Monday, November 30, 2009

The Strange Case of Rosalie Poe

edgar allan poe sister rosalie poeThere is a tradition that Edgar Allan Poe's sister Rosalie was born on December 20, 1810, but there is no solid documentary evidence for this claim. All we know is that she was born long enough after the mysterious disappearance of her mother Eliza's husband, David Poe, for questions to arise about the child's paternity. It has even been claimed that David's sister, Maria Poe Clemm, maintained that Rosalie was not the true child of either David or Eliza Poe. Intriguingly, when Rosalie was a child, a wealthy resident of Richmond, Virginia, Joseph Gallego, died and left a will bequeathing the then enormous sum of 2,000 dollars for Rosalie's maintenance. She was the only charity bequest in his will to be so favored, leaving one to speculate whether the young orphan was more to him than just an object of sympathy.

After Eliza Poe's death in 1811, Rosalie was given a home by the Mackenzies, a prominent Richmond family, but there are conflicting accounts about whether she was treated as a member of the family or merely as a ward. All reports, however, agree that she grew into a "hopelessly dull" woman with a strange, rather off-putting manner, making her a peculiar contrast to her famous brother.

Rosalie and Edgar had a distant relationship. She herself wrote John Ingram that she was "a good size girl" before she even knew she had siblings--a remarkable statement considering they were raised in the same city. Her letter to Ingram made it clear that she could tell him very little about her brother, which is highly significant in light of the fact that Susan Talley Weiss claimed to have learned practically everything she wrote about Poe from Rosalie and the Mackenzies. Sarah Helen Whitman stated that Edgar told her his relationship with Rosalie was characterized by "a coolness or estrangement of long standing." This is substantiated by a rather startling letter Maria Clemm wrote to her Baltimore relative Neilson Poe soon after Edgar's death. She expressed her desire to have "my darling's trunk" sent to her, and also made clear her indignation at Rosalie's attempts to secure what little estate he left. "What right," Mrs. Clemm cried, "has Rose to anything belonging to him--he has not even written to her for more than two years, and she never has done anything for him except to speak ill of him..."

Rosalie led a comfortable and stable existence in the Mackenzie home until the Civil War left the family destitute. Thereafter, her story becomes pure pitable tragedy. The surviving members of her foster family having scattered, Rosalie, unable to cope with the loss of her happy pre-war life, made her way to her Poe relatives in Baltimore. They evidently soon grew tired of being burdened with her, and she was left on her own resources--a fate her intelligence, character, and upbringing left her completely unable to handle. She made attempts to find work as a housekeeper, and was said to walk the streets trying to sell pictures of Edgar to passerby. (She also made money selling ordinary household items as "Poe artifacts" once owned by her brother--items that, in truth, had no connection to him at all. Poe scholar John Carl Miller cautioned, "Any Poe-association artifact must now be suspect" if Rosalie ever any connection to it.) Her main source of support, however, was "the kindness of strangers," motivated to assist her by admiration for her celebrated sibling.

Rosalie was eventually placed in a charity home in Washington, D.C., where she died in 1874, of what was described as "inflammation of the stomach." Curiously, her tombstone gives her year of birth as 1812--the year after Eliza Poe's death.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Poe/Osgood Conundrum

Frances Sargent Osgood Edgar Allan PoeThe evidence we have that, after they permanently parted ways at the beginning of 1846, Edgar Allan Poe entertained friendly personal, as apart from professional, feelings toward Frances S. Osgood comes from the curious letters he allegedly sent Sarah Whitman and "Annie" Richmond. Even more curiously, the favorable references to Osgood in these letters are strangely confused.

We know that after Poe made his abrupt departure from New York and her life, Osgood made indirect attempts to contact him. In April 1846, her good friend Mary Hewitt wrote Poe a very odd letter. In this message, she admitted that she didn't know if it would even reach him, as she, along with everyone else in New York (including Osgood) had no idea where he was. She made a pointed reference to Osgood, saying how they both often spoke of him and his "dear wife," adding somewhat ominously, "you know the power of the femenine [sic] organ of laudation, as well as its opposite." Hewitt said she, Osgood, and the other "Bluestockings" were anxious to have the Poes rejoin their midst. Her letter was an obvious attempt--likely initiated by Osgood--to "smoke Poe out" and learn his whereabouts. There is no evidence Poe answered her.

About this same time, Osgood received a letter from writer John Neal's daughter Mary. The girl asked Osgood for a lock of her hair to add to her collection of such trophies from literary celebrities. Osgood replied not only with the requested item, but, bizarrely, suggested Miss Neal might like some hair from Edgar Allan Poe as well. Neal wrote back a pleased, if surprised assent, enclosing a note to Poe for Osgood to forward to him. Obviously, Osgood was using Neal to provide herself with an excuse to write Poe. The interesting thing is that Poe failed to respond to Neal's request. In a letter written months later to his cousin Mary Gove, John Neal indicated that he had not heard anything from Poe for some years. If Poe actually read Miss Neal's note, surely his normal gallantry towards women--particularly the daughter of an old friend--would have compelled him to reply. In other words, he was not even aware of Neal's query. How is this possible? It strongly suggests that when Osgood forwarded Neal's note, enclosed in one of her own, Poe recognized her distinctive manic scrawl on the envelope...and threw it away unread.

Sarah Helen Whitman related a particularly strange--and desperate--effort of Osgood's to reach out to the ever-elusive poet. Whitman claimed that sometime late in 1848, Osgood, having heard rumors of her engagement to Poe, traveled to Providence to interrogate her. Whitman--who was aware Osgood had no contact "written or otherwise" with Poe since the uproar involving Elizabeth Ellet--described her as anxious for Whitman to pass on to Poe everything she was saying to Whitman about him. Whitman was not specific about the content of these messages, except that they were extremely flattering and conciliatory. Why would Osgood use another woman--particularly his reputed fiancee--as a conduit for her own verbal bouquets? The obvious answer is that she knew he would refuse to hear these sentiments directly from herself. (Whitman stated that she obeyed this request--although she was offended by the effrontery of using her as a messenger service for Osgood's overtures--but she did not indicate what reaction, if any, Poe had. In fact, when describing the incident in later years, Whitman was forced to merely speculate about what Poe's feelings toward Osgood may have been, indicating that she simply did not know how he regarded her. Again, this brings into question the validity of the positive references to Osgood found in the letters Poe supposedly wrote Whitman. It also makes one wonder how well Whitman and Poe truly knew each other.)

And, of course, Osgood published a number of poems that have been theorized as making references to her relationship with Poe, although that has never been proven. The most interesting of the lot appeared in "Godey's Lady's Book" in May 1847, under the pseudonym of "Anna F. Allan." Entitled simply "To - - -," the verses begin:
"Since thou art lost to me on earth forever--
Since never more my lips may breathe thy name--
Since 'tis thy will that I not e'er endeavor
To learn where beats and burns that heart of flame..."

(Assuming this poem had anything to do with Poe--which, remember, may well not have been the case--it again showed Osgood's awareness that Poe wanted nothing more to do with her.) In January 1849 the "American Metropolitan" published her poem "Lines From an Unpublished Drama," (which I shall deal with in detail later,) which was said to be addressed to Poe. "Lines" is simply a desperate plea for him to forgive, or at least notice her. She undoubtedly made other attempts to reach out to him of which we know nothing. If so, they also were futile. Even Rufus Griswold told Whitman, soon after Poe's death, that Osgood had not had any communication with the late poet in years.

Poe's cold non-response to these overtures simply does not match the statements about Osgood in the Whitman/Annie letters, which are themselves internally contradictory. One of the letters to Whitman gives a vague and garbled account of the evil machinations of Elizabeth Ellet. Osgood is described as Ellet's innocent dupe, until the last line of the passage, which states flatly, "You will now comprehend what I mean in saying that the only thing for which I found it impossible to forgive Mrs. O. was her reception of Mrs. E."

This, of course, makes no sense. If his esteemed friend Frances had simply been manipulated and betrayed by Ellet, why would Poe find it "impossible to forgive" her? And what in the world does "her reception of Mrs. E." imply? That Osgood somehow colluded with Poe's enemy? (We know that Osgood attempted to repudiate a letter she had written--a letter that Virginia Poe had used to confront Ellet--by telling Ellet the Poes had forged the missive. Did Poe become aware of this?) The documented actions of both Poe and Osgood prove that she did indeed do something that Poe found unforgivable (and he himself once described his "resentments" as "implacable")--but it is impossible to reconcile this fact with the kindly pro-Frances attitude expressed in the Whitman/Annie letters.

As Whitman herself would say, it is impossible, for many reasons, to find "Poe the man" in the correspondence she and Mrs. Richmond bestowed to history. The Osgood references are a perfect example of this peculiarity.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"The Bones of Annabel Lee"; a Curious Footnote to "The Mystery of Marie Roget"

"A sad thing it was, no doubt, very sad; but we can't mend it. Therefore let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer anything out of it for moral purposes, let us treat it ├Žsthetically, and see if it will turn to account in that way. "
-Thomas De Quincey, "On Murder, Considered As One of the Fine Arts"
On December 30, 1899, the "New York Evening Post" published a strange, almost impressionistic article entitled "The Bones of Annabel Lee." The author, who gave his name only as "J.P.M.," claimed that in 1846, while working as a messenger boy in New York City, he made several visits to Fordham to deliver manuscript proofs to Edgar Allan Poe.

His most vivid memories of these visits were the brief glimpses he caught of the dying Virginia Poe. "The recollection of her appearance is still vivid as of a picture of a saint seen long ago in a receding light," he wrote. "Her large dark eyes...affected me with something like a searching omnipresence..." "Poor Annabel Lee was doomed. They saw her slipping away softly and wonderingly, as if the mystery and inevitableness of it all had grown to be an abiding and pensive question." "J.P.M." also described an occasion when, while in the Fordham cottage, he and Poe overheard Virginia, who was in the next room, coughing. He remembered how her husband winced at the sound.Virginia Clemm Poe Edgar Poe Annabel LeeThe doomed young woman left such a haunting impression on "J.P.M.," that thereafter he, with "personal zest," sought out from his acquaintances in the literary world anything they knew personally about Poe and his wife. He said that those who had known the poet believed that "the tenderest part of his nature was to be found in the idealization of his child-wife. It is quite possible that that idealization was...not at all practical, or to her best material comfort. But there she was, an absolute antithesis to the actual world, which did not understand him and chafed and aggravated him beyond endurance..." Poe "would obtain special relief in obedience" to his fragile wife.

He closed by repeating William Gill's macabre anecdote (of which Gill seemed unaccountably proud) about retrieving Virginia's "few, thin, discolored bones" from her Fordham grave and keeping them in his bedroom. "J.P.M.," unaware of Gill's claims that he eventually brought his ghoulish bric-a-brac to Baltimore for reburial, added eerily, "I presume that the fragments of poor Annabel Lee are wandering about..."

Mid-way through his narrative, "J.P.M." abruptly switches from his dreamlike musings on Virginia Poe to a story involving her husband and another dead woman--Mary Rogers.

As fans of both Poe and true-crime literature know, Rogers worked as a shopgirl for a New York tobacconist, John Anderson. Her unsolved 1841 murder was later immortalized by Poe in his story "The Mystery of Marie Roget." Poe always intimated he had "inside information" about the murder, even that he knew the identity of the killer--or, the man responsible for what he told George Eveleth was "the accidental death arising from an attempt at abortion"--supposedly a naval officer from a family prominent enough to protect him. This has never been proven, and could well be just another example of Poe's fondness for--as we today would put it--messing with people's minds. On the other hand, the particular interest he took in what would seem to be a relatively unimportant "cold case" could be interpreted as a sign that he was aware of some hidden depths to Rogers' murder which are now lost to us. Poe's contemporaries found his attempts to play detective so notable that forty years after his death, when John Anderson's will was being contested, it was suggested during the court proceedings that the tobacconist had paid Poe to write "Marie Roget" in order to clear Anderson from any suspicion that he had a hand in the crime!Mystery of Marie RogetThat is, of course, a strange charge. But "J.P.M." related a story that, if it is at all to be trusted, is even stranger. He claimed to have heard this account directly from someone called only "the late tobacconist," but who was obviously Anderson. According to "J.P.M.," Poe called on Anderson sometime in 1846. The exact reason for his visit was not stated, but it had something to do with "Roget," which had been republished the previous year. Anderson then invited Poe to dinner at "the old Holt Hotel." The meal did not go well. According to Anderson, Poe and the poet William Ross Wallace, who was also dining with them, got into a violent quarrel over the Rogers case. Anderson claimed the incident left him with the impression of Poe as a young hothead who had allowed the dinner champagne to derange him.

Edgar Allan Poe and William Ross Wallace

"J.P.M." said he afterwards asked Wallace about the incident. Wallace essentially confirmed Anderson's account, but indicated that the tobacconist had misconstrued Poe's behavior. Poe was neither drunk nor violent, according to Wallace, but his nerves were badly strained as a result of his dying wife's desperate condition. When, at dinner, he perceived that Anderson was attempting to gain publicity for his business by capitalizing on his former shopgirl's death, Poe's disgust with him only blackened his mood further.

So, what really happened? Did Poe seek Anderson out after the publication of "Marie Roget?" If so, why? Did this dinner at the Holt Hotel truly take place? If it did, again, what was the purpose? And what cause could Poe and Wallace have to fight over the Rogers murder?

"Bones of Annabel Lee" could well be just another example of the journalistic fiction so common in the public press of the era. If there is any truth to it, however, it hints that the Mary Rogers murder may have been a far bigger story than even Poe dared to fully say.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Dark Side of Marie Shew Houghton

This link includes a biographical article on Marie Louise Shew Houghton, (the woman who is always extravagantly described as the Poe family's nurse/financial supporter/all-around savior,) that is quite an eye-opener. I had always pegged Mrs. Houghton as a kook of the first water. As I knew she was one of the water-cure cranks Edgar Allan Poe ridiculed, and a Fourierist to boot, (a group he also scorned,) I always questioned her true value to the Poes. However, jaded character though I am, I never guessed she was involved in what sound like extremely dodgy financial and property transactions. Or that she was likely a (rather inept) abortionist. Or that in 1849, she gave birth to a son whose father could have been one of three men, all of whom were living under the same roof with her at the time--her current husband, her future husband, and a wealthy older man who appears to have "kept" the whole lot of them. (Calm down--our Edgar wasn't in the running.) Or that, just to round things out, she was arrested for murder in 1876. The victim was a Mary Stanley, the mistress of the boy Houghton had in '49. (That son, Henry, by the way, had previously served time in Denver for being a swindler, an adulterer, and a mule thief.)

I looked up the newspaper articles dealing with the inquest into Stanley's death. All I can say is, that if the accounts of the inquest testimony are accurate, Houghton might--and let me just say might--not have been a murderer. (Stanley's death was finally ruled to have been from natural causes, but it sounds like Houghton had a strong motive to wish her dead, and it's clear that Marie Louise was guilty, at the very least, of some suspiciously incompetent nursing. Also, there was abundant testimony--which does not appear to have been disproved by the defense--showing that before her demise, Stanley told everyone within earshot that Mrs. Houghton was an evil woman who abused her and wanted her dead because Stanley "knew too much" about her family.) The inquest also revealed that Houghton expressed relief when Stanley died, as the pregnant woman was threatening to "swear her child"--that is, slap Houghton's son with the nineteenth-century version of a paternity suit. Whatever else Houghton may have been, she was indisputably the matriarch of one deeply creepy crowd. She comes off as a ministering angel with the bedside manner of Charles Manson.

I have always instinctively found something deeply unsettling about all we've been told about Houghton's dealings with the Poe household, (despite the fact that all his biographers paint her as virtually a saint) and I'm now beginning to see why. I'm quite serious: If it is true--and I pray it is not--that in her final days, Virginia Poe had this woman as her nurse, that is enough to chill my blood.


(Image: Chestofbooks.com)

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Fables of Fanny Osgood

"A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on."
-proverbial saying quoted by Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Frances Sargent Osgood and Edgar Allan PoeIn December 1849, the magazine "Saroni's Musical Times" published Frances S. Osgood's version of her acquaintance with the late Edgar Allan Poe. The next year, Rufus Griswold incorporated her story in his "memoir" of Poe, although, with his usual blithe contempt for veracity, he presented her reminiscences as having been written at his request, for his benefit.

Griswold described Osgood's account of Poe as a defense of her dead friend, something to be placed beside his own "harsher judgments." Her recollections have been, without exception, seen as such ever since. As with everything else concerning Poe, I believe the truth is not that simple--or that benign. Read carefully and objectively, Osgood's surface veneer of cloying sentimentality masks a strong undercurrent of malice, even anger.

She began her tale by directly addressing the magazine's proprietor, Herman Saroni: "You ask me, my friend, to write for you my reminiscences of Edgar Poe. For you, who knew and understood my affectionate interest in him, and my frank acknowledgment of that interest to all who had a claim upon my confidence, for you, I will willingly do so."

This is interesting. Mrs. Osgood stated that only those who "had a claim upon my confidence" knew of her "affectionate interest" in Poe. Poe's modern biographers never tire of asserting that all of Poe and Osgood's contemporaries did little but share salacious gossip about their relationship. Yet here, the lady herself revealed the fact that no one outside her inner circle of intimates was aware she even had so much as an "interest" in him!

Rather knocks the whole "scandalous public flirtation" legend straight into the dustbin, does it not?

She continued by saying that her "affectionate interest" was one that was shared by every woman who had known Poe. In the next lines, however, she stated that when Poe had been drinking, "he was in the habit of speaking disrespectfully of the ladies of his acquaintance." Osgood said she found this hard to believe of the man who, she asserted, thought so highly of her that during the year of their acquaintance, he often sought her out for "counsel and kindness." (A footnote: I'd love to see some documentation proving this claim.) Then, she revealed she certainly did believe this charge by stating sharply that if he made such remarks, "the wise and well informed knew how to regard, as they would the impetuous anger of a spoiled infant, balked of its capricious will, the equally harmless and unmeaning phrenzy of that stray child of Poetry and Passion."

After this outburst--where she displayed her aptitude for "counsel and kindness" by dismissing the late poet as a "spoiled infant" whose "phrenzy" was to be ignored, she continued: "For the few unwomanly and slander-loving gossips who have injured him and themselves only by repeating his ravings, when in such moods they have accepted his society, I have only to vouchsafe my wonder and my pity. They cannot surely harm the true and pure, who, reverencing his genius and pitying his misfortunes and his errors, endeavored, by their timely kindness and sympathy, to soothe his sad career."

The condescending and heavily italicized indignation Osgood demonstrated towards Poe's "ravings" and the "unwomanly" (she obviously had some particular woman or women in mind) "gossips" showed a real sense of personal affront. Obviously, the "ladies" Poe had somehow disparaged--"ladies," Osgood seethed defensively, who had only sought to offer him "kindness and sympathy" (so reminiscent of her earlier claim to have given him "kindness and counsel")--included herself.

In the sweet-and-sour manner that characterized her entire account, Osgood then gave a vague and saccharine glimpse of Poe in the sanctuary of his home ("wayward as a petted child,") and related an occasion when, answering an "affectionate summons" from Virginia Poe, she "hastened" to their lodgings. Upon arrival, she found Poe just completing his series on "The Literati of New York."
"'See,' said he, displaying in laughing triumph, several little rolls of narrow paper, (he always wrote thus for the press,) 'I am going to show you, by the difference of length in them, the different degrees of estimation in which I hold all you literary people.'"
Then, according to Osgood, he and Virginia playfully unrolled all his papers, until they laughingly opened one that stretched clear across the room.
"'And whose lengthened sweetness long drawn out is that?' said I. 'Hear her!' he cried, 'just as if her little vain heart didn't tell her it's herself!'"
Mrs. Osgood certainly presented a memorable image of Poe's domestic life--husband and wife both falling all over each other to trumpet their slavish adoration of the incomparable Frances Sargent Osgood. This nauseating little anecdote is a perfect example of her prose fiction at its most mawkish, but it is impossible to reconcile the idea of Poe behaving in this cutesy fashion with anything approaching reality. All one can say about Mrs. Osgood's efforts to place the Poes on her own infantile level is to cite Poe's own manuscript notes for his uncompleted book, "The Living Writers of America." He commented that the defect of the "Literati" series was "that the length of each article was naturally taken as the measure of the author's importance--this arose from [the] fragmentary character of the papers, which were rifacimentos."

After Osgood took care to establish Poe and Virginia's hero worship for her, she described her introduction to the poet at the Astor House, sometime in March 1845. In an unwittingly revealing line, she wrote that he greeted her "calmly, gravely, almost coldly." She claimed that, a few days before, Nathaniel P. Willis gave her a copy of "The Raven," saying the author wanted her opinion of it, and desired to meet her.Edgar Allan Poe Sartain engravingThere are several obvious improbabilities in this anecdote. First, at the time in question, "The Raven" had already been published and was the talk of New York. There is no possible way Osgood was unfamiliar with the poem. Second, although Poe had briefly worked for Willis on the "New York Mirror," he had by then left the paper. Willis himself later recorded that he and Poe never socialized, and that apart from occasional accidental meetings on the street, he only knew Poe from their mutual time in the "Mirror" offices. (And, of course, he never corroborated any of Osgood's story.) In fact, Willis stated in December of 1846 that he had had no contact at all with Poe for two years--i.e., since Poe left the "Mirror." Third, it would have been totally uncharacteristic for Poe to have done something so demeaning as begging introductions to married magazine poetesses whom he had no reason to meet. He certainly had never done so before. It is far more likely that Osgood herself sought an introduction. Finally, we have a letter Osgood herself wrote to Sarah Helen Whitman shortly after she first met Poe. She boasted--rather tactlessly, considering Whitman was a rival poet--that she had been told Poe praised Osgood's work in a recent lecture, and that she had recently met him, and liked him very much. She says nothing of how they met, or anything indicating he had sought an introduction, or desired her opinion of his most popular poem. Surely, if she had had any such details which further illustrated Poe's regard for herself, Osgood would have included them.

Osgood's recollections go on to state that she spent much of 1845 traveling for her health (it is true that, as far as her activities can be traced, she spent little time in New York during that year.) She claimed that, while out of town, she and Poe corresponded, thanks to the "earnest entreaties" of Virginia, who, she said, lauded the "restraining and beneficial effect" Osgood's "influence" had on him. She noted that she herself never saw Poe intoxicated, but intimated that was only because he had promised her to refrain from drinking. According to our Fanny, his wife's desire to keep him sober counted for little by comparison.

Any comment on the astonishing childlike egotism of Osgood's account would be superfluous. But even if this pitiful tale was true--and simple common sense revolts at the idea--what does it say about Osgood's true regard for Poe and his wife? She would have it that Edgar was a drunken weakling whom only she could control, and Virginia was someone who had so feeble a hold on her spouse, and so little pride, that she had to beg another woman to use her "influence" (by mail?!) to keep him on the straight-and-narrow.

In that same sweetly catty vein, Osgood described the "charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself" "in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge."

Even her assertion that "Annabel Lee" was a tribute to Virginia, "the only woman whom he ever truly loved," possibly had a barbed edge. Osgood may have been sincere (she certainly owed Virginia at least that much.) However, her denial of the report that the poem dealt with "a late love affair" of Poe's aroused the ire of Sarah Helen Whitman. Immediately after Poe's death, Whitman had launched a campaign to convince the world that "Annabel Lee" was written for her, and she interpreted Osgood's statement as a deliberate insult to herself. After writing to Osgood's friend Mary Hewitt about the matter (Osgood herself was dead by then,) Whitman told others that Hewitt assured her that Osgood was not disputing her claims to the poem. Hewitt believed Osgood simply lied about Virginia being the poem's inspiration in order to attack another Poe groupie, "Stella" Lewis, who was asserting she was the real Annabel. (Just to add the final unpleasantly self-serving touch to her story, Whitman also claimed that Hewitt wrote that she was sure Osgood did not believe a word of her statement that Virginia had been Poe's one true love.) Whitman did not preserve Hewitt's letters, (deliberately?) so we cannot know if this is what Hewitt actually wrote. As neither Hewitt nor Osgood would have had any personal knowledge about Poe's inspiration for his loveliest poem, it really does not matter. It is interesting, though, that even in what appeared to be a sincere tribute to Poe and Virginia's love, Osgood may have been motivated not by honesty and friendship, but by cheap spite towards other women.

Osgood concluded her little history in the same disagreeable vein in which she began, by approvingly quoting an insulting Poe elegy written by her friend Richard Henry Stoddard:
"He might have soared in the morning light
But he built his nest with the birds of night!
But he lies in dust, and the stone is rolled
Over the sepulchre dim and cold;
He has cancelled all he has done or said,
And gone to the dear and holy dead,
Let us forget the path he trod,
And leave him now, to his Maker, God."
About the only other thing one can say about Osgood's remarkable account is that it is proof that, contrary to what is commonly assumed, there was no suggestive gossip about her relations with Poe during his lifetime. We certainly know about unpleasant talk that circulated concerning Poe and women in 1846, but it all centered on the dispute involving Elizabeth Ellet and her dealings with Poe--not Osgood. Even aside from her unwittingly revealing admission to Saroni mentioned at the beginning of this post, if Osgood's relationship with Poe had brought her into disrepute, she--not to mention Griswold--would hardly have been so eager to inform the world that she was the one Poe went to for "kindness and counsel." Or that only her influence, not Virginia's, had weight with him. Or that they carried on a "divinely beautiful" correspondence (which, of course, no longer exists--if it ever did--aside from a brief note to her from Poe that addresses Osgood as "Dear Madam" and reads like a form letter.) Or that she would need to assure her audience that, although she and Poe never met after the first year of their acquaintance, they remained friends until his death. If there had been any nasty rumors circulating about the pair, both she and her champion Griswold would be anxious to bury all these details, not wave them like a flag. Her account reads not like a woman attempting to downplay their relationship, but one desperate to establish that a relationship existed.

Unfortunately, her way of doing so was to portray Poe as a man who drunkenly slandered innocent women who merely offered him "kindness and sympathy." She described him as someone whom only she could keep on the path of righteousness. She depicted him as having "little poetical episodes" with other women (such as herself?) under the nose of his adoring wife. Not a pretty picture, and I cannot but believe that was precisely her intention. Shakespeare wrote, "the whirligig of time brings on its revenges," and Frances Osgood was having hers on the dead Poe and Virginia for having rejected her. After the Ellet fiasco, the Poes left New York without telling anyone--including Osgood--where they had gone. Despite Osgood's various efforts over the following years to initiate contact with him, Poe never spoke or wrote to her again. For someone as self-absorbed and egotistical as she was, this slight must have been intolerable. (Incidentally one of the many, many curious features about her "reminiscences" is that they appeared anonymously in "Saroni's." The world had no idea she was this chatty "friend" of Poe's until Griswold recycled her story--after her death. One wonders if Mrs. Osgood didn't feel a twinge of bad conscience about publishing such an obviously fictional account.)

And to think, this farrago of lies, self-deification, and petty malisons is presented as a tribute to Poe. It is small wonder that her close friend Griswold was so eager to republish it in his Poe biography.

(Images: NYPL Digital Gallery, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Perils of Poe Biography

Here is an interesting little story from the Lewistown (PA) Sentinel debunking a widely-circulated, and utterly fictitious legend about Edgar Allan Poe's adventures in central Pennsylvania. It's just another example of how everything--and I do mean everything--that has ever been said about Poe needs to be scrutinized with great care. In the years I've spent studying his life, I've come to the depressing conclusion that if you could magically remove all the demonstrably false or highly questionable details from his accepted biography, we wouldn't have enough known facts left about the man to fit on the back of a playing card.

A note: The "biographical book on Edgar Allan Poe in the 1920s" that used this clown Shoemaker as a source was Mary E. Phillips'. (The woman never met a Poe myth she didn't like.) I think Hervey Allen had dealings with him, too.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Poe's Weirdest Woman, Sarah Helen Whitman; Or, The Biter Bit

"Even when the facts are available, most people seem to prefer the legend and refuse to believe the truth when it in any way dislodges the myth."
-John Mason Brown

Sarah Helen Whitman lived for thirty years after her disagreeable and still-mysterious parting of the ways with Edgar Allan Poe. Over the long course of these years, his memory took on ever-greater importance in her life. Her growing interest in his life and work both fostered and fed upon Poe's increasingly legendary reputation. She developed a widening correspondence with Poe biographers and associates, and drew to herself many young Poe cultists, deftly utilizing her three-month acquaintance with the poet and her unique status as his reputed sort-of fiancee to transform herself into "Poe's Helen." This aging, plain, rather affected, modestly-talented poetess, spiritualist, Transcendentalist, and habitual drug user--a woman, in short, who appeared to be a completely incompatible match for Poe--became, to many of his acolytes, the ultimate Girl Who Got Away, a goddess of sorts. It is hard to believe Poe sincerely wished to marry a woman fatuous enough to solemnly have herself photographed dressed as Pallas Athena, but thanks to her, most observers did believe just that. She convinced a great many people who really should have known better that she--and only she--was the one great love of Poe's life. (Although Whitman's campaign to convince the world that "Annabel Lee" was a paean to her was a utter failure.)sarah helen whitman edgar allan poeLike all the women who associated their names with Poe's, there was a predominant element of self-glorification in her desire to perpetuate the name and fame of "The Raven." One cannot but think the dead Poe meant much more to her than the live one ever did. A telling example of her narcissistic attitude came when she proudly allowed Richard Henry Stoddard to read the notorious letter she claimed to have received from Poe, which featured the poet mendaciously assuring Whitman, as a sign of his unique love for her, and of his sense of "honor," that by marrying Virginia, he had sacrificed his own happiness. Whitman was surprised and deeply upset when Stoddard expressed his dismay at the letter's depiction of Poe's callous disloyalty to the memory of a loving wife, rather than applauding the tribute to herself.

Of course, Sarah Whitman had a particular incentive to shape public perception about her "romance" with Poe--the widespread belief that he had jilted her, or worse, never really wanted to marry her at all. Rufus Griswold was the first to put into print the claim that when Poe went to Providence for the last time, he was determined to break his relationship with Whitman, even declaring to a New York poetess, Mary Hewitt, that the marriage would never take place. Griswold's lurid details about Poe deliberately staging a drunken tantrum at Whitman's house, all in order to compel her to break their engagement, were, of course, false, but after communicating with Hewitt herself, Whitman was forced to privately concede that Poe had denied they would marry. As late as 1877, she was irritated by a magazine columnist's assertion that Poe "disclaimed any personal interest in the projected marriage, in the presence of literary acquaintances here, even at the moment of receiving congratulations upon the sudden betterment of his prospects, and that his passionate letters to Mrs. Whitman were either wanting in sincerity, or he was weak enough to pretend an indifference that he did not feel." Whitman was understandably troubled and embarrassed to have such details become common knowledge, not because she had cared so deeply for Poe--in private letters, she asserted she never really loved him--but because of the blow to her pride. Any woman would surely find such talk painful--especially if she was aware there was truth to it--and Whitman was particularly vulnerable, being an emotionally fragile, hyper-sensitive and extremely vain personality. For her own psychological well-being, she had to do what she could to counter this perception of their relationship.

Nemesis finally came for Mrs. Whitman in the form of a Lowell, Massachusetts housewife, Annie Richmond. Whitman had never met her, but she knew of Mrs. Richmond as an acquaintance and admirer of Poe's, who was also corresponding with his biographer John H. Ingram. Ingram even told Whitman that "Annie" was providing him with interesting Poe letters.

Whitman had no idea just how interesting these letters were until Ingram published some of them as part of an 1878 "Appleton's Journal" article, "Unpublished Correspondence by Edgar A. Poe." This article revealed to her--and the world--the previously undreamed-of claim that, during Whitman's entire association with Poe--an association that had by then become central to her entire identity--he had been sending a married woman letters that made it painfully clear that she was his favored object of adoration, and the widowed, available "Poe's Helen" was a mere unsatisfactory consolation prize. If Mrs. Whitman had seen nothing wrong with informing the world that Poe had emotionally betrayed his dead wife to her, Mrs. Richmond was equally comfortable with asserting that Poe had betrayed both Virginia and Mrs. Whitman to her.

O. Henry could not have written a more stunning surprise ending to Mrs. Whitman's story. Her shock and humiliation must have been severe--the seventy-five year-old died about two months after the article's publication, and no wonder! What did the poor woman now have to live for?--but she publicly reacted with a commendable dignity.

Soon after Ingram's article appeared in print, she published a wry, telling commentary on the piece in a local paper, the "Providence Journal." She began by observing that "some of Poe's later memorialists may perhaps be blamed for not burning material confided to them for publication by Poe's nearest and dearest friends."

About the "material" itself, Whitman noted "the absence of all testimony as to the verbal authenticity of the letters." Referring in particular to a long, surreal letter Poe supposedly wrote Marie Shew Houghton, she pointed out that the text came from a mere copy provided by Mrs. Houghton, and was thus untrustworthy. Whitman wrote that when Ingram showed her the copy of this letter, she warned him that the "peculiarities of style" and phraseology were so different from Poe's known writings that it was impossible to accept this as a literal transcript, and that he ought not to present it as such. She said he had fully agreed with her opinion, and that he assured her nothing would be published until it had been "revised" and "recast." (The obvious irony here is that many of the letters by and about Poe among Whitman's papers exist only in copies written out by herself.)

Regarding Mrs. Richmond's contributions, Mrs. Whitman said only that she had no idea whether they had been "revised" or "recast," but "one can hardly imagine Poe to have said, 'You are the only being in the whole world whom I have loved at the same time with truth and with purity.'"

Whitman suggested to her readers that as an "offset to the confused and contradictory impression which these letters must inevitably leave," they should study the "Recollections" that Mrs. Richmond's sister Sarah provided for William Gill's "Life of Poe." Whitman praised the "exquisite fidelity" of Sarah Heywood's description of the poet. It is interesting that Whitman made this observation. Miss Heywood depicted Poe--whom, she made it clear, she scarcely knew--as a quiet, reserved, dignified, brilliant gentleman; always charming and courteous, but whose inner self was his own, something kept private from Sarah, from sister Annie, and from everyone else. She found a line from Wordsworth applicable to him: "Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart." In other words, he was the antithesis of the undignified, unmanly, ungrammatical jerk depicted in the letters both Mrs. Richmond and Mrs. Whitman claimed to have received from him.

Whitman summarized Ingram's article by stating that if Boileau's axiom, "a man's style is the man himself," is valid, the style of these letters leave us unable to find Poe the man in them. She closed with a quote from Samuel Johnson regarding Boswell: "Sir, if I thought that Bozzy was preparing to write my life, I should be tempted to anticipate him by taking his."

Whitman's short article is apt, witty, and insightful--one of the best brief Poe-related critiques I've seen. She obviously had a personal stake is discrediting letters that delivered such a grievous blow to herself, but that does not discount the validity of her criticism.

However, her article is the final, sardonic twist to her long career as a professional Poe fiancee. She seemed completely unaware--or was she, deep in her heart?--of one fact. All of the cogent arguments she used to cast suspicion on the integrity of these letters and the ladies who presented them--the reliance on mere copies, the startling stylistic variations from Poe's known writings, the inability to find "the man" Poe in any of these missives, the "absence of all testimony as to...authenticity of the letters," the dubious service Poe's "friends" provided him by bequeathing such material to posterity in the first place--all apply with equal force and justice to...herself.