Monday, November 29, 2010

A Further Note About Poe and Thomas H. Chivers

Thomas Holley Chivers and Edgar Allan PoeSome time ago, I wrote about the strange history of the so-called "Life of Poe" manuscript that was allegedly written by Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers.

There are additional details which make these documents even more questionable. To recap: Chivers' nephew John Q. Adams announced in 1888 (thirty years after Chivers' death) that he had, through mysterious and never-explained means, acquired an iron box containing letters from Poe to "a friend," as well as a complete MS. copy of a Poe biography penned by this same "friend." (Very strangely, he avoided giving the name of this "friend" of Poe's, let alone giving any hint that this Poe intimate was Adams' own uncle.) There is no proof Adams ever actually displayed these supposedly very valuable documents to anyone, although in 1903 the "Century" magazine published what are assumed to be excerpts from these papers (although no connection to Adams was stated--the magazine did not say where they acquired this material at all--and these published excerpts bear little resemblance to the papers he described.)

In the 1920s, Henry Huntington purchased Poe-related documents through a book dealer (who acquired them from an unknown source.) These papers, which are now in California's Huntington Library, are assumed to be the same Chivers/Adams/"Century" collection. However, again, it was never established that these were the same papers used for the 1903 publication. George Woodberry, the editor of the "Century" article, only worked with transcripts, not the original documents, and there is no known connection between Adams and the papers Huntington purchased. The "Chivers' 'Life of Poe,'" published in 1952, comes from this Huntington collection. (Although it does not consist of a complete manuscript, such as the one Adams described; it is merely a handful of brief, carelessly-written, virtually illegible fragments.)

Joel Benton In the Poe Circle Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Holley ChiversJoel Benton relied heavily upon Adams as a source for his 1899 book, "In the Poe Circle." Adams said nothing to Benton about this cache of important Poe/Chivers manuscripts he supposedly had acquired. Rather, Benton wrote that Chivers' library was destroyed during the Civil War, "and that all his manuscripts were more or less injured," indicating that Adams had told him there was virtually nothing left of Chivers' papers. Benton stated that Adams had in his possession one--evidently only one--letter that Poe wrote to Chivers. All Adams provided from this letter was one line: "Please lend me $50 for three months--I am so poor and friendless I am half distracted; but I shall be all right when you and I start our magazine." This rather artificial-sounding quote does not appear in any extant letter Poe wrote to Chivers or anyone else, which just adds to the general air of shenanigans which surrounds the "Chivers manuscripts" we have today.

Further complicating an already convoluted story is an article which appeared in the "Atlanta Constitution" on June 20, 1909. The writer of the column made a reference to Chivers' papers, commenting that "The wife of Dr. Chivers lived for several years after him, and through the war, many valuable documents were lost, together with an iron box, always a mysterious thing in the family, and remains a mystery till today. This box, I learn, was buried and hid about during the war till eventually it was lost--whether the soldiers found it, or whether it still remains where it was hid and the place forgotten, remains unknown."

Now, where does this leave Mr. Adams and his story about acquiring this "iron box" of documents--documents he never displayed--a discovery he announced 21 years before in the pages of the "Atlanta Constitution?" We appear to be dealing with four unconnected sets of documents: The set Adams claimed to have (but never displayed,) the set published by the "Century" (which came from an unnamed source, and where the original documents were not even used,) the set purchased by Henry Huntington (a transaction where--according to a staff member of the Huntington Library itself--the dealer who sold them would not or could not reveal their provenance,) and the set the "Atlanta Constitution" writer said had disappeared during the Civil War!

Every story connected with the history of the "Poe/Chivers papers" reeks of mystery, evasion, and hopeless contradiction. Nevertheless, since their publication, these same papers have been extensively quoted--as unimpeachable fact--in all Poe biographies. Why do Poe scholars blithely assume the Poe/Chivers documents in the Huntington Library are perfectly trustworthy as source material, when the "chain of custody" linking them to Chivers himself--or even John Quincy Adams--is not merely broken, but utterly nonexistent? Why is this material still used today to shape public perceptions of Poe, particularly since the "Chivers' Life of Poe" itself, even if genuine, is intrinsically worthless as source material? (It must be kept in mind that even if Chivers truly wrote these manuscript fragments--which is, to put it mildly, not proven--he scarcely knew Poe personally, and had--to his mind at least--reason to resent him. After Poe's death, Chivers made a laughingstock of himself by making increasingly strident and unbalanced claims that the late poet had plagiarized Chivers' own work.)

When studying Poe's history, I find myself continually reminded of his biographer William Bittner's wry observation that "The forging of Poe documents has proved to be so profitable that ingenuity has been expended on it that might better have been put to legitimate Poe research, perhaps with a little counterfeiting on the side to finance the long work required."