Monday, December 6, 2010

Poe's Overlooked Enemy (Part One of Two)

Lewis Gaylord Clark and Edgar Allan PoeEveryone who has even a casual interest in Poe's life story knows of the posthumous attacks on his character made by Rufus W. Griswold. However, surprisingly few people are aware that Poe had another equally vicious, and arguably equally influential libeller: Lewis Gaylord Clark. Unlike Griswold, Clark began his public assaults on Poe while his enemy was still very much alive. Thus, he not only played a major role in laying the foundation for Poe's posthumous image, he did much to shape the living Poe's career and reputation.

Another notable thing about Clark is that, unlike other leading Poe enemies such as Griswold, Thomas Dunn English, and Charles F. Briggs, he had no known personal dealings with Poe. In fact, the two likely never even laid eyes on each other on more than two or three very brief occasions. Clark's efforts to destroy Poe's personal and literary reputation were solely and irrefutably based on nothing more than literary politics--thus contradicting the commonly-held assumption that Poe's controversial career was nothing but a self-inflicted wound, a downfall that was entirely due to his own personal foibles.

Clark, the long-time editor of the widely-circulated and extremely powerful "Knickerbocker" magazine, saw himself as the chief promoter and defender of New York's literary clique. Poe's efforts to weaken the influence of this group--which could be said to have commenced with his devastating review of NYC "insider" Theodore Fay's novel "Norman Leslie" in 1835--would in itself be enough to antagonize Clark. In addition, Clark was a determined sectionalist, promoting only New York (and, to a limited extent, New England) writers, and denigrating the literature of the South. Poe, as the guiding force of the "Southern Literary Messenger," that region's leading magazine, would inevitably be seen as his opponent.

It has also been suggested that a minor reason for the feud between Clark and Poe was the latter's resentment towards Richard Adams Locke. A few weeks after Poe published his "Hans Phaall" in the June 1835 issue of the "Messenger," the "New York Sun" came out with Locke's "Moon Hoax," which Poe considered--not without reason--to be a blatant plagiarism of his own work. Clark had had a hand in creating Locke's story, and it may be that when Poe heard of this, it served to increase his antagonism towards the "Knickerbocker" editor. This remains only speculation, however.

Clark launched his war upon Poe in August of 1838, when he wrote for his magazine a mocking review of "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." Professing to treat the novel as a factual account, he characterized "Pym" as "a great many tough stories...told in a loose and slip-shod style, seldom chequered by any of the more common graces of composition..." and loftily derided the "veracity" of the narrator. In those days, positive reviews were the only way to advertise a book, and negative notices were generally enough to kill a book's chances for success. Clark's review, appearing as it did in one of the country's leading literary magazines, is considered one of the major reasons why "Pym" was a commercial failure in America. (Ironically, a pirated edition of the novel that appeared in England did well--but, of course, did not earn Poe a penny.)

His next major attack came in 1840, when Poe published a prospectus for his planned "Penn" magazine. The prospectus made it clear that he saw the "Knickerbocker" as one of the magazines his own publication was intended to supplant, and Clark responded to the implied challenge with his usual gusto. He published a snide editorial hinting that Poe, when working for William Burton's "Gentleman's Magazine," had run that enterprise into the ground, and misquoted Poe's prospectus in a way that suggested he meant to merely imitate the "Knickerbocker."

Poe largely ignored such gibes--he apparently found Clark an unworthy opponent--but during the early 1840s, he continued to antagonize Clark by deriding the output of the "Knickerbocker's" favored writers, while establishing "Graham's Magazine" as Clark's chief competition. In 1843, the "New World" magazine published an anonymous article that was one long, scathing critique not just of the "Knickerbocker" itself, but of Clark personally, stating dryly that "Mr. Lewis Clark has made a considerable noise in the literary world, but how he has made it, would be difficult for his best friends to explain." (The article also lambasted Rufus W. Griswold, calling him "wholly unfit, either by intellect or character, to occupy the editorial chair of Graham's Magazine.")

The author of this article has never been determined, but the important point is that--rightly or wrongly--Clark believed it was Poe, and as a result he--in the words of Poe scholar Sidney P. Moss--"began gunning for Poe with a vengeance." Poe became one of the "Knickerbocker's" favorite targets. When Clark did not publish reviews of Poe's writings that were little more than excuses to attack him personally, he reprinted assaults on his enemy that had appeared elsewhere, thus giving these libels greater circulation and credibility. (For his part, Poe, during his editorship of the "Broadway Journal," published several notices of Clark's magazine that were so ostensibly genial and flattering that the effect is of mockery of a particularly polished order.)

With all this, it is not surprising that when Clark heard that he was to be included in Poe's "The Literati of New York City," a series of gossipy satirical essays about literary celebrities that appeared in "Godey's Lady's Book" in 1846, he panicked. He sought to head off what he assumed would be Poe's revenge against him by publishing an editorial on "The Literati," sneering at "a wandering specimen of 'The Literary Snob' continually obtruding himself upon public notice; today in the gutter, tomorrow in some milliner's magazine; but in all places, and at all times, magnificently snobbish and dirty..." and adding that "We do not think that the 'ungentlemanly and unpardonable personalities of this writer,' of which our contemporary complains, are worthy of notice simply because they are so notoriously false that they destroy themselves."

When Poe's sketch of Clark appeared in the September issue, it fully justified all the "Knickerbocker" editor's fears. Claiming derisively that his subject was "known principally as the twin brother of the late Willis Gaylord Clark," Poe characterized Clark's editorials as "easy writing and hard reading." He commented that "Mr. Clark once did me the honor to review my poems and--I forgive him." Poe playfully gave an insultingly low estimation of the "Knickerbocker's" circulation, and said that Clark "is noticeable for nothing in the world except for the markedness by which he is noticeable for nothing." As he did in all the "Literati" papers, Poe closed by giving a detailed, and highly unflattering, physical description of his subject, making Clark a number of years older than he really was, remarking on his "bullety" forehead, and concluding that his smile "is too constant and lacks expression."

In Part Two: The "Knickerbocker" strikes back.

(Header image: NYPL Digital Gallery)