Monday, April 19, 2010

Rufus Griswold Gets a Pen Pal

"Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence - whether much that is glorious - whether all that is profound - does not spring from disease of thought - from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect."

George W. Eveleth, that most curious and fascinating character who exchanged some remarkable letters with Poe in the last few years of the latter's life, made something of a career of writing unsolicited--and undoubtedly unwelcomed--letters to many other people connected to "my favorite one," as Eveleth called the dead poet. His most prolific surviving correspondence was with Sarah Helen Whitman (where she was comically oblivious to his scarcely-disguised mockery,) but fortunately many other of his Poe-related letters still exist.

rufus w griswoldOf particular interest are the two extant letters he wrote to Rufus W. Griswold. (Currently in the Boston Public Library.) The first, dated April 3, 1852, is evidently not his earliest letter to "My dear Doctor," as Eveleth cheerily opened by saying, "I have reckoned it a part of my (pleasurable) duty to keep you posted up in certain of the Bits from my Note-Book." (Eveleth always assumed an immediate breezy familiarity with his correspondents--all of them complete strangers--as well as an air of scornful authority and omniscience which must have been deeply unsettling to the recipients.)

Eveleth continued with a quote from Poe's "Fifty Suggestions": "The ingenuity of critical malice would often be laughable but for the disgust which, even in the most perverted spirits, injustice never fails to excite. A common trick is that of decrying, impliedly, the higher, by insisting upon the lower, merits of an author. Macaulay, for example, deeply feeling how much critical acumen is enforced by cautious attention to the mere 'rhetoric' which is its vehicle, has at length become the best of modern rhetoricians. His brother reviewers extol 'the acumen of Carlyle, the analysis of Schlegel, and the style of Macaulay.' Bancroft is a philosophical historian; but no amount of philosophy has yet taught him to despise a minute accuracy in point of fact. His brother historians talk of 'the grace of Prescott, the erudition of Gibbon, and the pains-taking precision of Bancroft!'"

Eveleth then directly addressed James Russell Lowell, quoting from Lowell's laudatory 1845 review of Poe's work, contrasting it with the altered, and far harsher, version of this same review that Griswold published in 1850. Eveleth enquired, "Did Poe leave you (as well as Griswold) an annuity to induce you thus to belie yourself for the purpose of denying his higher, by insisting upon his lower, merits?"

Eveleth went on to muse about how no one knew better than Poe how to guide public perception and opinion. "He led the populace by the nose in his 'Valdemar case,' in his 'Balloon Hoax,' in his Quarrel with Thomas Dunn English, in his drunken habits, in his Death, and in his 'Memoir by Griswold'; and he hasn't let go even yet, but is managing it at his pleasure, through the medium of the Spirit Telegraph with Mrs. Whitman at t'other end of the wire."

Eveleth informed Griswold that the "above Bits" had been forwarded to Lowell and to Mrs. Whitman, for her to pass on to Poe's spirit (during this period, Whitman had a medium living with her, through whom she made efforts to contact the late poet--who, alas, was discouragingly uncommunicative.) Eveleth closed his singular missive with, "Yours in all manner of cordiality." The letter is addressed to "Rev. Dr. Griswold or Edgar A. Poe Esq.--either."

The second letter, dated September 7 of that same year, had no salutation. Eveleth, without preamble, launched into a long disquisition on the solar system that reads like "Eureka"'s more peculiar little brother. He then suggested that Poe might be interested in what he had written, and suggested that Griswold forward it to him through "one of the mediums." Eveleth added that he had already sent some comments about "Eureka" to Mrs. Whitman for her to pass on to Poe through "the Spirit Telegraph."

We do not know Eveleth's purpose in sending Poe's notorious biographer these blithely menacing notes--although there was always a definite method to his ostensible madness. We also have no idea why Griswold kept these two communications, or what, if any, reply he sent. It probably does not matter. What would be well worth knowing, however, is this: What was going through Griswold's mind as he read these letters--one of which nonchalantly lists Poe's death and Griswold's own memoir among the poet's hoaxes and manipulations--all penned in a handwriting startlingly like that of the man Griswold had so recently defamed?