Monday, December 13, 2010

Poe's Overlooked Enemy (Part Two)

Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Gaylord ClarkClark was now becoming truly unhinged on the subject of Poe--he seems to have found his enemy's teasing much harder to bear than mere hatred. He published an lengthy editorial devoted to working off some of his fury. Clark opened by addressing a correspondent he identified only as "J.G.H.," who had supposedly sent Clark a letter containing charges against Poe. (We do not know what these accusations may have been, or even if "J.G.H." existed outside of Clark's imagination.) Clark thanked "J.G.H." for his communication, but added, "bless your heart, man! you can't expect us to publish it," thus intimating to his audience that this letter contained revelations about Poe too shocking even for publication. (This clever tactic of hinting at horrifying scandals regarding Poe--while never, of course, describing what these scandals may have been, thus allowing the imagination of the reader to picture the worst--went on to become a favored, and highly effective, tactic among his defamers. Cf. the "Poe reminiscences" of Rufus W. Griswold, Charles F. Briggs and Thomas Dunn English.) Clark went on to describe Poe as "the wretched inebriate," a "jaded hack," who was "too mean for hate, and hardly worthy scorn." Clark sneered that "there are but two classes of persons who regard him in any light--those who despise and those who pity him; the first for his utter lack of principle, the latter for the infirmities which have overcome and ruined him." As a means of corroborating his insults, Clark also made reference to recent assaults against Poe that had been made by Hiram Fuller and others, painting a picture of Poe as a drunken, deranged, pitiful scoundrel whose critical opinions could not be taken seriously. For good measure, he closed with a brazen and deliberate lie--the claim that Poe satirized him in "The Literati" only because Clark had rejected some of his manuscripts.

This despicable piece of writing was something of a landmark in the destruction of Poe's reputation. As Moss noted, "Here for the first time--three years before his death--we have in print the allegations so familiar these days..."

The "Knickerbocker" followed up this rant with another clumsy jab at Poe in the form of some feeble doggerel entitled "Epitaph on a Modern 'Critic'," which was probably written by Clark himself:

"'Here Aristarchus lies!' (a pregnant phrase,
And greatly hackneyed, in his early days,
By those who saw him in hs maudlin scenes,
And those who read him in the magazines.)
Here Aristarchus lies, (nay, never smile,)
Cold as his muse, and stiffer than his style;
But whether Bacchus or Minerva claims
The crusty critic, all conjecture shames;
Nor shall the world know which the mortal sin,
Excessive genius or excessive gin!"

Poe, never one to be cowed, again favored Clark with his notice in the subsequent "Literati" essay on Charles Fenno Hoffman. Noting that Hoffman was the original editor of the "Knickerbocker," Poe lamented that the publication subsequently entered into a "dense region of unmitigated and unmitigable fog," a "dreary realm of outer darkness, of utter and inconceivable dunderheadism," under the editorship of "the august person of one Lewis Gaylord Clark."Lewis Gaylord Clark the Knickerbocker MagazineAfter this exchange, the public quarrel lapsed--possibly because Clark either realized he was quite literally outwitted or he simply ran out of nasty things to write about Poe. He largely avoided the topic of his old antagonist until Griswold's notorious biography of their common enemy appeared in 1850. Clark and Griswold were long-time friends, and this gave him additional motivation to defend Poe's literary executor from the outrage that arose over his defamation of the dead poet. As the volumes of Griswold's edition of Poe's works appeared, Clark published several reviews designed to offer Griswold support. Clark enthusiastically reiterated all of Griswold's calumnies, describing Poe as someone "destitute of moral or religious principle." Clark, like Griswold, accused Poe of being a serial plagiarist. In particular, he repeated a claim that Clark himself had originally made in print and that was echoed by Griswold--the allegation that Poe's poem "The Haunted Palace," was a shameless steal from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Beleaguered City." Longfellow--to his credit--refuted this charge, pointing out to Griswold that his own poem was written after "The Haunted Palace" had been published. (Poe himself, noting the similarities between the two poems, had drawn Griswold's attention to this fact as early as 1841.) Clark and Griswold coolly ignored him. As Sidney Moss (with remarkable understatement) wrote: "both Clark and Griswold were parties to deliberate falsehoods. To concur in a truth is simple; to concur in a lie betrays collaboration." We will likely never know just how many more of Poe's supposed sins and personal flaws were merely similar lies his enemies "collaborated" in creating and spreading.The Haunted Palace Edgar Allan PoeClark, like Griswold, could not allow his loathing of Poe to rest. As late as 1856, he was still on the attack, approvingly republishing a passage from an article in the "North American Review" which was essentially a rehash of Griswold's old libels (it has been noted that, however, he carefully omitted a section from this article referring to Poe's battle against "cliquism.") Clark added to this passage his declaration that Poe had had "no literary influence whatever," because he was "destitute of moral sentiment." His final public comment on Poe came in 1860, when he reviewed Sarah Helen Whitman's "Edgar Poe and His Critics." He wrote that his own negative assessments of Poe had been given "frankly and conscientiously." He asserted that "it would give us pleasure to add, that Mr. Poe's biographers had since given us occasion to change them." Clark made it clear that no such transformation had occurred by quoting another review of Whitman's book that asserted it "does not wipe out the...dishonorable records in the biography of Dr. Griswold." The "Knickerbocker" editor ultimately failed in his true goal of discrediting Poe as a critic, but succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in discrediting Poe as a man.

Lewis Gaylord Clark, the man who was, in Moss' words, "the man most guilty of creating and circulating calumnies of Poe while Poe was alive," died in 1873. His friend Thomas Bangs Thorpe eulogized him as a man "never else to the world than light-hearted, always kindly disposed," who "viewed every thing, if you please, from a delicate, truly refined, and humorous stand-point."

If such a petty, crude, unscrupulous and mendacious man was truly so admired by his contemporaries, it provides an eloquent, if unwittingly revealing, commentary on the literary milieu of Poe's time.

(Header image: NYPL Digital Gallery)