Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Joke of the Thing: Poe and George Lippard

George Lippard and Edgar Allan PoeOn this date in 1849 the writer George Lippard, a strange, colorful purveyor of ultra-lurid melodrama, Gothic mysticism and eccentric social activism who probably deserves a blog all of his own, published in the Philadelphia “Quaker City” a characteristically iconoclastic eulogy of Edgar Allan Poe, a man he revered both personally and professionally. Unfortunately, Lippard's exotic, if undoubtedly heartfelt, recollections are virtually all we know of the friendship between two of the most unusual figures in American literature.

He described the last time he saw Poe, just a few months before the poet's death, when his friend was clearly feeling weary of the world. “We talked of the time we had first met, in his quiet home on Seventh Street, Philadelphia, when it was made happy by the presence of his wife--a pure and beautiful woman. He talked also of his last book ‘Eureka,’ well termed a ‘Prose Poem,’ and spoke much of projects for the future.”

Lippard described Poe as “a man of genius, hunted by the world, trampled upon by the men whom he had loaded with favors, and disappointed on every turn of life.” He went on to say, with a palpable snarl, “We frankly confess that, on this occasion, we cannot imitate a number of editors who have taken upon themselves to speak of Poe and his faults in a tone of condescending pity! That Poe had faults we do not deny…He was a harsh, a bitter and sometimes an unjust critic. But he was a man of genius--a man of high honor--a man of good heart…As an author his name will live, while three-fourths of the bastard critics and mongrel authors of the present day go down to nothingness and night. And the men who now spit upon his grave, by way of retaliation for some injury which they imagined they have received from Poe living, would do well to remember that it is only an idiot or a coward who strikes the cold forehead of a corpse.”

Almost exactly five years later, on October 21, 1854, the Boston publication “Dodge’s Literary Museum” printed another column Lippard wrote about Poe. Although, like his earlier reminiscences, he was ostensibly discussing only Poe's personal and professional travails, Lippard was a literary and political firebrand who had himself suffered battles with the establishment. (His brief, hectic life ended a few months before the publication of this article, when he was only thirty-one.) Lippard's writings about Poe show a clear identification with his struggles. He obviously intended more than a mere personal account of his friend--he wished to make a statement, to hold up Poe's sad last days as a cautionary tale showing the evil wrought by the current literary and social hierarchy. This being the case, it is possible that Lippard's descriptions of Poe were somewhat exaggerated, but they are nonetheless both interesting and moving.

Lippard's article is one of the stranger contemporary reminiscences of the late poet, never even directly mentioning him by name. It is a cryptic, dreamlike account of his encounter with Poe in Philadelphia during the summer of 1849.

He described his late friend as sick in mind and body, missing one shoe (an odd and unlikely detail that may be a coded reference of some sort,) and desperately in need of money. Lippard claimed he made the rounds of the city’s literary set on Poe's behalf, and finally managed to put together a small amount of money to enable his beleaguered companion to continue his journey. Lippard said he never forgot “that saddest of all sights--a great man whose genius had enriched publishers, begging his bread in Philadelphia, on a hot summer’s day.”

He continued, “One day, news came that the poet was dead. All at once the world found out his greatness. Literary hucksters who had lied about him, booksellers who had left him to starve, gentlemen of literature, who had seen him walk the hot streets of Philadelphia without food or shelter—these all opened their floodgates of eulogy, and slavered with panegyric the man whom living they would have seen die in the next ditch without one effort to save him.

This is the joke of the thing.”

Lippard concluded sardonically: "Great is the poet who is dead! Allah il Allah! Allah bismallah!”

Friday, October 7, 2011

In Memoriam

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old--
This knight so bold--
And o'er his heart a shadow
Fell, as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow--
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be--
This land of Eldorado?"

"Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,"
The shade replied,--
"If you seek for Eldorado!"

RIP, Edgar, wherever you are. Here's hoping you finally found your Eldorado.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

I'm back...

...Temporarily, at least. And not here. Today I'm guest-posting over at that lethally interesting blog, Executed Today. I'm exploring a sordid little mystery from 1876: Was Mary Stanley's death the result of natural causes, criminal neglect...or murder? (And, yes, there is a Poe connection.)

Hope you like it.