Monday, October 11, 2010
Many of Edgar Allan Poe's biographers (most recently Kenneth Silverman) have stressed that there was a warm personal friendship between him and Nathaniel Parker Willis. On close examination, however, their relationship takes on a rather different, and far darker aspect.
For one thing, Poe and Willis had scarcely any personal contact after February of 1845, when Poe left his job working for Willis at the "New York Mirror" to join the "Broadway Journal." (According to Charles F. Briggs, Poe left the "Mirror" because "Willis was too Willisy for him.") Willis himself wrote that he and Poe never socialized, and that, except for occasional accidental meetings in the streets of New York, he never saw Poe outside the "Mirror" offices. In December of 1846, he stated that he had had no contact at all with Poe in two years.*** (As a side note, this statement exposes Frances S. Osgood's story that Poe asked Willis to introduce him to her in March 1845 as a blatant lie. It also indirectly proves that Poe's participation in New York's literary society was much less frequent than his biographers assume. We know that Willis was a prominent attendee at the "salons" and other gatherings of the New York literati. If Poe also frequented these gatherings in 1845-46, how could Willis say he never saw him during this period?)
We have the testimony of Briggs and James Russell Lowell that Poe, in fact, rather despised Willis--with the intimation that Willis was aware of this fact. We do not have anything directly from Poe which confirms this, but he made no secret of the fact that he thought little of most of Willis' literary work--he regarded his more commercially successful contemporary as what we today would call a "lightweight." At least one of Poe's early satirical stories mocked Willis unmercifully. For his part, in 1829 Willis published a scathing review of Poe's "Fairyland," describing in great detail his joy in throwing the offending poem into the burning fireplace. (It should also be kept in mind that Willis was a long-time influential member of the insider "literary cliques" whose stranglehold on American literature Poe fought so hard to destroy.) It is hard to believe that Willis was completely ignorant of Poe's true feelings toward him. (Poe, incidentally, was not alone in this dislike. Willis, a foppish, vain, and tiresomely affected man, was widely and passionately detested by his literary contemporaries--including his own sister.) Although he professed to speak well of Poe in print, both before and after the poet's death, Willis' writings about him, when read between the lines, betray an undercurrent of insult that is very interesting.
The most striking example is an editorial that Willis wrote for his magazine "Home Journal," in December of 1846. In this column, inspired by a widely-circulated newspaper paragraph describing Poe and his wife as dying, destitute, and friendless, he proposed a public charity "Hospital For Disabled Labourers With the Brain," pointing to Poe as a prime example of the need for such an establishment. (While simultaneously admitting he did not even know if the newspaper reports of Poe's desperate condition were accurate.) Not content with describing his "friend" as a helpless beggar, thanks to Poe's "infirmities," (although he conceded that he knew the publication of Poe's personal troubles left the poet "deeply mortified and distressed,") Willis, for reasons best known to himself, felt the need to pile on to the current vogue for publicly degrading Poe. In the course of this "sympathetic" editorial, Willis--quite unnecessarily--made note of the recent scandal involving Elizabeth Ellet, referring to "conduct and language charged against him [Poe] which, were he, at the time, in sane mind, were an undeniable forfeiture of character and good feeling. To blame, in some degree, still, perhaps he is. But let charity for the failings of human nature judge of the degree." In other words, Willis--without having any first-hand knowledge of the Poe/Ellet dispute--invited his readers to think the worst of Poe's behavior, with his only defense of Poe being that the poet deserved pity rather than pure censure.
Willis went on--again for no good reason--to describe a time when Poe came into the "Evening Mirror" offices and "with no symptom of ordinary intoxication...talked like a man insane...We learned afterwards that the least stimulus--a single glass of wine--would produce this effect upon Mr. Poe...and while under the influence, voluble and personally self-possessed, but neither sane nor responsible." He then added, condescendingly, that "Mr. Poe may not be willing to consent to even this admission of any infirmity."
All in all, Rufus W. Griswold himself could not have come up with a more elegant piece of public character assassination.
For someone as proud, sensitive, and private as Poe, this editorial must have been excruciating--particularly since his enemies gleefully used Willis' "defense" as additional ammunition to label Poe as a pathetic, dissipated, insane wreck. (Poe scholar Sidney P. Moss wrote with utterly unconscious irony that "for all the harm it [Willis' editorial] did, it might have been written by Poe's worst enemy.") When Poe subsequently sent an open letter to Willis referring to the "Journal" editor's "kind and manly comments," his sarcasm practically sears a hole in the page. Poe replied to Willis' unhelpful editorial with dignity, wit, and a plethora of barbed, obviously coded messages. (When publishing Poe's letter, Willis prefaced it with the enigmatic words, "What was the under-current of feeling in his mind while it was written, can be easily understood by the few; but it carries enough on its surface to be sufficiently understood.")
In reference to the widely circulated newspaper report of his desperate condition which had inspired Willis' editorial, Poe said acidly, "The motive of the paragraph I leave to the conscience of him or her who wrote it or suggested it." (It would be interesting to know precisely which man or woman Poe was indirectly addressing.) Poe admitted that it was true his wife was in very poor health, adding that her illness had been "heightened and precipitated" by receiving two anonymous letters--one enclosing the newspaper paragraph in question, the other sending the published libels against Poe written by Thomas Dunn English and Hiram Fuller. (It should be noted that these two letters, evidently the handiwork of Elizabeth Ellet, are the only such messages we know Virginia received. These letters aimed to wound Poe's wife by rubbing her nose in the fact that the world saw her and her husband as pitiful, friendless losers, and that Poe himself was being publicly abused. There is no evidence for the oft-repeated assertion by Poe's biographers that she received any poison-pen letters accusing her spouse of adultery.)
Poe acknowledged that it was also accurate that he himself had been incapacitated by illness, a circumstance which made his enemies feel free to indulge themselves in "the innumerable paragraphs of personal and of literary abuse with which I have been latterly assailed." He predicted that upon his recovery, "the gentlemen who toadied me in the old, will recollect themselves and toady me again," and that these attacks "served, in a measure, to lighten the gloom of unhappiness, by a gentle and not unpleasant sentiment of mingled pity, merriment, and contempt."
He closed by admitting that his lengthy illness had impeded his ability to earn money, but he denied that as a result he had materially suffered "beyond the extent of my capacity for suffering," and that, contrary to the reports that he was friendless and alone, he claimed that, if necessary, there were any number of people in New York to whom he could have applied for financial assistance. He closed by stating that he was recovering his health and strength, "if it be any comfort to my enemies." "The truth is, I have a great deal to do; and I have made up my mind not to die till it is done."
It is unclear how much, if any, communication they had after Poe responded to Willis' editorial. Several of Poe's works later appeared in the "Home Journal," and we have some letters between them that date from 1847-49. However, some, if not all, of these letters are suspected to be the handiwork of that expert and frighteningly prolific Poe forger from the 1920s-30s, Joseph Cosey. Willis was among the mourners at Virginia Poe's funeral in February 1847, but it is uncertain if the two men had any further in-person interaction before Poe's death in 1849. Theirs was clearly, at best, an extremely nebulous friendship, which makes it all the stranger that Willis would have the presumption to set himself up as an authority on Poe.
Willis' singular way of championing Poe continued after the latter's death. In 1850, Willis wrote that his personal knowledge of the late poet had been entirely favorable, describing him as "a quiet, patient, industrious, and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling by his unvarying deportment and ability," and that he had only known Poe as a "sad-mannered, winning, and refined gentleman." He added that "It was by rumor only, up to the day of his death, that we knew of any other development of manner or character." (This assertion contradicts his 1846 account of Poe visiting Willis' offices talking "like a man insane.")
"Rumor," one would think, is not something one would wish to enshrine in public print about a "friend," particularly one who is dead and no longer able to speak for himself. Willis, however, thought otherwise. Again showing his genius for either incredible tactlessness or clever back-stabbing, he told the world that "we heard" that "with a single glass of wine, his whole nature was reversed, the demon became uppermost, and, though none of the usual signs of intoxication were visible, his will was palpably insane." After repeating that he had no first-hand knowledge of this reputed side of Poe's character, he nevertheless gave this tittle-tattle his personal stamp of approval, as his only defense of Poe was to attribute to him "a temporary and almost irresponsible insanity," which accounted for his "arrogance, vanity, and depravity of heart." "Under that degree of intoxication which only acted upon him by demonizing his sense of truth and right, he doubtless said and did much that was wholly irreconcilable with his better nature; but, when himself, and as we knew him only, his modesty and unaffected humility, as to his own deservings, were a constant charm to his character."
Willis went on to write that it was much easier "to believe what we have seen and known, than what we hear of only, that we remember him with admiration and respect--these descriptions of him, when morally insane, seeming to us like portraits, painted in sickness, of a man we have known only in health."
In short, Willis emphatically volunteered that his own personal experiences showed him nothing that was not to Poe's great credit. Why, then, did he have this consistent need to publicize stories that he himself described as rumor and hearsay, and which he professed to find nearly impossible to believe? If he wished to defend his late friend, why not merely stick to relating his own first-hand knowledge of the man, instead of giving additional circulation and credibility to gossip he could not verify?
This was a very strange "friendship," indeed.
***A footnote: Willis' testimony about having no contact with Poe from 1845-46 is relevant to at least one extant letter of his to Poe. It is undated, but the textual evidence has led Poe scholars to presume it was written circa May 1846. Willis' statement indicates that this letter is either completely misdated or a forgery.
(Willis image: NYPL Digital Gallery)