Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Were it not so terrible I should often laugh at my American lady correspondents. Half their time and space is devoted to slandering each other--swearing that Poe cared only for them, and that everybody else who lays claim to his friendship is an impostor! That they (each one says the same) were only girls when he knew them, and when he died, and so could not vindicate him to the world, etc.!!...In fact, they all look upon Poe's fame as a convenient peg upon which to hang their own mediocrities where the world may see!"
-John H. Ingram, letter to Sarah Helen Whitman

It's amazing to me how, in the course of his Poe research, Ingram admitted a number of times that he had become increasingly skeptical, or downright contemptuous, about the veracity of most of his sources--the female ones in particular...but he wound up including them all in his book anyway.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Rating Poe Biography: The Good, the Bad, and the Simply Insane (Part Three)

I attacked with great resolution the editorial matter, and, reading it from beginning to end without understanding a syllable, conceived the possibility of its being Chinese, and so re-read it from the end to the beginning, but with no more satisfactory result."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "The Angel of the Odd"

The Simply Insane:

*John Evangelist Walsh, "Plumes in the Dust," and "Midnight Dreary." These two books present a sordid alternate universe where Poe fathers Frances S. Osgood's youngest child, Fanny Fay, and dies as a result of a beating administered by brothers of Sarah Elmira Shelton. I have read many poorly-done historical works in my time, on many different subjects. Walsh, however, is in a league all to himself. I do not believe I have ever encountered any books daring to present themselves as legitimate history that contain so many errors, indulge in so many unfounded speculations posing as facts, depict so many fictional scenarios, have so many examples of the deliberate omission of evidence that directly disproves the stated thesis (such as a letter, which Walsh must have seen, which suggests that at the time Fanny Fay was conceived, Mrs. Osgood was in Providence--with Mr. Osgood,) and commits so many sins against common sense as these two volumes. Astounding stuff.

Marie Bonaparte Edgar Allan Poe*Joseph Wood Krutch, "Edgar Allan Poe, A Study In Genius," Marie Bonaparte, "The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe," and David M. Rein, "Edgar A. Poe, the Inner Pattern." These are all (with emphasis on the first two syllables) psycho-biographies. The two former books use psychological analyses of Poe's stories and poems to come to the conclusion that he was an impotent basket case who married Virginia (who is depicted as a childlike imbecile) only in order to shield himself from a "normal" relationship with a "normal" woman. The latter uses psychological analyses of Poe's stories and poems to come to the conclusion that he was a frustrated basket case, hopelessly scarred by the loss of Sarah Elmira Royster when he was a teenager--a loss that overshadowed his entire life--who married Virginia the childlike imbecile only because, uh, her mother told him to.

I have used psychological analyses of these three books to come to the conclusion that these authors really, really should have found other lines of work and given poor old Poe's psyche a break.

A postscript: I was thinking of adding some commentary on the many novels that feature Poe as a character, but the subject is too depressing. Except for Harold Schechter's highly enjoyable series of murder mysteries that star Poe as an amateur detective, I have yet to find one fictional work about Poe that is even readable. I've probably seen every novel there is about Poe, and trying to classify them all into various levels of "godawful" is just too much for me. Suffice to say they all seem to fall into three categories. In the first, Poe is Roderick Usher come to life, a dark, tormented character out of his wildest fiction, and bearing not the least resemblance to any human being who ever lived. (I'll never forget--although I sincerely wish I could--the novel that included a scene where Poe has an orgasm over Jane Stanard's corpse.) The second category are the novels such as Rudy Rucker's "The Hollow Earth," and Stephen Marlowe's "The Lighthouse At the End of the World," that feature a character bearing Poe's name, but otherwise are works of open fantasy that have no connection with his actual life, or oddities like Matthew Pearl's "The Poe Shadow" (a perfect example of what Poe would call "easy writing and hard reading.") The third--which are perhaps the worst of the lot--present themselves as straight biographical novels. They inevitably depict Poe as a perennially drunken, sexually frustrated, deeply unlikable, bumbling, and rather pitiful creature. To top it off, not one of the books in any of these categories ever portray Poe as someone intellectually capable of writing a shopping list, let alone "The Raven" or "Eureka."Stephen Marlowe Lighthouse at the End of the WorldIt's amazing how the only thing more painful to read than a typical Poe biography is a typical Poe novel.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rating Poe Biography: The Good, the Bad, and the Simply Insane (Part Two)

The Bad:

(A note: Essentially, this category consists of practically every book ever published about Poe other than the ones mentioned in my previous post. However, these works listed below are what I consider to be the most important and influential disasters.)

*Mary E. Phillips, "Edgar Allan Poe, the Man." I long for the day when someone translates this book into English.

Mary E Phillips Edgar Allan Poe the Man

*Hervey Allen, "Israfel." Of all the major Poe biographies, this is perhaps the one I find most offensive. Allen was, by profession, a writer of trashy fiction (and, it was claimed, plagiarized trashy fiction, to boot,) and it shows. His lengthy Poe biography is often inaccurate, and highly speculative. That itself is hardly unusual in books about Poe. However, what makes his book particularly notable among the Poe Hall of Shame is the coarse, almost prurient tone that is diffused throughout--a tone that has proved to be quite influential, as it has been adopted by all the worst Poe-related biographers and novelists since. In that sense, I suppose you could say that Allen was a pioneer in his way. Of course, you could say the same about Typhoid Mary.

Edgar Allan Poe Kenneth Silverman*Kenneth Silverman, "Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance." The book's insufferably pompous title sets the tone for the entire work. Considering Silverman makes no secret of his disdain for Poe--as both a writer and a man--one wonders what drew him to such a project. "Remembrance" has many factual errors that appear to be due to hasty and sloppy research and writing (the book often reads like a failing grad student's first draft,) and his only interest in Poe's works seems to be in making endless juvenile pop-psychology attempts to view them as some mirror of what he imagines to have been Poe's warped psyche. Silverman also misses no opportunity to interpret every event in Poe's life in a way that paints him in the worst possible light--even when the circumstances clearly suggest otherwise. Silverman is also extremely inconsistent and vague in his descriptions and interpretations of Poe's personal life--his relationship with Virginia in particular. He gives the overall impression that he simply had not bothered to think out or had not been able to decide who or what Poe was, or what had even happened in the more controversial events of his life. This often causes him to take the easy way out by dismissing this or that situation by simply calling it, "murky," while simultaneously setting himself up as a censorious analyst of it all. (Which, again, brings up the question why this book was even written.) The fact that this goofy tripe is considered the standard modern biography of Poe quite frankly appalls the hell out of me.

*Thomas O.Mabbott never wrote a biography of Poe, but he published numerous magazine artcles about the poet, and edited the best-known modern editions of Poe's works, with extensive notes and annotations. Unfortunately, he spread a great deal of myths, errors, and flat-out libels about Edgar and Virginia Poe in the process. He seemed completely unable to judge historical evidence, accepting--and thus giving credibility to--a frightening amount of sheer hogwash. For reasons that completely elude me, Mabbott is considered something of a "dean" among Poe specialists, with his opinions having been given a quite unjustified air of authority. This was a man who considered Susan Talley Weiss to have been a most trustworthy source. Enough said. Mabbott also seemed to have odd problems with simple reading comprehension. I have found a number of instances where his descriptions of what someone said or wrote in no way matched the actual quotes or writings. Very strange stuff.

Edgar Allan Poe Complete Poems

*George Woodberry, "The Life of Edgar Allan Poe" Woodberry evidently wrote his Poe biography on commission. He was a peculiar choice for the job, as his tastes and sympathies were all with the New England Transcendentalists who were particularly anathema to Poe. (Not to mention the fact that he was a friend of Rufus Griswold's son William.) Like Silverman, Woodberry made no bones about his instinctive antipathy to both Poe's writings and personality. The 1885 edition of his biography is reasonably scholarly and not without interest, but by the time he released a heavily revised edition in 1909, he had fallen under the baleful influence of the ubiquitous Susan Talley Weiss, and the book suffered accordingly. If you wish to study Woodberry, stick to the earlier edition.

*Peter Ackroyd, "Poe: A Life Cut Short." Another publisher-commissioned hack job. A mere summary of recent Poe books--mostly Silverman's--and this summarizing is not even done well. This book is most notable for featuring one of the worst metaphors I've seen in some time--where he compares Poe to a "cuttlefish floundering in its own ink." Methinks Ackroyd wound up floundering in his own attempts at profundity.

*William Gill, "The Life of Edgar Allan Poe." Gill was among the more eccentric Poe enthusiasts. His book about Poe has some interesting original information, but on the whole is not of any importance. He is perhaps best known for his claim of having retrieved the bones of Virginia Poe when her Fordham graveyard was demolished, and keeping her remains under his bed for years. Every time I think of Gill, I'm reminded of Robert Bloch's short story "The Man Who Collected Poe."

*J.H. Whitty. Whitty never did an actual book about Poe, but he wrote extensively about the writer, and provided information to several biographers (most notably Mary Phillips and Hervey Allen.) Very unfortunately, Whitty was--in the words of an acquaintance--"a crank." He had a long history of claiming to have uncovered important Poe material that turned out to be either misrepresented by him or simply nonexistent. He also had a passion for attributing practically every poem published anonymously or under pseudonyms during the 1830s and 1840s to Poe's pen. Most of these attributions have been contested or discarded, which is a blessing for Poe's reputation, as the poems Whitty promoted were always dreadfully bad. Even Thomas Mabbott--not exactly Mr. Reliable himself--admitted that Whitty was in the habit of blending fact with fiction. How such a person could remain as any sort of Poe authority astounds me, but such is the case.

He attributed two poems that appeared anonymously in "Graham's Magazine" in 1845, "Stanzas" and "The Divine Right of Kings," as Poe's work, on the grounds that he claimed to have discovered a volume of that magazine annotated by Frances S. Osgood, where she identified EAP as the author. Whitty never produced this volume when asked to do so, but the attribution has stuck, largely because Mabbott claimed that, some years later, someone else discovered a "Graham's" volume in the Boston Public Library, where some unknown person had written Poe's name under these poems. It does not seem to have occurred to Mabbott that someone hearing of Whitty's claim--or even Whitty himself--had used his story as an excuse to label these poems as being by Poe. He also ignored the fact that these highly mediocre poems are not in the least in Poe's style, and that Poe would have had no reason not to claim them as his own, if he had truly written them.

Similarly, a Poe "memoir" Whitty wrote for an edition of his poems featured hitherto unknown and unpublished reminiscences Whitty claimed were written by Poe's friend Frederick W. Thomas. Whitty never produced the actual manuscript of these "reminiscences," or even an account of how these papers came into his hands. Nevertheless, this completely unauthenticated information has become part of standard Poe biography. There are many other examples of Whitty's mendacious influence. Like Mrs. Weiss, he deserves a special infamy for his particularly large amounts of untrustworthy or outright false contributions to the Poe record.

* "Poe" by James M. Hutchisson

All you need to know about this derivative, astonishingly inaccurate, and rather pitiful biography comes near the end of the book. Hutchisson briefly describes the later life of Sarah Elmira Shelton, adding the statement that "After expressing her anguish over Poe's death in the October letter to Muddy, Poe's last love, Elmira Royster Shelton, entered into a discreet silence on all
matters about the author for twenty-six years. She broke it only in 1875, when she granted an interview to Edward V. Valentine, of Richmond, who tape-recorded her statements. After Elmira's death on 11 February 1888, the recording was placed in the Valentine Museum in Richmond, where it remains today."

Tape-recordings. In 1875. Brilliant, Mr. Hutchisson. Simply brilliant.

Coming next: The worst of the worst!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rating Poe Biography: The Good, the Bad, and the Simply Insane (Part One)

This is an overview of the major works about Poe--and a sorry, sorry lot they are, for the most part. When I see what passes for Poe scholarship, I'm generally reminded of Henry Ford's classic observation that "History is the bunk." (In the case of Poe history, I'd probably use a more impolite word than "bunk," but never mind that.)

The Good:

Edgar Allan Poe Arthur Hobson Quinn*Arthur Quinn, "Edgar Allan Poe." Overly pedantic at times (do we really need to know the precise location of the building where Eliza Poe died?) and slightly dated, but still the best complete biography. Quinn is, on the whole, admirably clear-headed and much more judicious than most Poe specialists. If you must read only one Poe book, here's the place to go.

*Edward Wagenknecht, "Edgar Allan Poe, the Man Behind the Legend." Not an actual biography--more like a biography of Poe's biographies--but it's a fine overview of what has been written about the man. More intelligent and insightful than many other Poe books, this makes a good introductory volume to Poe's strange life. Its only serious flaw is that Wagenknecht--who was not a professional Poe scholar--often accepted clearly untrustworthy material (most notably the demented outpourings of the omnipresent Susan Talley Weiss) as fact, which sometimes misled him into making erroneous conclusions.

*Sidney P. Moss, "Poe's Literary Battles," and "Poe's Major Crisis." Like Wagenknecht's book, Moss' works are not full biography, but they provide important source material on Poe's storm-tossed literary career. The latter work, in particular, dealing with his libel suit, provides a lot of information not found elsewhere.

*John C. Miller (ed.) "Building Poe Biography," and "Poe's Helen Remembers." These two books provide the highlights of John Henry Ingram's extensive correspondence about Poe. The former volume publishes the most important letters from his major sources, including Nancy "Annie" Richmond, Marie Louise Shew Houghton, and George Eveleth. The latter is devoted to Ingram's voluminous communications with Sarah Helen Whitman. Everything anyone says in either book is to be taken with even more than the usual amount of salt grains--Ingram himself eventually came to the depressing conclusion that most of his contacts were either blatant liars or, to use one of his favorite words, "imaginative," but these letters still make fascinating reading. (Miller's editorial comments and footnotes, unfortunately, are mostly remarkably uninformed, irritating and unintelligent, and are best ignored.)

*John H. Ingram, "Edgar Allan Poe." I included his book in this category with great reservation. Ingram's was the first serious Poe biography, and is obviously a labor of love. It was a landmark event in Poe scholarship. However, it is clumsily written, occasionally misleading, and frequently naive. He was also far too dependent on what one contemporary critic called "gossipy old women."

*Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson (eds.) "The Poe Log." The one truly indispensable source for anyone with an in-depth interest in Poe's life. It chronicles, as much as possible, every day of Poe's life, presenting much original material (letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, etc.) that are otherwise unpublished or not easily available. There is one caveat, however--the editors, understandably, have gone for a complete record, rather than a selective one. They make little or no differentiation between reliable and unreliable source material, thus they include much that is either of questionable believability or clearly bogus.

Private Perry and Mister Poe*William F. Hecker, "Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems." A brief, but excellent and highly underrated analysis of Poe's military career and how it related to his writings. Hecker, a professional military man himself (who was, tragically, killed in Iraq in 2006,) provides authoritative and intelligent insights on Poe's stints in the army and West Point (a period that is oddly dismissed by most biographers,) showing that if Poe had not opted to become a legendary writer, he would have made a first-rate soldier--perhaps the most curious and intriguing anomaly in his entire life story. (The book also includes a facsimile of Poe's 1831 volume of poems.)

*Michael J. Deas, "The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe." The book goes beyond its self-explanatory title. This is a scholarly, but highly readable history of the surprisingly numerous and varied visual depictions of Poe, providing a fresh take on the growth of the Poe Legend. Deas also includes a compilation of the many spurious portraits of both Edgar and Virginia Poe that have emerged over the years.

Next post: The stinkers!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Faking It

This "American Heritage" article has nothing directly to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but it's nonetheless instructive reading for the Poe enthusiast. Considering how much Poe biography is based on old newspaper and magazine articles, it's good to keep in mind that you can't always believe what you read. Some of the worst nonsense that crept into the earlier Poe books, and, in some cases, is still perpetuated today (such as the notorious "Poe's Mary" article,) clearly arose from some poor-devil journalist in need of lively copy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More on Hiram Fuller

I wanted to elaborate a bit on my earlier post about Hiram Fuller. Fuller published a number of acerbic comments about Edgar Allan Poe's libel suit against his newspaper, all of them extremely enigmatic and insinuating. The most intriguing dealt with certain unnamed "literary ladies."

On February 27, 1847, Fuller published this response to an unnamed "correspondent":

"'B' wishes to know why we do not publish the whole of the testimony in Poe's libel suit. We answer, because it involves a good deal of delicate matter, and introduces the names of several literary ladies, for whom we have too much respect to publish their names in the connection in which they unfortunately appear. We understand that another suit is about to be brought on the tapis involving some of the same parties, and if 'B' feels particularly curious on the subject, we advise him to be present on the trial."

On March 21, the "New York Dispatch" stated:

"The Philadelphia 'Galaxy' promises another action growing out of Mr. Poe's suit against the 'Mirror,' in which several literary ladies will figure. We hope not. We trust that we love the ladies, and honor and cherish them, all that sort of thing--but according to our experience and observation in all cases, where literature is not used to second benevolence, a literary lady is a blue bore...literature as an end, is a shocking perversion of the female intellect. Just in proportion as a woman is a good writer, she is a bad woman...A literary woman never ought to marry--her husband is sure to be ill treated, and her children neglected. The most melancholy, miserable looking men we ever saw were the unfortunate husbands of 'literary ladies.'"

Fuller repeated the "Dispatch" item in his own paper three days later, adding, "We shouldn't wonder." (An interesting footnote to this "Dispatch" story--it may well have been a "plant" as Sidney Moss called it, or, more accurately, a threat directed at these "literary ladies" started by Fuller himself. No such newspaper as the "Philadelphia Galaxy" is ever known to have existed, and the "New York Dispatch" itself was issued from the same building that published Fuller's paper.)Frances Sargent Osgood and Edgar Allan Poe

These newspaper items could only refer to those two Weird Sisters of the New York literary world, Elizabeth F. Ellet and Frances S. Osgood. They were the only women who figured in the libel suit, albeit indirectly (Ellet's brother William Lummis and Osgood's friend Edward Thomas were both witnesses at the trial.) The two women were obviously among the players "behind the scenes" to whom Fuller referred. (It should be noted that several years earlier, Fuller and Osgood had been very close. We do not know the exact nature of their relationship--their "secret affinity" as Fuller coyly described it--but it was intimate enough for Osgood to ask him to destroy her letters to him.) By this point, however, Fuller clearly harbored a grudge against her, as well as Ellet. He also had many bitter words about Thomas Dunn English, who had, Fuller claimed, promised that all his actionable charges against Poe could be proved in court--and then, when Poe filed suit, fled to Washington and offered no evidence for any of his statements. Fuller made it known that he felt he had been dragged into the lawsuit through the machinations of others--not only English--who then left him holding the legal bag. His published remarks indicate that he was not only hoping Poe would take a legal revenge on the "literary ladies"--he seemed to be positively encouraging him to do so.

Obviously, what we know of Poe's libel suit is merely the tip of a very big, very ugly iceberg.

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Quote of the Day

George R. Graham and Edgar Allan Poe
"The mysteries of his [Edgar Allan Poe's] life were never revealed to anyone, but his intimates well understood that to mystify his hearer was a strong element of his mind."
-George R. Graham, in a letter to William Gill, May 1, 1877

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Amazing Mr. Eveleth

George W. Eveleth and Edgar Allan PoeIn December of 1845, a Maine medical student named George W. Eveleth wrote to Edgar Allan Poe requesting a subscription to the "Broadway Journal." This proved to be the beginning of the strangest and most interesting correspondence of Poe's life. For reasons known best to himself, Poe allowed, even encouraged, this weird, highly inquisitive, blunt young man (Eveleth was probably born in February 1819,) to interest himself in every aspect of Poe's life. Eveleth did not so much correspond with Poe as interview him, peppering the writer with increasingly pointed and intimate questions. Poe--normally the most secretive and standoffish of men--responded with a most unusual willingness, seeming to rather enjoy his eccentric admirer's insatiable curiosity, even his occasional rudeness, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the pair never met, or even expressed any concrete plans to do so.

After Poe's death in 1849, Eveleth's involvement in his story only intensified. He sent numerous letters to Poe's friends, enemies, relatives, and biographers, all written--in handwriting eerily like that of his "especial favorite"--with the same unnervingly omniscient, mocking, commanding, and intrusive tone.

He initiated a lengthy correspondence with Poe's quasi-fiancee, Sarah Helen Whitman, by accusing her of being aware that Poe faked his own death, and continued it by casually discoursing to her about various esoteric and scientific matters, in a way that left her both impressed and deeply baffled. He wrote to Rufus W. Griswold in the same strangely familiar way, referring to Poe's alleged demise as merely the last and greatest of his hoaxes. Before and after John H. Ingram's biography of Poe was published, Eveleth spent years sending him letters and postcards explaining in detail all the errors and misconceptions he found in Ingram's work. While preparing his own book about Poe, George Woodberry was also treated to unsolicited lectures from Eveleth, who conducted a fruitless campaign to persuade him that Griswold had been a shameless liar and forger. Eveleth's comments about Poe all followed the same curious theme: While aggressively defending Poe's character against all comers (including on the issue of Poe's drinking, which Eveleth felt was greatly exaggerated,) he simultaneously seemed to believe not only that Poe knew that he would be slandered after his death, but that--for unstated reasons--he had planned it that way. In the years following Poe's death, Eveleth seemed to be everywhere...and nowhere. There is no record of anyone ever meeting this highly peculiar, self-appointed champion of Poe's in person.

Sometimes under his own name or initials, but most often using pseudonyms or no name at all, Eveleth wrote numerous articles and letters to the editor that appeared in various periodicals. (Eveleth commented to Ingram on his desire for anonymity, stating, "I have my reasons," without deigning to explain what these reasons were.) Some of his published writings dealt with various scientific topics (he had a particular fascination with Poe's "Eureka,") others with Poe the man. (A good example of Eveleth's enigmatic, abrasive style can be found here.) Perhaps the strangest of them all was a brief, unsigned article entitled "Familiar Letters to My Relations" that appeared in the "United States Magazine" in 1856. In it, he addressed Mrs. Whitman (whom he called "Neleh,") about her fanciful belief that she and Poe had a distant blood relationship with these words:
"Well, taking these tracings into connection with my strong literary affinity with Poe (herein I have reference, not to any ability of my own; but to the fact simply that the natural tendency of my mind is into trains of thinking similar to Poe's) saying nothing of the resemblances of my chirography and style to his chirography and style, have I not made out my case--namely, the case that there is some blood relationship between the family of Poe, therefore between you and myself?"

We know very little about Eveleth's life apart from his written words. He is said to have been trained as a homeopath. He served a stint in the Union army during the Civil War. (His military service was notable mostly for the hilariously rude letters he was constantly writing to his superiors.) By the 1880s, Eveleth had relocated to Denver, Colorado, where records show he married a woman named Rosannan Davies (or Davis) who died in 1898. This would be his only known marriage. Eveleth died in Denver on September 29, 1908.

George Washington Eveleth has long held a special place in my esteem, as the one person I have ever encountered who could out-weird Poe himself.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quote of the Day

"There have been actors behind the scenes in all this business, whom we may yet have to call before the footlights. When a man has robbed you he will kill you also if he can, for the reason that 'dead men tell no tales.'"
-Hiram Fuller, in the New York "Evening Mirror," July 8, 1847

Fuller, the editor of the newspaper Edgar Allan Poe had recently successfully sued for libel, made these oddly sinister remarks in regards to the aftermath of the lawsuit. I would certainly like to know what, exactly--and whom--he was talking about. And while I'm on the topic of Poe's libel suit--a topic about which we know surprisingly little--why is it that we are never told, in "all this business," what Poe supposedly forged? Thomas Dunn English, and Edward Thomas before him, repeated vague charges of "forgery" against him, but that is nonsense. You cannot make generic charges that someone is a "forger"--it only follows that you have to make some specific accusation that they forged something in particular. If such specific charges were made, they were not preserved in the existing historical record. A transcript of the libel trial would probably tell us this information...but no such transcript is known to have survived.

That transcript is just one of the many, many, vital puzzle pieces that are missing from the giant strange jigsaw known as Poe biography.

Monday, September 14, 2009

On Poe Biography

edgar allan poe biography
"History is the bunk."
-Henry Ford

I have become convinced that one of the main reasons most books about Edgar Allan Poe are so bad--aside from the fact that most of his biographers are incredible dunderheads--is that he has been written about strictly as either a literary figure or a psychological case-history--never as a historical figure. So far as I know, no serious, trained historian has ever studied him to any extent. His biographers have been either professors of literature (Thomas Mabbott, Arthur Quinn) cheap novelists who see him as lurid source material (Hervey Allen,) overenthusiastic amateurs (John Henry Ingram, Mary E. Phillips, William Gill,) hacks (Kenneth Silverman,) eccentric psychologists who have studied way too much Freud (David Rein, Marie Bonaparte,) or outright cranks (J.H. Whitty, John Evangelist Walsh.) I suspect if some modern-day Francis Parkman or Edward Gibbon began researching Poe's life, starting from scratch and carefully weighing and judging the evidence--once they recovered from the shock of all the patent balderdash they'd have to wade through--the result would be a Poe we'd scarcely recognize. I'm certain that sources like Susan Talley Weiss would be laughed completely out of court. There would be a halt to endless attempts to interpret every work of fiction or poetry he ever wrote as a mirror of his personal life. (I'm continually reminded of the words of his friend C.C. Burr: "Of all authors, ancient or modern, Poe has given us the least of himself in his works. He wrote as an artist.") There would be an end to this practice of blindly repeating the statements of other authors without bothering to ascertain if there is any truth to them (e.g. Virginia Poe was a childlike simpleton with the personality of a wax doll, or that Frances Osgood was estranged from her husband in 1845.) Speaking of Osgood, Poe's relations with her would be judged on something other than measuring the physical placement of her poems in the "Broadway Journal." In short, there would be a recognition of the fact that people can lie, memories can deceive, and letters can be forged.

Well, a poor-devil blogger can dream, can't they?

May God Help Us All

You know, I'm not even sure what to say about this one.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mrs. Ellet's Letters (Part Three)

"And if, in one, or perhaps two, insulated cases, the spirit of severe truth, sustained by an unconquerable will, was not to be put down, then, forthwith, were private chicaneries set in motion; then was had resort, on the part of those who considered themselves injured by the severity of criticism (and who were so, if the just contempt of every ingenuous man is injury) resort to arts of the most virulent indignity, to untraceable slanders, to ruthless assassination in the dark."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Graham's Magazine," 1841
The letter Elizabeth Ellet wrote to Frances S. Osgood in July of 1846 was a reply to one she received from Osgood the previous month. (That letter, most unfortunately, is lost.) Ellet's comments regarding this letter make it clear that Osgood, awash in her habitual self-pity and desperate to pacify Ellet--who obviously terrified her--was throwing both Edgar and Virginia Poe well and truly under the bus. Evidently, Virginia had first described to and then shown Ellet a letter she said had come from Osgood. This letter--obviously the catalyst for the public feuding--Osgood now claimed was a forgery designed by the Poes themselves.

Here, incidentally, is proof that Osgood's letter--which, for all we know, was addressed to either or both the Poes--could not have been, as is assumed, a love note. Aside from the fact that Virginia would hardly share such a thing with her callers, I doubt even a woman as silly as Frances Osgood would be stupid enough to try peddling the notion of Poe forging billet-doux to himself and then displaying them to his wife. Another piece of evidence that the letter was not romantic in nature is the Valentine poem Poe's wife wrote for him not long after this incident. The poem, with its references to Virginia's desire to live with him in a remote cottage away from the evil of the world, to find a refuge where "love shall heal my weakened lungs," showed that, while she was well aware there was a bad moon rising, she did not blame her husband for their troubles.

And Ellet could not have read a purely "innocent" letter that she somehow miraculously managed to spin into something insidious. Not only would Virginia have equally little reason to show Ellet--who was hardly her friend--an innocuous letter, but if Ellet had tried such a tactic, all anyone she attacked would have to do is produce the letter to prove that Osgood was innocent and Ellet a liar. Instead, Osgood frantically repudiated it. The letter shown by Virginia was obviously an attack on Ellet--Osgood, as Horace Rumpole would say, grassed on her rival.

That is the only thing that explains why Virginia confronted Ellet with this document--she was demanding a response to Osgood's charges. That is the only thing that explains Ellet's reference to the letter's "fearful paragraphs" that "haunted me night and day like a terrifying spectre." That is the only thing that explains Ellet's reference to Samuel Osgood saying "things...too terrible to repeat" about her--"things" that she knows Frances can assure her he will no longer say, "now that he knows the truth" (i.e., that the letter Virginia said was written by his wife was a "forgery.") If Samuel had heard that Frances had written other men love letters, that would hardly lead him to openly insult Mrs. Ellet--rather, he obviously was repeating statements contained in his wife's letter. Finally, the idea that Osgood had written highly damaging revelations about Ellet is the only thing that explains the bitter hatred Ellet expressed not only towards Poe, but his wife as well. (In her letter to Osgood, she referred to "the falsehoods told by the Poes," and added that "it is most unfortunate both for you and me that we ever had any acquaintance with such people as the Poes." Obviously, whatever Virginia said to Ellet when she showed Osgood's letter had left a mark.

Ellet, of course, was only too willing to play along with Osgood's idiotic claim that her letter was forged. Agreeing that "any man capable of offering to show notes he never possessed would not, I think, hesitate at such a crime," she noted how now that Osgood had disowned the letter, the "wretch" Poe will not dare to work "further mischief" with it, and that neither woman need fear any more "verbal calumnies" from the poet, as "steeped in infamy" as he was by then. (Again, here is evidence that Poe was believed to have a grudge against both Ellet and Osgood.)

Ellet's letter also proved that Mrs. Whitman's story about a posse of literary women being sent out to retrieve Osgood's letters from Poe was a complete fable. Ellet's comment about Poe's inability to foment "further mischief" with Osgood's letter showed that the Poes still had this troublesome document, and she said nothing about any efforts to retrieve it.

All this obviously still leaves major questions unanswered. What did Poe discover about Osgood that caused him to avoid her completely for the rest of his life, and cause Greeley, Ellet, Edward Thomas, and who knows who else, to assume the two were enemies? What were Osgood's charges against Ellet, that she so cravenly later tried to take back? Poe later made public reference to Virginia being the target of vicious anonymous letters. Other evidence indicates he believed these letters were Ellet's handiwork. Did Osgood provide the Poes with this information? And are these poison-pen letters somehow linked to these mysterious, undefined, but extremely damning letters of Ellet's that both Poe and Griswold claimed existed? (If Poe was threatening to reveal them to the world, they could hardly have been love letters to him. Such letters would, naturally, embarrass him as well.)

Alluding to a particular sixteenth-century Scottish historical mystery, someone once expressed the pious belief that "at the Day of Judgement, we shall know the solution to the Gowrie Conspiracy at last!" In the case of the Poe Conspiracy, let us hope a less extreme method of enlightenment still might be found.

"O, that it were possible we might
But hold some two days' conference with the dead!
From them I should learn somewhat, I am sure,
I never shall know here."
-John Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi"

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mrs. Ellet's Letters (Part Two)

Edgar Allan Poe the Purloined LetterThe little evidence left to us does indicate that, sometime late in January of 1846, there was a dispute involving Edgar Allan Poe and letters he claimed Elizabeth Ellet had written. Ellet's friend Thomas Dunn English took her part, echoing her hysterical denials of writing Poe so much as a line. (As if English could know one way or another.) This caused Poe's relations with English--never exactly affectionate even in the best of times--to blossom into open, bloody warfare, which culminated in Poe suing a newspaper that had published a libelous column English wrote about him.

English claimed--although proof was never produced--that Poe had "vilified a certain well-known and esteemed authoress of the South, then on a visit to New York; that he had accused her of having written letters to him which compromised her reputation..." Ellet then allegedly sent her brother, William Lummis, to demand that Poe produce these letters--letters Poe (depending on which story you prefer) either refused to produce, or had already returned to her. According to Ellet and English, Poe--fearing Lummis would kill him--then extricated himself by writing Ellet a letter retracting his claim about her letters. This Poe letter, incidentally, was never made public, then or ever, which is odd if his worst enemies had a statement so damaging to him in their hands.

Griswold, of course, later gave his own version of the event in his Poe memoir, claiming that Poe had borrowed money from this "distinguished literary woman of South Carolina," and, in order to get out of repaying the debt, "denied all knowledge of it, and threatened to exhibit a correspondence which he said would make the woman infamous, if she said any more on the subject. Of course there had never been any such correspondence..." How Poe thought he could carry off an effective blackmail with letters his victim knew never existed is not explained. Also "infamous" seems too strong a word to use in reference to mere love letters. And, of course, in private, Griswold evidently insisted to various people that Ellet had written Poe letters of some unspecified, but scandalous variety. Interestingly, he hinted they were anonymous.

Osgood's exact role in all this is never made clear, only that her actions caused Poe to never speak or write to her again. And the literati rose as one to go after Poe with bell, book, and candle. The bulk of the literary world set out to destroy him personally and professionally, and destroy him they did, in a manner that would disgrace the most savage pack of piranhas. As Sidney P. Moss wrote, "Poe as a person was reduced to ruin by the New York literati and their sponsors, who used the occasion while he was defenseless to work out old grudges or new ones. What the record fails to show clearly enough is that Poe, up to the time he had written 'The Literati' sketches, had achieved an unparalleled national reputation as a critic, whatever notoriety he earned in gaining that reputation; that on the strength of 'The Raven,' he became famous as a poet...his narratives, widely, if not invariably accepted as brilliant at home, were beginning to be acclaimed in England and France...His encounters with English, Fuller, and company, however, brought his career to a grinding halt, for his personal reputation, smeared beyond recovery by his enemies, soured his literary reputation, so that his manuscripts often went begging for publication..."

Here is what we know of the situation:

In a letter of May of 1846, Horace Greeley made a vague reference to Poe having "scandalized two eminent literary ladies" (presumably Mrs. Ellet and--interesting to note--Mrs. Osgood.)

In January 1848, Anne Lynch, in response to Sarah Helen Whitman's inquiries about Poe, wrote her an equally vague letter describing "a great war in bluestockingdom some time ago and Poe did not behave very honorably in it."

In 1875, Elizabeth Oakes Smith commented to Whitman that "Mr. Poe was the last person to whom I should ever have attributed any grossness...I saw women jealous in their admiration of him. I think he often found himself entangled by their plots and rivalries. I do not for a moment think he was false in his relations to them."

Shortly after Poe's death, Margaret Fuller wrote these words about him to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "...several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend."

Greeley, in a January 1849 letter to Rufus W. Griswold discussing rumors of Poe's engagement to Mrs. Whitman, thought Mrs. Osgood would make a good envoy to dissuade the widow from having anything to do with the author of "The Raven."

In the wake of Poe's successful libel suit against the "Mirror," the paper that had published English's actionable column, sinister anonymous items began appearing in that newspaper, predicting that Poe would now turn his attention to hauling certain literary ladies (note the plural) into the dock as well.

At the end of 1845, just before matters came to a head, Osgood sent the "Broadway Journal" a bitter, angry poem entitled "To the Lady Geraldine," which describes how a woman who posed as her friend had caused certain other people to turn against her. (A February 1846 letter to Osgood from another friend indicates that Frances had made similar complaints to her.)

In March 1847, Edward Thomas, a friend of the Osgood family, wrote Frances a letter discussing Poe's recent lawsuit. Thomas had testified on Poe's behalf, recanting accusations he had helped spread that Poe was a forger. (Incidentally, English claimed that Poe told him that Thomas--a man Poe had never even met--spread these charges in the hopes of eclipsing Poe in Mrs. Osgood's affections. This claim seems hardly supported by the known facts, including Thomas' own letters to her. In any case, considering that English had just been established in a New York courthouse as a libeler--not the last time he would face such charges--one should be wary of accepting his word on anything--most particularly his word on people he hated. Besides, if Thomas was jealous of anyone around Osgood, surely it would have been her husband.) In Thomas' letter to Mrs. Osgood, he noted that he was not surprised that Poe won his suit, as he himself had always thought English's column "a libel in reality," apologized to her for being unable to give "Sam" the loan Mr. Osgood had recently sought from him, and then commented: "Poor Poe--he has lost his wife--his home--may the folly of the past make him contrite for the future--may he live to be what he can be if he has but the will. He is now alone and his good or evil will not so much afflict others." Thomas' words indicate not only that he never regarded Poe as a romantic rival, but that he assumed his friend Mrs. Osgood did not know--or approve of--the troubled writer any more than he himself did.

Finally, there is a most curious quote from Poe himself. In 1846, he published a review of Osgood's poetry, where he discusses at length a verse drama of hers called "Elfrida." Referring to the title character--a heartless, treacherous woman who cold-bloodedly plots the murder of her innocent husband so that she may marry a king--he notes, "In the depicting the impassioned ambition of Elfrida, the authoress seems especially at home, and upon this character she has evidently put forth her strength." What in the world was he trying to insinuate about Mrs. Osgood?

What do all these fragmentary clues tell us? That certain "literary ladies"--obviously Ellet and Osgood, as theirs are the only names to surface--got into a jealous catfight over their mutual admiration of Poe. Ellet did or said something to Poe that caused him to think badly of Osgood. That "bluestocking," in revenge, fed Poe some even more damaging information about Ellet. (The proof that she did so will be described later.) Poe, now weary of both these ladies--or, to be more accurate, "women"--invited them both to go straight to the devil, and left town to bury himself in the country at Fordham, leaving no forwarding address, and telling no one--particularly his erstwhile female fan club--where he had gone. Which brings us to the most detailed and revealing piece of hard evidence we have regarding the whole deranged business: A letter Mrs. Ellet wrote Mrs. Osgood in July, 1846.

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mrs. Ellet's Letters; Or, Poe Poe Pitiful Me (Part One)

elizabeth ellet edgar allan poeOne of the landmark events in Edgar Poe's life--the famous January 1846 "letters scandal" involving Elizabeth F. Ellet and Frances S. Osgood--is remarkably undocumented and unfathomable. Anyone making an examination of the business immediately becomes lost in a maze of plot and sub-plot, accusation and counter-accusation, like something out of Jacobean drama (John Webster in particular would have adored this story.) Biographers struggling to understand how Poe so suddenly went from literary lion to social pariah as a result of the episode have unfortunately relied almost exclusively on Sarah Helen Whitman. In the 1870s, she began providing a version of the dispute (which she claimed to have heard thirty years earlier from literary socialite Anne Lynch,) and after a close study of the few known facts of the case, I am convinced that her story came straight out of her ether bottle. (Speaking of Mrs. Whitman, can anyone explain to me why Poe biographers all place such confidence in the accuracy of the reminiscences of an admitted habitual drug user?)

According to Whitman, "some ladies" visiting the Poe household (she quite erroneously claimed this was after Poe had moved to Fordham,) chanced to see a letter written by Frances S. Osgood, that had been left openly lying about the house. Something about this letter so agitated these callers that they went straight to Osgood and urged her to demand the return of her entire correspondence from Poe. (Whitman claimed that Elizabeth F. Ellet was the instigator and leader of all this, but she failed to explain Ellet's precise actions, her motivation, or why all these other women passively did her bidding.) Two women (Whitman vaguely thought they may have been Lynch and Margaret Fuller) were deputized to go to Poe and order him to hand over Osgood's letters. He, insulted and angry, asserted that Mrs. Ellet should be concerned about her own letters. And with those words, all hell proceeded to break loose.

All one has to do is consider the details of this story to realize its absurdity. Would anyone in Poe's family leave what everyone presumes was an indiscreet love letter to him lying about as a conversation piece? If Osgood, for whatever reason, desired the return of her letters, why not quietly ask Poe herself, rather than allowing the request to become a public performance for the entertainment of all? Why should any of these other women give two hoots about what Osgood wrote to whom? If Ellet (as the story suggests) had written compromising letters to Poe as well, why would she draw attention to Osgood's letters, thus leaving herself wide open to the same criticism? Poe's biographers all assume that Ellet's actions were motivated by jealousy over Osgood's friendship with him. If that was the case, what satisfaction could she have derived from revealing proof of his partiality to all the world? Why, in Whitman's story, is Poe described as expressing outraged fury towards only Ellet, and not Osgood, who did, after all, allow them both to be put in this humiliating position? And, most importantly, why is there no contemporary corroboration for any of this? Whatever truly happened, this obviously ain't it.

There is a letter, said to be from Poe to Mrs. Whitman, which seems to allude to the Ellet fracas, but unfortunately it is extremely vague and downright incoherent. The letter indicates only that Poe, angered by an unspecified insult Ellet delivered "upon both families," said something--we are not told exactly what--that he immediately regretted. He then, to compensate, gathered up some letters--presumably Ellet's--and delivered them to her doorstep. That lady responded by sending her brother to order Poe to...return her letters.

If you can make any sense of all that, I salute you.

More to come...

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Caveat emptor

I found that quote I was referring to in my previous post. It comes from Charles Hamilton, who was a premier autograph and manuscript expert. In talking about Joseph Cosey--a notorious forger who unfortunately had a particular fondness for Edgar Allan Poe--Hamilton stated, "long ago I concluded that there must be far more forgeries of Poe by Cosey than there are original Poe letters."Joseph Cosey and Edgar Allan PoeConsidering how much of Poe biography--what we know, or think we know about the man--is based on "Poe letters," I think this quote of Hamilton's should be placed in red letters three feet high above the desks of everyone who writes about Poe, just as a reminder not to be too trusting.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

More on the U. of Texas' Poe material

After browsing through some of the digitized manuscripts and letters in the Edgar Allan Poe collection at the University of Texas, I have just one thought: Am I the only one a bit troubled by the fact that, if we accept all this material as authentic, Poe must have had about half-a-dozen completely different handwritings? And that he would not know how to spell the word, "length?"

I once read a quote from a leading rare book and manuscript expert--I wish I had written his quote down, because now I can't remember his name--where he stated that, after many years of studying Poe manuscripts, he had come to the firm conclusion that there were many more forged Poe letters in existence than there were ones the man had actually written.

Just a thought.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


The University of Texas has now digitized its collection of Poe-related letters and manuscripts. You can find it online here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Problematic "Chivers' Life of Poe" (Part Three)

Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Holley ChiversThe "Life of Poe" is virtually worthless as a historical source. The biographical portion we have is a mere rehash of Griswold's error-plagued memoir. The portion that quotes Poe discussing with Chivers the merits of various authors often contradicts what Poe himself said about them in his published writings, and it contains ludicrous misinterpretations and misrepresentations of previously published material. The author of this manuscript--whether it truly was Chivers or someone else--makes it clear that he did not really know or understand Poe in the slightest degree. When the "Life" was released in book form in 1952, Poe biographer Arthur Quinn openly wondered why anyone even bothered publishing such a useless work.

The only portion of the "Life" that has interested anyone--probably the sole reason why it was published at all--is one anecdote, of which the first part--the section most savoring of scandalum magnatum--did not appear in the 1903 publication and was previously unknown. The incident described allegedly happened when Chivers visited New York in the summer of 1845. The story goes that while walking on the street, Chivers encountered Poe, who was drunk out of his mind and looking for trouble. After doing his best to get into a public brawl with an old nemesis, "Knickerbocker" editor Lewis Gaylord Clark, Poe blearily announced to Chivers that he will reveal to him--a man he scarcely knew--the "secrets of my heart." He bragged about being involved in "the damnedest amour" with the unnamed wife of a painter, who was out of town often because of his work. Poe claimed the lady was currently in Providence, and she had written asking him to go there that afternoon. He added that his "noble" wife must not hear anything about this, as he would not hurt her for all the world. A strange concern, considering that he was disseminating all the juicy details not only to Chivers, but any other bystanders on the crowded city street within earshot. (Incidentally, it is also hard to believe that Chivers--who certainly would have no reason at the time to keep a precise record of his chats with Poe--could reproduce these conversations in such precise and profuse detail years later.)

When Chivers next saw Poe, two days later, he teased his companion about his "love-scrape" with the anonymous Providence lady. Poe, now sober, was taken much aback and frostily denied being involved in an "amour" with a woman in Providence or anywhere else in the world. Bizarrely, however, he soon afterwards volunteered to Chivers the information that "some body" (the 1903 printing read, "some lady") had written asking him to come to Providence, and he felt obligated to go. He then borrowed money from Chivers for his journey, and departed, again begging Chivers not to say anything to Virginia Poe or Maria Clemm about his plans. (One wonders what Poe himself could conceivably have told those ladies to explain his absence.)

While acknowledging that this squalid little tale has a mighty strange ring to it, few Poe biographers have dared to deeply question it, although it has serious flaws, even aside from the dubious authenticity of the manuscript itself:

First, the chronology makes no sense. Supposedly, Poe, in his drunken fit, tells Chivers that the Providence siren asked him to visit her that afternoon. Several days later, Poe again tells Chivers (whom he had evidently decided to make his sole confidante on the matter) that "some body" had written, asking him to go to Providence.

Second, according to this story, Poe, cold sober, learns from Chivers that he had been drunkenly drivelling to him about a "love-scrape" with a woman in Providence--a claim he indignantly denied. But then, the next time he sees Chivers, he goes out of his way to tell him that someone had summoned him to that very city--a summons, he made it clear, (obviously thinking he had hitherto failed to sufficiently incriminate himself to Chivers,) that needed to be kept secret from his wife and mother-in-law. I grant you that Poe often had his own strange way of doing things. Even so, does it make any sense whatsoever that the man would --particularly when he was sober and already aware that he had, while intoxicated, told Chivers way too much--voluntarily confide all this to him? Particularly since he kept stressing his anxiety to keep it all from his family? And that, as chatty and self-destructively revealing as Poe was to Chivers about all this, nobody else in the world--including people who knew Poe much better than Chivers did--gave any sign of knowing anything about this "amour?"

Third, Frances S. Osgood, who is assumed to be the painter's wife in question, was, in truth, in Providence around this time. (She knew many people there, and spent much time in the city.) However, Poe biographer Mary E. Phillips stated that her husband Samuel was there as well, executing portrait commissions. I do not know Phillips' source for this claim, but it is certainly credible. Be that as it may, a letter written to Frances by her friend Hiram Fuller indicates that during this Providence visit of hers, she was staying with her friends Mr. and Mrs. Henry Anthony. That alone makes it unlikely that she was conducting any sort of extramarital dalliance there.

Fourth, Poe himself, in his published "Reply to Thomas Dunn English," stated that he briefly left New York in the beginning of July, in order to "procure evidence" regarding charges of forgery that had been repeated against him by an ironworks merchant named Edward Thomas. (These forgery charges are themselves a strange, cloudy story that will be dealt with later.) Frances Osgood was the one who told Poe about these forgery charges (Thomas was a stranger to Poe, but a long-time friend of Osgood and her husband.) When he heard what Thomas had said, Poe intended to sue him, so it was logical that he needed to interview Osgood in person about the slander. At the time in question, Poe was absorbed in dreams of litigation, not love. (In an August 1845 issue of the "Broadway Journal," Poe mentioned a "recent" trip to Boston. It is not clear if this was the journey to "procure evidence," or if he traveled there for another, unknown reason. If he did travel to Boston, not Providence, early in July, that would obviously do critical damage to the credibility of the "Life of Poe" anecdote.)

In short, if Poe said anything resembling the now-famous "amour" quip, it actually reads more like drunken, rather cruel (to the Providence lady in particular,) humor--the kind that humiliates the jokester once the alcohol wears off--than a case of in vino veritas. It is noteworthy that Poe's most vicious calumniators--such as Thomas Dunn English, Charles F. Briggs, and Rufus Griswold--never questioned Poe's fidelity to his wife. Truly, they called him every foul thing under the sun except an adulterer. (English and Briggs even went out of their way to state that Poe's relations with the women who surrounded him were platonic.) However, the history of the "Chivers' Life of Poe" is so sketchy and suspicious that the strong possibility that it is simply a fraud, based on a few facts that were already easily available, cannot be ignored. Even if it is not--if it truly is the fragmentary remainder of a lost manuscript written by an mentally unstable man with a grudge against Poe for having supposedly plagiarized from him, a manuscript that mysteriously came to light only many years after the author's death--this work has gotten far more attention and credibility than it deserves.

And on that note...have a great Labor Day weekend, kids. Next week, we delve into the saga of Elizabeth Ellet and Frances Osgood, the Pen Pals From Hell.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Problematic Chivers' Life of Poe (Part Two)

The next we hear of anything relating to Chivers' manuscript comes thirty years after his death. Early in 1888, a nephew of Chivers named John Quincy Adams wrote a letter to the "Atlanta Constitution" claiming that he had acquired unpublished and previously unknown letters and documents by and about Poe, including a manuscript biography written by one of Poe's friends. Oddly, he not only avoided explaining how he obtained these manuscripts, but he said nothing about the author of this biography being his own uncle. In fact, he avoided giving the name of the writer at all. Also, his description of these manuscripts does not exactly match the Chivers papers we have today.

After this announcement, these papers seem to have vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as Adams claimed they had appeared. In following years, Adams provided biographical information about Chivers for newspaper articles and at least one biographer of the Georgia poet, but, inexplicably, he omitted any further mention of this treasure trove of documents he had earlier claimed to have acquired.

The Chivers biography of Poe did not surface until 1903, when the "Century" magazine published excerpts from it under the title, "The Poe-Chivers Papers." The editor of these article, George Woodberry, later privately admitted that he had never even seen the originals of these papers. He worked only with typed transcripts that had been sent to him. (And, in fact, the material published by the "Century" differs in some respects from what we now have.) The "Century" articles failed to say who currently owned these documents, where they had been since Chivers' death, or why they were only now being released.

After the "Century" material came out, the documents again disappeared from view for twenty years. Finally, in 1923, Harry F. Barker, a rare book dealer from Illinois, contacted Henry E. Huntington, offering to sell him the Poe-Chivers collection. He evidently gave no information about the collection's provenance or how he had obtained it, but this did not discourage Huntington from purchasing the papers, which now reside in the California library and museum bearing his name. The Poe biography--or what little there is of it--was published in a 1952 book.

The "Chivers' Life of Poe" (as it is now called) is far from being a complete manuscript. It is merely a handful of fragmentary writings, of what seems to be an uncompleted early draft. They are in poor condition and practically illegible.

The peculiar history of this manuscript raises obvious questions about its authenticity. We cannot even be certain that the documents in the Huntington are the same ones Adams claimed to possess in 1888. The actual text of the "Life of Poe," however, is even stranger.

More to come...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Nota Bene

Lambert Wilmer Merlin Edgar Allan Poe Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton
In 1827, a young writer named Lambert A. Wilmer published in Baltimore a verse drama entitled "Merlin." It was a commonplace sundered-lovers melodrama, heavy with the pseudo-mystical trappings so fashionable in that era. It would be long-forgotten but for its alleged link to Edgar Allan Poe.

As is well known, in the latter half of 1825, the sixteen-year-old Poe is said to have had a brief romance with a neighbor girl of fourteen named Sarah Elmira Royster. This relationship soon ended under the combined weight of Poe's departure to the University of Virginia early in 1826 and parental disapproval. Over a century later, Poe scholar Thomas O. Mabbott devised the theory--a theory that has been repeated by Poe's biographers ever since--that Wilmer's "Merlin" was based on this truncated puppy-love affair, a supposition based solely on the fact that the heroine of Wilmer's play was named "Elmira." (A not-uncommon name in those days.)

Although Poe and Wilmer became friends in the early 1830s, there is no evidence they knew each other as early as 1827. It has been imagined, however--and as happens so often in Poe biography, imagining winds up presented as fact--that Poe may have briefly visited Baltimore at this time to see his brother William Henry, and presumably while there spent his time telling all and sundry--including Wilmer--of his lost love. Overcome by the pathos of it all, Wilmer immediately immortalized the heartbreak of his new friend in verse.

There is just one slight difficulty with this romantic little story: It cannot possibly be true. Any quick perusal of that standard reference book, "Early American Plays, 1714-1830" will show that Wilmer first published "Merlin" in Philadelphia in 1823, years before he met Poe--or Poe met Sarah Elmira, for that matter.Lambert A. Wilmer and Edgar Allan PoeThus, "Merlin" becomes less a case of "Nevermore," and more one of "Never mind."

The Problematic "Chivers' Life of Poe" (Part One of Three)

thomas holley chivers edgar allan poe
...Or, as Perry Mason might put it, The Case of the Disappearing Documents.

Thomas Holley Chivers is among the creepier figures in Poeworld. A strange, half-mad Georgia poet and physician, he had mystical and intellectual pretentions that expressed themselves in a sort of muddled, hysteria-laced Swedenborgianism. He initiated a correspondence with Poe in the 1840s, which continued sporadically until the latter's death. The relationship could not be called a happy one. Chivers regarded Poe with an uneasy blend of awe and resentment, with a strong underlay of envy. In his later years, he fell into an increasingly psychotic obsession with the idea that Poe had stolen from his, Chivers', poetry. For his part, Poe seems to have privately held Chivers in scant esteem. However, he permitted their correspondence to continue, probably in the hope of enlisting the wealthy Georgian as an investor in his long-dreamed-of magazine project. Their only known personal contact, however, came when Chivers visited New York City around June or July of 1845.

Soon after Poe's death, Chivers began working on a biography of his late correspondent. He wrote to Maria Clemm and Sarah Helen Whitman for details about Poe, but seems to have gotten relatively little of note from them. Aside from some contemporary newspaper and magazine articles, and Griswold's biography, this was evidently the extent of his research. One wonders how much of a biography Chivers could have written, considering that Poe was essentially a stranger to him, and he did not even know anyone who had known his subject well. However, according to a letter he wrote in 1852, Chivers did manage to cobble together some sort of completed manuscript about Poe. Its exact contents are lost to us, and it never found a publisher (considering the quality of Chivers' writing, this is not surprising.) After his death in 1858, the manuscript was quickly forgotten.

To be continued...