Monday, August 31, 2009

Broadway Journal, R.I.P.

On January 2, 1846, Cornelia Walter, editor of the "Boston Transcript" (who had been conducting a public feud with Poe for several months,) published an odd little poem celebrating the recent demise of Poe's publication, the "Broadway Journal":

"To trust in friends is but so so,
Especially when cash is low;
The Broadway Journal's proved 'no go'--
Friends would not pay the pen of Poe."

This poem, which seems to gleefully hint at dirty work having been played against her antagonist, makes an interesting partner to a letter Poe himself wrote to Fitz-Greene Halleck on December 1, 1845:

"On the part of one or two persons who are much imbittered [sic] against me, there is a deliberate attempt now being made to involve me in ruin, by destroying the "Broadway Journal." I could easily frustrate them, but for my total want of money, and of the necessary time in which to procure it: the knowledge of this has given my enemies the opportunities desired."

I've long suspected that if we had a complete and accurate account of the machinations that took place behind the scenes of the "Broadway Journal," it would tell quite a tale. This is just idle speculation on my part, but I have also wondered if these machinations had any link to the famous feud/scandal involving the Poes with Elizabeth Ellet, Frances S. Osgood, and Thomas Dunn English (who had his own link to the "Broadway Journal through his business partner, Thomas Lane.) The fact that this scandal--and we still do not know for sure exactly what it was--had its nuclear explosion in late January of 1846, just days after the "Broadway Journal" folded, seems a bit too coincidental.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Little-Known Comment About Poe's Death

Frances Sargent Osgood
Aside from some self-serving, self-glorifying, and arguably dishonest reminiscences of her acquaintance with Edgar Allan Poe that appeared in December 1849 in a magazine entitled "Saroni's Musical Times," (and later republished by Rufus W. Griswold in his Poe memoir,) we have only one reference from Frances S. Osgood about the death of Poe. It is in a brief letter (now in the New York Public Library) she wrote sometime in October 1849 to someone she identifies on the envelope only as "my sister May." (The note was evidently hand-delivered.) In between inconsequential news of her activities, she breezily comments:

"I am well but very sad--for I have just heard of the sudden death in Richmond [sic] of the friend of whom I spoke to you Saturday--the author of the Raven! Half an hour before I heard of his death I was reading with much emotion a late critique of his upon my poems--a most kind and beautiful one. Poor fellow! And he was just about to be married so happily too!"

(One wonders if this "late critique" was the one where Poe commented about Osgood's poems that "her versification is sometimes exceedingly good, but more frequently feeble," and, regarding her verse-drama, "Elfrida," that she had "unquestionably failed in writing a good play." That would certainly arouse "much emotion.") There is nothing in this note to indicate Osgood was particularly grief-stricken over the death of a man who had, of course, refused to have any contact with her for nearly four years. Her notion that Poe died in Richmond, instead of Baltimore, is a characteristically daft touch.

The identity of "sister May" is uncertain. It has been presumed she was Osgood's sister Martha, but that seems impossible. Aside from the fact that "May" is an unlikely nickname for "Martha," the note is obviously addressed to a child, and it invites "May" to come see Osgood "after school."Ellen and May Osgood
Ellen and May Osgood

Osgood's nine-year-old daughter May Vincent was then enrolled in a fashionable New York City boarding school (it is interesting that the girl lived at this school, instead of at home, even though her mother was then living in the same city.) Also, the letter was not sent through the post, which would have been the case if Osgood was writing to her sister Martha in Boston. It is most likely that the note was addressed to her daughter. If so, the fact that she called the girl "sister" and signed the note "your own Fanny," casts a peculiar light on Osgood as a mother. Her lack of maternal instinct was evidently well-known in her circle. Even her literary patron Rufus W. Griswold admitted she was "not domestic." Still more telling is a published quote from Elizabeth Oakes Smith:

" is the face of Fannie Osgood, oriental, not Madonna-like; her soft brown eyes beamed upon you as if conscious of their loneliness; but I never could bear to think of her as a mother. She was so fragile, so dependent, so utterly impracticable, that maternity looked distorted upon her..." Regarding "Fannie's" daughters, Smith added that Osgood "did not mean to neglect them..." Chillingly, Smith went on to say that, for their sakes, she was relieved when Osgood's "delicately organized" (i.e., neurotic) daughters Ellen and May died the year after their mother passed away.

Incidentally, the above quote, as well as Osgood's portraits, confirm that her eyes were brown. Why Poe, in his description of her in "The Literati of New York City," said her eyes were grey is anyone's guess. Was it a subtle form of insult? Or did he simply not know her well enough to be able to correctly recall the color of her eyes?

(Images: New York Public Library, Wikipedia)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus W. Griswold
"I may say, however, that Griswold's biography of Poe was (not to mince words) a malicious libel, that he knew this when he printed it. As I told Mr. Griswold this, to his face, I feel no hesitation in stating it to you. The truth is that Griswold hated Poe, but also feared him; however this libel on Poe was kept back till the latter's death. It is, I suppose, what Griswold meant, when he told me once, 'If I survive Poe, I've a rod in pickle for him.' For Griswold was a coward, among other things, and certainly not restrained by any high sense of honor."
-Charles Jacobs Peterson, who had worked with both Edgar Poe and Rufus Griswold on "Graham's Magazine," in a letter to John H. Ingram, March 3, 1880.
(A note: "rod in pickle" was a rather quaint old expression simply meaning that Griswold had a revenge lying in wait for Poe.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fanny Osgood Writes Home to Mom

Deposited in Providence R.I.'s Brown University is a very intriguing letter written by Frances S. Osgood to her mother, Mary Ingersoll Locke. (Incidentally, the name of her mother has been erroneously given as Martha J. Locke, which was actually the name of one of Osgood's sisters.)

The letter, dated April 23, 1849, is extremely mutilated. Someone (when this was done is unknown) tore most of the first page away, leaving us with only a fragmentary story. What remains, however, hints at dark doings. Although Poe is not a subject in the letter, it gives a peep into the ugly and Byzantine maneuverings of the literary circles surrounding him.

The surviving portions of the letter feature Osgood's railings against "the Whelpleys." (Evidently James D. Whelpley, the editor of the "American Whig Review," and his wife Anna--who happened to be Osgood's niece.) According to Osgood, her niece and her husband had been spreading "wicked calumnies" about her. The exact nature of the "calumnies" is not clear, but they clearly had to do with Osgood's very close relationship with Rufus W. Griswold, as at one point Osgood complained that she had intended to buy or rent a house and have Griswold board with her to share the expenses, "but after all this talk I could not of course take him." (Her husband, Samuel, was then seeking his fortune in the California gold rush.) I suspect Osgood's motives in selecting Griswold, of all people, as a housemate were basically innocent. She would hardly have revealed her plans to her own mother if they were not, and, in any case, Osgood was too childishly self-absorbed and too fond of living in her own fairyland fantasy-world to be likely to take a great interest in sex. However, Osgood's obvious obliviousness to how this would look to the world speaks volumes about her lack of sense.

Osgood also had bitter words about her youngest sister Elizabeth and her husband, Henry Harrington. She indicated that they had expressed skepticism about her version of "the Whelpley affair," and stated that she will never visit them again until they agree to believe "implicitly every word I have said" about the scandal. (The idea that her own sister and brother-in-law expressed "a doubt about my veracity" regarding what were obviously ugly charges made against her by her niece and her husband gives a curious picture of Osgood's family life.)

The main missing portion of the letter deals with Osgood's discussion of a certain man. His name--except for a portion of the first letter of it--has been torn away from the letter, but from the context of the letter's previous lines--more about the Whelpleys and how "shamefully" they had behaved, while she herself had acted with "perfect [word missing] throughout," the man was probably Griswold. She said that "they" (whose identities are not revealed in the surviving parts of the letter) "know all about poor [name missing here] and smile as all sensible and pure-minded people do--at the false reports to which his fits of insanity have given currency--not only about me but every woman who has been kind..."

And there her story ends, for our phantom editor who mutilated the letter clearly did not want us to know the rest. All that is clear is that, in a scandal having nothing to do with her famous association with Poe, Osgood's own relations were spreading--and believing--some sort of unsavory stories involving her and Griswold, who was very likely the man Osgood casually described as subject to "fits of insanity," and who evidently had many unpleasant stories told about his relations with other women, as well. (According to Elizabeth F. Ellet, Griswold was in the habit of boasting about his supposed romantic conquests among the ladies of his acquaintance.) The Roman Emperors depicted in "I, Claudius" had nothing on the nineteenth-century New York Literati.

I would dearly like to know what the rest of this document contained. I would also be pleased to discover who bowdlerized this missive, and why. And for that matter, who wanted this letter--the only letter from Osgood to her mother extant--available for public study?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Quote of the Day

maria clemm virginia poe edgar allan poe
"Eddie finished Virginia's education himself, and, I assure you, she was highly cultivated. She was an excellent linguist, and a perfect musician, and she was so very beautiful. How often has Eddie said: I see no one so dignified and so beautiful as my sweet little wife. And oh! how pure and beautiful she was even to the last."
- Maria Clemm, Poe's aunt/mother-in-law, in a letter to her relative Neilson Poe, August 19, 1860

For some strange reason, the few Poe biographies I've seen that have included this quote all leave off the word "dignified" to describe Virginia. I regret that, because--whether or not Mrs. Clemm quoted Edgar accurately--I find that word revealing. It not only gives us a view of Virginia decidedly different from the vapid "child-wife" image found in most of the writings about Poe, but it gives a hint of what Poe really sought in a woman. Fanny Osgood, "Annie" Richmond, Marie Louise Shew, Sarah Helen Whitman, and all these other peculiar women Poe supposedly admired--well, "dignified," they were not.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Mystery of Anna Blackwell

Sarah Helen Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe
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?

Monday, August 24, 2009

More About the Osgood Valentine

Edgar Allan Poe Valentine to Frances Sargent OsgoodIn March of 1849, Poe republished his 1846 Valentine poem to Frances Osgood. He rewrote the poem--an acrostic containing her name--correcting the earlier version's misspelling of "Sargent." This necessitated a complete revision of the latter half of the poem, and in doing so Poe did a very curious thing. The last few lines of the 1849 poem refers to Osgood's "well-known name" and says of it:

"Its letters, although naturally lying--
Like the knight Pinto (Mendez Ferdinando)--
Still form a synonym for truth. Cease trying!
You will not read the riddle though you do the best you can do."

Ferdinando Mendez Pinto was a sixteenth-century traveler who was regarded as a famous teller of lies. His name, in fact, became so associated with falsehoods that the saying was that he only told the truth when he admitted to being a liar--only by confessing his many tall tales did his name become a "synonym for truth." Interestingly, Poe's enemy Charles Briggs used the pseudonym "Ferdinand Mendoza Pinto," to write a series of columns for a New York paper--a pen name Poe dryly described as "apt."

In other words, by writing that Frances Osgood's name, like Pinto's, was a "synonym for truth," he was publicly calling her a liar. Which casts a fascinating, and completely ignored, light on their relations.

In Defense of Virginia Poe

Ferdinand: Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young.
Bosola: I think not so; her infelicity seem'd to have years too many.
-John Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi"

I believe that Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe is an unjustly shadowy and undervalued figure in Poe's life. There are, unfortunately, no known letters from her, and only two brief notes to her from her husband survive, so vital information about her personality and relationship with Poe is scanty. The hostile testimony of Susan Talley Weiss (who never knew Virginia and whose knowledge about Poe is, to say the least, debatable,) and that alone, has given history a view of Virginia as a perennially childlike, insipid girl who was a pitifully inadequate mate for her brilliant husband. For some reason, it is Weiss' account of Virginia that has largely formed the reputation of Poe's wife. The little solid information we have about her, however, suggests that Weiss--as in so very much else--was a malicious liar. Virginia's one surviving composition--an 1846 acrostic Valentine poem to Poe, containing his name--is written in a elegant, sophisticated hand, and while it is not a technically polished poem, it conveys both intelligence and sensitivity:
Ever with thee I wish to roam
Dearest my life is thine
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues
Love alone shall guide us when we are there--
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we'll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we'll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee--
Ever peaceful and blissful we'll be.
(Intriguingly, there is some reason to speculate that she may have been the actual author of the Valentine poem Poe addressed to Frances Sargent Osgood in that year. The earliest known manuscript of the poem, currently in Baltimore's Enoch Pratt library, appears to be in Virginia's writing, with Poe himself adding his merely his initials and the poem's title to the document.) The testimony of people who actually knew Virginia all describe a beautiful, cultured, charming, refined young woman who made a loving and loyal wife for her troubled husband. Many statements from friends of the pair, as well as Poe himself, indicate he loved her deeply--as a man, not merely as a "brother" as Weiss suggested--and from all accounts of her, there is no reason why he should have felt otherwise.Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe ValentineVirginia had a difficult life--she never knew anything but poverty, she became an invalid at nineteen, died a lingering, painful death before she was twenty-five, and she was married to one of the most unusual and trouble-plagued men of her time--but she seemed to have handled her lot with patience, unfailing good nature, and quiet courage. She deserves a better historical reputation that she has generally been granted.

The Fluttery Frances S. Osgood

Frances Sargent Osgood
In the 1830s and 1840s, Frances Sargent "Fanny" Osgood was a prolific and well-known magazine poet, but she is mainly remembered today for her controversial and debatable relationship with Edgar Allan Poe.

Osgood, a married woman of thirty-four with two young daughters, met Poe in March of 1845. (She later claimed he sought out the introduction, but a letter she wrote soon after their meeting seems to cast doubt on this story.) Osgood, an impetuous, rather infantile personality, who was--as Poe later ungallantly observed in print--"in no respect" beautiful--became immediately fascinated with Poe, who was then at the peak of his literary and social popularity. (It has been suggested--not unfairly--that Osgood's interest in promoting her own writing career had something to do with her very public infatuation with the influential writer and critic.) She soon commenced writing a series of gushy poems for Poe's magazine, the "Broadway Journal," that modern-day writers assume were addressed to him. (This is, however, purely supposition.) Poe responded to this alleged "literary courtship" by re-dedicating to her two rather bland poems he had published years earlier (a curious variation of "re-gifting,") and writing a Valentine poem to her where her middle name is misspelled and she is called "a dunce." (More on this odd poem later.)

It has often been claimed that Osgood was separated from her husband, a well-known portrait painter named Samuel Stillman Osgood, at the time she knew Poe. There is absolutely nothing to support this belief. Poe scholar Thomas O. Mabbott was the first to suggest they were separated during 1845, solely on the basis of a poem Mrs. Osgood published in late 1844, "Lower To the Level," where she chided a nameless "you" for neglecting her in favor of others. Since Mabbott's theory was published, other writers have repeated this claim as fact, evidently without bothering to examine whether there is any truth to the statement. The nature of Samuel Osgood's work led him to travel frequently to execute commissions, but not so much as a hint exists--even among the letters and memoirs of their gossipy and catty literary set--that the couple was ever estranged. Many letters written to Mrs. Osgood during this period indicate that she and her husband were often together. There is even a note of Fanny's to Samuel that is believed to have been written in May 1845--exactly when her presumed infatuation with Poe was at its height--where she addresses him as "my darling love," and goes on to say, "I have only a few minutes to say how dearly and fondly I love you." (This letter shows that either Fanny's assumed love for Poe was a complete fraud, or she was the biggest hypocrite and liar on two feet. In any case, it is clear evidence against an estrangement in her marriage.) Osgood's modern biographer, Mary De Jong, wound up admitting--with obvious reluctance, as she was eager to make as much hay out of Mrs. Osgood's relationship with Poe as possible--that there is no reason to believe that the Osgoods were ever estranged, or that either partner had been unfaithful.

It is not clear how much of a personal friendship she and Poe had. They evidently saw each other occasionally at New York's literary "salons," but Osgood spent much of 1845 away from New York City, and she herself later admitted that whatever relationship they had was largely through correspondence. (Her claim--made only after Poe's death--that his wife Virginia encouraged her to befriend him so that her influence would help keep him sober should be treated with the scorn it deserves.) The only letter between Poe and Osgood still in existence is a brief note believed to have been written by Poe to her in October 1845. It is a courtly, but extremely formal letter, addressing her as "My Dear Madam." He thanks her for the "sweet poem" she sent him for the "Broadway Journal," as well as the words of "flattery" which accompanied it, and says that the demands of his work compel him to turn down a social invitation from her until later. Poe biographer Sidney P. Moss commented that Poe addressed Osgood "gingerly" in this note. It certainly does not indicate Poe felt any real personal warmth towards her.

A still-mysterious scandal erupted around the two early in 1846. All we know for certain is that, in January of that year, Virginia Poe confronted Elizabeth Ellet (another "literary lady" with designs on Poe) with a letter written by Osgood. This letter (the contents of which are unknown) evidently contained some damaging information about Ellet (that lady later described the letter as containing "fearful paragraphs" that "haunted me day and night like a terrifying spectre.") This led to Ellet feuding with the Poes and Osgood, with Poe himself claiming to possess letters Ellet had written of an unspecified but clearly damaging nature. (The version of the scandal that Sarah Helen Whitman later claimed to have heard--that Osgood had used Ellet as a go-between to retrieve presumably indiscreet letters she had written to Poe--is universally accepted by historians, but there is no evidence whatsoever for this in contemporary references to the feud.) Both Anne Lynch and Elizabeth Oakes Smith--two other members of New York literary circles--later implied that Ellet and Osgood had gotten into a jealous rivalry for Poe's attentions, and their mutual plotting against each other caused Poe himself to unwittingly get caught in the crossfire. That seems as much as we'll ever learn for certain about the whole ugly business.

Whatever the truth was about the incident, Poe permanently broke off all contact with Osgood afterwards (a letter he later allegedly wrote to Sarah Helen Whitman commented enigmatically that the "one thing he could not forgive Mrs. Osgood was her reception of Mrs. Ellet.") She, however, continued to publish yearning, if ambiguous, poems that have been thought to have been directed to him, rather in the manner of a modern-day "obsessed fan." (In actuality, these poems follow the same trite lost-love themes she used throughout her entire career. Kenneth Silverman was even fooled into assuming a poem she had published long before she met Poe was one she wrote about the end of their relationship!) Osgood also tried to extricate herself from the uproar by trying to persuade Ellet that the letter Virginia had shown her was a forgery devised by Poe himself. (This can be seen as a sign of how insincere her loyalty and devotion to Poe truly was.)

Her third daughter, Fanny Fay, was born soon afterwards, in June 1846. A writer named John Evangelist Walsh published a very strange book in 1980, "Plumes in the Dust," arguing that Poe was this child's father. He presented no evidence whatsoever for this startling theory, and no serious Poe scholar gives the idea any credibility. Indeed, Walsh ignores (I can only assume deliberately) a letter written to Mrs. Osgood in late September 1845--just at the time that Fanny Fay would have been conceived. This letter suggested that Frances was then in Providence, R.I.--with her husband.

Soon after the Ellet controversy, Osgood's health, which was always poor, began to decline further, and she died of tuberculosis less than a year after Poe's demise. Eerily, her two surviving daughters (Fanny Fay died in 1847) both followed her to the grave the year after her death.

Osgood's letters and published writings reveal her to have been a deeply unhappy, neurotic character who hid her private torments under a histrionic, almost hysterical, show of outer childlike gaiety. Her best poetry showed a certain melodic talent, and occasional flashes of wit, but her prose works are poorly-written, psychologically peculiar, and uninteresting, and all are cliche-ridden and superficial. It is an irony she would not have appreciated that if it was not for her literary pursuit of Poe--a pursuit that brought her nothing but personal trouble--she would be almost forgotten today.

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.

A Brief Word of Explanation...

Edgar Allan Poe blog
During the years I've spent reading about and researching Edgar Allan Poe, I've become increasingly appalled at the often low level of Poe scholarship. (I honestly have never seen any other historical figure who has been as ill-served by his or her biographers as poor old Edgar.) I've also come across a number of odd tidbits of information about him that are usually either ignored or misrepresented, that I hope might be of some interest to...the two or three people who might eventually stumble across this pitiful little blog. So here I am.

And away we go...