Thursday, February 9, 2012

Some Overlooked Poe Reminiscences

The following article, “The Character of Edgar Allan Poe,” appeared in the “Brooklyn Magazine” for March 1886. It was written by Margaret E. Wilmer, whose father, journalist Lambert A. Wilmer, knew Poe off-and-on for about a ten-year period beginning from the early 1830s. Miss Wilmer wrote a piece about Poe for “Beadle’s Monthly” in 1867 that has been quoted in several books and articles about the poet, but the existence of this later article seems to be unknown to researchers. Because the essay is so obscure, I repeat it here, for the benefit of anyone with a fondness for Poe anecdotes. There are several obvious factual errors in Miss Wilmer’s account (and it is certainly an exaggeration to claim that “not one whisper of the plaudits which now proclaim his genius to the world…came to cheer him while he lived and toiled upon this earth,”) but her reminiscences are still of some historical interest:

Nothing in modern biography is more remarkable than the wide variation between different estimates made of the character of a person who lived and moved amidst us so recently as did Edgar Allan Poe. Yet it is not really marvelous that there should be a great deal of fanciful speculation concerning a celebrated man with whom very few people ever obtained any real intimacy, and whose most characteristic traits did not so float upon the surface as to be obvious to all his acquaintances.

The writer's father (whose last earthly days were spent in Brooklyn) was the most confidential friend of Poe when both were just entering upon a professional literary career, and they continued in constant and intimate association until the author of "The Raven" finally changed his place of residence from Philadelphia to New York.

Everyone has read descriptions of Poe as a wild and haggard-looking wretch roaming the streets at midnight, and muttering fearful fancies, and still more fearful maledictions to the silent stars. Indeed, to judge a literary man (as many appear to do) by the creations of his pen, it would be easy to believe that no more weird, awful, and unearthly-seeming being than he who wrote "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque" was ever seen in the mortal flesh. To most readers, such writings seem the product of a brain burning with madness or intoxication, and a heart tortured by
passion and despair, or, as some will have it, by remorse, for mysterious and appalling sins.

The Edgar A. Poe who, with his lovely and fragile wife, so often visited the house of my parents, was not only a man of the most gentlemanly appearance and manners, but unusually precise in his dress, his deportment, and his habitual modes of speech. So far from having about him any suggestion of the wild, erratic and terrible, he was one of whom most people would criticise as being over fastidious, and even finically particular in his tastes. In fact, his nature was not excitable, hot-blooded and impassioned, though a contrary impression might be produced by his readiness to resent anything which he took as an impertinence or an injustice to himself. But let it be remembered that Poe was a Virginian, trained in the old Southern school of honor, which taught that pride and an intolerance of affronts were to be regarded as cardinal virtues. His sensitiveness, too, was wound up to much more than its normal tension by the effect which hard and enforced brain work has upon the nervous system, and yet more by the bitterness of finding himself doomed to a life of pinching poverty, and to the endurance of sneers and slights from men of intellect far inferior to his own. We need to remind ourselves that not one whisper of the plaudits which now proclaim his genius to the world, not one flash of such glory as now surrounds the name of Edgar Allan Poe, came to cheer him while he lived and toiled upon this earth.

True, the poet, his wife and her mother, Mrs. Clemm, all shared the gift of preserving, both in themselves and their home surroundings, an air of exquisite neatness and refinement which could not be lost amidst the privations of their utmost poverty. I believe no one has ever thought of accusing Poe of being an unkind husband, and he certainly was not in sympathy with that vulgar smartness which displays itself in jests concerning the anxiety of every married man to see his mother-in-law a corpse as soon as possible. The stanzas addressed by the poet to his Virginia and to her mother (who was also his own aunt) are full of tenderness, admiring appreciation and reverential love.

A doubt has recently been raised in regard to the long and universally credited assertion that Poe was, at some time or other, a slave to strong drink. Reverend J.J. Moran, of Virginia, who became acquainted with the poet in his last days, states that he indulged in pernicious stimulants only at very rare intervals during his life, as he knew that the effect of alcohol upon an organization like his was most potent and terrible. Dr. Moran believes that intemperance was no habit of Poe's closing years, at least, and had nothing to do with his untimely death. Here there seems to be a mystery equal to any which the great writer himself ever interwove with his fictitious plots. It is certain that during the years of their constant association, my father never discovered in Poe any tendency toward drinking habits, and the testimony of parties with whom he resided soon after his removal to New York is to the same effect. If Dr. Moran can prove that the poet had no such vice in his later days, then one of the most extraordinary and obstinate slanders that ever pursued the memory of genius will be crushed forever.

And now we come to speak of a circumstance in regard to which Edgar A. Poe may be pronounced the most unfortunate of all distinguished men, either ancient or modern. In all previous instances, those who felt especially called upon to write a certain man's biography, seemed by that act to enter into such sympathy with him that they could do nothing else than to make the fullest possible exhibition of his good qualities and gifts, and the best apologies for his short-comings. Macauley has alluded to a memoir of Lord Bacon as having been written with an enthusiasm even "passing the love of biographers." Among his last recorded wishes, Poe had expressed a desire that his writings should be selected and arranged for publication by N. P. Willis, and his biography written by Rufus W. Griswold. Mr. Griswold was a "Reverend" who was but little known as a preacher, and a literary man whose celebrity rested principally upon books made up of selections from and sketches of other authors. Poe had written some caustic things of this industrious compiler, but he paid him the high compliment of entrusting to his magnanimity and sense of justice the guardianship of his memory when he was no more.

Misplaced laudation in obituary sketches may be a blameable weakness, but what shall we say of a biographer who, through every page, pursues the object of his memoir with such furious hatred that it is impossible to imagine how so much prejudice and spite could keep within the bounds of truth and justice? Most people, under the circumstances, would have felt that there was a sacredness about the trust reposed in them by the dying poet. Dr. Griswold made use of that trust, not only to expose in the fullest manner every admitted fault of Poe, but to bring to light new charges against his character, some of which, at least, were supported only by testimony which would not warrant their repetition even by a professed enemy. For instance, Dr. Griswold accuses Poe of a most disgraceful attempt at blackmailing a woman, and then adds with a hypocritical "Alas!" that the poet was undoubtedly guilty of "many such" actions. We do not believe that there is any man who never spent a term in the penitentiary, and yet has been guilty of "many such" outrages upon humanity and honesty as this case would involve. How could a long array of such crimes (whose very essence consists in their secrecy and concealment) be known to Dr. Griswold, and yet never be brought under the notice of any legal official?

But by far the worst feature of this whole case yet remains to be spoken of. The biography of whose spirit we have noticed this small sample, was written for and prefixed to an edition of Poe's works which, as its preface states, was published for the pecuniary benefit of Mrs. Clemm, the mother of the poet's deceased wife. She was a lady of lovely and noble character, superior culture, and most delicate refinement of feeling. Even before Edgar Poe became the husband of her daughter —the dear and early lost—she had loved him with the most maternal tenderness as her only sister's only child. Her pride in the genius of "darling Eddy," her sympathy with his struggles, and her anxiety to smooth the path of toil for him as far as possible, were equal toVirginia's own. When death had deprived her of both her children, and she was left to utter helplessness and desolation, hers was surely a case to be approached only with the most delicate and respectful assistance. The publication of a handsome edition of Poe's works formed a highly befitting mode of raising a fund for her relief, but when the unfortunate lady came to peruse the pages of her Edgar's memorial, what did she find? A horrible delineation of him as a monster of baseness and corruption, and all this accumulation of injuries to the beloved dead sent forth as part of a scheme for her benefit, and under the sanction of her name! A plan to publicly exhibit the poet's fleshless bones, and give a share of the proceeds to the afflicted mother, would have been less shocking than this!

But the hater and the mourner, as well as the poet himself, have now passed into the unseen land, and Edgar Allan Poe may come to be treated with as dispassionate fairness as any other historical character. He had faults and weaknesses, known to all who really knew him, but let not these be magnified and multiplied either by unrelenting malice or by the almost equally culpable recklessness of those who would claim a knowledge that they do not possess.

Note: Poe, of course, was not the child of Maria Clemm's "only sister," but of her brother David Poe. Dr. Moran's statements on this or any other matter must be treated with extreme caution, as the good doctor was notoriously as uncertain as a weather forecast and as trustworthy as Wikipedia.