Tuesday, September 1, 2009

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...

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