Monday, February 7, 2011

The Grotesque and Arabesque Stella Lewis (Part One of Two)

Sarah Anna Lewis and Edgar Allan PoeIn an earlier post, I touched briefly on the odd and rather slimy role Sarah Anna Lewis played in the last two years of Poe's life. I realized that this woman was just deranged, destructive, and creepy enough to earn her very own post. Happy reading.

We do not know exactly how and when Lewis made Poe's acquaintance, but it was possibly during the period he lived in New York City in 1845. However, her real involvement in his history did not commence until late in 1846. The twenty-two year old woman was the wife of a wealthy lawyer named Sylvanus D. Lewis. Mrs. Lewis (who made several increasingly colorful changes to her Christian name until she finally settled on "Stella,") had, like so many members of the 19th century literati, both the money and leisure to pursue an interest in poetry. The question of whether or not they had the talent for it was considered irrelevant. She was a theatrical, narcissistic, flashily-dressed woman who imagined herself to be not only a profound artist, but a fascinating siren and muse. (Alas, no one else seemed to concur in this.) Mrs. Lewis was, in short, a living, breathing embodiment of the worst caricatures of the female literary dilettante, with a touch of a Hogarth engraving thrown in.

She insinuated herself into Poe's life when he was at the lowest point he would see until he turned up at that Baltimore tavern in October 1849. His wife Virginia was dying, and he himself was sick, persecuted, increasingly broken in spirit, and virtually penniless. His misery was widely--and, by his enemies, gleefully--advertised in the press. Although we--probably mercifully--do not know the details, the Lewises took full advantage of his public vulnerability, and provided the Poe family with money and other assistance. In exchange, there was said to be an unabashed extortion that Poe would do what polishing he could to Stella's clumsy verses and write laudatory notices of her for the magazines.

As I have said before, if this latter tale is true (and it mostly relies upon the ever-questionable testimony of Marie Louise Shew Houghton, who was infuriated about Mrs. Lewis' desire to present herself as the official Poe Family Protector--a role Houghton herself coveted--and thus wished to demean the woman's role in Poe's life as much as possible,) one must feel sadness and pity, rather than the scorn Poe and Mrs. Clemm have garnered. At that time, the Poes were virtually helpless, and if Stella Lewis took the opportunity to exploit this helplessness for her own ends, the odium belongs entirely on her own head. As later events would show, it was an odium she thoroughly deserved for more reason than one.

As it happened, it was not until after Poe died that Mrs. Lewis' talents for crude self-aggrandizement reached their full flower. At some point, she reputedly began circulating the story that she was the model for "Annabel Lee." When this reached the ears of Poe's erstwhile quasi-fiancee Sarah Helen Whitman, she was indignant. How dare this woman poach on her own claims to have inspired Poe's most romantic poem? Mrs. Whitman informed everyone within earshot that Mary Hewitt (another gossipy "literary lady") had written her that Mrs. Clemm told Mrs. Lewis that she was Poe's heroine as mere flattery, a way of paying back favors granted--the implication being that there was not a word of truth to Lewis' boasts. Quite cleverly, Whitman added that Hewitt also told her that Frances S. Osgood had written that the poem was a tribute to Virginia Poe only to spite Mrs. Lewis. Thus, her account achieved a neat double play, by simultaneously discrediting Whitman's two rival "claimants" to "Annabel Lee," Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Poe. (Not to mention discrediting Osgood's declaration that Virginia had been Poe's one true love, a statement Whitman took as a deliberate insult to herself.) Sarah H. Whitman was an absurd woman in many ways, but stupid she was not.

We have no other evidence Hewitt actually made this statement about the poem, (Whitman, quite suspiciously, did not preserve these letters she allegedly received from her,) and it seems like an implausible thing for Mrs. Clemm to have done, no matter how indebted to Mrs. Lewis she may have felt. (For what it's worth, Annie Richmond wrote Poe's biographer John H. Ingram that Mrs. Clemm maintained that "Annabel Lee" was about Virginia, and was always somewhat affronted whenever anyone did not seem to grasp that fact on their own. If Mrs. Richmond spoke accurately--which, admittedly, would be something of a novelty for her--that would settle the "who was Annabel Lee" debate once and for all.) It seems most likely that Mrs. Lewis herself, always eager for publicity and indifferent about how she got it, simply invented her connection to Poe's poem.Edgar Allan Poe Annabel Lee manuscriptMrs. Lewis--when she was not asserting that Poe had asked her to write his biography--also played a key, if still-mysterious role in Rufus W. Griswold obtaining the job of acting as Poe's literary executor. From what both she and Griswold said afterwards, it appears that she was the one to actually enlist him for the task. She claimed this is what Poe had instructed her to do, but she never offered any proof of this. Why she would so interest herself in the matter is also unclear, but her involvement only adds to the dark, unfragrant cloud that hangs around the whole issue of Griswold's appointment.

The Lewises divorced in 1858. The breakup of their marriage seems to have also permanently estranged her from Mrs. Clemm--reputedly, Poe's aunt took Mr. Lewis' side in their dispute. However, there was never any real friendship between the two women--all that ever bound them was hunger on one side, and hunger for glory on the other. In any case, thereafter Maria Clemm became one of Mrs. Lewis' favorite targets for vilification.

In Part Two: The return of Elizabeth Ellet!