Monday, July 26, 2010

Poe and A.B. Heywood

Lowell MAThe most detailed descriptions we have of Poe's three visits to Lowell, Massachusetts in 1848 and 1849 come from a handful of contemporary letters written by "Annie" Richmond's brother, Amos Bardwell Heywood. These letters, which were written to an Annie Sawyer, first saw the light of day in 1942, when a daughter of Sawyer's donated them to the Lowell Historical Society. (So far as I know, no one has even made an effort to verify the letters were genuinely written by Heywood, but Poe scholars, in their usual touchingly trustful fashion, accept them without question.)

Assuming these letters--the only recorded comments by Heywood about Poe that we have--are authentic, they indeed provide an interesting sidelight on Poe's Lowell trips and his relationship with Mrs. Richmond--although not quite in the way one might think. Our other main source about Poe's relations with Lowell and the Richmond/Heywood family come, of course, from the letters Poe allegedly wrote "Annie." With the exception of a couple of items of unknown provenance and dubious authenticity, these letters exist only as copies that Mrs. Richmond herself made for John H. Ingram in the 1870s. (It should be noted that the two letters Poe supposedly wrote "Annie's" sister Sarah are also mere copies.) We will never know what was in the actual letters "Annie" may have received from Poe, because she never showed them to Ingram or anyone else. This air of secrecy about her documents, (so oddly reminiscent of the tactics of Sarah Helen Whitman,) must cast doubt upon the trustworthiness of Richmond's testimony. The "Poe letters" "Annie" wrote out for Ingram describe the poet as being nearly as infatuated with her relatives as he was with herself. Sarah and Bardwell Heywood are repeatedly referred to--in the most nauseatingly groveling way possible--as among the dearest, most treasured friends he had.

In contrast, the Heywood letters are very similar to the reminiscences written by his other sister, Sarah Heywood (which I briefly described here.) "Annie's" siblings described Poe as a figure who aroused considerable fascination and intellectual admiration in them both. However, they also saw him as a remote, rather mysterious figure whom they scarcely knew, even as an acquaintance--precisely the way you would expect them to describe a literary celebrity who made only three very brief visits to their town. Certainly, neither sibling showed any awareness that Poe was wildly, hopelessly in love with their sister. In other words, their attitude towards Poe directly contradicts the evidence provided by the "Annie" letters.

Heywood's first reference to Poe (one brief comment in a letter from August 1848,) actually deals with Poe's relations with another woman entirely--Heywood's neighbor Jane Locke. In another letter written two months later, he offered some clarification of his earlier remark. According to this letter, Mrs. Locke confided to Heywood that Poe--who had corresponded with her for some months--had gotten the impression that she was a wealthy widow. Heywood hinted that the poet had been considering marriage--until he finally met her in person, during his first visit to Lowell that July, and discovered that she was an unattractive middle-aged woman with little money, plus a husband and several children. Why Mrs. Locke would choose to make Heywood her confidante in this extremely personal contretemps is a mystery. It is also unclear how this story squares with "Annie's" claim to Ingram that Mrs. Locke visited Poe at Fordham before his arrival at Lowell.

In this same letter, Heywood discussed the lecture Poe delivered during his visit, as well as two calls he made at Mrs. Richmond's home. He described Poe as treating the household to the story of his life. Heywood wrote:

"He was the offspring of a runaway match, and when very young was taken and adopted by a very rich uncle who, having no children, wished to make Edgar his son. He (Edgar) accordingly assumed his uncle's name--Poe. Soon, however, his adopted mother died, and his father married a young lady who saw in Edgar her only impediment to her being the sole heir to an immense fortune. She began to quarrel with him and finally succeeded in driving him away. In his father's will, who died soon after, he was cut off with a shilling. He now went to live with an aunt who had a beautiful daughter named Virginia. A great intimacy sprang up between them and they came to look upon each other as brother and sister. Notice that was the kind of affection--a brotherly and sisterly affection, and nothing more or less. Numerous friends, however, thought a marriage between them would for several reasons be desirable. At last he yielded to the solicitations of friends and married her at the early age of 13, he being 21 or 22. Although he loved her with an undivided heart he could not think of her as his wife, or as any other than his sister, and indeed he did not for two years assume the position of husband, still occupying his own chamber by himself. During part of this time he was traveling alone in Europe. His wife was spared to him several years, but at length consumption fastened upon the lovely flower and it gradually faded away. Since that almost overwhelming affliction he has continued to live with her mother in New York. He spoke of his wife in a most eloquent and touching manner, the tears running down his cheeks in torrents. Spoke of her as beautiful beyond description, as lovely beyond conception..."

If this letter gave an accurate account of Poe's soliloquy, it is clear the visiting poet was up to his usual hoaxing. Anyone familiar with Poe's singular notions of autobiography will recognize the similarities to his yarns about battling for Greek independence, undergoing imprisonment in St. Petersburg, Russia, and being the grandson of Benedict Arnold. Many of his biographers have taken seriously these claims that he and Virginia saw each other merely as "brother and sister," ignoring the fact that his own August 1835 letter to her and Mrs. Clemm alone demolishes this scenario. In any case--assuming Poe truly entertained himself by spouting this nonsense to his new-found acquaintances--if one trusts that information, one must also accept that he was raised by his "uncle," who gave him the name, "Poe," that "numerous friends," for who knows what reason, earnestly solicited him to marry Virginia, that he married at age 21 or 22, that his parents eloped, that he had been "driven" away from his boyhood home by the new Mrs. Allan, and that he spent part of his early married life traveling alone through Europe. And that he chose to relay all these intimate details to people he had just met. (Here, one must sympathize with William Bittner's perplexed observation that "I cannot see Poe discussing the secrets of his marriage bed with anyone.")

Personally, I have an easier time picturing him fighting for the Greeks.

Heywood also added the detail that "my sister"--Mrs. Richmond, presumably, although that is not specified--had recently visited Maria Clemm at Fordham. He gave no details about this call, other than that his sister was told that Virginia had been "almost an angel on earth." (Heywood does not state if Poe was at his home during this visit, so we do not know if he, or Maria Clemm, or both, thus described Poe's late wife.) Assuming this story is true--Mrs. Richmond herself never said anything about ever being at Fordham--it is of some interest. At least one of Poe's biographers has noted that this anecdote gives the impression that during this visit, an effort was made to throw some cold water upon Mrs. Richmond's obvious interest in Poe.

Elsewhere in this same letter, Heywood--a member of the local choir--recorded how offended he had been when Poe asserted to him that men had no business singing. Only the female sex, the visitor declared, could create true vocal harmony. (Heywood groused, "I had a strong inclination to throw the glass in his face!")

In fact, throughout Heywood's letters is the sense not only that he did not know Poe well at all, but that what he saw rather irritated him. In a later letter, he commented on his dislike of Poe's critical reviews. "I came near hating him before I saw him, he is such an inveterate fault finder...It seems to be the predominating trait of his character." Even while acknowledging the beauties of the local scenery, Heywood grumbled, Poe could not resist pointing out what he perceived as flaws in the landscape.Edgar Allan Poe and LowellWhen describing Poe's last visit to Lowell, in the spring of 1849, Heywood told an anecdote concerning Poe and a young woman who taught at the local school where Heywood was the principal. He told Miss Sawyer that Poe had paid a brief visit to the school while he was in town, and instantly fell in love with this female assistant. (Her name is not given, but she is believed to be an Eliza J. Butterfield.) According to this letter, Poe made a second call on the school specifically to see the woman, so Heywood left them in a room alone, speculating that the poet wished to propose marriage. (To a virtual stranger?) He did not know what happened between the lady and their odd visitor, only that her cheek had "an uncommon flush" when they emerged, implying that whatever had happened deeply disconcerted her. Heywood made no further mention of Poe and his new-found inamorata, leaving a decided air of mystery about the episode.

Now, even by the standards of Poe biography, this is one strange little story. Although many biographers suggest Poe may have become emotionally troubled in his final months, by all accounts he remained politely troubled. To the very end, every woman who had dealings with him commented on the extreme graciousness and civility of his manner towards them. In other words, whatever else he may have been, he was just never a man to make women blush--particularly respectable young ladies he had met only once. Heywood's tale of throwing Poe and this hapless young teacher together, so that the visiting poet could force some sort of highly embarrassing--and clearly, on the lady's part, undesired--attentions to her, simply is not credible. (It is also odd that, if this incident actually happened, we have nothing about it from the young woman herself. If someone as famous as Edgar Allan Poe had truly made a pass at her, surely she would have told everyone she met about it until the end of her days.) Assuming the letter is genuine, Heywood allowed his obvious desire to impress his correspondent to get the better of him. In any case, this unpleasant little tale of antebellum sexual harassment demonstrated that he had no conception that Poe was supposedly infatuated with Heywood's own sister! ***

Heywood had little else to say about Poe. In two letters written soon after the poet's death, he expressed surprise at their visitor's premature end, but said nothing to indicate he--or his sisters--felt any sense of personal loss. He mentioned that Mrs. Clemm was currently visiting them, and that "From her we have gathered much in relation to his domestic nature which is quite interesting and often amusing."


Heywood's way of eulogizing Poe was by offering a prediction that his fame as a writer would not endure: "...he has written nothing that will embalm his memory in the heart of the present age.

***A footnote: We have a letter that Poe purportedly wrote Mrs. Richmond, dated June 16, 1849, which indicated that, when departing from Lowell for the last time, he asked to be remembered to a "Miss B," who is presumed to be Eliza Butterfield, A.B. Heywood's co-worker. This document has a strange history. Ingram published this same letter, but lacking the reference to "Miss B." We do not have the transcript of this letter which he must have received from Mrs. Richmond, so we do not know exactly what text she sent him of this particular communication. What is believed to be the original manuscript of this letter, which has other passages not published by Ingram, is currently in the University of Texas at Austin. The MS. only came to light in 1906, when it went up for sale at auction. Its prior history is uncertain.

The letter's murky provenance is itself suspicious, (especially as it's assumed that Mrs. Richmond destroyed all of Poe's letters to her sometime before her death in 1898,) but the text itself is problematic. One of the passages which does not appear in the published version of the letter has Poe telling Mrs. Richmond of "how sad I felt about parting with dear Sarah so coldly as I was forced to do..."

The comment refers to Poe's spring 1849 visit to Lowell, made shortly before the date of this letter. One of the difficulties in accepting this line as one genuinely written by Poe arises from Sarah Heywood herself. The Poe reminiscences she provided to Ingram and William Gill in the 1870s stated that the last time she saw Poe was during his Lowell stay in the fall of 1848. If so, in the following spring she obviously could not have parted from him "coldly," or in any other fashion.

There is another version of Sarah Heywood's Poe recollections, also at Austin. It is a typed transcript, undated but evidently written around 1900. This account, which differs in many details from her earlier story, is vague about the last time she saw Poe, describing it merely as "a few months before his death," which could refer to his spring 1849 visit. (Of course, as I said in an earlier post, by 1909 she was describing seeing the poet a few days before he died.)

Sarah Heywood's memories of Poe obviously became very confused over the years (which is not surprising, as all her recollections indicate she scarcely saw anything of the man--when she died in 1913, her obituary described her as having met Poe once.) It is logical, however, to treat her earliest account--the one published by Gill and Ingram--as the most reliable. If so, that undermines the authenticity of the manuscript of the "Miss B" letter.

More and more, I find myself thinking that the ideal biographer for Poe would have been Charles Fort.

I'm actually at least half-serious about that. Anyone deeply interested in Poe should read Fort's works--"The Book of the Damned" in particular. Fort's cosmology is similar to Poe's in certain ways--there are passages in his books that almost echo "Eureka." Also, his descriptions of how scientists have constructed an artificial "reality," with any "data" that conflicts with this "reality" being either ignored or distorted--that is to say, "damned"--is strikingly reminiscent of how Poe "scholarship" has been built. Anyone studying Poe's true history in depth comes across "damned data" at nearly every turn.

And for all of you who have finally come to the end of this post and understandably concluded that I have, at long last, gone well and truly off the deep end by starting off with analyzing the letters of an obscure Massachusetts schoolteacher and winding up with Charles Fort, I can only offer a quote from "Lo!":

"We shall pick up an existence by its frogs.

Wise men have tried other ways. They have tried to understand our state of being, by grasping at its stars, or its arts, or its economics. But, if there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere."

(Images of 1840s-era Lowell courtesy Lowell Historical Society.)