Monday, July 19, 2010

Quote of the Day

"I do like Mrs. H[oughton] so much for herself & not only for her goodness to Poe, but your suggestion as to that copy of a letter upset me greatly--yet it was right, & I am so grateful to you for pointing it out, not but what later on, when I came to weigh matters for publication, I must come to the conclusion I see you have. In fact, I wrote, & asked Mrs. H. whether she had not made some mistakes--which I pointed out--in her copy, & her answer confirms my & your views. Fear not--I print nothing that I am not sure about & trust that I shall have the joy of seeing you, & talking over all things, before I commence the biography for publication. Mrs. H. I'm sure loved Poe as a friend & would & will firmly stand for him & for me & she is a woman it would be difficult to put down, but she--I'm sure--is under a cloud. I fear, however, that having told me all she can remember of Poe she is drifting into the genus imaginative. Her reminiscences are so startling & so apt to satisfy one's needs that I cannot help being sceptical."
-Poe biographer John H. Ingram, writing to Sarah Helen Whitman about Marie Louise Shew Houghton, letter dated June 2, 1875

A word of explanation: Mrs. Houghton--who had been anxious to impress upon Ingram what a benefactress she had been to the Poe household from 1847-48--sent him what she claimed were copies of letters she had received from Poe. Ingram passed these copies on to Mrs. Whitman, who emphatically warned him that they sounded nothing like Poe, and that Ingram would be making a serious mistake if he published them as verbatim transcripts. (She pointed in particular to this nightmarish wail.)

Ingram, as the above quote showed, fully agreed that the letters were untrustworthy--as, indeed, they were--but, unaccountably, he nonetheless later incorporated them in his biography of Poe.

In short, these words of Ingram's prove that he knew Mrs. Houghton was passing bogus Poe letters to him, that she was "under a cloud" (i.e. barking mad,) and that, having exhausted the little Poe information that she had, she was now resorting to wild fantasy in her recollections of the poet. He claimed to have grown to like her through her letters (Ingram, who lived in England, never met Mrs. Houghton--or, indeed, most of his sources--in person,) but still had to acknowledge her utter lack of credibility.

But yet, Ingram not only published this obviously disturbed woman's ravings as authentic history, but all Poe biographers ever since have copied these same fraudulent and patently bizarre materials furnished by Mrs. Houghton--without the slightest hesitation! Why? Even John Carl Miller, the editor of Ingram's correspondence, described Houghton's reminiscences as "shot through with inaccuracies, myths, half-remembered facts mixed with hearsay and caution," and added that "There is just enough truth in some of these stories to make them acceptable, but not enough to allow proof to back them up." The question is this: If so much of what Mrs. Houghton said about Poe must be distrusted or simply discarded, why should we accept anything she said, particularly since the letters themselves are--as Ingram had to concede--the work of someone who, by that time of her life at least, was far from rational? Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus--"False in one, false in all."

Soon after I began researching Poe's life, I became increasingly puzzled, then exasperated, and finally dumbfounded as I constantly stumbled upon bits of information that utterly contradicted the "conventional wisdom" of his history, and I realized that Poe "scholars" have overlooked, distorted, or simply buried these biographical anomalies. This quote of Ingram's is a fine example, but there are countless others--many of which I have (no doubt futilely) written about on this ultra-obscure little blog over the past year. Poe's biographers appear to be so fixated on the revelation that Rufus Griswold lied about Poe, that they are blinded to the fact that very many other people did, as well.

Surely I cannot be the only one ever to notice all these things? How and why have they been burked?

There are times when studying Poe biography puts me in mind of the Harlan Ellison story: "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."