Monday, March 1, 2010

Annabel Lee Leland - Another Cautionary Tale

In March 1851 the Milwaukee "Daily Free Democrat" copied a death notice that had recently appeared in a New York newspaper:
"DIED-On Monday evening, Feb. 24, of inflammation of the brain, after an illness of 38 hours, ANNABEL LEE, only daughter of Mary J. and T.C. Leland, aged 9 months and 2 weeks."
The "Free Democrat" said of this sad little obituary:

"Connected with the above announcement, is a piece of beautiful history." The paper went on to say that the Lelands "had always cherished the warmest affection for the late gifted and unfortunate Edgar A. Poe. Their house had been a refuge for him when all others were shut against him, and in the bitterest hours of trial and suffering, he had found in them warm and steady friends."

The paper explained that Poe's close relations with the family resulted from a "sincere affection" he felt for Mrs. Leland in their youth. After he left school, they parted ways for many years, and during their separation, he received the mistaken impression that she had died. "But the bright dreams inspired by her remained with him, and he told us that her angel form often rose up before him in his degradation, darkness, and ruin...In one of these moments, when frenzied by intoxication, the lovelight of his early days appeared before him--he thought how it was untimely quenched, and left him in the darkness alone, friendless, helpless and hopeless, he seized his pen and wrote those wild sweet strains of "Annabel Lee"--and 'the cloud that came out by night'--
'Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.'"
Soon after writing this poem, he chanced to meet his old sweetheart, seemingly returned from the grave, and married to another. But she and her husband both befriended him, and when their only child was born, named her after the lovely tribute to the mother. "And here we see that this child is dead. The cold sod too, is above the form of him whose life was clouded by suffering, and whose sun went out in darkness. Lightly may it rest on his bosom, is the prayer of those who loved him, and lasting will be the remembrance of the proud and gifted one."edgar allan poe annabel leeNot a dry eye in the house, eh?

This elegiac little story was widely reprinted in newspapers across the country, establishing the previously unknown Mary J. Leland as one of the innumerable candidates for the honor of having inspired "Annabel Lee." At least two Poe scholars who discovered this column assumed that Mrs. Leland was the "Poe's Mary" of Augustus Van Cleef's infamous 1889 magazine article. (I'm surprised John Evangelist Walsh failed to write a book arguing that Poe was the real father of Mary Leland's baby.)

What is unfortunately overlooked is the fact that, shortly after this story became public, the Lelands paid to have a "card" published in a New York paper "stating that they are not the persons who showed kindness to Edgar A. Poe--though they wish they were--that they never had the pleasure of his acquaintance." The Lelands, unsurprisingly, expressed their curiosity about how their names came to be so colorfully linked with the late poet.

The "Free Democrat" soon printed a sheepish retraction, muttering that they had not expected "the article would be generally copied." They absolved the Lelands of all responsibility for the story.

In other words, the editor of the "Free Democrat," in need of lively copy for his newspaper--or perhaps he just had had a liquid lunch--saw the death notice from New York with the Poe-inspired name, and allowed himself to have way too much fun with it.

An alarming amount of accepted information about Poe has been built on no firmer foundation. His biographies have repeated as fact many old newspaper and magazine articles that are as uncorroborated and unbelievable as the Leland saga. And the "Free Democrat" was hardly unique in its methods for filling column space. As this article shows, dramatic tales about celebrities were always highly popular, and journalists were supremely indifferent about whether they were true. And, of course, then as now, there were many people eager to gain their fifteen minutes of fame through a publicized "brush with greatness"--whether they could do so legitimately or not. If the Lelands had not had the integrity to publicly refute this story, the world would never have known of the hoax.Edgar Allan Poe Pratt daguerreotypePoe biography could use more of the honesty shown by the Lelands. Two of the more egregious examples of this need are the cases of Kate Bleakley and Mary Andre Phelps. Bleakley's story surfaced in 1903, with numerous newspapers carrying the story of the elderly lady who had known Poe in early 1830s Baltimore. (The young poet was said to have written her the "letters and verses" that are obligatory to all Poe reminiscences of this stripe--none of which was extant, of course.) The problem is, none of the stories about her was identical. In some versions of her tale, she became romantically involved with him before he entered West Point. In others, she met him after he left the Military Academy. Depending on which account you care to believe, she knew him either as "Edgar Allan," or "Mr. Poe." In one newspaper, they had been engaged. In another, they were merely sweethearts, with what Sarah E. Shelton would call a "partial understanding." Yet another quotes the lady herself as saying that she and Poe had been nothing more than acquaintances, with no hint of romance, and she warmly remembered his future wife Virginia Clemm as "one of the sweetest girls of her day."

And this dog's breakfast of contradictory silliness, simply because it had the virtue of appearing in print, achieved immortality for Miss Bleakley through the inclusion of her name in that well-respected reference source, "The Poe Log"!

As for Mrs. Phelps, she was a woman who, in 1900, gave a newspaper interview where she described her family's close friendship with the Poe household when they lived in Fordham. Thomas O. Mabbott, Hervey Allen, George Woodberry, and other Poe biographers used her story as serious source material--largely focusing on Phelps' claims of overhearing Maria Clemm telling her mother that she--Mrs. C.--had "made the match" between Poe and Clemm's daughter Virginia. (As if this would be something Poe's mother-in-law would boast about to one and all.)

As in the Bleakley case, anything that casts doubt on her story's credibility is ignored by these "historians." For instance, Mrs. Phelps--who supposedly knew Poe so intimately--stated that Virginia had died many years before Poe and Mrs. Clemm moved to Fordham. (She also imagined that "Muddy" had been Virginia's nickname.) Elsewhere, she said that her father, William Andre, was a direct descendant of the Major Andre who had been hanged as a spy during the Revolutionary War. (She was evidently unaware of the fact that the Major had no direct descendants, and that a study of her family's genealogy establishes that she had no relation to this historical figure at all.) Just for good measure, she also claimed to have been a childhood friend of opera star Adelina Patti.

In 1893, the "Chicago Herald" carried an interview with Mrs. Phelps' mother, Aurelia Andre, that managed to outdo even her daughter's inventiveness. Mrs. Andre was also under the impression that Poe had become a widower long before his arrival at Fordham. She went on to say that the name of Poe's wife--who, according to this authoritative source, had been Mrs. Clemm's niece--was "Lenore." She described Poe as having been raised by Mrs. Clemm from boyhood, and that her brother, "Eddie's" uncle, "had him educated."

And then the interview got truly weird.

And these were two women whom Mabbott, Allen, Woodberry, etc., treated as unimpeachable witnesses!

In other words, either the reporters who published these stories learned all they knew about journalism from studying back files of the Milwaukee "Free Democrat," or the Andres were publicity-hungry liars. Or both.

The cases of Leland, Bleakley, Andre, and Phelps are merely representative of many, many similar stories associated with Poe. There is the published account of "Mrs. Jane Clarke, of Louisville, KY" (a woman who, so far as can be ascertained, never even existed,) Mary Winfree (ditto,) Mary Bronson DeLuc (who claimed that Poe wrote "Ulalume" for her father's use as an elocution exercise--?!?--the letter Poe allegedly wrote to her father on the subject deserves a post all its own. I'd wager good money it is one of the clumsiest forgeries I've ever seen...)

The credibility given to these stories says a lot about the depths to which Poe scholarship can sink.