Sunday, August 17, 2014

Yet Another Reason Why the Internet is a Poe Blogger's Hell

The above photo is one I have been seeing all over the internet lately, particularly on Twitter. It is always described, without reservations, as a daguerreotype showing Poe at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences, circa 1842. (He is supposedly the seated fellow with the impressive set of whiskers.)

Such dogmatism ignores the fact that this attribution was made only in recent years, and has very little to back it up. The man in the photo was first identified as Poe by Benjamin J. McFarland and Thomas Peter Bennett in their article "The Image of Edgar Allan Poe: A Daguerreotype Linked to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia."  (Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Vol. 147, 1997.)

This daguerreotype was first published in 1937. We do not know for certain who took this picture, who any of the men in the image are, or even exactly when it was taken. In 1950, the magazine "Frontiers" published the photo, suggesting that Poe might be the standing man in the top hat. (The only evidence proposed for this theory was the fact that Poe "was in Philadelphia in the period," and "he wrote a small book on shells." They gave the date of the photo--again, on no evidence--as 1838.)

McFarland and Bennett, through a detailed analysis of the daguerreotype, presented a well-reasoned case that the image was taken at the Academy by Paul Beck Goddard, "an early Philadelphia experimental daguerreotypist" sometime after the summer of 1842, most likely during the winter of 1842-43.

It is in the identification of the seated man as Poe--which, after all, is the only reason the daguerreotype is of general interest today--that their arguments begin to falter. Their theory that this is Poe rests on these statements:

*Poe knew a number of men who were part of Philadelphia's scientific society, such as Academy member Dr. John K. Mitchell, conchologist Isaac Lea, who was one of Poe's publishers, and poet Henry Hirst, who mounted specimens for the Peale Museum.

*Poe's name appeared on the byline of the scientific work "The Conchologist's First Book." (Although McFarland and Bennett admitted that this book was essentially written by others.)

*Poe had "a populist scientific bent," who may have been "America's first enduring science journalist."

Surely, the authors argue, these "associations and Poe's own measure of fame" "opened the Academy's doors for Poe; his interest in science and new technology provided a motive for him to be involved with the process [of daguerreotyping.]" In short, Poe "could have been in Goddard's photo."

McFarland and Bennett then went on to a forensic analysis of the daguerreotype. To make a long story (or journal article) short, they did a side-by-side visual comparison of the "McKee" daguerreotype of Poe from ca. 1843 with the Academy daguerreotype (direct superimposition of the two images could not be done,) and decided, by golly, the two looked alike.

Enlargement of the Academy daguerreotype,
showing the Man Who Would Be Poe. 
The "McKee" daguerreotype of Poe.

That's all this comes down to: Two people looking at an old daguerreotype and saying "Gosh, that might be Edgar Allan Poe!" Were they right? Who knows? Unfortunately, the Academy daguerreotype is too indistinct to make any sort of solid identification possible. I personally do not see much of a resemblance between Poe and the "Academician," but others may disagree. My point is, McFarland and Bennett's theory that this is a long-lost photograph of Edgar Allan Poe is just that--a theory, and in all honesty should always be presented as such. I can't prove that it's not Poe, but they certainly can't prove it is. The daguerreotype is merely one of many "Poe" photos or paintings that are either questionable or downright bogus. (See Michael Deas' "The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe" for an entertaining rundown on all the many fake Poe images that have appeared over the years.)

I realize that this is a minor matter compared to the numerous blood-curdling frauds and libels that are continually perpetrated against Poe (hi, Lynn Cullen!) but it still annoys me.