Monday, January 24, 2011


Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Edgar Allan PoeIn his recent book, "Poe in His Own Time," Benjamin F. Fisher made reference to Elizabeth Oakes Smith's copious writings about Poe by commenting that Smith "knew well the American literary milieu of Poe's own day, even if she hadn't known Poe himself." Strangely, Fisher either overlooked or deliberately disregarded the significance of his own observation. If Fisher is correct that Smith never actually knew Poe at all, then everything she wrote about him--most particularly her detailed, and highly implausible, accounts of her meetings and conversations with the poet, which his biographers have extensively used for source material--were massive and flagrant fictions.

Evidence that Fisher's statement was accurate comes from Smith's close friend Sarah Helen Whitman. When writing to John H. Ingram in the 1870s, Whitman expressed her contempt for a recent article Smith had published about Poe. In particular, she pointed to Smith's description of an intimate talk she claimed to have had with Poe about his relationship with Mrs. Whitman. Whitman, who described Smith as "constitutionally inaccurate," stated flatly that she was certain no such conversation had ever taken place. How could Whitman know Poe had never expressed the sentiments in question unless she was aware that Smith had never had any conversations with Poe at all?

Whitman made an even more intriguing remark on the subject. She wrote Ingram a strangely cryptic reference to Smith's Poe reminiscences. She stated they "did not spring so much from genuine friendliness & regard as from other motives which are betrayed in some of the--but I will not carp or criticize."

Maddeningly, Whitman never explained what these "other motives" may have been. I'd certainly like to know.
Maria ClemmOne of the innumerable overlooked little oddities in Poe's history is that Maria Clemm's handwriting bore a distinct resemblance to her nephew's. In fact, it was said that she could copy his manuscripts so exactly that no one could guess it was not his writing. (A copy, presumed to have been made by Mrs. Clemm, of a letter Poe sent her on September 18, 1849 has sometimes been mistaken for an actual Poe MS. Incidentally, for whatever mysterious reason, we have only a fragment of the original letter.) Richard Henry Stoddard even quoted her as saying to him that after Poe's death, she received so many requests for his autograph that she would simply forge samples of his writing and send them on to his admirers.

All of this puts a curious question mark over many of our extant "Poe" letters and manuscripts.
Annie Richmond and Edgar Allan PoeThe only full transcript we have of the last letter Poe sent to Sarah Helen Whitman comes to us from Annie Richmond, of all people. (Whitman herself, in her typically strange fashion, preserved only an meaningless eight-line fragment of the original letter. She always aimed to shape the historical record by carefully copying, destroying, and mutilating her Poe-related correspondence in an effort to display the story she wanted told.) Mrs. Richmond told John Ingram that before Poe sent Mrs. Whitman this letter discussing the end of their relationship and the ugly gossip surrounding that event, he sent it to her so that she could read it over and then forward it (anonymously, I presume) to Whitman in Providence. Mrs. Richmond claimed to have made a copy of this letter, which she sent to Ingram.

Now, can I possibly be the only one who finds her story to be exceedingly suspicious? First of all, I find it odd that Poe would send Mrs. Richmond the actual letter to forward to the other woman. Aside from the unseemliness in sharing his private relations with Mrs. Whitman with a third party, if he wished to defend his actions in the Whitman episode to Annie (she told Ingram that the stories she had heard about his disgraceful behavior in Providence led her to contemplate ending her friendship with Poe--which says a lot about her "devotion" to him,) it would have been sufficient for Poe to tell her "I wrote Mrs. Whitman this-and-this..." Secondly, why in the world would Mrs. Richmond have bothered to write out and keep a copy of this letter--particularly since the contents were certainly none of her business? Surely, in January of 1849 she could have had no idea that, nearly thirty years later, her transcript of this letter might be useful biographical source material.

The final oddity about this story is that Mrs. Whitman--a fragile and cowardly woman who shrank from even the mildest confrontation--never worked up the nerve to even answer this letter. (Which confirms my suspicion that she was hardly blameless in whatever went on between her and Poe.) Mrs. Richmond, however, told Ingram that Whitman had responded, with a letter exonerating Poe's behavior. What makes Annie's statement even more peculiar is the fact that among the copies of Poe's letters to her that she gave Ingram is one where he commented on Whitman's failure to answer his letter!

Annie Richmond, like so many other figures in Poe's history, made a very unsatisfactory witness. Nearly everything she ever said about him inevitably took on an air of shenanigans.