Monday, August 24, 2009

Susan Archer Talley Weiss

Susan Archer Talley Weiss
Weiss has been aptly described by Arthur Quinn as the most "irritating" of all the Poe biographers. She published several strange magazine articles about Poe, as well as an even-stranger book, "The Home Life of Poe." She was a self-described Poe "confidante," who claimed to have struck up a close friendship with him during his last visit to Richmond, Virginia in the summer of 1849. (There is no other corroboration that she ever even met Poe in person. She also claimed to have obtained extensive information about his private life from his sister Rosalie and her foster family, the Mackenzies. However, as Rosalie Poe and the Mackenzie family members she quoted as sources were all dead by the time Weiss began publishing her Poe information, these stories rely exclusively on Weiss' word, as well.)

Nearly everything Weiss wrote about Poe, in fact, is completely uncorroborated, and where her statements can be checked, she is generally wrong, often bizarrely so. (I'm not sure which is my favorite Weiss anecdote--her story about Poe enlisting her to help him re-write "The Raven," or her claim that he died as a result of a beating that was administered to him by order of his estranged ex-fiancee, Sarah Elmira Shelton.) Dominating her work is her strange obsession with proving that Poe's marriage to Virginia Clemm--a woman she never even met--was a tragic failure.

One would think that such a weird and wholly untrustworthy source would be treated with the contempt she deserves, but for reasons which completely elude me, Weiss became a major influence on many Poe biographers, such as George Woodberry, William Gill, Thomas O. Mabbott, and Frances Winwar. Even biographers that acknowledge her unreliability, such as Quinn, Kenneth Silverman, and the editors of "The Poe Log," wind up quoting her extensively. (They often do this without attribution, leaving the reader to assume they are relating proven factual events, when in reality, they are merely retelling her fairy tales.) This is a great pity, because although Weiss is always described as a "friend" of Poe's, her writings about him have ironically done more damage to his reputation than anything since Griswold's infamous biography. Her tone towards Poe grew increasingly negative over the years, culminating in her 1907 book, which bluntly described him as a drunken, weak-willed, skirt-chasing creep, unhappily married to a plump, infantile "child-wife" who never even read half his poetry. It is an amazing piece of work, considering that--at best--she had a brief acquaintance with Poe at the very end of his life, and that she was not even intimate with anyone who truly knew him well.Susan Archer Talley Weiss The Home Life of Poe 1907What is most puzzling about Weiss' ubiquity in Poe biography is the universally ignored fact that she had lost her hearing in childhood, as the result of an illness. Her entry in Rufus W. Griswold's "Female Poets of America" anthology described her as completely deaf, and numerous contemporary biographical sketches of her state the same thing. For good measure, an 1861 newspaper article about her stated she could not even lip-read--that all questions put to her had to be in writing. This alone obviously destroys all her stories of long, intimate conversations with Poe--not to mention all the information she claimed to have been told about him by others. But because--for self-evident reasons--she never mentioned her inability to hear in any of her writings about Poe, his biographers have also ignored this critical detail.

This is one of the many things that, when I began to explore the world of Poe, made me feel like Alice going down the rabbit hole.

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