Monday, October 25, 2010

In Defense of Maria Clemm (Part One of Three)

Maria ClemmPoe's aunt/mother-in-law is often nearly as disparaged, albeit for different reasons, as her beloved "Eddie." Poe's early biographer John H. Ingram was the pioneer in this field--largely because he found Mrs. Clemm a convenient scapegoat for her nephew's problems. In our day, Poe specialists Thomas O. Mabbott, John Carl Miller, and Burton R. Pollin, in particular, have denounced the woman with a cruelty and sheer illogicality that forces one to suspect that they were grappling with unresolved and unpleasant "mother issues" of their own. The dislike such men have for her appears to stem from simple--dare I say it?--misogyny. Mabbott in particular stressed that his distaste for her largely arose from the fact that Maria Clemm was a physically unattractive, mannish sort who was indisputably the master of the house. (Both Mabbott and Pollin made it clear that their tastes ran to cutesy, childish balls of fluff like Frances S. Osgood.) These writers assume Poe himself at heart shared their resentment of "Muddy" and her take-charge character, without providing one atom of evidence this was the case. Mrs. Clemm was hardly a saint, but saints have a very low survival rate in our world, and most of this woman's long life was one constant, single-handed battle for survival--not for herself, but for the only two people she loved and who loved her.

The outline of her life is a starkly simple one. This sister of Edgar Poe's father David was born in Baltimore on March 17, 1790. In 1817 she married William Clemm, the widower of her first cousin Harriet Poe. (As a side note, those who look askance at Edgar's marriage to his first cousin should note that in those times intermarriage within clans was commonplace.) Maria and William had three children: Henry, Virginia Sarah or Virginia Maria (who died at the age of two,) and Virginia Eliza. William Clemm died in 1826, leaving both his families (he had five children from his first marriage) virtually nothing.

Although we do not know why, Maria's relatives evidently so disapproved of her marriage that they offered little help in her widowhood. Adding to her burdens was the fact that around this time she took responsibility for nursing her mother Elizabeth, a bedridden invalid. Elizabeth Poe received a small government pension, which Maria supplemented by taking on whatever work, such as washing and sewing, that she could find. She may have worked as a schoolteacher at some point, but as there was another Maria Clemm living in Baltimore at that time, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the two women in the available city records. At some point in the late 1820s, her family gained the addition of her nephew William Henry Leonard Poe. This likely was of no help to her, as W.H.L. was reportedly a sickly, hard-drinking, and quite useless young man. Her only biological son, Henry, went to sea at some point during this period, and evidently never returned. Family legend said he died young during one of his voyages, but we have no details of when and how he died. For all her preoccupation with Edgar and Virginia, Maria Clemm herself left no known mention of Henry at all, which is one of the biggest peculiarities in her entire biography.

Edgar visited the household in 1829 (and possibly earlier, in 1827 and/or1828.) Sometime just before or after William Henry's death in August 1831, he moved in with the little family, inaugurating a long and remarkably close bond with his aunt and little cousin. In July 1835 Maria's mother died. Most unfortunately, her pension, which, meagre as it was, provided a crucial support for the household, died with her. The next month, Edgar went to Richmond to pursue some much-needed regular employment. He appears to have hoped to find a teaching position, but instead found a position at Thomas W. White's "Southern Literary Messenger." Maria and her daughter joined him there that October, and in the following May he and Virginia married. From that time until the deaths of Virginia in 1847 and Edgar two years later, the three were, through thick and thin (and Lord knows there was enough of the latter) almost literally inseparable.

Edgar's death left Maria completely adrift, both financially and emotionally. The fifty-nine year old woman found herself not only without monetary resources, but without a reason to live. For the past twenty years, her entire existence centered around taking care of her "two strange children," (as Mary Gove Nichols dubbed them.) Without them, she had no idea what to do with herself. She lived a sad, nomadic existence, living mostly with a succession of friends or Poe admirers, drifting rather aimlessly until 1863, when she entered the Episcopal Church Home in Baltimore. She died there in February 1871.

The condescending, if not overtly hostile, attitude so many Poe biographers have towards this remarkably unfortunate woman stems from four major charges:

1. The claim that she (through some sort of occult means never really defined) somehow "forced" or "pressured" Edgar into marrying her daughter. This is perhaps the ugliest story Susan Archer Talley Weiss ever unleashed upon the world, and is one of the easiest to refute.

Neither Weiss nor the subsequent biographers who mindlessly parroted her ever decided why, precisely, Maria Clemm risked ruining the lives of her much-loved nephew and her idolized only daughter by arranging a coerced marriage that was bound to bring misery to them both. Sometimes, it is claimed that it was because Virginia was so wildly infatuated with her cousin that her mother feared for her physical and emotional health if she did not immediately become his bride. Or it was because Maria herself wished to secure Edgar as a meal ticket. (If this was the case, Poe biographer Edward Wagenknecht dryly observed, she must have been painfully disappointed.) Or it was to keep him from marrying Thomas W. White's daughter Eliza. Or she "made the match" simply because that would allow Edgar and Virginia to share one bedroom, rather than using two separate ones, thus making their lives in the boardinghouse more economical. (I swear, I am not making that last one up.)

It has also often been suggested that Mrs. Clemm "brokered" the marriage in order to keep their little family together, which is truly peculiar reasoning. They were already together as a family, and had been for years. There was no reason why Poe could not continue living with and/or supporting his aunt and her young daughter, without having the additional, essentially superfluous, tie of marriage to bind them. And if, as so many assume, Mrs. Clemm felt this need to exploit her daughter in order to gain financial security, why didn't she cast Virginia's lot with the more prosperous and stable Neilson Poe when given the opportunity? As biographer William Bittner put it, with, perhaps, unnecessary frankness: "The only reason they could have had for getting married was that they wanted to go to bed together."

As I have said several times before, this sordid "forced marriage" legend is singlehandedly destroyed by a letter Edgar wrote Maria and Virginia from Richmond late in August of 1835. This letter proves that when he left Baltimore in search of steady employment, he already saw Virginia as his "darling little wifey," and that, instead of being manipulated into this marriage, he was terrified "my own sweetest Sissy" might be persuaded to postpone their wedding, or even call it off altogether. Reading between the lines, it is clear that if anyone had any doubts about the planned marriage, it was Maria herself. The fact that so many still insistently cling to Weiss' story is simply incomprehensible.

In Part Two: More dirt will be dished.

(Image of Maria Clemm via Library of Congress)

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Many Faces of Virginia Poe

"When a man makes up his mind without evidence, no evidence disproving his opinion will change his mind."
-Robert A. Heinlein
Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe deathbed portraitThe only likeness of Virginia Clemm Poe with any claims to authenticity is the famous "deathbed portrait," a watercolor presumably painted immediately after her death. Even this picture has a number of question marks surrounding it. The portrait--which was not made public until 1893--was said to be in the possession of her mother Maria Clemm, who evidently bequeathed it to the family of her relative Neilson Poe, which suggests it is genuine. However, we have no information about when and by whom the painting was done (there is no basis for the speculation that the portrait, which is obviously the work of a professional artist, was executed by Marie Louise Shew,) or whether the picture is even a good likeness.

It would be odd if Virginia, who had grown very thin and slight during her long battle with tuberculosis, had been as facially plump as the girl in the portrait. The painting shows a young woman with hazel eyes, when the most reliable descriptions give Virginia's eyes as unusually large and very dark. Also, one of the few areas of consensus among Poe's contemporaries is that Virginia was very beautiful, even until the time of her death. The portrait depicts someone who, while pleasant-looking, could hardly be called lovely, or even noticeably pretty. It may be that this painting was not done from an "in-person" view of Virginia, but merely from a description of her provided to the artist.

Given the unsatisfactory nature of this portrait, it is not surprising that a number of attempts have been made to find a "from-life" image of Poe's wife. There are three pictures in particular that in recent years have often been presented as authentic portraits of Virginia. Unfortunately, there is no solid reason in the world to think they have any connection with her at all.

The first of these I discussed in an earlier post. It is one of three drawings that in 1930 were sold as artwork done by Poe himself. The sketches were immediately unmasked as forgeries, but that has not prevented them from having a surprisingly persistent circulation.

The second image is an oil painting of a young woman holding flowers that first surfaced in 1929. (It can be seen here.) It appeared as part of an art collection sold by the widow of an Englishman named Joseph Thomas Scott. Mrs. Scott claimed that he acquired the painting during a visit to the United States sometime in the 1870s, and that it "was always said to represent Virginia Clemm." Mrs. Scott had no documentation for this claim, and she wrote several letters dealing with this painting that are suspiciously contradictory in their details. (When Richmond's Poe Museum was invited in the 1930s to buy the portrait, they declined because of the impossibility of authenticating the work.) Later, it was suggested that the picture--which is unsigned--had been done by Thomas Sully.

Sully has a place all to himself in the incredibly large world of bogus Poe pictures. Poe was reputedly a boyhood friend of the artist's nephew, a less-talented painter named Robert Sully--although it should be noted Robert was six years Poe's senior, and nearly all we know about this "friendship" comes to us via Susan Archer Talley Weiss. However, there is no evidence that Poe and Thomas Sully even met. Art historian Michael Deas, in his book "The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe," noted that although Thomas Sully left an enormous amount of documentation about his life and work, including portrait registers, diaries, letters, and autobiographical manuscripts, Poe's name is never so much as mentioned in any of them. Poe himself left no known indication that he knew either of the Sullys, much less that he or his wife may have sat for either of them. Despite this, over the years a number of anonymous portraits of dark-haired men--most of which bear not the faintest resemblance to Poe--have been hopefully labeled as "Poe by Sully" artwork. (Deas devoted an entire section of his book to the long and strange history of faux Poe portraiture.) It is most likely that this "Virginia portrait" is merely a way of giving Poe's wife equal time in the spurious picture sweepstakes.

Some have thought the portrait is modelled after Sully's style, (which would not be surprising, as he was one of the most popular artists of his day,) but even that has been debated. The girl in the picture bears a vague general resemblance to the one in the "deathbed portrait" (although this oil painting is so stylized it is hard to be certain.) However, the lack of provenance for the painting, and the complete absence of any evidence linking it to either Poe or Sully, makes it impossible to put trust in its authenticity.

The third "Virginia portrait" (which can be seen here) surfaced only a few years ago, in the possession of a descendant of Virginia's cousin Elizabeth Herring. This portrait, as well, suffers from a complete lack of documentation, other than this descendant's unverifiable assertion that she had always been "told" it was of Virginia. It is--like the other two paintings--unsigned, and, except for a stamp on the back reading "Richmond, Virginia," unlabeled. It has been conjectured that the painting was done during the brief period Edgar and Virginia lived in Richmond, possibly by--inevitably--Thomas or Robert Sully. Again, we do not have a shadow of proof this is the case. The woman in the portrait does not bear much resemblance to either the "deathbed portrait" or the Joseph Thomas Scott painting, and she looks too mature to have been Virginia, who was only fourteen when she left Richmond for good in early 1837. It seems far more logical that the sitter is another relative, possibly Elizabeth Herring herself. (When Herring married in 1834, she moved to her husband's hometown in Virginia. It is not improbable that during her marriage, she went to Richmond to have her portrait done.)

In 1970, the auction house of Adam A. Weschler & Son, Inc. offered for sale a miniature painting by an unknown artist that was described as a portrait of Virginia Clemm. I have been unable to trace any other mention of this picture (Michael Deas seemed unaware of its existence,) which suggests its genuineness was also highly suspect.

What is also telling against the authenticity of these pictures is the simple fact that there is absolutely no contemporary evidence of any life portrait or daguerreotype of Virginia. In the years following Poe's death, as his legend grew, his biographers and other admirers were understandably eager to find images of his young and beautiful wife. Although their quest for pictures of Virginia was well-publicized, not one of her friends or relatives--including members of the Herring family (who had been contacted by many of these Poe collectors)--were able to offer anything other than the "deathbed portrait." And if either of the Sullys--or any other artist--did paint Virginia, why did they not sign any of these portraits? Why would they fail to leave any sort of documentation at all that they had the honor of creating an image of Poe's wife?

It is natural that Poe scholars would be anxious to uncover representations of the living Virginia. I'd love to see one myself. However, that cannot blind anyone to the fact that these pictures that have emerged--charming to look at as they are--simply cannot be treated as trustworthy likenesses.

A postscript: Undoubtedly, the strangest contribution to the list of dubious images of Virginia--indeed, one of the strangest contributions to Poe "scholarship" in general--was made by J.H. Whitty and Thomas O. Mabbott. (That pair managed, between them, to be responsible for an astonishing number of the loonier myths about Poe.) At some point in the early 20th century, Whitty came to fancy--no one has the slightest idea how--that Poe, his wife (and Mrs. Clemm!) modeled for "fashion plates" published in "Graham's Magazine." Mabbott, who had been something of a protégé of Whitty's (which explains a lot about him,) took up the idea, even though he could never decide which "Graham's" engraving he thought may contain likenesses of the trio. He also never succeeded in formulating a reason why he imagined Poe and his womenfolk had served as models, other than weak mutterings about "vague tradition" and "probability of appearance." (Even though, in the same breath, he said that "I am not sure we should call these things portraits.")

If there is anything that illustrates the generally pathetic state of Poe research, this is it. Whitty and Mabbott, two men who--Heaven knows why--are considered among the leading Poe scholars, invented out of thin air a story that is ludicrous on its face and that has absolutely no evidence to support it. There is no "tradition"--vague or otherwise--that the Poe household ever posed as antebellum centerfolds, and the wooden, generic figures depicted in the "Graham's" engravings do not even show the slightest resemblance to the trio, or anyone else for that matter. (An obviously bemused Michael Deas commented, "It is almost needless to add that Edgar and Virginia Poe would seem odd choices for fashion models.")Graham's Magazine and Edgar Allan PoeWhen it is also considered that Poe is on record as stating that one of his main reasons for resigning from "Graham's" in 1842 was his "disgust" with the "namby-pamby character of the Magazine," calling particular attention to "the contemptible pictures, fashion plates, music, and love-tales" found therein, one has to wonder if Whitty and Mabbott were secretly staging a Poe-esque hoax on us all. Certainly, that is the kindest explanation of their actions.

("Graham's" engraving that has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In Which I Manage to Milk an Entire Post Out of Virtually Nothing

Like everyone else who blogs, I find myself intrigued by the search terms people have used to get here. Just to keep the public informed, here are a few of the most recent phrases that have popped up in the stats:

1. Rosalie Poe

This is--by a vast margin--the most popular search term that has brought visitors to this blog. A post I did about her last year has gotten more hits than anything else at World of Poe put together, I think. This amazes me, as poor old Rose had hardly any relationship with Edgar--and what relationship there was appears to have been pretty bad. So, what's with the fascination with her? Is there some sort of secret Cult of Rosalie out there of which I know nothing?

2. Poe Ellet Osgood scandal

One of my favorite topics. I've done more posts on the subject than any sane person would even imagine doing. Hope you found whatever it was you were looking for.

3. weird facts about poe

I think I can safely say you've come to the right place.

4. who is undine blogger

You know, in my more philosophical moments, I've wondered about that myself.

5. undine blog hunter

Does this mean I officially have my first stalker?

6. "John Tomlin" poet

Tomlin was postmaster of Jackson, TN from 1841-47. He was a minor poet and author who corresponded with various literary celebrities, including Poe. He published many of the letters he received from the literati in a series of articles called "The Autobiography of a Monomaniac" that appeared in "Holden's Dollar Magazine" in 1848 and 1849. He was an agent for the "Broadway Journal" in 1845.

Tomlin also played a major role in the termination of Poe's friendship with Lambert A. Wilmer. In 1843, for no reason that I can see other than a desire to stir up trouble, Tomlin told Poe that he had received a letter from Wilmer containing negative remarks about Poe. Poe then insisted that Tomlin send him Wilmer's letter. Wilmer's remarks were actually very mild--he merely expressed his concern over the current reports of Poe's drinking habits--but it was apparently enough to cause Poe to break off relations with him. (It must be said, however, that both Wilmer and his daughter Margaret published strong defenses of Poe after his death.)

Hope that helps.

7. edgar allan poe weird quotes

There are plenty of them, aren't there?

8. edgar allan poe attract modern day audiences

If he didn't, you and I wouldn't be here, would we?

9. were thomas dunn english and edgar allan poe friends

In a word, no.

10. heraldic display spider

I'd love to know what inspired this search, how it led this seeker after knowledge to my blog (neither heraldry nor spiders are a big topic with me,) and if he/she ever found what they wanted.

11. barnaby castle on broadway providence ri

Here you go. I have no idea what this has to do with Poe, though.

12. poe goes to providence osgood 1845

Try this post.

13. Starr Ingram Is Weird

No doubt.

14. edgar allan poe in new york

Whenever I think of Poe's New York sojourns, I'm reminded of one of my all-time favorite songs, Harry Nilsson's "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City."
"I'll say goodbye to all my sorrows
And by tomorrow, I'll be on my way
I guess the Lord must be in New York City..."
A note about that song: Nilsson wrote it to be the theme for the movie "Midnight Cowboy." The movie's producers, however, rejected it and had him record Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" instead. The Neil song was a huge hit, but I still find the producers' decision crazy, as Nilsson's own tune was much the better of the two. People are incomprehensible to me sometimes.

15. poe drug crazed or madman


16. the world as will and ida

You know, I'm really, really rooting for Zenyatta to win the Breeders' Cup Classic (for the second year in a row!) I don't care what anyone says, it was an outrage when Rachel Alexandra beat her out for Horse of the Year in 2009. Personally, I suspect vote fraud on a massive scale.

Now, that's what I call Girl Power.

17. olivia helen mares

If Zenny does win, I'll have to try to craft a blog post featuring both her and Rosalie Poe. One million hits or bust, baby!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Poe and N.P. Willis

Edgar Allan Poe
Many of Edgar Allan Poe's biographers (most recently Kenneth Silverman) have stressed that there was a warm personal friendship between him and Nathaniel Parker Willis. On close examination, however, their relationship takes on a rather different, and far darker aspect.

For one thing, Poe and Willis had scarcely any personal contact after February of 1845, when Poe left his job working for Willis at the "New York Mirror" to join the "Broadway Journal." (According to Charles F. Briggs, Poe left the "Mirror" because "Willis was too Willisy for him.") Willis himself wrote that he and Poe never socialized, and that, except for occasional accidental meetings in the streets of New York, he never saw Poe outside the "Mirror" offices. In December of 1846, he stated that he had had no contact at all with Poe in two years.*** (As a side note, this statement exposes Frances S. Osgood's story that Poe asked Willis to introduce him to her in March 1845 as a blatant lie. It also indirectly proves that Poe's participation in New York's literary society was much less frequent than his biographers assume. We know that Willis was a prominent attendee at the "salons" and other gatherings of the New York literati. If Poe also frequented these gatherings in 1845-46, how could Willis say he never saw him during this period?)

We have the testimony of Briggs and James Russell Lowell that Poe, in fact, rather despised Willis--with the intimation that Willis was aware of this fact. We do not have anything directly from Poe which confirms this, but he made no secret of the fact that he thought little of most of Willis' literary work--he regarded his more commercially successful contemporary as what we today would call a "lightweight." At least one of Poe's early satirical stories mocked Willis unmercifully. For his part, in 1829 Willis published a scathing review of Poe's "Fairyland," describing in great detail his joy in throwing the offending poem into the burning fireplace. (It should also be kept in mind that Willis was a long-time influential member of the insider "literary cliques" whose stranglehold on American literature Poe fought so hard to destroy.) It is hard to believe that Willis was completely ignorant of Poe's true feelings toward him. (Poe, incidentally, was not alone in this dislike. Willis, a foppish, vain, and tiresomely affected man, was widely and passionately detested by his literary contemporaries--including his own sister.) Although he professed to speak well of Poe in print, both before and after the poet's death, Willis' writings about him, when read between the lines, betray an undercurrent of insult that is very interesting.
Nathaniel Parker Willis and Edgar PoeThe most striking example is an editorial that Willis wrote for his magazine "Home Journal," in December of 1846. In this column, inspired by a widely-circulated newspaper paragraph describing Poe and his wife as dying, destitute, and friendless, he proposed a public charity "Hospital For Disabled Labourers With the Brain," pointing to Poe as a prime example of the need for such an establishment. (While simultaneously admitting he did not even know if the newspaper reports of Poe's desperate condition were accurate.) Not content with describing his "friend" as a helpless beggar, thanks to Poe's "infirmities," (although he conceded that he knew the publication of Poe's personal troubles left the poet "deeply mortified and distressed,") Willis, for reasons best known to himself, felt the need to pile on to the current vogue for publicly degrading Poe. In the course of this "sympathetic" editorial, Willis--quite unnecessarily--made note of the recent scandal involving Elizabeth Ellet, referring to "conduct and language charged against him [Poe] which, were he, at the time, in sane mind, were an undeniable forfeiture of character and good feeling. To blame, in some degree, still, perhaps he is. But let charity for the failings of human nature judge of the degree." In other words, Willis--without having any first-hand knowledge of the Poe/Ellet dispute--invited his readers to think the worst of Poe's behavior, with his only defense of Poe being that the poet deserved pity rather than pure censure.

Willis went on--again for no good reason--to describe a time when Poe came into the "Evening Mirror" offices and "with no symptom of ordinary intoxication...talked like a man insane...We learned afterwards that the least stimulus--a single glass of wine--would produce this effect upon Mr. Poe...and while under the influence, voluble and personally self-possessed, but neither sane nor responsible." He then added, condescendingly, that "Mr. Poe may not be willing to consent to even this admission of any infirmity."

All in all, Rufus W. Griswold himself could not have come up with a more elegant piece of public character assassination.

For someone as proud, sensitive, and private as Poe, this editorial must have been excruciating--particularly since his enemies gleefully used Willis' "defense" as additional ammunition to label Poe as a pathetic, dissipated, insane wreck. (Poe scholar Sidney P. Moss wrote with utterly unconscious irony that "for all the harm it [Willis' editorial] did, it might have been written by Poe's worst enemy.") When Poe subsequently sent an open letter to Willis referring to the "Journal" editor's "kind and manly comments," his sarcasm practically sears a hole in the page. Poe replied to Willis' unhelpful editorial with dignity, wit, and a plethora of barbed, obviously coded messages. (When publishing Poe's letter, Willis prefaced it with the enigmatic words, "What was the under-current of feeling in his mind while it was written, can be easily understood by the few; but it carries enough on its surface to be sufficiently understood.")

In reference to the widely circulated newspaper report of his desperate condition which had inspired Willis' editorial, Poe said acidly, "The motive of the paragraph I leave to the conscience of him or her who wrote it or suggested it." (It would be interesting to know precisely which man or woman Poe was indirectly addressing.) Poe admitted that it was true his wife was in very poor health, adding that her illness had been "heightened and precipitated" by receiving two anonymous letters--one enclosing the newspaper paragraph in question, the other sending the published libels against Poe written by Thomas Dunn English and Hiram Fuller. (It should be noted that these two letters, evidently the handiwork of Elizabeth Ellet, are the only such messages we know Virginia received. These letters aimed to wound Poe's wife by rubbing her nose in the fact that the world saw her and her husband as pitiful, friendless losers, and that Poe himself was being publicly abused. There is no evidence for the oft-repeated assertion by Poe's biographers that she received any poison-pen letters accusing her spouse of adultery.)

Poe acknowledged that it was also accurate that he himself had been incapacitated by illness, a circumstance which made his enemies feel free to indulge themselves in "the innumerable paragraphs of personal and of literary abuse with which I have been latterly assailed." He predicted that upon his recovery, "the gentlemen who toadied me in the old, will recollect themselves and toady me again," and that these attacks "served, in a measure, to lighten the gloom of unhappiness, by a gentle and not unpleasant sentiment of mingled pity, merriment, and contempt."

He closed by admitting that his lengthy illness had impeded his ability to earn money, but he denied that as a result he had materially suffered "beyond the extent of my capacity for suffering," and that, contrary to the reports that he was friendless and alone, he claimed that, if necessary, there were any number of people in New York to whom he could have applied for financial assistance. He closed by stating that he was recovering his health and strength, "if it be any comfort to my enemies." "The truth is, I have a great deal to do; and I have made up my mind not to die till it is done."

It is unclear how much, if any, communication they had after Poe responded to Willis' editorial. Several of Poe's works later appeared in the "Home Journal," and we have some letters between them that date from 1847-49. However, some, if not all, of these letters are suspected to be the handiwork of that expert and frighteningly prolific Poe forger from the 1920s-30s, Joseph Cosey. Willis was among the mourners at Virginia Poe's funeral in February 1847, but it is uncertain if the two men had any further in-person interaction before Poe's death in 1849. Theirs was clearly, at best, an extremely nebulous friendship, which makes it all the stranger that Willis would have the presumption to set himself up as an authority on Poe.

Willis' singular way of championing Poe continued after the latter's death. In 1850, Willis wrote that his personal knowledge of the late poet had been entirely favorable, describing him as "a quiet, patient, industrious, and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling by his unvarying deportment and ability," and that he had only known Poe as a "sad-mannered, winning, and refined gentleman." He added that "It was by rumor only, up to the day of his death, that we knew of any other development of manner or character." (This assertion contradicts his 1846 account of Poe visiting Willis' offices talking "like a man insane.")

"Rumor," one would think, is not something one would wish to enshrine in public print about a "friend," particularly one who is dead and no longer able to speak for himself. Willis, however, thought otherwise. Again showing his genius for either incredible tactlessness or clever back-stabbing, he told the world that "we heard" that "with a single glass of wine, his whole nature was reversed, the demon became uppermost, and, though none of the usual signs of intoxication were visible, his will was palpably insane." After repeating that he had no first-hand knowledge of this reputed side of Poe's character, he nevertheless gave this tittle-tattle his personal stamp of approval, as his only defense of Poe was to attribute to him "a temporary and almost irresponsible insanity," which accounted for his "arrogance, vanity, and depravity of heart." "Under that degree of intoxication which only acted upon him by demonizing his sense of truth and right, he doubtless said and did much that was wholly irreconcilable with his better nature; but, when himself, and as we knew him only, his modesty and unaffected humility, as to his own deservings, were a constant charm to his character."

Willis went on to write that it was much easier "to believe what we have seen and known, than what we hear of only, that we remember him with admiration and respect--these descriptions of him, when morally insane, seeming to us like portraits, painted in sickness, of a man we have known only in health."

In short, Willis emphatically volunteered that his own personal experiences showed him nothing that was not to Poe's great credit. Why, then, did he have this consistent need to publicize stories that he himself described as rumor and hearsay, and which he professed to find nearly impossible to believe? If he wished to defend his late friend, why not merely stick to relating his own first-hand knowledge of the man, instead of giving additional circulation and credibility to gossip he could not verify?

This was a very strange "friendship," indeed.

***A footnote: Willis' testimony about having no contact with Poe from 1845-46 is relevant to at least one extant letter of his to Poe. It is undated, but the textual evidence has led Poe scholars to presume it was written circa May 1846. Willis' statement indicates that this letter is either completely misdated or a forgery.

(Willis image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In Memoriam

Thy soul shall find itself alone
'Mid dark thoughts of the gray tomb-stone--
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy:

Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness--for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again
In death around thee--and their will
Shall overshadow thee: be still.
The night--tho' clear--shall frown--
And the stars shall look not down,
From their high thrones in the heaven,
With light like Hope to mortals given--
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever:

Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish--
Now are visions ne'er to vanish--
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more--like dew-drop from the grass.

The breeze--the breath of God--is still--
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy--shadowy--yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token--
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!
Spirits of the Dead
"The pain of the consideration that we shall lose our individual identity, ceases at once when we further reflect that the process, as above described, is, neither more nor less than that of the absorption, by each individual intelligence, of all other intelligences (that is, of the Universe) into its own. That God may be all in all, each must become God."
-Edgar Allan Poe, end note to "Eureka"

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Brother of Edgar Poe

Perhaps the most notable thing about Edgar Allan Poe's only brother is how little is known about him. William Henry Leonard (who usually went by the name, "Henry,") is believed to have been born in Boston on January 30, 1807. After the death of his mother, Eliza, in 1811, he was raised by his paternal grandparents in Baltimore. (The question of why the Poe family did not also take custody of Henry's two siblings is an intriguing puzzle.) As he reached young manhood, Henry became a sailor for a brief period. Upon his return to Baltimore, he published in local newspapers accounts of his travels, as well as (largely commonplace) fiction and poetry. This included, most curiously, poems published by his brother Edgar, which Henry reprinted under his own initials. It has been suggested (although never proven) that Edgar, in his turn, later appropriated tales of Henry's adventures abroad as part of his own life story. (This mutual borrowing of literary and biographical elements inspired some of George W. Eveleth's more interesting speculations. In 1875, in reference to a daguerreotype of Edgar Poe taken soon before his death, Eveleth wrote to Poe's biographer John H. Ingram "Whether it was not the image of the spirit of Henry Poe, which was caught upon that plate in Richmond, on Thursday, Sept. 27, 1849--whether, indeed, it was not that same spirit, 'materialized,' that got into all the scrapes and cut all the curious capers put to the account of Edgar A.?")

Among Henry's published writings is a short story called "The Pirate," which is generally described as having been inspired by Edgar's failed relationship with Sarah Elmira Royster. That assumption is extremely puzzling, as there is nothing in the story that shows any obvious connection to the Edgar/Sarah legend. This attribution is, if anything, even more baseless than the popular, if utterly fallacious, idea that Lambert A. Wilmer's "Merlin" was inspired by this same reputed romance.

Sometime in the late 1820s, Henry joined the household of his aunt Maria Clemm. About this time, Edgar paid them a visit, afterwards reporting to his foster father John Allan that his brother was "entirely given up to drink & unable to help himself." Henry died on August 1,1831 of unknown causes, possibly tuberculosis, cholera, alcoholism, or some combination of the three. His death, like his brief life, attracted little notice. One Baltimore paper, in its announcement of his death, even gave his surname as "Pope."

Little is known about Henry's personality. There are accounts, of highly questionable authenticity and presented many years after his death, describing him as a moody, rather neurasthenic young man--an impression, it must be said, that one also gains from his writings. Conversely, the ever-unreliable Marie Louise Shew Houghton wrote Ingram that Edgar described his brother as a "dashing gay cavalier," with a nature "coarser rougher" than himself. Any clear sense of who and what he was remains elusive.

We also have little idea of what relationship, if any, Henry had with siblings Edgar and Rosalie. He evidently made at least one visit to Richmond during the 1820s. Sarah Royster, some fifty years later, recalled seeing Henry in Richmond sometime in 1825, but she gave no details of this visit. We do know, however, that Henry is indirectly responsible for one of the stranger items of Poeana we have. It is a letter Edgar's foster father John Allan apparently wrote to him in November of 1824, when Henry was seventeen and Edgar fifteen. The letter we have is only a copy, so we do not know if it is identical to any letter Allan may have actually sent the youth. We also have no idea why Allan would carefully preserve such a document.

The letter is full of contempt for Allan's foster son, who is described as "miserable, sulky & ill-tempered," adding that Edgar "possesses not a Spark of affection for us not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him." In contrast, the letter is full of a bizarrely sycophantic regard for Henry, saying that "I feel proudly the difference between your principles & his & have my desire to Stand as I ought to do in your Estimation," and "Beleive [sic] me Dear Henry we take an affectionate interest in your destinies and our United Prayers will be that the God of Heaven will bless & protect you rely on him my Brave & excellent Boy who is willing & ready to save to the uttermost."

Certainly, this is an exceedingly peculiar way for an adult man to address an penniless teenager whom he must have scarcely known!

The part of this letter that has aroused the most controversy is the reference to Henry's "poor Sister Rosalie." The missive told Henry that "At least She is half your Sister & God forbid my dear Henry that We should visit upon the living the Errors & frailties of the dead."

In discussing this singularly unpleasant epistle, Edgar Poe's biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn noted--perhaps without fully realizing the significance of his words--the "artificial" quality of the letter, which he said was obviously written "for some purpose not apparent on the surface." Indeed. We have no idea why Allan would write and then keep such a letter--if he truly was the actual writer--but it definitely has the air of something someone wanted as part of the historical record. The letter's eagerness to blacken both Edgar and his mother, and the even more baffling panegyrics for brother Henry, all mark it as one of the many disquieting mysteries that infest Poe biography.