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a nephew of Chivers named John Quincy Adams wrote a letter to the "Atlanta Constitution" claiming that he had acquired unpublished and previously unknown letters and documents by and about Poe, including a manuscript biography written by one of Poe's friends.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...

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