Thursday, October 29, 2009

Poe's Weird Women (Part Four) - Eliza White

The Loves of Edgar Allan PoeWith the sole exception of his marriage to Virginia Clemm, all of Edgar Allan Poe's many reputed romantic relationships with women have a strangely unreal, undocumented, unconvincing, and ephemeral quality. One of the most notable examples is his supposed flirtation with Elizabeth "Eliza" or "Lizzie" White. Poe met her in 1835, when he went to work on the "Southern Literary Messenger," the Richmond publication owned by her father, Thomas W. White. We know nothing certain about what--if any--relationship he had then with the fifteen-year-old Eliza. (Poe scholar J.H. Whitty claimed she was 23 when she met Poe, but records prove she was born in 1820.) It has been suggested that a poem Poe published in the September 1835 "Messenger," "Lines Written in an Album," which is addressed to an "Eliza," was written for Miss White, but that is highly unlikely. The poem appeared in print after Poe had been in Richmond only a few weeks, so it's almost certain the innocuous little verse was composed while he was still in Baltimore. (It has also been claimed--and generally accepted--that Poe originally wrote the poem for his cousin Elizabeth Herring, and Whitty had a notion that it was written with Virginia Eliza Clemm in mind, but both these statements are based on dubious or nonexistent evidence. Chances are Poe simply plucked the name, "Eliza" from thin air.)

Nearly everything we are told about their relationship originated with Elizabeth Oakes Smith (it's strange how the same few names keep popping up in Poe legend again and again,) who claimed to be a friend of the White family. After Poe died, she evidently told any number of people--including John Ingram and her friend Sarah Helen Whitman--that if Poe had lived, he would have married Eliza. (Or, as Smith called her, "Lizzie.") She did not explain where this left Whitman and Sarah Elmira Shelton. Smith also told Ingram that Maria Clemm had pressured Poe to marry Virginia in order to "save" him from "Lizzie," who was, according to Mrs. Smith, willful, capricious, and addicted to morphine. (After all, what interest could Poe have had in marrying Virginia Clemm, who was, according to everyone who knew her, lovely, intelligent, sweet-natured, and who adored him? Good Lord, fate worse than being broken on the wheel.) It is notable, however, that despite Smith's fondness for publishing "autobiographic" articles that consisted of whatever stray dirt she could rake up about her contemporaries, she never dared to put any of this in print. It is also notable that she simultaneously expressed her belief that after Virginia's death, Poe had an antipathy towards the idea of remarriage. She seemed not to notice the obvious incongruity.

Smith's stories have more holes than a sieve factory. She was known as an irrepressible and irresponsible gossipmonger (she was also responsible for disseminating a garbled and extremely lurid version of the "Ellet letters" incident, where Poe supposedly died as the result of a beating administered in New York by thugs hired by a woman with whom he had quarreled and whose letters he had refused to return.) Mrs. Whitman--herself no stranger to mythomania--told Ingram frankly that Smith scarcely knew the first thing about Poe, and simply invented virtually everything she ever wrote about him. Smith herself conceded to Ingram that while "Lizzie" was in love with Poe, and hoped to eventually marry him, she had never seen the poet treat Miss White with anything other than his habitual dignified courtesy. Small wonder that Ingram quickly found himself irritably dismissing Smith as a completely worthless source.

The fable that Poe may have wanted to marry Eliza, rather than Virginia, is demolished by the famous letter he wrote to Mrs. Clemm in August 1835, where he expressed his deep love for Virginia, and indicated that he already saw himself as virtually engaged to her. (And, of course, if he and Virginia were, as many believe, privately married after they took out a marriage license on September 22, 1835, that settles the issue altogether.)

The indefatigable Susan Talley Weiss later picked up Smith's extravaganzas about Eliza and Poe and put her own deranged spin on them. She reiterated the notion that Poe had intended to marry Miss White, rather than Virginia, but as was usual with her, she never managed to get her stories straight. At one point, she indicated that it was Maria Clemm's insistence that Poe wed her daughter that ended his budding romance with Eliza. Elsewhere, she claimed that Poe had actually been engaged to Miss White, but Poe's "dissipation" forced her to break off the match.

One seeks in vain for evidence proving any of this. Poe's only recorded references to Eliza are two brief, casual asides in letters written to Mrs. Clemm during his 1849 Richmond visit. They do nothing to indicate he was romantically interested in her, or ever had been. We have a number of Thomas White's letters which mention both Eliza and Poe. They contain no hint of any sort of personal relationship between his young daughter and his assistant. In the late 1850s, Sarah Helen Whitman wrote Mrs. Clemm asking if there had ever been a romance between Eliza and Edgar. Poe's aunt responded that Eliza had visited them at Fordham before and after Virginia's death. She said they had all esteemed Miss White as a family friend, but Poe's feelings for her had never gone further than that. (Eliza's visits to them while his wife was still alive, as well as the fact that she attended Poe's Richmond marriage to Virginia substantiates this statement.) J.H. Whitty wrote that Eliza's sister, Sarah Bernard, and John Fergusson, a "Messenger" employee intimate with the White family, both told him that there had never been anything romantic between Poe and Eliza. Whitty can never be trusted as a source, but his testimony is at least consistent with all available reliable evidence.

Most striking of all is the fact that we do not have one word about Poe from Miss White herself. This is particularly curious, as in the 1850s White, in an effort to escape her poorly-paying job as a music teacher (which she bitterly described as "drudgery,") tried launching a career giving public readings from Shakespeare and other poets (not Poe, however.) She publicized herself as the daughter of the founder of the "Southern Literary Messenger." If she had any interesting anecdotes or reminiscences of the "SLM's" most famous employee, Edgar Allan Poe, surely she would have made use of them by incorporating them in her readings, or by giving newspaper interviews, in her effort to attract audiences.

Her hopes of establishing herself as a professional "reader" came to nothing (one contemporary review gently hinted that her ambitions outstripped her abilities,) and she was forced to return to her hated "drudgery." She was teaching music in Richmond until at least 1880. Whitty claimed White died in 1888, but as he misstated her birth year, I'm doubtful he got the time of her death right. I have yet to uncover any valid record of when she died, or where she is buried. (Whitty stated she was buried in Richmond's Shockoe Hill Cemetery, but records of that burial place do not list her name.) Sadly, the death of an impoverished elderly spinster, who was virtually alone in the world, would have received little notice.

Other than Mrs. Smith's questionable--and extremely unflattering--descriptions, we have little or no information about what sort of person Eliza White was. Her one extant letter (written as an application for a clerking job in Richmond during the Civil War,) her attempted career as a "reader," and the dreadful poetry she wrote for the "Messenger" all suggest a theatrical, rather affected personality, but there is too little evidence to know for sure. We do not even know what she looked like. No picture of her exists, and there is no reliable description of her appearance. A cousin of White's once stated that her chief claim to beauty was her light-blonde hair, which implied that she was otherwise not particularly attractive. (This same relative, significantly, could not offer any insight about Eliza's friendship with Poe, explaining that her cousin never mentioned the poet's name.)

Elizabeth W. White--whether or not she was infatuated with Poe, or was a drug addict, or indulged in "capricious" behavior--was definitely one of the most obscure, as well as among the most tenuous, of Poe's many Weird Women.

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