Monday, November 8, 2010

In Defense of Maria Clemm (Part Three)

Rufus W Griswold and Edgar Allan Poe New York Public Library4. Mrs. Clemm's fourth and final affront against the sensibilities of the biographers is the fact that she allowed Rufus W. Griswold to serve as Poe's literary executor. We will never know how Griswold got that fatal task--as so often happens in Poe's history, everyone involved offered completely different and utterly incompatible explanations, leaving the truth hopelessly buried. The Lewises, however--"Stella" was already angling for Griswold to become her next literary patron--clearly played a central, and quite sinister, role in it all. (Mr. Lewis acted as Mrs. Clemm's legal advisor, and Mrs. Lewis proudly took "credit" for enlisting Griswold on the dead poet's behalf.) Mrs. Clemm stated afterwards that Poe had not intended that Griswold be his executor, but she never made it clear what, if any, plans he had made in that respect.

What often gets overlooked is that Griswold's appointment as executor was disastrous only in retrospect. At the time of Poe's death, he and Griswold had been on outwardly amicable terms for some time. Griswold, in his usual oily fashion, had managed to bamboozle Mrs. Clemm (and other people as well) into thinking he was not unfriendly towards her son. And Griswold may have been a shameless and mediocre literary hack, but he was a highly successful and influential one. All in all, he must have seemed to Mrs. Clemm as good a choice to handle Poe's literary estate as anyone.

While the poor woman must gone on to blame herself every day of her life for allowing Griswold anywhere near Poe's legacy, the fact that she did so is completely understandable.

There have been several minor accusations made against Maria Clemm, as well--largely from Annie Richmond and Marie Louise Houghton. These personal resentments were vague and often illogical. We have a letter "Annie" wrote in the early 1850s to Mrs. Houghton--who appears from this document to have been a close personal friend, although oddly neither woman, in their dealings with Poe biographer John H. Ingram, gave any other mention of their relationship. In this letter, "Annie" complains cryptically of Mrs. Clemm having betrayed some sort of secrets or confidences of hers. What these could have been is anybody's guess.

Mrs. Richmond also told Ingram that certain of Poe's letters to her had disappeared, and accused Mrs. Clemm of having stolen them. (When Ingram's bitter biographical rival William Gill published quotes from one of her Poe letters, "Annie" sensed that Ingram resented her collaboration with his enemy. She shiftily excused herself to him by stating that Gill also must have obtained those letters through thievery.) She never made it clear why Poe's aunt would have done such a thing, and her credibility is not enhanced by the fact that, during Mrs. Clemm's lifetime, she wrote to her wailing that a daguerreotype of Poe she owned had disappeared. She declared that someone must have stolen it, and (rather tactlessly) begged Mrs. Clemm to see to it that she (Mrs. Richmond) got Mrs. Clemm's own Poe daguerreotype after she (Mrs. C.) died. As we know Mrs. Richmond had this "stolen" daguerreotype in her possession some years later, her story smacks of either extreme carelessness or suspicious craftiness. At any rate, for all her fondness for back-stabbing Mrs. Clemm, Mrs. Richmond fooled her into thinking she was her warm friend to the end. ("Annie" had hoped to obtain Mrs. Clemm's papers after she died, and grumbled to Ingram about how her husband's illness at the time Poe's aunt passed on prevented her from marching to Baltimore and insisting upon her "claim" to them.)

As for Mrs. Houghton, her bitterness appears to have stemmed from resentment that Mrs. Clemm had not expressed sufficient "gratitude" for all her alleged services to the Poe family. Mrs. Houghton--from what little can be deciphered from her rambling, hysterical and incredibly incoherent letters to Ingram--was indignant that the world was unaware what a Godsend she had been to the Poes, as (she obviously believed) Mrs. Clemm should have told one and all of how much Poe "owed" to her. (At the time Mrs. Houghton was writing to Ingram, she and Mrs. Lewis were locked in a fierce, and most unseemly competition. Each lady was desperate to convince Poe's biographer that she herself--and not the other woman--had been Poe's chief "benefactress.") Mrs. Houghton also made some disparaging remarks about Mrs. Clemm's "worldly wisdom." Rather perversely, she went on to imply that Poe's aunt was to blame for their indigence because she had too much pride to admit to anyone the family was in need of charity, which hardly seems to indicate "worldliness."

Sarah Helen Whitman once said that Frances S. Osgood had told her that Mrs. Clemm was nothing but a thorn in Poe's side, and was always getting him into difficulties. Whether Osgood actually said such a thing is unknown, but if she did it shows that her claims of being so friendly with the Poe family were self-serving lies. Whitman herself made it clear she was dubious about the truth of this remark. She stated that to her, Poe had always spoken of his aunt with the greatest love and gratitude for the devoted care she had given him and Virginia. Indeed, everyone else who knew Poe unanimously agreed this was his attitude--an attitude they also agreed was entirely justified, as the poor man would not have lasted five minutes in the world without her mothering. In spite of all the poverty and discord of Poe's life, Mrs. Clemm always managed somehow to provide him with a stable, affectionate, comforting home life that was his one refuge from the world. Without her and Virginia, Poe would undoubtedly have met a far earlier, and even worse end than he did.

All in all, Mrs. Clemm's accusers wind up looking far worse than their target.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, Mrs. Clemm had her flaws. In her long battles with the world, she could be insincere, manipulative, even exploitative towards anyone who could provide aid and comfort to her family. In the long "lonesome latter years" after Poe's death, she usually comes off as self-pitying and lugubrious--although God knows she had justification. However, I know of no instance where she was proven to be deliberately harmful or hurtful to anyone--no matter how they may have deserved it. While Edgar and Virginia lived, Mrs. Clemm was invariably described as a cheerful, dignified, remarkably capable, very motherly woman whose devotion to her "children" was completely unselfish and virtually limitless. Everything she did, however questionable, was done for her loved ones, and given the odds against her, she managed to do an impressive amount. The woman was a survivor if ever there was one. As Edward Wagenknecht said, "she was as immovable as the hills and as tireless as the sea; no human being was ever more faithful to those who put their trust in her."

It's rather a pity that when the Civil War broke out, neither side thought to make her a General. If they had, whichever army she served would have won the conflict within a week.

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)