Thursday, July 22, 2010


Nathaniel P. Willis
In analyzing the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and "Annie" Richmond, one little-known, but interesting fact stands out: Among her circle, she was known to be what we now would call a "literary groupie." Prominent writers were the pop stars of that era, and Mrs. Richmond revelled in the reflected intellectual glamour she felt she gained from their company. One gets the suspicion that if she had never met Poe, she would have been equally happy to become close to anyone of equal renown.

As a matter of fact, there is an extremely strange message Mrs. Richmond wrote Mrs. Clemm in 1854. (Now in Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library.) It is one long, rambling, incoherent love letter about Nathaniel P. Willis, one of the most commercially popular American writers of his time. "Annie" did not know Willis, but she was aware that Mrs. Clemm did, and she was clearly angling for Poe's aunt to arrange an introduction. (It is an amusing irony that several people who knew both Poe and Willis--including Charles F. Briggs, Marie Shew Houghton, and James Russell Lowell--asserted that Poe thought little of Willis' writings and despised him personally.)

In her usual breathless, hyper-emotional style, Mrs. Richmond wailed, "how I do pity Mr. Willis, & I am sure, I love him more than ever--oh how I wish I were his sister, & I would love him so dearly..." She goes on to call Willis "one of my idols, for you know Muddie, I always told you, that I longed to see Mr. Willis more than any other human being...he who has ever touched the most sacred & the deepest recesses in my heart...I do, pray for him, & to pray Heaven to send him comfort, & to surround him with gentle and loving spirits, such as he knows so well, how to appreciate & enjoy...Why I almost worship him, his name is connected, with my earliest & sweetest remembrances, & I learned to love him, as soon as I learned to read..."

Nowadays, letters like this about celebrities usually get the writer slapped with a restraining order.

Sarah Helen WhitmanFor years prior to her death in 1878, Sarah Helen Whitman sent extracts from the letters she claimed to have received from Poe to many of her correspondents. Mrs. Whitman believed--with complete sincerity, so far as anyone could tell--that these rather horrifying letters illustrated not only the nobility of Poe's nature, but his profound bond with herself. (It is a completely un-amusing irony that these letters--as well as the similar missives provided by Annie Richmond--have instead usually been used as proof that Poe was going mad in his last years.)

The recipients of these extracts were generally either too polite or too sycophantic to contradict her. There was, however, at least one exception. In 1872, she sent the poet Richard Henry Stoddard, who had written what she felt was an unsatisfactory magazine article about Poe, copies of some of her precious letters. Whitman claimed the letters would cause Stoddard to see Poe in a more sympathetic light.Richard Henry StoddardShe made a grave miscalculation. Whitman passed on to Stoddard the notorious letter that depicted Poe, as part of his wooing, declaring to her that when he married Virginia, he knew he was sacrificing his own happiness. After reading this letter, Stoddard told her frankly that he found the implied assertion that Poe had not loved his wife very disturbing, and he hoped the dead poet had not been truthful. Stoddard had had no real acquaintance with Poe, but he knew many people who had, and he stated in print that all of them, including Poe's enemies, testified that whatever his faults may have been, Poe's obvious love for Virginia was a true "bright spot in his character." Stoddard made it quite clear that he believed this letter simply lied about Poe's marriage.

Whitman's reaction to this negative feedback was interesting. She went completely to pieces. Among her papers in the University of Indiana's Lilly Library is an unfinished rough draft of her response to Stoddard. Its sheer incoherence is testimony to her inability to handle any challenge to her carefully crafted illusions.

"I am sorry," she wrote, "that you condemn him for what he said to me of his marriage. He did not say that he did not love her but that he married exclusively for her happiness. Assuredly he loved & very dearly her but doubtlessly he [the following section in bold was crossed out] was as a sister & a child rather doubtless felt that she could not enrich his life with felt there could be little reciprocity of thought or life between them. Again, it was not in his first letter that he said this but it was in defending himself against some implied charge a passage contained in my letter which had deeply pained & wounded him & for which he [word illegible] & he had no sooner said it than condemned himself for the admission."

What comes out most clearly from this letter--aside from her obvious agitation--is that Whitman really did not know what Poe's true relationship with his wife had been. Or perhaps she did not want to know. As was so often the case when discussing Poe, she retreated into contradiction and unfounded theorizing. One has to wonder if she ever really knew the first thing about him.

Whatever she eventually actually sent Stoddard in defense of these letters had little effect. After her death, Stoddard published an article where he expressed his disgust with the "Poe letters" he had read. He reiterated that the letters were remarkably insincere, dishonest, and strained, and it astounded him that Mrs. Whitman appeared to put a near-religious faith in them.

For her part, Mrs. Whitman never forgave Stoddard's disparaging remarks. Several years later, she sent copies of these same letters to John Henry Ingram (it appears, however, that Stoddard's reaction taught her to omit the passage referring to Poe's marriage.) She told Ingram haughtily that she was sure he would appreciate them, unlike Stoddard, who, she seethed, had dismissed them as "very curious, very curious, indeed." Her correspondence with Ingram is peppered throughout with complaints against Stoddard, all clearly stemming from her continual resentment over his failure to duly applaud her relationship with Poe. (Ingram, for his part, avoided directly commenting on these "Poe letters." In his biography of Poe, he could only gingerly--or rather, queasily--describe these epistles as "idiosyncratic." Worse still, from Whitman's point of view, Ingram wound up asserting--in print--his conviction that Poe had never really loved "Helen.")

**A footnote: Kenneth Silverman's "Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance"--a book I always pick up whenever I need a good laugh--published portions of this draft letter of Whitman's quoted above. However, in his usual muddled fashion, Silverman rather vaguely depicted these lines as Mrs. Whitman directly quoting remarks Poe supposedly made to her. In other words, Silverman led his readers to assume that Whitman's baseless speculations about Poe's feelings for Virginia were actually statements from Poe's own mouth. This is a fine example of why the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore commented that Silverman's book "...has been much derided in academic Poe circles..." and that it "suffers badly from a deep bias against Poe, a silly preoccupation with discredited psycho-analytical approaches, a convenient oversimplification of the subject matter and an inadequate identification in the text of its rather selective sources. Read it if you must, but take what it offers with large doses of skepticism."

Amen to that.