Monday, August 27, 2012

Two Obituary Notices of Rufus Griswold

Rufus w Griswold death
Rufus Wilmot Griswold is dead. He died in New York City on this day in 1857. This announcement startled many, but few were grieved by it. The anthologist was known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death were suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art lost one its most erratic stars.

By way of commemorating the Reverend’s sad fate (he had an end arguably more dismal--and certainly more painfully prolonged--than his most famous adversary,) I have reprinted passages from two contemporary obituaries. The first appeared in "Emerson's Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly" for October 1857. This biographical article is anonymous, but it was evidently written by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, as it echoes her known writings about Griswold. The article also has the same teeth-grittingly irritating tone of condescension that pervades virtually everything Mrs. Smith ever wrote. As I have noted several times before, Smith was a highly unreliable Poe source, but she knew Griswold much better and longer than she knew Poe, so her description of the former probably holds more weight. It certainly meshes with some of my own conclusions about the man. (I've come to see his more notorious actions, such as his Poe memoir and his strange marriages, as the pitiful fruits of poorly-thought-out impulses rather than calculated, cool-headed villainy. Frankly, the man strikes me as rather a goofball.) In any rate, this is one of the more balanced and intriguing depictions of Griswold’s complicated character that I’ve seen:
“The earthly career of this man has terminated, and, as public journalists, it is needful that we should have something to say of one who has been more widely associated with the literature of the country, and with literary persons, than any one left to us. We shall say little of the experience of Mr. Griswold, painful as it was,, and as full of sorrow to himself as to others. ‘Tread lightly upon the ashes of the dead,’ is a humane and Christian-like proverb. Creatures of harmony are not often born into the world…No one is evil without knowing pain; no one is weak without the pangs of weakness.

That Rufus W. Griswold was a weak and ill-judging man, no one will deny. As a man, there was much in him to regret; but those who knew something of his last lonely years, his bed of solitary and uncheered suffering, will feel for him only pity, as one who was made to atone deeply for all the mistakes of his life. He left three children, and we much doubt if either of them were with him in his last moments. [Ed. note: They were not with him, and not one of his children, or either of his two living wives--or, rather, "wives"--were mentioned in his will.]

…We have reason to be grateful to him, as Americans, for what he did for literature. He was untiring in his researches…That his judgment was not always to be trusted, is not much to say of one who did so much that was trustworthy. That he was capricious, and allowed his personal predilections and prejudices to sway him, is most true, for he had the whims of a woman coupled with a certain spleen which he took no pains to conceal; yet was he weakly placable, and could be diverted from some piece of mischief or malice by an appeal to his generosity--by some expression of wit or outbreak of indignation…

…He had the laugh of a child, and was strangely unable to see the world as an arena for forms, ceremonies and proprieties; hence his freakishness, and mistakes and errors had always something incomplete and childish about them. He should have been shut in a library, with some protective spirit to direct him, for he could not understand the world, nor how it should be met; hence, some few loved this man with a deep and abiding love, which tells of much that was noble and beautiful within him--others pursued him with hatred and malice, which shows that his sphere was one of power in some way; and in all this, the man was utterly ignorant of himself, and of what the world had a right to demand of him.”

Alas, an editorial writer in the “New Orleans Delta” was not nearly as benevolent. Soon after Griswold’s death, the newspaper published the following column:
“The recent death of Dr. Rufus W. Griswold has excited not a little comment in Northern newspaperdom. Some of the papers speak in no very complimentary terms of his abilities and honesty as a litterateur, while others with a disregard of one of the most beautiful traits in human nature, that of forgiving the mere frailties of man, do not refrain from alluding to the fact that, prior to his exit from the feverish stage of life, his unfortunate matrimonial relations produced considerable scandal of the literary and fashionable world.

No man in this country did greater harm to American literature than the subject of this article...

Deficient in all the elements of a sound and discerning critic, and destitute of that learning essential in a literary editor, Dr. Griswold, nevertheless, set himself up as an American Gifford, and passed judgment upon the ‘builders of the lofty rhyme’ with the air and audacity of that distinguished individual...Few persons can read his ‘Poets and Poetry of America’ without being struck with the truth. Verse writers of mediocre abilities are introduced into the sublime company of our masters of the lyre, and their feeble efforts ridiculously extolled.

But the crowning literary sin of Dr. Griswold was his assassination of the reputation of the brilliant but erratic Edgar A. Poe. Claiming to be his literary executor by the last words of this child of genius, he nevertheless took the earliest occasion after Poe’s death to indite a malignant and disgraceful article calculated to do much injury to the deceased poet...while we have much charity for his frailties as a man, we have none for errors and sins as a litterateur."

I would be the first to say I hope Griswold is resting in peace, but I know full well that’s impossible. You see, the Reverend is expiating his sins in an earthly Hell. He’s on Twitter.

Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus W Griswold

Friday, August 24, 2012

Happy Anniversary to Me

…Or, to World of Poe, at least. Yes, this strange little blog started three years ago today. Let’s all pause to offer a toast to Edgar:

World of Edgar Allan Poe anniversary

While raising my glass, I would like to offer as a salute (via The Poe Society of Baltimore) Lambert A. Wilmer’s poem “To Edgar A. Poe,” which he published (under the pseudonym “Horace in Philadelphia”) in the “Saturday Evening Post” on August 11, 1838. The ode was written at a particularly low period in Poe’s professional career, but these oddly prescient words of encouragement seem equally relevant today:
What object has the poet’s prayer?
(If poets have the grace to pray;)
Petitions he for sumptuous fare,
For gold--for garments rich and rare,
(For which the owners oft forget to pay;)
Asks he for houses or extended lands,
Rich harvests, ripening in the fervid ray
Of August suns;--or credit that commands
Another’s purse, (if back’d by good security
And fair financial prospects in futurity.)
Say do the poet’s ardent wishes seize
On objects such as these?

No:--if the genuine spark is there,
A careless mortal you shall see,
Unfetter’d by the world and free--
Unlike what C[lark]e and W[illi]s are.

A sordid mind was never blent
With genius;--such accompaniment
Would be like brazen cow-bells rung
While heavenly Caradori sung.
Praise is the subject of the poet’s sighs;
Neglect, the atmosphere in which he dies.

And yet, true genius, (like the sun
With bats and owls,) is little noted;
But when his glorious course is run,
His griefs forgot, his labors done,
Then is he prais’d, admired, and quoted!

Dull mediocrity, meanwhile
Along his level turnpike speeds,
And fame and fortune are his meeds;
While merit wants one cheering smile,
How bless’d stupidity succeeds!

But let the heavenly gifted mind
Not hopeless mourn, if men are blind,
And imbecility prevails;
Time, sternly frowning on the base
Shall sweep the poor ephemeral race
To where oblivion tells no tales.
As autumn’s rapid breezes sweep
Ten thousand insects to the deep.

But the same wind whose angry tones
Sends small dull craft to Davy Jones,
Is but an impulse to convey
The nobler vessel o’er the sea;--
So thou dear friend, shalt haply ride
Triumphant through the swelling tide
With fame thy cynosure and guide.

So may it be.--tho’ fortune now
Averts her face, and heedless crowds
To blocks, like senseless Pagans, bow;--
Yet time shall dissipate the clouds,
Dissolve the mist which merit shrouds,
And fix the laurel on thy brow.

There let it grow; and there ‘twould be
If justice rul’d and men could see.
But reptiles are allow’d to sport
Their scaly limbs in great Apollo’s court.
Thou once did whip some rascals from the fane
O let thy vengeful arm be felt again.

No one is more surprised than I am that this project has lasted so long. I never had any particular desire to blog about anything. World of Poe basically arose out of a fit of temper. I found a number of remarkably weird statements on a few Wikipedia pages relating to Poe (“Edgar T.S. Grey,” anyone? And I'll bet you didn't know his famous "I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity" letter was written to "his friend, John H. Ingram.") Finding myself unable to do anything about it, in a moment of impotent irritation, I thought, “All right, I’ll have my say on a blog. Let’s see them try to edit that.”

At first I was only expecting to do this for a few weeks or so, but the blog somehow took on a life of its own. And I’ll always be glad it did. World of Poe itself may not be much, but because of it, I’ve discovered much more about Poe and “met” terrific people who would otherwise be unknown to me. I also want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has said kind words about this site. (Believe it or not, there have been a few.) I’m always startled to realize anyone reads this blog at all, let alone when they find anything positive to say about it. I’m truly grateful for their generosity.

I assumed the blog had ceased for good some months ago, but I found myself bringing it back from the self-imposed slumber in order to comment on the unexpected revival of the, ahem, "issues" surrounding Lenore Hart's "The Raven's Bride." I hoped to be able to report on some sort of resolution to a frustratingly inconclusive story.

Well, although the imbroglio was covered by the Associated Press, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and numerous other places across the interwebs, that resolution never materialized. Hart herself simply issued frazzled and very curious attacks/defenses that were longer and duller than the Manhattan phone book but only a fraction as coherent and readable. St. Martin's Press, after issuing a statement that translated into "Shut up, they explained," was content to look blind, deaf, and...well, you finish the sentence. I can only assume that well-founded charges of shenanigans involving the product they offer the public means nothing to them--even as a platoon of online bibliosleuths have uncovered an ever-growing list of other books by other "writers" that are obviously plagiarized. Something to keep in mind next time you hit the bookstores. Caveat emptor.

The Norman Mailer Center, as I mentioned before, was responsible enough to suspend Lenore Hart from her teaching position there while the charges against her are being "investigated." However, Pennsylvania's Wilkes University, which also boasts La Hart as a faculty member, has, to date, paid no public notice of the issue. Yes, my friends, you still have the opportunity to let her work the same magic on
your manuscript that she brought to hers!

It was a real shock to me to realize that the "Raven's Bride"/"Very Young Mrs. Poe" situation is not, as I had assumed, a bizarre anomaly. In fact, it is increasingly looking like "business as usual." If nothing else is accomplished, at least Jeremy Duns, Steve Mosby, Archie Valparaiso, Elizabeth Chadwick, the posters at, and many many others have done us all a great service by discovering and publicizing many examples of the widespread contagion of Literary Bad Behavior. (The latest fad? Sockpuppets!)

If I can get autobiographical for a moment: Back in the Paleolithic Era, when I was an inmate in a wretched penal colony masquerading as a junior high school, a girl in my English class approached me one morning before school wanting to see what I had written for a book report that was due that day. She said she hadn't had time to read the book, and just wanted to glance at my paper to get some idea of what it was about. Dupe that I am, I let her borrow it for a while.

The next day, the teacher told us both to stay behind after class for a little chat. I was dumbfounded to learn that the girl had copied my essay word for word and submitted it under her own name. Fortunately, the teacher was a pretty nice guy with a sense of humor (unusual for that school.) He was familiar with my writing style (with a little chuckle I wasn't sure I liked, he commented it was "very distinctive") and he had already surmised what happened. He let me off with some friendly advice about the wisdom of keeping my homework classified material. I've wondered ever since what becomes of people like my classmate.

She's probably a best-selling author today.

True justice may never really be found in the cases that have been uncovered, but justice is a rare and precious commodity in this strange and often appalling world of ours--our "Hell of the planetary souls." And, of course, there are far worse examples of injustice every minute than ones involving the shortcomings of otherwise unimportant and forgettable hacks. We can only hope all the miscreants involved at least learned a lesson for the future. Besides, they're already condemned to living with themselves, which is a hard punishment indeed.

I'm uncertain how many blog posts I have left in me--after all, Edgar’s not doing too much these days--but I’ve developed a taste for writing boring, long-winded, and addled 2,000 word rants on arcane literary issues, so I hope to still pop up now and then, whenever any Poe-related lunacy happens to catch my eye. (I’m starting to feel like a character from one of John Mortimer’s Rumpole novels: “He’ll always be bobbing back like a bloody opera singer, making his ‘positively last appearance.’”) In the meantime, if anyone wants to chat about Poe with me on Twitter, feel free. I promise to try and be pithy, informative, and only moderately obnoxious.

I’ll close with the late, great Sandy Denny performing what is probably my favorite song. Who knows where the blogging time goes, indeed.

As that valued Friend of Poe Pauline would say, bonne chance.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, Born August 15, 1822

"She was an excellent linguist, and a perfect musician, and she was so very beautiful. How often has Eddie said: I see no one so dignified and so beautiful as my sweet little wife. And oh! how pure and beautiful she was even to the last."
-Maria Clemm, 1860
"Little Virginia I have a clear recollection of when she visited us in Exeter St., as well as of the fact that the fascinating little brunette awakened in me the first tender emotion I ever felt--calf love, I believe you call it."
-Henry Starr, a childhood neighbor of the Poe/Clemm household in Baltimore
“…Perhaps you knew him best of all,
Loving him best, the whole of him,
Listening with him to the fall
Of the soft-footed seraphim
Or other guests more grim--
And growing steadily strangely more
Like one implacable image, till
The footfalls on the tufted floor
Tinkled and stopped--and Death stood still--
And listened--as Death will.”
-Joseph Auslander, “Letter to Virginia Clemm”

D.H. Lawrence’s “Birthday” was not addressed to either of the Poes. However, for some reason, the 1914 poem has always so reminded me of Virginia that I couldn’t resist repeating it today. Hopefully, Edgar and Virginia will forgive me for quoting a man who wrote some of the worst attempts to analyze Poe I’ve ever read. (“His grand attempt and achievement was with his wife; his cousin, a girl with a singing voice. With her he went in for the intensest flow, the heightening, the prismayic shades of ecstasy. It was the intensest nervous vibration of unison, pressed higher and higher in pitch, till the blood-vessels of the girl broke, and the blood began to flow out loose. It was love. If you call it love.” Calm down, Dave.)
“If I were well-to-do
I would put roses on roses, and cover your grave
With multitude of white roses, and just a few
Red ones, a bloody-white flag over you.

So people passing under
The ash-trees of the valley road, should raise
Their eyes to your bright place, and then in wonder
Should climb the hill, and put the flowers asunder.

And seeing it is your birthday,
They would say, seeing each mouth of white rose praise
You highly, every blood-red rose display
Your triumph of anguish above you, they would say:

''Tis strange, we never knew
While she was here and walking in our ways
That she was as the wine-jar whence we drew
Our draught of faith that sent us on anew.’

And so I’d raise
A rose-bush unto you in all their hearts
A rose of memory with a scent of praise
Wafting like solace down their length of days.”

Happy birthday, Sissy!

Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe birthday

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why Poe Blogging Makes You Old Before Your Time

To quote Maria, “Edgar has a new daddy!”

Open Letters Monthly, a normally eminently sane (and quite good) publication, recently published an article suggesting that—wait for it!—actor/writer John Howard “Home Sweet Home” Payne fathered both Edgar and Rosalie Poe. Yes, this appeared in August, not, as you would assume, in their April 1 issue. The many gaps in historical records always require a certain amount of “what-if” speculation, but this piece may top even John Evangelist Walsh in piling fantasy upon fantasy. The article is so lightweight I’m surprised it didn’t just float off my computer screen. You’ve heard of “bricks without straw?” I failed to see even one slab of brickwork in this piece.

I posted my (probably overlong and overheated) rebuttal in the comments, so I won’t go into the details of why I found this article such a waste of space. Suffice to say that I could not see that the author found one speck of proof for what is a very serious allegation, but he went ahead and presented it to the public anyway. I’m drawing attention to this otherwise insignificant piece because it is only a small part of an increasingly widespread plague of allowing idle (and usually horribly defamatory) speculation to grow and flourish with few or no facts to support them, to the point where they often replace the actual historical record in people’s minds. Never underestimate the persuasive power of seeing a statement in print, no matter how ludicrous it may be. As my eloquent blog colleague Kathryn Warner said with succinct perfection: “Don’t Defame the Dead.”

John Howard Payne was not Edgar Allan Poe's father