Monday, February 22, 2010

"Ida Grey"

frances osgood ida grey edgar allan poe
One of the articles of faith among modern-day Edgar Allan Poe scholars is that Frances S. Osgood's 1845 short story "Ida Grey" is an autobiographical sketch about her relationship with Poe. I can only assume that everyone who has repeated this legend has never actually read her story.

This view of "Ida Grey" as some sort of roman-a-clef originated with James H. Whitty, in the early 1900s. Whitty was one of the stranger and more fraudulent Poe enthusiasts. He had a mania for presenting "new" or "previously unnoticed" or "unpublished" Poe-related anecdotes or documents, and he didn't seem to give two hoots whether any of it was true. Even Thomas O. Mabbott--a model of credulity who accepted the most ludicrous material relating to Poe--had to acknowledge that Whitty was in the habit of mixing fact with fancy in a very peculiar way. In short, his notable contributions to the tsunami of stupidity that has swamped Poe scholarship makes Whitty a leading nominee for the Robins Award.

"Ida Grey" is a brief, plotless sketch, told mainly through the title character's fevered entries in her journal. It opens with a lengthy description of the protagonist, a beautiful twenty-four year-old widow, described by Osgood as "a child," who "seemed to think that the whole world was made for the accommodation and amusement of her own sweet self," but "in spite of her coquetry--her folly--her vanity--her sauciness--she was just the dearest, loveliest and most winning creature that ever breathed the breath of life!" At a party, Ida is introduced to a man (whose name is never given--in fact, we are told virtually nothing about him.) Their interaction is only momentary, the man is "strangely distant," but at first sight, Ida immediately sees that they are soul-mates. "We spoke but a few formal words, and then we parted--parted! ah no! we shall never part again! Our souls are one forever! Yes! cold and careless as he seems, he loves me--or will love me!"

After Ida pens these effusions--which in today's world would undoubtedly earn her a prescription for Valium--well, nothing happens. Her inamorato is married, albeit to a woman who "is cold and does not love him." Ida and Mr. X briefly meet once more, but we are given no description of what, if anything, happened between them. Ida says he wrote her a letter of "almost divine passion," which displeases her. She does not want their love to be an earthly one; rather, they should stay apart, and wait to meet in Heaven. She enters a convent. The end.

It takes a good deal of desperation to apply this silly, eccentrically-written little tale to Osgood and Poe. There are only two links between fact and fiction that anyone has ever been able to present. The first is that a line from "The Raven" is quoted in the beginning of the story (which means little, as Osgood frequently included quotes from fellow writers in both her private letters and her published writings--in fact, "Ida Grey" contains lines from other poets besides Poe.) Osgood's description of the meeting of her fictional couple--where the man is "cold and calm yet courteous" has a faint echo in her 1849 account of her introduction to Poe, who, she wrote, "greeted me calmly, gravely, almost coldly." Even this minor resemblance is rendered irrelevant by the fact that she was a fanciful, but extremely repetitive and unimaginative writer--she tended to use the same few words, themes, imagery, and even names repeatedly--before and after she met Poe. Whitty tried linking this story to an anonymous poem that appeared a few months later in "Graham's Magazine" (which published "Ida.") Whitty attributed this poem, "The Divine Right of Kings," to Poe, and argued it was a "response" to Osgood's story. Unfortunately, as I said in an earlier post, Whitty made this attribution based on his own manufactured evidence, and there is no legitimate reason whatsoever to think "Divine Right of Kings" had anything to do with Poe or "Ida Grey."

Just to round things off, "Ida" appeared in print only four months after Osgood and Poe first met, which makes it strongly possible that the story was written before they were even introduced.

It is hard to relate this story to reality. Osgood, of course, was a plain, happily-married mother in her mid-thirties, not an alluring twentysomething widow. Poe could never be described as someone with a cold, unloving wife--in fact, everyone who knew Virginia Poe noted how ardently she was devoted to her strange spouse. What is most overlooked, however, is that in "Ida Grey," her protagonists have literally no relationship. Their "love" is presented entirely as a figment of Ida's fantasies. She has two brief, inconsequential meetings with Dream-Man, where they barely even speak, and then she retreats from the world forever. The "love story" is described only through Ida's journal entries, which consist of her hysterical ramblings picturing the love they will share in the "soul world." (The entire story, like most of Osgood's prose writings, has a creepily hallucinatory air.) There is no real-world, in-person interaction between the pair. The whole story reads like the delusions of a crazed obsessed fan, and at the end, you seriously expect to learn that Ida wound up not in a convent, but in a madhouse. Ironically, if Osgood did intend the story to stand as an allegory for her association with Poe, she only proved that there was no real relationship between them at all.

The only evidence that any of Osgood's contemporaries took any notice of her weird little yarn comes from one of the letters Poe allegedly wrote to Sarah Helen Whitman. She had apparently asked where she could find Osgood's story, for the letter replied briefly that, "Mrs. O's 'Ida Grey' is in 'Graham' for August-45." That is all the letter says about the story. We have no idea why Mrs. Whitman would ask about "Ida Grey"--there is no record of her ever mentioning it to anyone, even though she frequently alluded to Osgood (not always in the most complimentary fashion) in her extensive correspondence. The query is mildly intriguing, but it is impossible to know what significance, if any, can be made of it.