Monday, August 30, 2010

The "Penn," the "Stylus," and Poe (Part One)

"Never pursue literature as a trade."
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Edgar Allan PoeThe great ambition of Edgar Allan Poe's professional life was to have the means to run a magazine of his own design. His failure to do so is one of the major "what-ifs" in his eerily unlucky life, as well as one of its mysteries.

The question of why he failed to achieve this goal is one that his biographers have never been able to fully explain. His plans to establish a publication of his own appeared to fail at different times, for different reasons, but the details remain oddly obscure.

Poe first seriously pursued founding a magazine in 1840. He was increasingly exasperated with his job as editor of "Burton's Magazine," and he had come to personally despise his employer, William Burton. His unpleasant experience with Burton (and earlier, with Thomas W. White's "Southern Literary Messenger,") led him to the logical conclusion that the only way he could prosper in the literary world was if he gained some measure of autonomy over his own career. As he wrote to a Robert T. Conrad early in 1841, "I have not only labored solely for the benefit of others (receiving for myself a miserable pittance) but have been forced to model my thoughts at the will of men whose imbecility was evident to all but themselves."

In June 1840, Poe published in the Philadelphia "Saturday Courier" an announcement that his new magazine, to be called the "Penn," would appear on the first day of the next year. The prospectus explained that "in founding a magazine of my own lies my sole chance of carrying out to completion whatever peculiar intentions I may have entertained." He promised a publication that would deal in "absolutely independent criticism--a criticism self-sustained; guiding itself only by the purest rules of Art; analyzing and urging these rules as it applies them; holding itself aloof from all personal bias; acknowledging no fear save that of outraging the right; yielding no point either to the vanity of the author or to the assumptions of antique prejudice, or to the involute and anonymous cant of the Quarterlies, or to the arrogance of those organized cliques which, hanging like nightmares upon American literature, manufacture, at the nod of our principal booksellers, a pseudo-public-opinion by wholesale."

Unfortunately, Poe was seriously ill at the beginning of 1841 (it is one of the myriad strange factors of his strange life that he tended to fall sick at particularly inopportune moments.) He was forced to delay his plans, but still hoped the first issue of the "Penn" would appear in March. He continued industriously petitioning everyone he knew for support.

A rash of bank suspensions, however, made it impossible to acquire capital. He considered using money pledged by subscribers to launch publication, but was dissuaded by one of his correspondents, who pointed out that relying on distant subscribers would not only cost him a great deal (in those days, postal rates were gauged by distance,) but he could not rely on these customers to pay promptly--if at all. Such a scheme had been attempted before, his would-be-backer noted, and had always failed. Having no choice but to suspend his plans--he assured a friend that the "Penn" was "scotched, not killed"--he instead accepted George Rex Graham's request for him to join the editorial staff of his eponymous new magazine. Poe had hopes that, in return, Graham would join him in establishing another publication under Poe's design and control.

Although, unlike with White and Burton, Poe's personal relations with Graham remained largely friendly (after Poe's death, Graham wrote two of the more interesting early defenses of his former employee,) their business association soon floundered, with Poe leaving "Graham's" in the spring of 1842. His reasons for resigning were varied. His pay--$800 a year--was almost insultingly small, considering "Graham's" sharp rise in circulation during his tenure. (His replacement, Rufus W. Griswold, received a far higher salary.) Poe was also increasingly disgusted with what he described as the "namby-pamby" character of the publication, calling particular attention to "the contemptible pictures, fashion-plates, music, and love-tales." (Incidentally, anyone who peruses old copies of "Graham's" must think that Poe spoke with great restraint.) Poe had also lost hope of enlisting Graham's backing for his own magazine. He claimed that he had unwittingly sabotaged himself: He had made such a success of "Graham's" that his employer feared having him at the helm of a rival venture. These additional frustrations clearly intensified his old eagerness to be his own master.

In January 1843, he formed a partnership with the publisher of Philadelphia's "Sunday Museum," Thomas Cottrell Clarke, to launch a magazine that was now to be called "The Stylus." However, after the usual strange and only partially-explained misadventures one comes to associate with Poe's history (most notably his famously disastrous trip to Washington D.C. that March,) the planned joint venture was abandoned by spring.

Different reasons have been proposed for this latest failure, none of them satisfactory. It has been suggested that the widespread chatter of Poe's drinking bouts and general unreliability (chatter, interestingly enough, that always seem to intensify whenever his magazine plans looked like they would come to fruition,) gave Clarke cold feet about entering a business partnership with him. There is nothing to indicate this was the case. Indeed, Clarke afterwards always made a point of praising Poe highly, as a talent and as a man. It is also theorized that the general economic uncertainty of those times, as well as his sudden personal financial problems, discouraged Clarke from launching a costly and risky enterprise. Poe himself left little record of his feelings about what must have been a particularly galling disappointment. About all we have from him on the matter was his bitter words to James Russell Lowell that "I have been deprived, though the imbecility, or rather through the idiocy of my partner, of all means of prosecuting it for the present."

After this episode, Poe was forced to put his plans on hold, but he was fiercely determined to never abandon them. Even the Greek tragedy known as the "Broadway Journal" failed to discourage him. In 1846 he told a correspondent: "Touching 'The Stylus'--this is the one great purpose of my literary life. Undoubtedly (unless I die) I will accomplish it--but I can afford to lose nothing by precipitancy...I wish to establish a journal in which the men of genius may fight their battles; upon some terms of equality, with those dunces the men of talent."

Thanks in no small part to the various public and private vicissitudes Poe suffered from 1846-48, he was unable to do much more than daydream about his life's great ambition until the winter of 1848, when a resident of Oquawka, Ill. named E.H.N. Patterson contacted him. Patterson was a great admirer of Poe's, and conceived the notion of publishing a magazine that would be under Poe's sole editorial control.

Reading between the lines, it is clear that Poe was highly skeptical about placing his hopes with a non-literary man he had never heard of, from a small western town undoubtedly equally unknown. (It took him four months to answer Patterson's initial query.) He continued to correspond with the stranger until his death settled the matter for them both, but this proposal would most likely have proved as chimerical as all the earlier ones.

If Poe had succeeded in establishing his "dream magazine," it would not only have provided him with professional satisfaction, and a forum to combat his many powerful literary enemies, but financial stability as well. If he had ever achieved the last goal in particular, its effects on his life as a whole would have been incalculable. It can be assumed that if, when Poe first formulated his plans in the very early 1840s, he had succeeded in gaining a steady, comfortable income, not only would he have benefited emotionally and physically, but his wife Virginia would have as well. It is arguable that her life would have been prolonged, perhaps by years, and Poe himself might well not have died--under whatever strange circumstances--at the early age of forty. At the very least, if Virginia had lived, Poe's last two years would certainly have been far different from the surreal demolition derby that characterized his brief time as a widower. Given a healthier, happier, longer life, who knows what else he might have contributed to literature?

How did this entire debacle come to pass? From his "Southern Literary Messenger" days, the publishing world recognized Poe as a formidable force. His brilliance as a writer was unquestioned, his success at the various publications where he worked acknowledged and respected. If he had been able to work such wonders at magazines where he had, so to speak, one hand tied behind his back, it is only logical that, given a completely free hand, he could have utterly transformed the world of literature. Many writers less admired, and with far inferior track records, had had the chance to start their own publications. Why not Poe?

Perhaps at least part of the answer lies in this recognition of his enormous potential for success, should he ever be given the opportunity. It goes far too frequently unnoticed that in his day, Poe was hated because he was feared. From the beginning of his career, he--as he stated in his "Penn" prospectus--openly made it his mission to destroy the stranglehold a small number of coteries held over American literature. There was a tightly-knit handful of people (largely in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston) who controlled the entire field of letters. If you were "in" with them, their journals and publishing houses, as well as those of their minions, enthusiastically promoted your work to the public, with little regard for merit. If you were not part of this charmed circle, you were ignored. And if you tried to enlighten the outside world about what was going on, they destroyed you.

In Part Two: The Fate of a Poe Precursor.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

Edgar Allan Poe
"What was true the brilliant intellect of Edgar Poe never failed to perceive. What was beautiful his soul recognized at first blush, and loved for its kinship. Guided by these, his conscience was rarely in fault upon points of right. An instinctive self-respect, over which he had no control, forbade his ever seeking the lenient judgment of the many by explaining circumstances or appearances, which, unexplained, he knew must be construed against him. The world has little charity for any; for one who spurns its sympathy, none; and he who contemns its tribunal invariably receives the extreme visitations of its vengeance. As no judgment can be more erroneous, so none is more dictatorially given, or, when given, more persistently ultimate. Poe spurned that sympathy and received therefor the minimum of its meagre charity and the maximum of its profuse condemnation. A morbid sensibility impelled him to seek rather than avoid such occasions. He enjoyed the luxury of being misunderstood."
-James Wood Davidson, "Russell's Magazine," Nov. 1857

Davidson did not know Poe, but he knew a number of people who did, including Maria Clemm. He had been planning to write a book about Poe, but most unfortunately all his papers were lost when his Southern home was destroyed during the Civil War. It's a great loss, as his "Russell's" article hints that such a biography might have been well worth reading. I've often wondered if the above quote might not provide a clue to explain much about Poe's life and conduct that is otherwise virtually inexplicable.

Elsewhere in this same article, Davidson quoted a letter he received from a friend of Poe's, a man Davidson identified only as "A gentleman of New York City, a scholar and a litterateur, as widely known as American literature itself." Whoever this man may have been, he made a statement that serves as a poignant coda for the late poet's strange career.

Said this anonymous friend: "I honestly regard the calumnies, to which you allude, as unqualified falsehoods...His scorn of baseness was immense, and as he gave unsparing expression to it, all 'the baser sort' feared and hated him. In his later days he was a sick lion, and the donkeys came and kicked him--him at whose faintest roar they had formerly fled in terror."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cornelius Mathews and "The Raven"

Cornelius Mathews
Cornelius Mathews (1817-1889) was a minor--very minor indeed--writer of his era. Poe did not respect Mathews' talent any more than anyone else did, but for reasons having to do with the tediously complicated literary politics of the 1840s, Poe felt it worth his while for a period to ally himself with Mathews and, more importantly, Mathews' closest friend Evert Duyckinck. Mathews himself left no lengthy or important descriptions of their acquaintance--his personal relations with the poet were evidently, as was the case with most people who knew Poe, of a distant nature. However, in the "Bachelor of Arts" magazine (1896) Mathews' niece, novelist and playwright Frances Aymar Mathews, published an account of how Poe came to write "The Raven," a story which she said her uncle had often related to her during her childhood.

Her tale has the overpowering aroma of apocrypha that suffuses most of the stories concerning Poe--I fear Miss Mathews let her theatrical background get the better of her--and there are several obvious errors in fact (for instance, Poe did not move to Amity Street until the latter part of 1845.) Still, it is a "quaint and curious" story, and as it has been largely ignored by Poe's biographers, I present it here as yet another example of "Raven-lore."

I intend someday to compile a list of all the reminiscences of people who said they watched Poe write/helped him write "The Raven." Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least a baker's dozen--all given in the same tone of highly detailed assurance that theirs was the true history of the poem, and all of them completely contradictory--and I'm sure there are more. (Has there ever been any other poem that has generated so much mythology?)

Says Miss Mathews:

One day when I was a child of twelve or thirteen I stood tiptoeing in my uncle's office, whither I had been taken for a treat to see how type was set up, my eye was caught by an engraving hung high over a lamp-bracket at one side of the chimney-place. It was the portrait of a man's face, dark, sad, proud, irresistible almost in the attraction of its deep eyes and the suggestive curve of the weak though haughty mouth. Underneath the picture was written in a beautiful, firm, small, even hand: "To my friend, Cornelius Mathews, from his devoted friend, Edgar Allan Poe."

"Is that the man who wrote 'The Raven'?" I asked, breathless in my gaze at the weird spiritual face, it seemed to me, flickering with suppressed life at that very moment, in the flare of the smoky little lamp below it.
My uncle nodded, picking out at the same moment a yellowed paper from a pile in his drawer and handing it to me.

It was part of a copy of the American Review for, I think, February, 1845, and in it I found "The Raven," signed "Quarles."

My uncle laid down his pen and wheeled his chair nearer to the fire. With the ancient bits of paper in my hands I sat down too on a little bench near him, feeling instinctively that a story was in the air. I always knew by his movements when he was going to "reminisce"; and as three or four years before I had plunged into the sweet, alluring stream of printers' ink by my small self, his memories of literary folk were my especial delight; and, well knowing it, he was always happy in gratifying my taste and curiosity.

"Do you want to know how 'The Raven' was written?" my uncle asked me, as I drew a bit nearer to him and the blaze.The RavenOf course I did; hungry for the eerie and the strange, I fairly shivered with delightful anticipation, then, over its first hearing, as I have many a time since when I have begged for its repetition at my uncle's lips.

It is because I have heard it so often that I am able to put down so accurately the picturesque little history of at least one of (if not the) inceptional phases of a poem that has run the gamut of the world and ensnared its every reader.

"It was in the winter of '44-45," began my uncle, "a drizzling night full of chill and murk, made more dismal by fitful glimpses of a full moon swirling amid billowing continents of clouds, appearing only to disappear, and shifty with freaks of an east wind that shivered against the lamp-posts and rattled the swinging signs all along Broadway. Broadway was not then what it is now, and on such a night years ago, the warm flare of the gas at the entrance to the Park Theater-the old Park Theater down yonder on Park row-seemed very attractive to a young man still in his twenties, and with a play of his own in his desk into which he had put his best."

"I crossed over and went in. Don't ask me what the play was or who were the players, child--I don't remember. What I do recollect is that I found Edgar Poe in the seat beside mine; we shook hands, we had known each other for some years by letter, and for some months face to face. Did he look like that picture up there? Very much, only there was in the almost alabaster whiteness of his skin, in the radiance of his eyes, a mystery of vividness, a supernaturalness of light, that no portrait traced by mere man's bands can reproduce."

"He spoke a little of his wife, after my inquiries; of her not being able to come out on a night like this; of his mother-in-law, of Willis, of Lowell, Mrs. Browning, and, drifting homeward, of ourselves. The actors came and went, the scenes shifted, the music played, the curtain was rung up and rung down a half a dozen times--bless your heart! yes, for in those days, long ago, a five-act tragedy, and a roaring farce, and a pas seul formed no unusual program--but of the stories the players told, Poe and I knew or noted but little."

"He was one of the most courteous and attentive listeners I ever encountered, and, with a delicacy and interest unbounded, he inquired as to the play I was then so intent upon. It was 'Witchcraft,' and as briefly as I could I outlined the plot to him. As I came to the close of the fourth act, depicting the anguish and horror of my hero Gideon on being convinced that his mother is in truth a witch, beholding as he does the signs in the elements and in the sky, Poe, his gaze fixed before him, said in his low, melodious voice, 'Mr. Mathews, why do you not at this point have a raven, that bird of ill-omen, flit across the stage over the witch's head?'"

"I told him that while the picturesqueness of the bird would be undeniable, the unity of the atmosphere would be disturbed by its introduction, that a raven in Salem town would never do."

"'Do you know,' he went on, his eyes still immovably riveted on the glowing space before him, his voice so low that it could not disturb even his next door neighbor, 'that that bird, that imp-bird, pursues me mentally, perpetually; I cannot rid myself of its presence; as I sit here I seem to hear the melancholy of its croak as I used to hear it in my boyish days at school in Stoke-Newington; I seem to hear the sordid flap of its wings in my ears.'"

"I turned and looked at him; I could see very plainly that both I and my drama had been left very far behind, that his brain was busy with some strange fantasy, and I kept silent."

"Presently he drew himself up, and folded his arms across his chest."

"'I wonder, Mr. Mathews,' he said, looking at me now squarely in the face, 'if Dickens has ever been haunted by the raven as I am; I wonder if the raven in Barnaby Rudge is his expression of the monotonous power the bird has had over his mind--what do you think?'"The Raven and Edgar Allan Poe"Candidly, I answered, from a long correspondence with Dickens, I take him to be a man so little inclined to the introspective, that his presentation of Barnaby's raven is likely to have been more for its effect than the result of a deep cause."

"'I see,' Poe responded; 'that is precisely it. Some men sway trifles, foibles, or events to their own shaping, others--' he shifted his gaze back to the space no doubt peopled by his fancies--'are swayed and swung hither and fro by whispers heard only by themselves.'"

"We talked much more, and on many themes about many people, issues, schemes, books, and friends, until the audience rising in a mass, we knew that the last curtain had fallen for that night. The orchestra played the overture to 'Amelie,' a long-forgotten opera, my dear, but famous in those times, and Poe and I went out with the light-hearted crowd."

"I saw by the steaming mist through the wide open doors that the night had not bettered any, and I put out my hand to touch my companion's arm, and bid him, under the shelter of my umbrella (I observed that he had none and but a thin overcoat), come across the street and join me for a hot oyster supper."

"But my hand met nothing, my friendly eyes and invitation were to be useless--Poe, like a spirit, had dissolved seemingly in the murk of the night and left me standing alone."

"I started out and searched everywhere about for him, well understanding his rare delicacy of feeling, which, half anticipating my hospitality, thus sought to elude it. I could not find him, so I went over and took my supper by myself."

"Half an hour later I came out, jumped into the omnibus, and away it went rattling over the wet cobble-stones--oh, yes, nothing smoother in those old days--up through the mirth of Broadway. But there was not much mirth about it that winter night, and the frost-king was laying his fingers on the rain as it fell and turning every drop into a glisten, every sidewalk into a pitfall of slippery uncomfortableness; the breath of the passengers--there were but three besides myself-steamed on the omnibus windows, the oil lamp flickered and shook as we bounced along, and I, pondering on the lamentable impracticability of introducing a raven into 'Witchcraft,' sat with my damp umbrella in my grasp, staring a bit vacantly, I imagined, out of the small spot in the pane opposite me which the third passenger had just obligingly rubbed clear with his coat-sleeve."

"We had reached Bleecker street, when there, in the circle of sickly yellow light under the lamp-post, I beheld Edgar Poe standing, writing on the margin of a paper, apparently utterly oblivious of everything around him."

"I pulled the strap and dashed out, and yet, even then something made me pause as I saw him, a something that shone, like the glitter of stars in a hot summer sky, in the depths of his gray eyes, a something that exuded from his white brow where the dark curls, gemmed with the frozen rain-drops, sparkled in the meager light of the almost deserted thoroughfare; but for an instant, when common-sense came to my aid, combined with common feeling for a man standing inviting disease in such weather as this--"

"'Poe!' I cried, touching him lightly on the shoulder, as I held the umbrella over his head."

"With a curious urbanity, a gentleness which yet spoke to me in other language and told me of his chagrin at being interrupted, he greeted me and thanked me, and said, answering my earnest queries as to why he had given me the slip and deprived me of the pleasure of his company at supper:"

"'I thank you very much; I could not have eaten, or drunk, or slept, or gone a step farther than this, or waited a moment longer than now.' (Poe then lived in Amity street, only a few blocks distant.)"

"'It is the Raven,' he went on, pushing his dark hair back from his forehead, and with his feet almost frozen in a puddle; with my umbrella beaten now this way, now that, by the fierceness of the wind; with the rumble of a solitary cart emphasizing the solitude; with the creaking of a board sign at the corner--Poe said in a hushed, strained voice, a voice where some pent-up, surging sorrow seemed slipping from his control:"

"'Let me read you a stanza or two here, now, will you ?'"

"'Go on,' I answered quickly, as eager as he in my attitude; truth to tell, the fantasy of his mood was communicated to me in force, and that freezing quarter of an hour in December, '44, I shall never forget. He began in a low monotone the well-known lines:"Edgar Allan Poe The Raven
'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore-
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor, I muttered, tapping at my chamber door--
Only this, and nothing more.
Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December'

"At this word Poe stopped for a second and, raising his eyes, looked up to the impenetrable dome above him. The flicker of the lamplight caught the brilliancy of his eyes, augmenting it to something unfathomably effulgent. A blast keener and more cutting than any that had come before nearly turned the umbrella inside out, and made his slight figure sway against the post, while the paper fluttered in his fingers."

"As rapt as he, was I. The melody incomparable and the magic rhythm of 'The Raven' had seized upon my soul as tensely as it held his, and, reckless of the storm of the December night, I repeated, 'Go on, go on.'"

'Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,
And each separate, dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow--sorrow for the lost Lenore--
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore--
Nameless here forevermore.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain'

"I have heard," said my uncle, stopping in his reading of the poem from the paper I held in my hand, "I have heard Poe himself recite that poem later on at Miss Lynch's; I have heard distinguished actors read it, but never have I heard such an effect produced by human voice as when its author stood there in the sweep of the storm and uttered it--I presume, for the first time in mortal hearing. I could detect the stir of the curtain; I could hear, too, the sob of a stricken soul in the cadence of that matchless line."

" He read on from the scrap of paper that he held as far as the words,"

'Perched, and sat, and nothing more.'

"when lack of mere physical strength, I believe, made him stop, and I came to a realizing sense of our surroundings and position."

"'It is cold,' he said with a slight tremor, while he looked half inquiringly at me."

"'The poem is superb, Mr. Poe,' I cried, ' but it is madness for us to stop out here in the street in the storm. Come home with me to my room, come!' And I linked my arm in his and attempted to lead him up Broadway.

"Poe rarely smiled, but then he did, a reluctant, flitting movement playing about his lips as he gently disengaged himself, saying:"

"'I cannot go home with you, Mr. Mathews. You know, Virginia is expecting me. Perhaps it is late,' vaguely looking around him and adding, 'If it is not late, will you come home with me and sit a while?'"

"I assented, merely meaning to go the few blocks with him to where he then lived, in Amity street; for I knew quite well that it was nearing two o'clock in the morning."

"We walked along together, and all the while his lips were framing snatches of the poem destined to win him immortality; more often the fatal refrain coming to my ears of"

'Quoth the Raven Nevermore.'

"We reached the steps of his residence, and then he turned and thanked me with the peculiar grace and charm of manner which in my acquaintance with him always distinguished Edgar Allan Poe, saying:"

"'Will you come in?'"

"'No,' I replied, 'surely not. Some other time; meantime, if I can serve you in any way let me know, and be sure to finish this Raven poem.'"

"With a melancholy sigh, the insensible, impalpable waft of a restless and imprisoned spirit, he said:"

"'I shall have to--it has not let me rest; it will not let me sleep until it is completed. Perhaps if I have once put it on paper the ill-omened fowl will quit my ear and leave me in peace.'"

"He pressed my hand, turned, went up the stoop, raising his eyes to an upper window as he disappeared."

"A light shone above, and against the film of the curtain I saw the slender, girlish figure I knew to be his wife's."

"Not many weeks after, my dear, I bought and read that very copy of 'The Raven' which I now give to you, and a little later it was the most admired, wondered over, and written of the productions of the day."Rosetti The Raven

Bottom image: Dante Gabriel Rosetti, "The Raven."

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Riddle of Neilson Poe

The relationship between cousins Neilson and Edgar Poe is one of the many impenetrable mysteries in the latter's biography. Neilson, so far as can be documented, always treated his famous relative in a respectful, if not laudatory manner. As early as 1830, he wrote to his fiancee, Josephine Clemm (the half-sister of Edgar's future wife,) "Edgar Poe has published a volume of Poems one of which is dedicated to John Neal the great autocrat of critics--Neal has accordingly published Edgar as a Poet of great genius etc.--Our name will be a great one yet." In the years following Edgar's death, Neilson's comments about him, both public and private, continued to be consistently supportive. He appeared to treat Maria Clemm, now left alone in the world, with kindness and sympathy, for which she was quite grateful. He even planned to write Edgar's biography, but was described by a friend as too "dilatory" to ever complete the project.

In return, Edgar hated him, with a passion surpassed only by his loathing for Thomas Dunn English and Elizabeth Ellet. In his well-known and quite astonishing letter to Maria Clemm in August of 1835, he reacted to the news that Neilson and Josephine Poe had offered to provide a secure home for her daughter Virginia (and perhaps Maria as well) with what seems an inexplicable panic. He endeavored to convince his aunt that this apparently generous and benign offer from Virginia's sister and brother-in-law was really part of some sinister plot to permanently separate him from the girl he loved. "[W]hen Virginia goes with N. P....I shall never behold her again--that is absolutely sure." He spoke of the proposal as one that would inevitably bring misery, not only to him, but to Virginia as well: "I do sincerely believe that your comforts will for the present be secured--I cannot speak as regards your peace--your happiness." He regarded Mrs. Clemm's willingness to even listen to this plan as "cruel," a betrayal that "wounds me to the soul."

How did he arrive at the conviction that Neilson and his wife were determined to keep Virginia away from him for good? So far as is known, they did not have a close relationship with the Clemm ladies, and surely they would have considered Virginia's matrimonial plans--assuming they even knew of them, which is not at all certain--to be the concern of her and her mother, not themselves. (For what it's worth, Neilson Poe was once quoted as having said that he never knew why Virginia turned down his offer until Maria Clemm showed him Edgar's letter many years later.)

In an 1839 letter to Joseph Snodgrass, Edgar referred to “the feelings of ill will toward me which are somewhat prevalent (God only knows why) in Baltimore.” In a subsequent letter to this same correspondent, he elaborated upon this statement, making it clear that he saw his Baltimore cousin as at least partially responsible for this "ill will," describing "N.P." as "the bitterest enemy I have in the world," adding that, "He is the more despicable in this, since he makes loud professions of friendship." Edgar claimed not to know the reason for his cousin's animosity, only suggesting that it may have been jealousy over his literary career. It has been rather vaguely suggested that Edgar's puzzling show of hostility arose from lingering bitterness over Neilson's offer to act as Virginia's protector, or perhaps from Neilson's failure (either through inability or disinclination) to provide Edgar with loans or literary favors. Such reasons seem hardly sufficient to explain the harshness of the poet's attitude towards this relative he seemingly barely knew.

His one surviving letter to Neilson, written in August 1845, is very civil, but decidedly cool. He responded to his cousin's evident friendly overtures with a bland courtesy, assenting that it was indeed a pity that their two families were estranged, but he showed no sincere desire to amend that situation. The letter also indicated that Neilson and his family were unaware that for the past three years, Virginia had been battling a hopeless illness (which Poe always mysteriously called "the accident")--a striking sign of just how alienated they were from her life.

How did this alienation arise? Edgar Poe was emotionally hyper-sensitive and frequently hyperbolic in his speech, but he was not a paranoiac. If he usually thought that the world was out to get him, it was only because the world usually was. He saw cousin Neilson not merely as someone he disliked, but as a malignant enemy. It seems impossible that he could have come to such a radical conclusion purely out of thin air, but it is equally impossible to trace the source of this conviction.

Who was Neilson Poe? A terribly misjudged friend or a secret foe? Was Edgar drastically, almost insanely, wrong about his cousin? Or could Neilson have been, virtually from the beginning, a player in some dark, hidden game of which history now knows nothing?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Happy Birthday, Virginia Clemm Poe

"...In this humble domicile I can say, that I have spent some of the pleasantest hours of my life--certainly some of the most intellectual. They were passed in the company of the poet himself, and his wife--a lady angelically beautiful in person and not less beautiful in spirit. No one who remembers that dark-eyed, dark-haired daughter of Virginia--her own name, if I rightly remember--her grace, her facial beauty, her demeanor, so modest as to be remarkable--no one who has ever spent an hour in her company but will endorse what I have above said. I remember how we, the friends of the poet, used to talk of her high qualities. And when we talked of her beauty, I well knew that the rose-tint upon her cheek was too bright, too pure to be of Earth. It was consumption's color--that sadly beautiful light that beckons to an early tomb..."

"...I saw before me a man [Poe] to whom vulgar rumor had attributed those personal graces supposed to attract the admiration of women. This is the usual description given of him in biographical sketches. And why, I cannot tell, unless it has been done to round off a piquant paragraph. His was a face purely intellectual. Women might admire it, thinking of this; but it is doubtful if many of them ever fell, or could have fallen, in love with the man to whom it belonged. I don't think many ever did. It was enough for one man to be beloved by one such woman as he had for his wife."
-Mayne Reid, writing of Edgar and Virginia Poe in "A Dead Man Defended," "Onward" magazine, April 1869

"This “evil” was the greatest which can befall a man. Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever & underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again--I went through precisely the same scene. Again in about a year afterward. Then again--again--again & even once again at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death--and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive--nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can & do endure as becomes a man--it was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope & despair which I could not longer have endured without the total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new but--oh God! how melancholy an existence."
-Edgar Allan Poe, letter to George W. Eveleth, January 4, 1848

The Sleeper Edgar Allan Poe
"The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
Which is enduring, so be deep!
Heaven have her in its sacred keep!
This chamber changed for one more holy,
This bed for one more melancholy,
I pray to God that she may lie
Forever with unopened eye,
While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!"

Monday, August 9, 2010

Two Prototypical Poe Novels

Edgar Allan Poe novels
Poe has appeared (either as a primary or secondary character) is an astonishing number of novels. Unfortunately, nearly all of these novels are abysmally bad. Worse, these authors often seem to have the attitude that, just because their work is labeled "fiction," that gives them license to play whatever games with history they please. Perhaps worst of all, their historical distortions are inevitably to Poe's great discredit. Depending on which Poe novel you are unfortunate enough to read, he has been depicted as an adulterer (a serial one in some cases--when he isn't portrayed as impotent,) a drug addict, a necrophiliac, a sociopath, a blackmailer, a literary hack and thief, a murderer, a con man, a counterfeiter, and, of course, a nonstop alcoholic who scarcely, if ever, knew what it was to draw a sober breath. The relatively few novels that purport to "defend" him are no improvement. Not only are they as mind-numbingly stupid and poorly written as anything I have ever seen, they inevitably paint Poe as so puerile, weak, and lame-brained that it is impossible to picture him as being capable of reading "The Raven," much less writing it. (And, I swear to Heaven, if I come across one more novel depicting Virginia as a childlike dishrag...)

Libeling the dead may be legal, but that doesn't make it ethical.

One of the main reasons so many Poe novels have failed is that so much of what we think we "know" about him is based on lies and myths--and mostly insanely improbable ones at that. A successful historical novel requires believable characterizations and plausible motives and actions, and if an author follows the "accepted" history of Poe's life, it becomes simply impossible to achieve those goals. In short, if you believe everything that has been written about Poe, there is no way to write a biographical novel about him without coming up with an utterly unconvincing mess. And when writers try to avoid this obvious problem by resorting to sheer fantasy, the results are inevitably even worse.

In a saner world, all this would not be so important. However, most readers presume historical fiction is based on some sort of...history. It is troubling to think of people who know nothing about Poe picking up bizarreries like "The Blackest Bird," and "Poe and Fanny," or soggy claptrap like Barbara Moore's "The Fever Called Living," and taking them to be some sort of accurate representation of the man.

Such books have a long tradition, dating back to his own lifetime. In the early 1840s, Thomas Dunn English wrote a novel titled "Walter Woolfe, or, the Doom of the Drinker" featuring a brilliant but dissolute writer, a character that is believed to be a covert attack on Poe. In 1846-47, both English and Charles F. Briggs published serialized novels that included blatant and quite vicious depictions of their common enemy.

Briggs' "The Trippings of Tom Pepper," an otherwise mild satire of the contemporary literary scene, included a passage where a fatuous bluestocking, "Lizzy" (who was evidently meant as a composite of Elizabeth Ellet and Fanny Osgood,) presides over a "salon" attended by New York's leading artistic figures. Disaster soon appears in the person of Austin Wicks, a well-known poet and critic, "author of the 'Castle of Duntriewell,' a metaphysical romance, and a psychological essay on the sensations of shadows."

Briggs writes of this character: "He was a small man, with a very pale, small face, which terminated at a narrow point in the place of a chin; the shape of the lower part of his face gave to his head the appearance of a balloon, and as he had but little hair, his forehead had an intellectual appearance, but in that part of it which phrenologists appropriate for the home of the moral sentiments, it was quite flat; Pauline said, if he had any moral sentiments, they must be somewhere else, for it was very evident that there was no room for them there. He was small in person, his eyes were heavy and watery, his hands small and wiry, and his motions were like those of an automaton. He was dressed primly, and seemed to be conscious of having on a clean shirt, as though it were a novelty to him...Mr. Wicks was the American Jeffrey, a singularly unfortunate name to apply to the poor creature, as he had neither the learning, the wit, the respectability, the honesty, the independence, nor a tithe part of the talent of the great Scotch critic."

At the "salon," this unappetizing creature immediately got blind drunk on one glass of wine, and proceeded to shower crude abuse on everyone in sight. As a result, said the novel's narrator, "the company now broke up in great disorder, and we took the drunken critic home to his boarding-house, and delivered him into the hands of his wife, who thanked us meekly for the care we had taken of her poor husband."

Briggs then included a parody of the current scandal involving Poe and Mrs. Ellet. Lizzy, who saw Wicks' reprehensible behavior as merely an "eccentricity of genius," published a poem in his honor. Whereupon, "Mr. Wicks sent her a letter, lamenting his destiny, praising her poetical abilities, and asking for the loan of five dollars." Lizzy generously took up a collection among her friends, and sent him fifty dollars, along with a letter full of praise. Then:

"...with a baseness that only those can believe possible who have known him, he [Wicks] exhibited Lizzy's note to some of her acquaintances, as an evidence that she had made improper advances to him. The scandal had been very widely circulated, before some candid friend brought it to Lizzy, who, on hearing it, was thrown into an agony of grief and shame, which nearly deprived her of reason. She could not call upon her father to avenge the wrong that had been done her, but one of her married sisters having heard of it, told it to her husband, who sought for the cowardly slanderer, with the intention of chastising him for his villainy. But he had become alarmed for the consequences of his slanders, and had persuaded a good natured physician to give him a certificate to the effect that he was of unsound mind, and not responsible for his actions. Having showed this to Lizzy's brother-in-law, and signed another paper acknowledging that he had slandered her and was sorry for it, he was allowed to escape without a personal chastisement. But shortly after, being employed to write for a fashionable magazine, he took an occasion, in a series of pretended biographical sketches of literary men and women who had been so unfortunate as to become known to him, to hold poor Lizzy up to ridicule, by imputing to her actions of which she was never guilty, and by misquoting from her verses. Lizzy had the good sense to laugh at such imbecile spite, and when the poor wretch had brought himself and his family into a starving condition by his irregularities, she had the goodness to contribute her quarterly allowance of pocket-money to the gatherings of some benevolent ladies who had exerted themselves in his behalf."

This said, Briggs had no further use for his character, and disposed of him quickly: "The poor creature, Wicks, having tried a great variety of literary employments, and growing too dishonest for anything respectable, at last fell into the congenial occupation of writing authentic accounts of marvellous cures for quack physicians, and having had the imprudence to swallow some of the medicine whose virtues he had been extolling, fell a victim to his own arts, and was buried at the expense of the public."

English's "1844; or, The Power of the 'S.F.'" parodied Poe even more brutally. Here, the poet is "Marmaduke Hammerhead," author of "The Black Crow," a character who makes Austin Wicks look like a model of probity and sobriety: "...he never gets drunk more than five days out of the seven, tells the truth sometimes by mistake; has moral courage sufficient to flog his wife, when he thinks she deserves it, and occasionally without any thought upon the subject, merely to keep his hand in; and has never, that I know of, been convicted of petit larceny...There is an immense deal of charlatanry, however, in all his productions. He affects ignorance in general of the author's real name, and seems to think that sarcasm and scurrility are identical...He has a knowledge of no language except his own, and that to a very limited extent; and of course interlards his works with an abundance of quotations, obtained from the works of other authors. As he does not understand the meaning of these, he occasionally commits some rather ludicrous errors."

Hammerhead plays no real part in "1844" (a silly and convoluted tale of political intrigue)--he just makes occasional appearances throughout in order to give English a vehicle for savaging Poe as a drunken, crude, egomaniacal, uneducated sponger. Like Wicks, the character is a belligerent goon who does little except drink, insult people, and cadge money. By the end of the story, Hammerhead's alcoholism leads him into a state of "decay and degradation," with a "drivelling smile," constantly uttering "meaningless nonsense." "The bloated face--blood-shotten eyes--trembling figure, and attenuated frame, showed how rapidly he was sinking into a drunkard's grave..." Hammerhead soon collapses into "confirmed insanity." "He deemed himself the object of persecution on the part of the combined literati of the country, and commenced writing criticisms upon their character, as writers, and their peculiarities, as men." He is last seen in a madhouse, happily engaged in writing attacks on Thomas Carlyle and the Transcendentalists.

English poured bile on other literary figures in his novel. After giving a brief compliment to his friend Elizabeth Ellet, who was portrayed as "Mrs. Grodenap," a "pretty" author possessing "much ability, and is quite a linguist withal," he parodied his (and Ellet's) enemy Frances S. Osgood:

"But who is that languishing would-be-juvenile lady, who is now approaching the two? By Jove! what laughable affectation of manner!"

"That is Mrs. Flighty, one of our poetesses and all that sort of thing, and the best imitator of Mother Goose. Her poetry is remarkable for its simplicity. As a general rule, the verses of most female writers may be described by the words--'milk and water;' but hers resemble a large quantity of water, with a homeopathical addition of milk." English also satirized Margaret Fuller and Horace Greeley, but such depictions were brief and considerably milder than his portrayal of Poe.

The most notable thing about these two otherwise eminently forgettable novels is the nearly pathological hatred of Poe demonstrated by both authors. The passages featuring "Hammerhead" and "Wicks" are all written in such a spirit of naked fury that the reader is left cringing in discomfort, rather than laughing. Unbridled rage is seldom amusing.

It is also striking that although Briggs and English depicted Poe as a character guilty of many sins, neither even hinted at the inclusion of sexual ones. (Note that Briggs depicted "Austin Wicks" as being noisily outraged by "Lizzy's" alleged advances.) If, as all of Poe's modern-day biographers assume, there had been at the time these novels were published salacious gossip circulating about him and Mrs. Osgood, would not his two attackers have made full use of these rumors? English, as noted above, even included Osgood among his satiric targets, but failed to suggest any sort of relationship at all between her and the loathsome "Hammerhead." These novels serve as further indirect evidence that whatever allegations Poe's enemies were then spreading, charges of an improper association between him and Flighty Fanny were not among them.

Poe's own reaction to "Marmaduke Hammerhead" is unknown. Some literary critics have tried to depict "The Cask of Amontillado" as his subtle retaliation to English's crude parody--that, in short, he saw himself as "Montresor" finally getting the better of English/Fortunato. Unfortunately, their attempts to create a direct link between "1844" and Poe's masterpiece of revenge are not entirely convincing, however appealing it may be to picture Poe crafting such an exquisite literary comeuppance. We do know that in a revised version of his "Literati" sketch of Briggs (unpublished during his lifetime,) he turned a rather lofty eye to "Tom Pepper." While disdaining to mention the book's personal attack on himself, Poe commented that, "As a novel, it really has not the slightest pretensions. To a genuine artist in literature, he is as Plumbe to Sully. Plumbe’s daguerreotypes have more fidelity than any portrait ever put on canvass, but so Briggs’ sketches of E. A. Duyckinck (Tibbings) and the author of 'Puffer Hopkins' (Ferocious) are as lifelike as any portraits in words that have ever been drawn. But the subjects are little and mean, pretending and vulgar." He added dryly that "Mr. Briggs would not succeed in delineating a gentleman."

There is little else to say about these two works, other than the observation that, unlike most modern-day novels featuring Poe, Briggs and English deliberately caricatured him.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Facts in the Case of Mrs. Osgood and Mrs. Ellet

"'The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether.'
'Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which put you at fault,' said my friend."
-"The Purloined Letter"

Frances Sargent OsgoodAs I have noted before, all of Poe's biographers accept as fact Sarah Helen Whitman's story (which she only began relating in the 1870s,) that a great scandal erupted when, while visiting the Poe household, Elizabeth Ellet happened to see--Whitman was never clear how--a letter written by Frances S. Osgood. Whitman never claimed to know, even in general terms, what this letter said, but she said it inspired Ellet to persuade Osgood to allow other ladies--Whitman thought they were Margaret Fuller and Anne Lynch--to call on Poe and insist that all Osgood's letters to him be placed in their hands.

It is deeply frustrating how no one questions this illogical and completely undocumented story. If this absurd scenario had actually happened, why would Osgood, in her "Reminiscences of Poe," make such a point of informing her readers that she and Poe kept up a correspondence during the year of their acquaintance? Wouldn't she be anxious that this correspondence--which, according to Whitman, had such embarrassing and scandalous consequences--be utterly forgotten? Osgood's eagerness to convince the world that she and Poe had at least written contact (she admitted that she was away from New York during most of the period that Poe lived there,) proves there was no contemporary scandal involving their letters--or anything else about their relationship.

And why would Osgood agree to make a public spectacle out of the issue of her private correspondence? If her letters to Poe were innocent, why make herself look guilty by demanding their return? If she did write something indiscreet, why would she agree to involve outside parties in the matter--parties who would undoubtedly spread the degrading details all over town?

Elizabeth F. ElletWhat little evidence we have directly contradicts Whitman's account, and certainly none of the women supposedly involved ever hinted such a confrontation took place. Arthur Quinn and John Carl Miller have noted that when Lynch herself (whom Whitman cited as her source for the story) was asked about the scandal in the 1870s, she denied ever even having heard of such an episode. Lynch also wrote George W. Eveleth that aside from "a wide difference of opinion between us in reference to his treatment of another lady"--it is not clear if this was Mrs. Osgood or Mrs. Ellet--she knew nothing of Poe "that was discreditable or unworthy of his remarkable genius."

It is all too reminiscent of the Anna Blackwell saga. Whitman somehow learned some of the truth--that trouble ensued from Ellet seeing a particular letter written by Osgood, and that this somehow led to Poe revealing to the world that he possessed some sort of incriminating letters from Mrs. E--and, in her usual eccentric fashion, she built upon these facts to present the world with a completely erroneous scenario.

Our major clue to what really happened is a letter (now in the Boston Public Library's Griswold collection) Ellet wrote in July of 1846, in response to a (now lost) communication from Osgood. As it describes a version of events that renders Whitman's story an impossibility, it is worth scrutinizing in detail--a task Poe's biographers have yet to attempt. They tend to mention this letter only briefly--when they mention it at all--and it is invariably misinterpreted.

The letter indicated that Osgood had written to Ellet complaining of being "misrepresented and traduced." She apparently denied having even written the letter that had started the whole controversy, as Ellet responded to her self-defense by eagerly agreeing that "The letter shown me by Mrs. Poe must have been a forgery, and any man capable of offering to show notes he never possessed, would not, I think, hesitate at such a crime." In other words, Osgood was now claiming that the letter Virginia Poe had shown Ellet, and which had caused Ellet to express hostility towards Osgood, was a fraud devised by the Poes themselves. Fanny Osgood, as even her partisan biographer Mary De Jong admitted, was a woman who "generally set about having her own way." She was certainly having it now--at the direct expense of Edgar Poe and his wife.

It is amazing how the significance of this has been completely ignored. Osgood, after both the Poes were dead, portrayed herself as their devoted friend. While they lived, however, she deliberately led a mutual enemy to pretend they were forgers in an effort to disengage from a dispute she herself had instigated. That alone says all one needs to know about the real Frances Sargent Osgood--and her true feelings for the Poes. It also proves that the letter Ellet was deliberately shown--not, as Whitman claimed, "just happened" to see lying about the Poe house--was no love-letter. If it had been, Virginia would have been the last person in the world to display it to anyone. And Ellet, a sophisticated married woman whose own morals were hardly irreproachable, would not describe a mere love-letter as containing "fearful paragraphs" that "haunted me day and night like a terrifying spectre." She could only be describing a letter that was some sort of attack or exposure--one which Virginia used to confront her. (Incidentally, considering that Virginia Poe was the one to reveal the contents of this letter, Osgood may well have addressed it to her. There is nothing in Ellet's letter that reveals whether this troublesome document was sent to Mr. or Mrs. Poe.)

Ellet would not have been so ready to go along with Osgood's witless efforts to disown the letter if it had not affected her personally. Also, she would certainly not be in a position to agree that the letter's contents were false unless they directly concerned herself. And, of course, in regard to Whitman's version of events, Osgood could hardly have agreed to request the return of letters she was now claiming never to have written.

Ellet assured Osgood that Poe would not now "dare to work further mischief with the letter," and that he was so personally disgraced that any "verbal calumnies" he made against either of them would be discredited. That statement is further proof that Osgood's letter was an assault upon Ellet. The reference to "verbal calumnies" clearly implies that this letter consisted of "written calumnies" of some sort. (Ellet's letter also contradicts another element of Whitman's story by indicating that whatever letter or letters Osgood had written were still in the possession of the Poes.)

It is also interesting that Ellet referred to Poe as speaking disparagingly not just of herself, but of Osgood as well. Whatever the exact content may have been of the vicious stories Ellet was circulating against Osgood and Poe, if she had helped spread gossip about a romance, she would hardly describe Poe as uttering "calumnies" against both of them. (And here, for once, she was speaking the truth. Two months before Ellet wrote this letter, Horace Greeley commented, in an obvious reference to these two women, that Poe had recently "scandalized"--i.e. insulted--a pair of well-known literary ladies.)

Ellet wrote that she will "preserve utter silence in future on the subject"--she avoided saying precisely what "the subject" was--only saying, should others mention Osgood's name "in connection with it" that Osgood had been "traduced, wrongfully." This, again, disproves the idea that some sexual scandal involving Osgood and Poe was making the rounds. Ellet assumed that discussion of "the subject"--obviously, Ellet's feud with Poe, which broke into open warfare when he declared that she had written him some sort of compromising letters--would not necessarily involve references to Osgood. Ellet went on to decry "the falsehoods told by the Poes" about her--again, she is clearly not describing any love letters written by another woman. (And if Poe had possessed any embarrassing letters from Ellet, would she, as Whitman alleged, seek to make an issue about another lady's correspondence?)

Ellet assured Osgood that she had "no unkind feeling toward Mr. Osgood for what he said under mistaken impressions against me. Some of the things that reached me were too terrible to repeat, but even at the time I felt sure he was not willfully wronging me, and I rest in your assurance that he will not do so, now that he knows the truth."

This is another key statement. Samuel Osgood had clearly been repeating his wife's denunciations of Ellet, and she presumed now that "he knows the truth"--that the letter Virginia Poe displayed was a "forgery"--he will hold his peace. Surely, if the letter Mrs. Poe revealed was a mere indiscreet note from Mrs. Osgood, Frances' husband would hardly have cause for denouncing Ellet in the matter. He would be angry at his wife--or Poe--or Poe's wife and her bizarre desire to publicize her husband's flirtations--not some innocent bystander.

Ellet sighed that it was "most unfortunate both for you and me that we ever had any acquaintance with such people as the Poes--but I trust the evil is now at an end. Heaven sends such trials as merciful warnings--let us accept and profit by them." (This statement showed that Osgood obviously shared her anger towards Poe and his wife.) She closed in this same somewhat menacing vein with the pious hope that God will guard Osgood from future "danger."

Their collusion in blaming Mr. and Mrs. Poe for all their difficulties produced only a temporary truce. In January of 1849, Rufus Griswold wrote a friend that Ellet had quarrelled with, and been "cut" by many people in New York, including Mrs. Osgood. What caused the resumption of hostilities is not clear, but the New York literati--a crowd that would have made the Borgias blush--needed little reason to slash at each other. As Poe was long out of both those women's lives by that point, it seems unlikely that he was a factor in their later disputes. Be that as it may, in a sense, it was a great pity that the friendship between Mesdames Ellet and Osgood failed to last. The two certainly deserved each other.

***A footnote: Among Rufus Griswold's papers in the Boston Public Library is a very curious memorandum he wrote sometime in the 1850s, detailing his own ongoing war with Elizabeth Ellet. It is unknown to whom this memo was written, and his purpose in writing it is also unclear. This memo described a showdown he allegedly had with Ellet either in 1849 or 1850--his dating of the meeting is inconsistent--about "calumnies" (unspecified, but evidently concerning the 1846 fracas involving Poe) she was spreading about Frances Osgood. (This claim, incidentally, smacks of "cover story." An 1849 letter of Osgood's to her mother proves that in actuality, damaging gossip was then circulating about Osgood and Griswold himself--not Poe. Not even Elizabeth Ellet would bother to recycle old tittle-tattle everyone had already heard featuring a man Osgood had not even seen for years.) According to Griswold, he threatened to publish Ellet's letter to Osgood if she did not cease her smear campaign.

Although many of Poe's biographers repeat his account without question, there are--as usual with Griswold--problems with his story. First of all, he characterized Ellet's letter as one of "apology" and "confession," that she wrote only after Samuel Osgood threatened to sue her on his wife's behalf. Ellet's letter itself indicated that she only wrote in response to an olive branch from Mrs. Osgood, where she repudiated the letter shown to Ellet by Virginia Poe. Ellet's tone is self-justifying, not apologetic, (she even wrote that if Frances herself could have seen the letter Virginia displayed, "you would not wonder I regarded you as I did.") There would be no reason for Ellet to fear the publication of a letter where she painted herself as innocent victim of the scheming, evil Mr. and Mrs. Poe. There is no other indication that Mr. Osgood threatened any lawsuit, and it is impossible to believe that he would compound scandal and do incalculable additional damage to his wife's reputation by dragging everyone's dirty laundry out into a public court. Ellet's letter itself showed that Samuel was indeed saying "terrible" things about her, but it also revealed that Ellet assumed that Frances' husband now felt he had "wronged" her. (And, in any case, as Sidney P. Moss noted in another context, the mores of the time forbade a gentleman from suing a lady--even as equivocal a lady as Elizabeth Ellet.)

As I say, we do not know Griswold's reason for recording this story (which he never made public,) unless it was simply the fact that at the time he wrote this memo, he and Ellet were in a lively competition to see who could make the most venomous accusations against the other. (Their feud always reminds me of Henry Kissinger's famous remark about the 1980s Iran/Iraq war: "It's a pity they can't both lose.") Whatever his motivation, this anecdote involving the Ellet letter can only be taken as yet another example of his strange and nebulous relationship with reality.

(Images: New York Public Library.)