Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Amazing Mr. Eveleth

George W. Eveleth and Edgar Allan PoeIn December of 1845, a Maine medical student named George W. Eveleth wrote to Edgar Allan Poe requesting a subscription to the "Broadway Journal." This proved to be the beginning of the strangest and most interesting correspondence of Poe's life. For reasons known best to himself, Poe allowed, even encouraged, this weird, highly inquisitive, blunt young man (Eveleth was probably born in February 1819,) to interest himself in every aspect of Poe's life. Eveleth did not so much correspond with Poe as interview him, peppering the writer with increasingly pointed and intimate questions. Poe--normally the most secretive and standoffish of men--responded with a most unusual willingness, seeming to rather enjoy his eccentric admirer's insatiable curiosity, even his occasional rudeness, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the pair never met, or even expressed any concrete plans to do so.

After Poe's death in 1849, Eveleth's involvement in his story only intensified. He sent numerous letters to Poe's friends, enemies, relatives, and biographers, all written--in handwriting eerily like that of his "especial favorite"--with the same unnervingly omniscient, mocking, commanding, and intrusive tone.

He initiated a lengthy correspondence with Poe's quasi-fiancee, Sarah Helen Whitman, by accusing her of being aware that Poe faked his own death, and continued it by casually discoursing to her about various esoteric and scientific matters, in a way that left her both impressed and deeply baffled. He wrote to Rufus W. Griswold in the same strangely familiar way, referring to Poe's alleged demise as merely the last and greatest of his hoaxes. Before and after John H. Ingram's biography of Poe was published, Eveleth spent years sending him letters and postcards explaining in detail all the errors and misconceptions he found in Ingram's work. While preparing his own book about Poe, George Woodberry was also treated to unsolicited lectures from Eveleth, who conducted a fruitless campaign to persuade him that Griswold had been a shameless liar and forger. Eveleth's comments about Poe all followed the same curious theme: While aggressively defending Poe's character against all comers (including on the issue of Poe's drinking, which Eveleth felt was greatly exaggerated,) he simultaneously seemed to believe not only that Poe knew that he would be slandered after his death, but that--for unstated reasons--he had planned it that way. In the years following Poe's death, Eveleth seemed to be everywhere...and nowhere. There is no record of anyone ever meeting this highly peculiar, self-appointed champion of Poe's in person.

Sometimes under his own name or initials, but most often using pseudonyms or no name at all, Eveleth wrote numerous articles and letters to the editor that appeared in various periodicals. (Eveleth commented to Ingram on his desire for anonymity, stating, "I have my reasons," without deigning to explain what these reasons were.) Some of his published writings dealt with various scientific topics (he had a particular fascination with Poe's "Eureka,") others with Poe the man. (A good example of Eveleth's enigmatic, abrasive style can be found here.) Perhaps the strangest of them all was a brief, unsigned article entitled "Familiar Letters to My Relations" that appeared in the "United States Magazine" in 1856. In it, he addressed Mrs. Whitman (whom he called "Neleh,") about her fanciful belief that she and Poe had a distant blood relationship with these words:
"Well, taking these tracings into connection with my strong literary affinity with Poe (herein I have reference, not to any ability of my own; but to the fact simply that the natural tendency of my mind is into trains of thinking similar to Poe's) saying nothing of the resemblances of my chirography and style to his chirography and style, have I not made out my case--namely, the case that there is some blood relationship between the family of Poe, therefore between you and myself?"

We know very little about Eveleth's life apart from his written words. He is said to have been trained as a homeopath. He served a stint in the Union army during the Civil War. (His military service was notable mostly for the hilariously rude letters he was constantly writing to his superiors.) By the 1880s, Eveleth had relocated to Denver, Colorado, where records show he married a woman named Rosannan Davies (or Davis) who died in 1898. This would be his only known marriage. Eveleth died in Denver on September 29, 1908.

George Washington Eveleth has long held a special place in my esteem, as the one person I have ever encountered who could out-weird Poe himself.

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