Monday, January 17, 2011

The Reticent Mrs. Shelton (Part Two)

"The more meticulously we scrutinize the documents, the more painfully do we become aware how dubious is the authenticity of historical evidence, and how untrustworthy therefore the conclusions of historians. For no matter how incontestably genuine an ancient document may be, this genuineness does not provide any guarantee as to the human validity of its contents."
-Stefan Zweig, "Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles." Pity he never tackled writing a biography of Poe.

Clearly, there is something deeply wrong with this entire picture. During the forty years that she survived Poe, Sarah Shelton was completely mute about him, even to relatives, only breaking her silence to state that she had no important recollections of him. Then, if Valentine is to be believed, she somehow decided to honor him--and only him--with these strange, illogical revelations that were unknown to her own kin. (Another peculiarity of these "notes" is their garbled, disconnected quality--they read like confused scraps of conversation Valentine happened to eavesdrop upon. This impression is heightened when, immediately following a description of Poe's childhood friend Ebenezer Burling, Shelton is quoted as saying, "Spoke of the first Mrs. Allan in the most affectionate manner." Valentine added the parenthetical note, "This last remark I think refers to Poe." If Valentine was truly talking to her, wouldn't he know to whom she referred? And if he was unsure, why not ask her at the time?) After supposedly pouring her secret history out to him, she maintained her previous Sphinx-like silence the rest of her life, failing to either confirm or deny Valentine's account of their conversation. (Her newspaper obituaries even made a point of noting that no one ever heard her so much as speak Poe's name.)Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton and Edgar Allan PoeNone of this fits. If it was true that she had little to say about Poe, where did Valentine's story come from, except his own desperate imagination, cobbling together bits of local gossip? (It is one of the many peculiarities of this incident that Valentine wrote out at least two versions of his Shelton interview, which contain some substantial textual differences between them.) If she wished to draw a discreet veil over her love life, why not simply say so from the beginning? If she truly granted him this interview--an interview which raises more questions than it answers--why bother maintaining her silence after it appeared in print? And if she had decided the time had come to bare her soul, why not deal directly with Ingram himself, to ensure that her relationship with Poe would be described the way she wished it to be told, instead of trusting her long-hidden confidences to be transmitted by an unreliable third-party? And if she gave this interview, either her previous declaration that she knew virtually nothing about Poe or the interview itself was a brazen lie. Either way, what does that say about Shelton's credibility? And if--as nearly everyone assumes--she lied when she denied being engaged to Poe in 1849, again, why should we trust anything in these "notes?" As the lawyers would say, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus--"false in one, false in all."

In short, the "Valentine notes"--however you choose to look at them--are impossible to reconcile with reality.

**A footnote: "The Poe Log" described the reunion between Poe and Mrs. Shelton as having taken place in the summer of 1848. (Kenneth Silverman, taking his information from TPL, repeated this statement.) This is simply wrong. The Valentine notes make it clear that Poe's sudden reappearance in her life was in the summer of 1849. "The Poe Log" evidently made this change in chronology in order to make the Valentine/Shelton account fit in with Sarah Helen Whitman's claim that Poe told her he had considered marrying Shelton during his (very brief) visit to Richmond in 1848, but on finding that his old neighbor had become uncongenial to him, resolved to woo Whitman instead. As with so many of the stories related by "Poe's Helen," we have only her word that Poe made this odd and rather ungallant remark, and what little evidence we have directly contradicts the idea that he and Shelton had any renewal of their acquaintance before 1849. (As an aside, Maria Clemm stated years later that Poe was never in Richmond at all in 1848, and the evidence for this visit is so generally unsatisfactory that his biographer Arthur H. Quinn was tempted to agree with her!)

"The Poe Log," incidentally, did a similar juggling of dates with Mary Gove Nichols' description of a visit to Fordham late in 1846. In order to reconcile her account of Poe offering for sale a poem that is presumed to be "Ulalume" with that work's publication at the end of 1847, they give her visit a date of c. November '47. This ignores Nichols' statement that Virginia Poe was still alive at the time described. Of course, Nichols' account also conflicts with Poe's own description to George W. Eveleth of how and when he sold "Ulalume," making her story worthless as a historical source in any case.

***Another footnote: Among the items that were published in the "Century" magazine in 1903 as part of the "Poe/Chivers Papers" is the text of a hysterical letter Mrs. Shelton supposedly wrote Maria Clemm immediately after hearing of Poe's death. (The assumption is that Mrs. Clemm sent it to Chivers for his edification.) It is universally accepted as genuine by historians. However, there are reasons for doubting the authenticity of the "Chivers letter."

For one, we only have a copy among the "Chivers papers" in the Huntington Library--made allegedly by Chivers himself--of the letter. No original manuscript has ever been seen. (Although Maria Clemm told Annie Richmond that Shelton had written her about the tragedy in Baltimore, she gave no details about the letter, and as the manuscript is not extant, it is impossible to verify if the text of the letter in the "Chivers papers" matches the one sent to Mrs. Clemm.)

Even taking the view that Mrs. Shelton would have been greatly distressed at the time of writing this letter, the writing style simply does not sound like any other known letter of hers. In addition, the little evidence we have indicates that after Poe's death Mrs. Shelton immediately tried to distance herself from Mrs. Clemm, as well as anything else concerning Poe. (A few years afterward, Mrs. Clemm told Sarah Helen Whitman that she knew nothing of Mrs. Shelton's life, and even suggested that she and Poe's putative final fiancee were on hostile terms. Unfortunately, she did not say why.) Also, the description in this letter of Mrs. Shelton's final meeting with Poe, and his physical condition when they parted, directly contradicts the Valentine notes, as well as all other accounts we have of Poe's departure from Richmond. Finally, the whole history surrounding the "Poe/Chivers Papers"--as I have said before--is enough to embarrass Joseph Cosey.