Monday, October 25, 2010

In Defense of Maria Clemm (Part One of Three)

Maria ClemmPoe's aunt/mother-in-law is often nearly as disparaged, albeit for different reasons, as her beloved "Eddie." Poe's early biographer John H. Ingram was the pioneer in this field--largely because he found Mrs. Clemm a convenient scapegoat for her nephew's problems. In our day, Poe specialists Thomas O. Mabbott, John Carl Miller, and Burton R. Pollin, in particular, have denounced the woman with a cruelty and sheer illogicality that forces one to suspect that they were grappling with unresolved and unpleasant "mother issues" of their own. The dislike such men have for her appears to stem from simple--dare I say it?--misogyny. Mabbott in particular stressed that his distaste for her largely arose from the fact that Maria Clemm was a physically unattractive, mannish sort who was indisputably the master of the house. (Both Mabbott and Pollin made it clear that their tastes ran to cutesy, childish balls of fluff like Frances S. Osgood.) These writers assume Poe himself at heart shared their resentment of "Muddy" and her take-charge character, without providing one atom of evidence this was the case. Mrs. Clemm was hardly a saint, but saints have a very low survival rate in our world, and most of this woman's long life was one constant, single-handed battle for survival--not for herself, but for the only two people she loved and who loved her.

The outline of her life is a starkly simple one. This sister of Edgar Poe's father David was born in Baltimore on March 17, 1790. In 1817 she married William Clemm, the widower of her first cousin Harriet Poe. (As a side note, those who look askance at Edgar's marriage to his first cousin should note that in those times intermarriage within clans was commonplace.) Maria and William had three children: Henry, Virginia Sarah or Virginia Maria (who died at the age of two,) and Virginia Eliza. William Clemm died in 1826, leaving both his families (he had five children from his first marriage) virtually nothing.

Although we do not know why, Maria's relatives evidently so disapproved of her marriage that they offered little help in her widowhood. Adding to her burdens was the fact that around this time she took responsibility for nursing her mother Elizabeth, a bedridden invalid. Elizabeth Poe received a small government pension, which Maria supplemented by taking on whatever work, such as washing and sewing, that she could find. She may have worked as a schoolteacher at some point, but as there was another Maria Clemm living in Baltimore at that time, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the two women in the available city records. At some point in the late 1820s, her family gained the addition of her nephew William Henry Leonard Poe. This likely was of no help to her, as W.H.L. was reportedly a sickly, hard-drinking, and quite useless young man. Her only biological son, Henry, went to sea at some point during this period, and evidently never returned. Family legend said he died young during one of his voyages, but we have no details of when and how he died. For all her preoccupation with Edgar and Virginia, Maria Clemm herself left no known mention of Henry at all, which is one of the biggest peculiarities in her entire biography.

Edgar visited the household in 1829 (and possibly earlier, in 1827 and/or1828.) Sometime just before or after William Henry's death in August 1831, he moved in with the little family, inaugurating a long and remarkably close bond with his aunt and little cousin. In July 1835 Maria's mother died. Most unfortunately, her pension, which, meagre as it was, provided a crucial support for the household, died with her. The next month, Edgar went to Richmond to pursue some much-needed regular employment. He appears to have hoped to find a teaching position, but instead found a position at Thomas W. White's "Southern Literary Messenger." Maria and her daughter joined him there that October, and in the following May he and Virginia married. From that time until the deaths of Virginia in 1847 and Edgar two years later, the three were, through thick and thin (and Lord knows there was enough of the latter) almost literally inseparable.

Edgar's death left Maria completely adrift, both financially and emotionally. The fifty-nine year old woman found herself not only without monetary resources, but without a reason to live. For the past twenty years, her entire existence centered around taking care of her "two strange children," (as Mary Gove Nichols dubbed them.) Without them, she had no idea what to do with herself. She lived a sad, nomadic existence, living mostly with a succession of friends or Poe admirers, drifting rather aimlessly until 1863, when she entered the Episcopal Church Home in Baltimore. She died there in February 1871.

The condescending, if not overtly hostile, attitude so many Poe biographers have towards this remarkably unfortunate woman stems from four major charges:

1. The claim that she (through some sort of occult means never really defined) somehow "forced" or "pressured" Edgar into marrying her daughter. This is perhaps the ugliest story Susan Archer Talley Weiss ever unleashed upon the world, and is one of the easiest to refute.

Neither Weiss nor the subsequent biographers who mindlessly parroted her ever decided why, precisely, Maria Clemm risked ruining the lives of her much-loved nephew and her idolized only daughter by arranging a coerced marriage that was bound to bring misery to them both. Sometimes, it is claimed that it was because Virginia was so wildly infatuated with her cousin that her mother feared for her physical and emotional health if she did not immediately become his bride. Or it was because Maria herself wished to secure Edgar as a meal ticket. (If this was the case, Poe biographer Edward Wagenknecht dryly observed, she must have been painfully disappointed.) Or it was to keep him from marrying Thomas W. White's daughter Eliza. Or she "made the match" simply because that would allow Edgar and Virginia to share one bedroom, rather than using two separate ones, thus making their lives in the boardinghouse more economical. (I swear, I am not making that last one up.)

It has also often been suggested that Mrs. Clemm "brokered" the marriage in order to keep their little family together, which is truly peculiar reasoning. They were already together as a family, and had been for years. There was no reason why Poe could not continue living with and/or supporting his aunt and her young daughter, without having the additional, essentially superfluous, tie of marriage to bind them. And if, as so many assume, Mrs. Clemm felt this need to exploit her daughter in order to gain financial security, why didn't she cast Virginia's lot with the more prosperous and stable Neilson Poe when given the opportunity? As biographer William Bittner put it, with, perhaps, unnecessary frankness: "The only reason they could have had for getting married was that they wanted to go to bed together."

As I have said several times before, this sordid "forced marriage" legend is singlehandedly destroyed by a letter Edgar wrote Maria and Virginia from Richmond late in August of 1835. This letter proves that when he left Baltimore in search of steady employment, he already saw Virginia as his "darling little wifey," and that, instead of being manipulated into this marriage, he was terrified "my own sweetest Sissy" might be persuaded to postpone their wedding, or even call it off altogether. Reading between the lines, it is clear that if anyone had any doubts about the planned marriage, it was Maria herself. The fact that so many still insistently cling to Weiss' story is simply incomprehensible.

In Part Two: More dirt will be dished.

(Image of Maria Clemm via Library of Congress)