Monday, April 18, 2011


Edgar A Poe signatureOur favorite Raven was, of course, born simply as "Edgar Poe," acquiring his middle name after he became the foster-child of John and Frances Allan. (Curiously, during his childhood, he was often known as "Edgar Allan.")

For some years now, a rather quixotic campaign has emerged asserting that he should only be known as "Edgar A. Poe," or "Edgar Poe." The theory seems to be that after his final estrangement from John Allan, his adopted name became so obnoxious to him that it is some sort of insult to his memory to continue to use it.

This is typical of the peculiar nature of Poe studies. While he most often signed his name using just the middle initial, (or, "E.A. Poe,") there is no evidence whatsoever that, however much he may have resented, or even hated, his foster-father, he found the name itself in any way repugnant. If he had, surely he would have simply dropped the "A" altogether. (Just to use one example, Mrs. Osgood nearly always signed her name as "Frances S. Osgood," but I have yet to see anyone suggest that this proves she had a psychological hangup about "Sargent." Ditto for Rufus W. Griswold, George R. Graham, P.P. Cooke, Thomas W. White, George W. Eveleth, etc., etc.) Poe used his full name in print at least once during his lifetime, and to the end of his days, he continued to occasionally sign his complete name--in fact, the title page he designed for his planned collection, "Phantasy Pieces," gives his name as "Edgar Allan Poe." And, of course, his wife used his full name in her acrostic Valentine to him. The envelope where she placed the poem and a lock of her hair was also addressed to "Mr. Edgar Allan Poe," which indicates that she knew he had no objection to his complete cognomen. Speaking personally, if "Allan" was good enough for Virginia, it's good enough for me.Virginia Poe envelope for Valentine poemIn short, if Poe returned to this earth today, I believe he would be far too disgusted by the endless piles of nonsense that have been written about him--the Poe material found in some of the stranger corners of the internet would alone be enough to give the poor man fits--to bother giving two hoots about whether people used his middle name or not. (Just for the record, Wikipedia readers: Poe never published poetry--or did anything else, for that matter--using the name "Edgar T.S. Grey." Lord have mercy.)

Although, considering his fanaticism about typographical errors, the common mistake of calling him "Edgar Allen Poe" would undoubtedly disgruntle him.

Samuel Stillman OsgoodSamuel S. Osgood's portrait of Poe was, for many years after the poet's death, the best-known image of him. The notoriety (fostered largely by his trashier biographers) surrounding Poe and Osgood's wife has only enhanced interest in the picture. Yet oddly, we know absolutely nothing about the painting's history--we cannot even be certain it is painted from life. This lack of information is particularly curious, as Samuel Osgood was a raconteur who enjoyed relating stories of his many travels and adventures. You would think he had something to say about one of his most famous works. It is also strange that his wife never mentioned the picture in her published "Reminiscences of Edgar A. Poe."

We do not even know who, if anyone, commissioned the picture. Osgood himself kept it until the early 1850s, when he either sold or gave it to Rufus W. Griswold (who owned a number of Osgood's other portraits.) Osgood was known to do portraits on his own initiative, sometimes with the hope of finding a buyer later on, sometimes simply out of friendship or admiration. Either may have been the case here. In any case, the picture is strong circumstantial evidence that contemporaries saw Poe and Frances Osgood's acquaintance as entirely innocent. It is hard to imagine Mr. Osgood painting, let alone keeping for any length of time, the likeness of a man who had entangled his wife in scandal. (And if, as has occasionally been theorized, Frances' esteem for Poe inspired her to commission the portrait, that would only further confirm the utter innocuousness of the relationship. Fanny Osgood was an odd woman, but it would take adjectives that go far beyond merely "odd" to describe a wife who could urge her husband to paint a portrait of her new paramour.)

It is assumed the portrait was done sometime in 1845, but that is unproven. Poe's biographer Mary E. Phillips believed he sat for Mr. Osgood in July of that year, when the painter and his wife were living in Providence, RI, but she offered no other information. About the only thing that can be said for certain about the painting comes from Samuel's niece, a Mrs. M.E. Porter, who wrote Phillips, "My uncle and aunt's married relations were exceedingly congenial, and had there existed any unpleasantness which would naturally arise from undue association of my aunt's name with that of Edgar A. Poe we should certainly have heard of same. Both my uncle and his much beloved wife were held in highest esteem by the entire Osgood family...I know well that there never would have existed a portrait of the poet from my uncle's brush had there not been a kindly feeling between them." This is one of those very rare statements in Poe's biography that has the ring of common sense.

(For what it's worth, John Sartain, who made a well-known engraving of this portrait, wrote that when he saw Poe in 1849, the poet stated that he wanted Osgood's work to go to Mrs. Clemm after his death. If there is any truth to the story, it shows that neither Poe nor his aunt felt the picture carried any uncomfortably "improper" associations.)