Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Problematic "Chivers' Life of Poe" (Part Three)

Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Holley ChiversThe "Life of Poe" is virtually worthless as a historical source. The biographical portion we have is a mere rehash of Griswold's error-plagued memoir. The portion that quotes Poe discussing with Chivers the merits of various authors often contradicts what Poe himself said about them in his published writings, and it contains ludicrous misinterpretations and misrepresentations of previously published material. The author of this manuscript--whether it truly was Chivers or someone else--makes it clear that he did not really know or understand Poe in the slightest degree. When the "Life" was released in book form in 1952, Poe biographer Arthur Quinn openly wondered why anyone even bothered publishing such a useless work.

The only portion of the "Life" that has interested anyone--probably the sole reason why it was published at all--is one anecdote, of which the first part--the section most savoring of scandalum magnatum--did not appear in the 1903 publication and was previously unknown. The incident described allegedly happened when Chivers visited New York in the summer of 1845. The story goes that while walking on the street, Chivers encountered Poe, who was drunk out of his mind and looking for trouble. After doing his best to get into a public brawl with an old nemesis, "Knickerbocker" editor Lewis Gaylord Clark, Poe blearily announced to Chivers that he will reveal to him--a man he scarcely knew--the "secrets of my heart." He bragged about being involved in "the damnedest amour" with the unnamed wife of a painter, who was out of town often because of his work. Poe claimed the lady was currently in Providence, and she had written asking him to go there that afternoon. He added that his "noble" wife must not hear anything about this, as he would not hurt her for all the world. A strange concern, considering that he was disseminating all the juicy details not only to Chivers, but any other bystanders on the crowded city street within earshot. (Incidentally, it is also hard to believe that Chivers--who certainly would have no reason at the time to keep a precise record of his chats with Poe--could reproduce these conversations in such precise and profuse detail years later.)

When Chivers next saw Poe, two days later, he teased his companion about his "love-scrape" with the anonymous Providence lady. Poe, now sober, was taken much aback and frostily denied being involved in an "amour" with a woman in Providence or anywhere else in the world. Bizarrely, however, he soon afterwards volunteered to Chivers the information that "some body" (the 1903 printing read, "some lady") had written asking him to come to Providence, and he felt obligated to go. He then borrowed money from Chivers for his journey, and departed, again begging Chivers not to say anything to Virginia Poe or Maria Clemm about his plans. (One wonders what Poe himself could conceivably have told those ladies to explain his absence.)

While acknowledging that this squalid little tale has a mighty strange ring to it, few Poe biographers have dared to deeply question it, although it has serious flaws, even aside from the dubious authenticity of the manuscript itself:

First, the chronology makes no sense. Supposedly, Poe, in his drunken fit, tells Chivers that the Providence siren asked him to visit her that afternoon. Several days later, Poe again tells Chivers (whom he had evidently decided to make his sole confidante on the matter) that "some body" had written, asking him to go to Providence.

Second, according to this story, Poe, cold sober, learns from Chivers that he had been drunkenly drivelling to him about a "love-scrape" with a woman in Providence--a claim he indignantly denied. But then, the next time he sees Chivers, he goes out of his way to tell him that someone had summoned him to that very city--a summons, he made it clear, (obviously thinking he had hitherto failed to sufficiently incriminate himself to Chivers,) that needed to be kept secret from his wife and mother-in-law. I grant you that Poe often had his own strange way of doing things. Even so, does it make any sense whatsoever that the man would --particularly when he was sober and already aware that he had, while intoxicated, told Chivers way too much--voluntarily confide all this to him? Particularly since he kept stressing his anxiety to keep it all from his family? And that, as chatty and self-destructively revealing as Poe was to Chivers about all this, nobody else in the world--including people who knew Poe much better than Chivers did--gave any sign of knowing anything about this "amour?"

Third, Frances S. Osgood, who is assumed to be the painter's wife in question, was, in truth, in Providence around this time. (She knew many people there, and spent much time in the city.) However, Poe biographer Mary E. Phillips stated that her husband Samuel was there as well, executing portrait commissions. I do not know Phillips' source for this claim, but it is certainly credible. Be that as it may, a letter written to Frances by her friend Hiram Fuller indicates that during this Providence visit of hers, she was staying with her friends Mr. and Mrs. Henry Anthony. That alone makes it unlikely that she was conducting any sort of extramarital dalliance there.

Fourth, Poe himself, in his published "Reply to Thomas Dunn English," stated that he briefly left New York in the beginning of July, in order to "procure evidence" regarding charges of forgery that had been repeated against him by an ironworks merchant named Edward Thomas. (These forgery charges are themselves a strange, cloudy story that will be dealt with later.) Frances Osgood was the one who told Poe about these forgery charges (Thomas was a stranger to Poe, but a long-time friend of Osgood and her husband.) When he heard what Thomas had said, Poe intended to sue him, so it was logical that he needed to interview Osgood in person about the slander. At the time in question, Poe was absorbed in dreams of litigation, not love. (In an August 1845 issue of the "Broadway Journal," Poe mentioned a "recent" trip to Boston. It is not clear if this was the journey to "procure evidence," or if he traveled there for another, unknown reason. If he did travel to Boston, not Providence, early in July, that would obviously do critical damage to the credibility of the "Life of Poe" anecdote.)

In short, if Poe said anything resembling the now-famous "amour" quip, it actually reads more like drunken, rather cruel (to the Providence lady in particular,) humor--the kind that humiliates the jokester once the alcohol wears off--than a case of in vino veritas. It is noteworthy that Poe's most vicious calumniators--such as Thomas Dunn English, Charles F. Briggs, and Rufus Griswold--never questioned Poe's fidelity to his wife. Truly, they called him every foul thing under the sun except an adulterer. (English and Briggs even went out of their way to state that Poe's relations with the women who surrounded him were platonic.) However, the history of the "Chivers' Life of Poe" is so sketchy and suspicious that the strong possibility that it is simply a fraud, based on a few facts that were already easily available, cannot be ignored. Even if it is not--if it truly is the fragmentary remainder of a lost manuscript written by an mentally unstable man with a grudge against Poe for having supposedly plagiarized from him, a manuscript that mysteriously came to light only many years after the author's death--this work has gotten far more attention and credibility than it deserves.

And on that note...have a great Labor Day weekend, kids. Next week, we delve into the saga of Elizabeth Ellet and Frances Osgood, the Pen Pals From Hell.

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