Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Providence, RI poetess Sarah Helen Whitman was an ether-sniffing eccentric who had a strange, unhappy relationship with Edgar Allan Poe during the last three months of 1848. Over the next thirty years of her life, this minor literary figure reinvented herself as a major source for Poe scholars. As she grew older, she became increasingly obsessed with Poe's memory, keeping up an extensive correspondence with his acquaintances, relatives, and biographers, sharing and receiving information and speculation about the elusive Edgar. This circle, was, you might say, the original Dead Poets Society.
The major figure in Whitman's correspondence became John Henry Ingram, who spent the 1870s doing extensive research on Poe for his 1880 biography. Whitman soon became not only his main personal source about Poe--she was a virtual collaborator.
This congenial partnership hit a very peculiar snag. In 1874, Whitman told Ingram that in mid-1848 (before she met Poe) Anna Blackwell, a writer visiting Providence whom she knew slightly, gave her a letter Poe had sent her some time earlier. (The text can be found here.) In this letter, he expresses his interest in Whitman, and asks Blackwell for information about her. Whitman explained to Ingram that she no longer had the original letter--she had given it to her friend John Russell Bartlett for his autograph collection--but she had retained a copy of the text. Whitman also told him that in 1847, a mutual friend, Mary Gove Nichols, had arranged for Blackwell to board for several weeks at Poe's country cottage in Fordham.
Ingram did not hear from Miss Blackwell herself until 1877, and her reply to his letter proved a rude shock. She flatly declared that her only contact with Poe consisted of two brief meetings. She never boarded with him and never even had any correspondence with him. Ingram then asked Mrs. Nichols about Whitman's story. That lady evidently confirmed Blackwell's account.
Ingram, understandably confused and uneasy, wrote Whitman describing these refutations of her story. She became extremely angry and defensive, insisting her tale was true, and calling upon Ingram to contact Bartlett, who would, she snapped, confirm she had given him this letter. (We do not have any statement from Bartlett on the controversy, and the actual letter Poe allegedly wrote Blackwell was never produced.)
Ingram was in a bind--and, judging from his letters about the dispute, deeply afraid. Whitman had become not only his epistolary friend, but a large part of his cherished dream of writing the definitive Poe biography. And here, at this late date, she presented him with a detailed, circumstantial, seemingly credible story that not only had no evidence to support it, but had the leading figures in the tale unequivocally rejecting it. It was indisputable that someone was selling him an utter fabrication. And he had no idea which side to believe.
In the end, he claimed to accept Whitman's story. He really had no choice. If he did not--if he decided that Whitman was capable of being an untrustworthy fantasist--then the implications were simply too great and too alarming to bear.
Everyone since has followed Ingram's lead and branded Blackwell and Nichols as liars. John Carl Miller, the editor of Ingram's published papers, theorized that Blackwell merely wanted to avoid the taint of being associated in any way with someone as notorious as Poe.
This is an untenable argument. Her erstwhile friend, Mrs. Whitman, took great pride in her own relationship with Poe. Her other friend, Mary Gove Nichols, also happily published every detail about her acquaintance with "the Raven." By the 1870s, Poe had become almost a mythical figure. Everyone who ever had the least contact with him was positively eager to share their reminiscences with the world. And we are to assume that this obscure literary figure would blatantly lie about receiving a perfectly innocuous letter from him? And Mrs. Nichols would help her? And why did John Russell Bartlett fail to end the controversy by simply producing Poe's letter?
Another point to consider is that, assuming Whitman's story was true, Blackwell, when she received Ingram's letter of inquiry, must have assumed the Poe letter was still in existence. With this in mind, it staggers belief to think that Blackwell would risk denying Whitman's story, as she would presume that Sarah Helen could produce the letter and prove her to be a shameless liar.
The truth of the whole strange story can never be known for certain. But we are left with the inarguable fact that Whitman gave Ingram information that has nothing to support it, and several important factors that disprove it. The strong possibility that her entire story was a fable cannot be ignored.
And if Whitman cannot be trusted in this relatively important story, can any of the many, many other stories she contributed to Poe lore be trusted?