IN THE LAST two years before his death in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe sought out the company of several women in a near-desperate attempt to recapture the warm and affectionate home life he had enjoyed with his wife, Virginia, who died in 1847. The ladies in question were flattered but cautious. Poe was a fascinating man and one of the most celebrated authors of his time. But he was also controversial, a man around whom dark and unsavory rumors circulated, and he was penniless. The women he courted, some of whom were minor literary lights of the day, fluttered about with excitement and listened enraptured to his amorous phrases. They offered Poe their friendship but withheld their passions and hesitated about agreeing to a permanent involvement.

Then Poe died, relieving his lady friends of any obligation to decide what was to be done about him. Thereafter they entered a period of mournful reminiscence, savoring the bittersweet experience of having known the great one in his prime.

Their reveries were interrupted by extraordinary developments in Poe's posthumous reputation. First, Poe's official biographer, Rufus Griswold, published a distorted memoir in which he exaggerated Poe's shortcomings and weaknesses. In the following decades Poe's friends and professional associates published defenses of his character and refutations of Griswold's slanders. But these defenses, printed in periodicals, were ephemeral in their effect. Griswold's profile of Poe, published as an afterword to the author's collected works, was circulated throughout the world and had the obvious edge in influence.

Enter, in the early 1870s, John Henry Ingram, an obscure English government clerk and part-time writer who, as a child poring over volumes of poetry in his father's library, had contracted Poe fever. Now in his thirties, Ingram had decided to devote every available moment to the task of clearing Poe's name of Griswold's calumnies. Ingram wrote to Poe's friends in America asking for assistance in his crusade to do Poe justice. His labors would occupy him off and on for the next 40 years and establish him as the world's foremost authority on Poe.

Poe's Helen Remembers is the record, complete and uncut, of the correspondence that ensued between Ingram and Sarah Helen Whitman, a literary lady of Providence, Rhode Island. She who had been Poe's confidante and fiance in the late 1840s now became one of the English biographer's most enthusiastic allies in his campaign to set the record straight. The letters these two exchanged over a four-year period are lengthy, detailed and sometimes tedious, the editor of the present volume having no alternative (in so highly sensitive an area of American literary history) but to publish every word as written.

Yet there is drama enough for the general reader, and a feast for Poe enthusiasts. Both correspondents are interesting characters who, amid a thicket of references to dates, names, places and events connected with Poe, reveal their own strength and weaknesses. Both suffered from severe psychosomatic ailments and were tormented by the mental instability of close relatives. Each felt a need for emotional support from the other, and each, towards the end, flew into a rage over imagined slights from the other. The long-drawn-out exchange of letters is also enlivened by the elegant articulateness both writers employed even when dashing off afterthoughts and postscripts.

The Whitman-Ingram correspondence has an unplanned structure which builds up interest as it progresses. Persistent questions in Poe biography are raised, fussed over, debated and in some cases solved. Whitman tantalizes Ingram with promises to tell the true story of why she and Poe broke off their engagement. Ingram, meanwhile, widens his information network and begins to publish his findings. It becomes clear towards the conclusion that Ingram's devotion to Poe has had the unpleasant side effect of giving him an acute case of conceit. When he began his project the world seemed divided into two camps -- those who sympathized with Poe and those who sided with Griswold. Over the years this polarization had shifted its boundaries. Now there were only Ingram on one side and the "worthless scamps" who dared to write anything about Poe on the other.

Throughout the book we tend to admire Poe's Helen as a person and Ingram as a scholar. She emerges as witty, humane, level-headed (except for a weakness for spiritualism and mediums), and judicious in her advice. She urges Ingram to be more temperate in his reviews and to be more circumspect in accepting as authentic the dubious testimony he received from some of Poe's admirers.

Meanwhile, Ingram was accumulating data that would provide the foundation upon which all subsequent Poe biography would be based. His phenomenal success as a researcher must be attributed, in the end, to tireless persistence and incredible luck. To cite only one instance, he spent months sifting through cartons of books stored in the library of the British Museum. Where most people would come up with nothing but dusty trivia for their pains, Ingram discovered a copy of Tamerlane, Poe's first published work and today among the most precious collector's items in American belles-lettres.

The Whitman-Ingram correspondence concludes on an especially sad note. Ingram sends her an article he has written revealing Poe's passionate interest in another New England woman he was courting during the same period as he was engaged to Whitman. In all those intervening years, this was her first inkling that she had had a rival for Poe's affections.

Poe's Helen Remembers is a large, handsomely produced volume with a striking dust jacket and revealing illustrations. Its editor, the late John Carl Miller, has provided helpful notes to explain Whitman's and Ingram's references to names, places and incidents. These notes lend additional emphasis to the general intention of the book, to display the human side of an important chapter in American literary biography.