Monday, October 4, 2010

The Brother of Edgar Poe

Perhaps the most notable thing about Edgar Allan Poe's only brother is how little is known about him. William Henry Leonard (who usually went by the name, "Henry,") is believed to have been born in Boston on January 30, 1807. After the death of his mother, Eliza, in 1811, he was raised by his paternal grandparents in Baltimore. (The question of why the Poe family did not also take custody of Henry's two siblings is an intriguing puzzle.) As he reached young manhood, Henry became a sailor for a brief period. Upon his return to Baltimore, he published in local newspapers accounts of his travels, as well as (largely commonplace) fiction and poetry. This included, most curiously, poems published by his brother Edgar, which Henry reprinted under his own initials. It has been suggested (although never proven) that Edgar, in his turn, later appropriated tales of Henry's adventures abroad as part of his own life story. (This mutual borrowing of literary and biographical elements inspired some of George W. Eveleth's more interesting speculations. In 1875, in reference to a daguerreotype of Edgar Poe taken soon before his death, Eveleth wrote to Poe's biographer John H. Ingram "Whether it was not the image of the spirit of Henry Poe, which was caught upon that plate in Richmond, on Thursday, Sept. 27, 1849--whether, indeed, it was not that same spirit, 'materialized,' that got into all the scrapes and cut all the curious capers put to the account of Edgar A.?")

Among Henry's published writings is a short story called "The Pirate," which is generally described as having been inspired by Edgar's failed relationship with Sarah Elmira Royster. That assumption is extremely puzzling, as there is nothing in the story that shows any obvious connection to the Edgar/Sarah legend. This attribution is, if anything, even more baseless than the popular, if utterly fallacious, idea that Lambert A. Wilmer's "Merlin" was inspired by this same reputed romance.

Sometime in the late 1820s, Henry joined the household of his aunt Maria Clemm. About this time, Edgar paid them a visit, afterwards reporting to his foster father John Allan that his brother was "entirely given up to drink & unable to help himself." Henry died on August 1,1831 of unknown causes, possibly tuberculosis, cholera, alcoholism, or some combination of the three. His death, like his brief life, attracted little notice. One Baltimore paper, in its announcement of his death, even gave his surname as "Pope."

Little is known about Henry's personality. There are accounts, of highly questionable authenticity and presented many years after his death, describing him as a moody, rather neurasthenic young man--an impression, it must be said, that one also gains from his writings. Conversely, the ever-unreliable Marie Louise Shew Houghton wrote Ingram that Edgar described his brother as a "dashing gay cavalier," with a nature "coarser rougher" than himself. Any clear sense of who and what he was remains elusive.

We also have little idea of what relationship, if any, Henry had with siblings Edgar and Rosalie. He evidently made at least one visit to Richmond during the 1820s. Sarah Royster, some fifty years later, recalled seeing Henry in Richmond sometime in 1825, but she gave no details of this visit. We do know, however, that Henry is indirectly responsible for one of the stranger items of Poeana we have. It is a letter Edgar's foster father John Allan apparently wrote to him in November of 1824, when Henry was seventeen and Edgar fifteen. The letter we have is only a copy, so we do not know if it is identical to any letter Allan may have actually sent the youth. We also have no idea why Allan would carefully preserve such a document.

The letter is full of contempt for Allan's foster son, who is described as "miserable, sulky & ill-tempered," adding that Edgar "possesses not a Spark of affection for us not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him." In contrast, the letter is full of a bizarrely sycophantic regard for Henry, saying that "I feel proudly the difference between your principles & his & have my desire to Stand as I ought to do in your Estimation," and "Beleive [sic] me Dear Henry we take an affectionate interest in your destinies and our United Prayers will be that the God of Heaven will bless & protect you rely on him my Brave & excellent Boy who is willing & ready to save to the uttermost."

Certainly, this is an exceedingly peculiar way for an adult man to address an penniless teenager whom he must have scarcely known!

The part of this letter that has aroused the most controversy is the reference to Henry's "poor Sister Rosalie." The missive told Henry that "At least She is half your Sister & God forbid my dear Henry that We should visit upon the living the Errors & frailties of the dead."

In discussing this singularly unpleasant epistle, Edgar Poe's biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn noted--perhaps without fully realizing the significance of his words--the "artificial" quality of the letter, which he said was obviously written "for some purpose not apparent on the surface." Indeed. We have no idea why Allan would write and then keep such a letter--if he truly was the actual writer--but it definitely has the air of something someone wanted as part of the historical record. The letter's eagerness to blacken both Edgar and his mother, and the even more baffling panegyrics for brother Henry, all mark it as one of the many disquieting mysteries that infest Poe biography.