his personal quest more or less important to him?


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