Thursday, October 29, 2009

Poe's Weird Women (Part Four) - Eliza White

The Loves of Edgar Allan PoeWith the sole exception of his marriage to Virginia Clemm, all of Edgar Allan Poe's many reputed romantic relationships with women have a strangely unreal, undocumented, unconvincing, and ephemeral quality. One of the most notable examples is his supposed flirtation with Elizabeth "Eliza" or "Lizzie" White. Poe met her in 1835, when he went to work on the "Southern Literary Messenger," the Richmond publication owned by her father, Thomas W. White. We know nothing certain about what--if any--relationship he had then with the fifteen-year-old Eliza. (Poe scholar J.H. Whitty claimed she was 23 when she met Poe, but records prove she was born in 1820.) It has been suggested that a poem Poe published in the September 1835 "Messenger," "Lines Written in an Album," which is addressed to an "Eliza," was written for Miss White, but that is highly unlikely. The poem appeared in print after Poe had been in Richmond only a few weeks, so it's almost certain the innocuous little verse was composed while he was still in Baltimore. (It has also been claimed--and generally accepted--that Poe originally wrote the poem for his cousin Elizabeth Herring, and Whitty had a notion that it was written with Virginia Eliza Clemm in mind, but both these statements are based on dubious or nonexistent evidence. Chances are Poe simply plucked the name, "Eliza" from thin air.)

Nearly everything we are told about their relationship originated with Elizabeth Oakes Smith (it's strange how the same few names keep popping up in Poe legend again and again,) who claimed to be a friend of the White family. After Poe died, she evidently told any number of people--including John Ingram and her friend Sarah Helen Whitman--that if Poe had lived, he would have married Eliza. (Or, as Smith called her, "Lizzie.") She did not explain where this left Whitman and Sarah Elmira Shelton. Smith also told Ingram that Maria Clemm had pressured Poe to marry Virginia in order to "save" him from "Lizzie," who was, according to Mrs. Smith, willful, capricious, and addicted to morphine. (After all, what interest could Poe have had in marrying Virginia Clemm, who was, according to everyone who knew her, lovely, intelligent, sweet-natured, and who adored him? Good Lord, fate worse than being broken on the wheel.) It is notable, however, that despite Smith's fondness for publishing "autobiographic" articles that consisted of whatever stray dirt she could rake up about her contemporaries, she never dared to put any of this in print. It is also notable that she simultaneously expressed her belief that after Virginia's death, Poe had an antipathy towards the idea of remarriage. She seemed not to notice the obvious incongruity.

Smith's stories have more holes than a sieve factory. She was known as an irrepressible and irresponsible gossipmonger (she was also responsible for disseminating a garbled and extremely lurid version of the "Ellet letters" incident, where Poe supposedly died as the result of a beating administered in New York by thugs hired by a woman with whom he had quarreled and whose letters he had refused to return.) Mrs. Whitman--herself no stranger to mythomania--told Ingram frankly that Smith scarcely knew the first thing about Poe, and simply invented virtually everything she ever wrote about him. Smith herself conceded to Ingram that while "Lizzie" was in love with Poe, and hoped to eventually marry him, she had never seen the poet treat Miss White with anything other than his habitual dignified courtesy. Small wonder that Ingram quickly found himself irritably dismissing Smith as a completely worthless source.

The fable that Poe may have wanted to marry Eliza, rather than Virginia, is demolished by the famous letter he wrote to Mrs. Clemm in August 1835, where he expressed his deep love for Virginia, and indicated that he already saw himself as virtually engaged to her. (And, of course, if he and Virginia were, as many believe, privately married after they took out a marriage license on September 22, 1835, that settles the issue altogether.)

The indefatigable Susan Talley Weiss later picked up Smith's extravaganzas about Eliza and Poe and put her own deranged spin on them. She reiterated the notion that Poe had intended to marry Miss White, rather than Virginia, but as was usual with her, she never managed to get her stories straight. At one point, she indicated that it was Maria Clemm's insistence that Poe wed her daughter that ended his budding romance with Eliza. Elsewhere, she claimed that Poe had actually been engaged to Miss White, but Poe's "dissipation" forced her to break off the match.

One seeks in vain for evidence proving any of this. Poe's only recorded references to Eliza are two brief, casual asides in letters written to Mrs. Clemm during his 1849 Richmond visit. They do nothing to indicate he was romantically interested in her, or ever had been. We have a number of Thomas White's letters which mention both Eliza and Poe. They contain no hint of any sort of personal relationship between his young daughter and his assistant. In the late 1850s, Sarah Helen Whitman wrote Mrs. Clemm asking if there had ever been a romance between Eliza and Edgar. Poe's aunt responded that Eliza had visited them at Fordham before and after Virginia's death. She said they had all esteemed Miss White as a family friend, but Poe's feelings for her had never gone further than that. (Eliza's visits to them while his wife was still alive, as well as the fact that she attended Poe's Richmond marriage to Virginia substantiates this statement.) J.H. Whitty wrote that Eliza's sister, Sarah Bernard, and John Fergusson, a "Messenger" employee intimate with the White family, both told him that there had never been anything romantic between Poe and Eliza. Whitty can never be trusted as a source, but his testimony is at least consistent with all available reliable evidence.

Most striking of all is the fact that we do not have one word about Poe from Miss White herself. This is particularly curious, as in the 1850s White, in an effort to escape her poorly-paying job as a music teacher (which she bitterly described as "drudgery,") tried launching a career giving public readings from Shakespeare and other poets (not Poe, however.) She publicized herself as the daughter of the founder of the "Southern Literary Messenger." If she had any interesting anecdotes or reminiscences of the "SLM's" most famous employee, Edgar Allan Poe, surely she would have made use of them by incorporating them in her readings, or by giving newspaper interviews, in her effort to attract audiences.

Her hopes of establishing herself as a professional "reader" came to nothing (one contemporary review gently hinted that her ambitions outstripped her abilities,) and she was forced to return to her hated "drudgery." She was teaching music in Richmond until at least 1880. Whitty claimed White died in 1888, but as he misstated her birth year, I'm doubtful he got the time of her death right. I have yet to uncover any valid record of when she died, or where she is buried. (Whitty stated she was buried in Richmond's Shockoe Hill Cemetery, but records of that burial place do not list her name.) Sadly, the death of an impoverished elderly spinster, who was virtually alone in the world, would have received little notice.

Other than Mrs. Smith's questionable--and extremely unflattering--descriptions, we have little or no information about what sort of person Eliza White was. Her one extant letter (written as an application for a clerking job in Richmond during the Civil War,) her attempted career as a "reader," and the dreadful poetry she wrote for the "Messenger" all suggest a theatrical, rather affected personality, but there is too little evidence to know for sure. We do not even know what she looked like. No picture of her exists, and there is no reliable description of her appearance. A cousin of White's once stated that her chief claim to beauty was her light-blonde hair, which implied that she was otherwise not particularly attractive. (This same relative, significantly, could not offer any insight about Eliza's friendship with Poe, explaining that her cousin never mentioned the poet's name.)

Elizabeth W. White--whether or not she was infatuated with Poe, or was a drug addict, or indulged in "capricious" behavior--was definitely one of the most obscure, as well as among the most tenuous, of Poe's many Weird Women.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Pendant to "Poe's Mary"

Edgar Allan PoeSoon after the 1889 publication of that masterpiece of comedy gold, "Poe's Mary," (see earlier post,) "The Critic" magazine published a letter written to Augustus Van Cleef from "Mary's" brother, whose name was given only as "Henry." (A remarkably shy family.) In this letter, "Henry" fondly remembered the young Virginia Clemm, who had evidently been about his age. He described her as a "fascinating little brunette" who "awakened in me the first tender emotion I ever felt--calf love, I believe you call it." He also remembered once escorting his sister to call on Poe and Mrs. Clemm at Fordham sometime after Virginia's death.

However, although he was living in the same house with his sister at the time she supposedly had a very stormy love affair with Poe in the early 1830s--an affair, according to the "Poe's Mary" article, of which all her relatives were cognizant--he claimed never to have "noticed any such flirtations" between her and Poe. He admitted that he "never attached much importance" to whatever relationship she had had with the famous writer. In short, all those colorful and presumably hard-to-forget details in Van Cleef's article, including the scenes depicting Poe cowhiding "Henry's" uncle and drunkenly trying to break into "Mary's" bedroom (all of which surely would have been topics for family conversation at the time) were completely unknown to her brother before reading this story!

Assuming this letter is genuine, it just confirms what I had suspected: The Starr family likely were neighborhood acquaintances of the Poe/Clemm household in Baltimore, and in later years "Mary"--as is often the case with those who knew celebrities before they made their mark--was desirous of keeping in touch with the Poes ("she always looked up all his whereabouts" as Mrs. Houghton said,) and probably longed to be a family friend. There was never anything more than that, as was also shown by the reminiscences of Lambert A. Wilmer. He knew Poe very well during the precise period his friend was supposedly courting "Mary" (when he wasn't beating the tar out of her relatives,) and Wilmer unequivocally depicts Poe as a quiet, serious, hard-working young writer who was not involved in any romances with anyone.

"Poe's Mary" is a classic example of the shameless excesses and outright frauds found in journalism of the period. Van Cleef created something (in the words of Arthur Quinn) "dressed up to sell to a magazine," turning what was undoubtedly the very dull truth into bizarre, unbelievable melodrama.

Well, unbelievable to everyone except the likes of Edgar Allan Poe biographers, that is.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Leonainie" - A Cautionary Tale [Updated]

James Whitcomb Riley
In 1877, a struggling young Kokomo, Indiana poet named James Whitcomb Riley stated to friends that his lack of literary success was due to the fact that he did not have a "name." Critics judged a work not simply by its merits, he believed, but by the reputation of its author. To prove his point, he wrote a poem he called "Leonainie," in what he fancied was the style of Edgar Allan Poe. A friend of Riley's, the editor of a local paper, was enlisted in the hoax, and he cheerfully published the doggerel under the arresting headline:

The accompanying article went on to explain that the editor, while recently visiting said "gentleman of this city," was shown a book with a poem, signed "EAP," written on a blank page. The "gentleman" explained that he had been given the book by his grandfather, who many years previously had kept an inn in Chesterfield, Virginia, near Richmond. One night, a young man clearly the worse for drink arrived asking for a room. The next morning, when the grandfather came to the room to summon the man to breakfast, he found his guest had disappeared, leaving behind only this book.

This story--which is actually one of the more plausible-sounding newspaper stories regarding Poe--caused a nation-wide sensation. Although the poem had its naysayers--the "Boston Transcript" commented that "if Poe really did write it, it is consolation to think he is dead"--most were only too eager to embrace any "new" Poe material, even if it meant accepting that the man who wrote "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" also penned lines like:

"'Leonainie!' angels missed her--
Baby angels--they
Who behind the stars had kissed her
E'er she came away;
And their little, wandering faces
Drooped o'er Heaven's hiding places
Whiter than the lily-vases
On the Sabbath day."
When asked to produce the manuscript of this previously unknown masterpiece, Riley enlisted an artist friend, who, using a facsimile of a few lines of Poe's handwriting as a model, forged a copy of "Leonainie" on the fly-leaf of an old Latin dictionary. For many people, the results were conclusive evidence the poem was genuine. Poe scholar Edmund Clarence Stedman stated that he had studied many Poe manuscripts--some real, some forgeries--and the poem found in this old book was as genuine an example of Poe's writing as he had ever seen. The highly respected literary critics William Cullen Bryant and Alfred Russel Wallace also unhesitatingly endorsed the poem's authenticity. Just when it looked like there would be a new addition to the accepted body of Poe's work, someone ratted. An informant--it is not clear who--told the true history of the manuscript to the editor of a rival Kokomo paper. When the hoax was finally made public, Riley--who, to do him justice, had become increasingly uncomfortable with the unexpected success of his little prank--confessed all. Even then, there were some who refused to believe him. For years afterward, Alfred Wallace continued to insist that the manuscript just had to be Poe's work.

The lesson to be learned from the "Leonainie" debacle is, I fear, lost on many Poe researchers. In their understandable eagerness to expand the relatively scanty body of information we have about the author, far too many are far too ready to latch onto any "new" Poe letters or manuscripts, no matter how questionable they may be. And I may say that, in this regard, I an looking with a particularly jaundiced eye upon this poem. It is a genuine mystery to me why "To Miss Louise Olivia Hunter" has been universally accepted as an authentic Poe MS. The previously unknown poem did not surface until 1932, with no information given about where it had been hiding for the previous nine decades. Louise Hunter was a real person--an obscure young poetess whose mediocre verse appeared occasionally in the magazines of the era--but aside from the fact that Poe was one of the judges for an 1845 student literary competition Miss Hunter won, there is nothing linking their names. When this poem's existence was first made known, a relative of Hunter's publicly expressed her astonishment. She said that Miss Hunter was fond of talking of the literary celebrities she had known (including Frances S. Osgood,) and she never once claimed to have even been introduced to Poe, much less that he had composed a poem in her honor.

Questions have been raised about the date this poem was allegedly composed. The MS.--which is unsigned--has the date "February 14" written in the same handwriting as the poem. Another hand had, in pencil, written the year "1847." This dating was accepted by Mabbott, but others argue for an 1846 date, pointing out that Valentine's Day, 1847, was only two weeks after the death of Virginia Poe. They find it unlikely that Poe--buried in his remote cottage at Fordham, ill, and grieving--would be wasting his energies writing puerile poems to young ladies he must have scarcely, if at all, known. This uncertainty in dating only adds to the poem's untrustworthiness. In short, there is no reason in the world--not even a signature--to identify this manuscript poem with Poe. I have no idea how anyone ever did so in the first place.
The complete poems of Edgar Allan PoeThe poem itself argues conclusively against any attempts to claim it as Poe's handiwork. It is certainly true that some of his poems were far weaker than others. However, I dare anyone to read "To Miss Louise Olivia Hunter" objectively and then accept that, even on the worst day of his life, Poe could be capable of composing such ridiculous drivel. And preserving it for posterity, yet. He'd cut off his own right hand first. The author of this poem--whoever he or she might have been--made "Leonainie" look positively sublime.

Long ago, I came to the conclusion that Poe scholars are, in general, a singularly credulous lot, but in their immediate, unskeptical readiness to include this absurd little poem in the Poe canon, they truly outdid themselves.

Update 2/2012: Jeffrey A. Savoye of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore recently alerted me to the fact that a few months ago a researcher named Ton Fafianie has identified "To Miss Louise Olivia Hunter" as the work of William Gilmore Simms, although scholars still presume that it was Poe--in a moment, I assume, of greatly lapsed taste--who copied the poem as a Valentine for Miss Hunter. Mr. Fafianie has prepared an article for publication on the topic. When it comes out, I shall do my best to hunt down a copy and post further information about these contentious little verses.

Update 5/2012: I was recently able to read Mr. Fafianie's painstaking and highly interesting research on the poem. ("Poe's Purloined Poem," "The Simms Review," Summer/Winter 2011.) He proves conclusively that the "Hunter" poem was cribbed from Simms' work, which was first published in the "American Monthly Magazine" of July 1, 1834, (where it was called simply, "Song,") and later in the January 1840 "Southern Literary Messenger" under the title, "There are Dreams of Bowers." However, as the "Hunter" manuscript's provenance is unknown (we do not even know how A. S. W. Rosenbach, the 1932 "discoverer" of the poem, acquired the item,) and it is still a complete mystery how or why Poe would have made this copy at all, (Mr. Fafianie's suggestion that Caroline Kirkland instigated Poe to create this second-hand Valentine is too tenuous to be convincing,) I am still uncertain we are dealing with any sort of genuine Poe document.

Yes, I know. Like the world cares what I think.

P.S. Mr. Fafianie noted that the final version of Simms' poem (the version borrowed for "Hunter") was published in May of 1846, which suggests an 1847 date for this MS. However, this just complicates matters further. If Poe truly did write out this poem, (presumably for one of Anne Lynch's Valentine parties, where everyone in her circle was called upon to write odes to each other) it seems only logical that he would have done so in the earlier year. Even leaving aside the improbability that two weeks after Virginia's death, he would be dealing with such trivialities, by 1847, Poe was persona non grata among the Lynch mob, and was no longer participating in such gatherings. If Mr. Savoye's theory--that Miss Hunter's mentor Frances Osgood had commissioned Poe to write a Valentine for her young friend--is correct, that would also indicate an 1846 dating. By February 1847, Mrs. Osgood had left New York for Philadelphia, and her own reminiscences indicate that she had no contact with Poe after early 1846. As I said earlier, the difficulty with assigning a plausible date to this poem just adds to the mystery.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Domain of Arnheim

"...the world has never seen--and...unless through some series of accidents goading the noblest order of mind into distasteful exertion, the world will never see--that full extent of triumphant execution, in the richer domains of art, of which the human nature is absolutely capable."

"...from the violation of a few simple laws of humanity arises the wretchedness of mankind--that as a species we have in our possession the as yet unwrought elements of content--and that, even now, in the present darkness and madness of all thought on the great question of the social condition, it is not impossible that man, the individual, under certain unusual and highly fortuitous conditions, may be happy."

"Arnheim" (the word is German for "Home of the Eagle,") is one of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser-known stories. The critics have taken little notice of it, and when they do, it's generally interpreted in vague terms of death imagery, or--God save us!--as a treatise on gardening. This is a great pity, as I am convinced that, if more people understood the true meaning of the story, the world would be much the better for it. It is actually one of Poe's most profound and beautiful works, and one of the very few where we are given a glimpse into his true inner self.

On the surface, "The Domain of Arnheim" is a tale of a fantastically wealthy man the unnamed narrator calls only "Ellison," who desires to express "the true character, the august aims, the supreme majesty and dignity of the poetic sentiment." He achieves his goal through creating "Arnheim," a castle and landscape-garden of supreme loveliness. As Ellison says, man can't affect the "general condition of man," but must be "thrown back...upon self." The first half of the story is a discussion of Ellison's philosophies about man and nature, the second a detailed description of Arnheim itself.

The story is, in brief, Poe acting as our tour guide through the human mind and soul. The unprecedented beauty and serenity of Arnheim--the domain of the soaring eagle--is accessible to each individual who follows the path Poe blazes within the realm of imagination. He states that "in landscape arrangements alone is the physical nature susceptible of imagination." These landscapes, as we see them in nature, are all susceptible to improvement. Ellison explains that "there may be a class of beings, human once, but now invisible to humanity, to whom, from afar, our disorder may seem order--our unpicturesqueness picturesque; in a word, the earth-angels, for whose scrutiny more especially than our own, and for whose death-refined appreciation of the beautiful, may have been set in array by God the wide landscape-gardens of the hemispheres." Man, by improving the arrangements in nature, in a way that "shall convey the idea of care, or culture, or superintendence, on the part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity" can create "nature in the sense of the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God." Perfecting these landscapes in our eyes--thus being able to see them as the angels do--brings us closer to these higher beings.
Rene Magritte Domain of Arnheim
Poe uses the physical description of Arnheim as an analogy for what human beings can do in their mind's eye. By creating a mental "domain," by using meditation to create an inner "landscape-garden," one grows closer to the world of the spirit. The visitor's lengthy journey to Arnheim in the story's closing paragraphs is a journey to the higher recesses of the mind. The traveler who reaches that destination has achieved a genuine meditation--found Nirvana. Upon departing for "the Paradise of Arnheim," the visitor is "bidden to be of good cheer--that the fates will take care of him" as he finds the true expression of the "poetic sentiment" among the seeming "phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is the "Mysterious Star" Fading?

Edgar Allan Poe Mysterious StarThis blog post by Allen Barra , "Poe's Fading Star," is one of the stranger hit-pieces on Edgar Allan Poe I've seen lately. It is also a textbook example of petitio principii. Thoughout his lengthy (too lengthy) screed, Barra explicitly assumes propositions he never proves--namely, that Poe was a terrible writer who is now little read and has no influence upon any writers other than the likes of Stephen King. If Mr. Barra does not have it in him to understand or appreciate Poe's writings, that is his privilege--or loss, rather. But he has no right to project his disdain for Poe upon everyone else.

This tortured attempt at trivializing Poe does nothing to substantiate Barra's claims that we, the people, do not read Poe. I suppose all those people who went to Baltimore last Sunday to bury and praise Poe--or who film movies about him, stage acclaimed one-man shows focusing on his life and work, hold well-attended Poe-related library and museum exhibits, publish and buy numberless books by or about him, assemble annual conferences to discuss the man and his writings--or even post on blogs about him!--simply don't count. Barra's essay could be summed up as his saying, "I don't understand Poe, so no one else does, either." Why did he waste his energies on such a trivial complaint?

Poe was not, as Barra would have us believe, a mere genre horror writer. He was a great thinker, whose "Eureka" anticipated quantum theory, and whose fictional stories, such as "The Domain of Arnheim," and "Landor's Cottage," give great spiritual truths to those who take the time to plumb their hidden meanings. His writings were complex, enlightened, and more multi-faceted than a kaleidoscope. I'd hardly call that "atrocious" writing.

And as for his statement that Poe fails to influence or inspire any modern writers--he undercuts his own theory by mentioning the recent book, "On a Raven's Wing," a collection of stories paying homage to Poe. He failed to mention an even more significant new volume, "In the Shadow of the Master," which consists of various modern writers offering essays explaining Poe's unique significance in the world of literature.

Please, Mr. Barra, stick to writing about baseball players and suchlike, and leave aside topics you are obviously incapable of comprehending. Even Rufus Griswold had to concede that Poe was a genius.

(Image courtesy New York Public Library)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Poe's Weird Women (Part Three) - Annie Richmond

Annie RichmondNancy Locke Heywood Richmond was the wife of Charles Richmond, a wealthy businessman in Lowell, MA. She is known to us through her accounts of a connection she had with Edgar Allan Poe in the last year of his life. He first met her in in July of 1848, when he came to Lowell to deliver a lecture. He made two other visits to the city, in October of that same year, and the spring of 1849. He stayed only briefly each time, and it has been calculated that the total amount of time he spent in the actual society of Mrs. Richmond and her family amounted to no more than about two weeks. However, Mrs. Richmond, although possessed of no literary ability or ambitions herself, was greatly interested in those who were. Having as illustrious a writer as Poe visit her rather prosaic manufacturing town made a great impression upon her. A restless, undomestic woman who was always, in the words of a relative, "given to new fads," she was evidently quite bored with her life and her marriage, and eagerly seized the opportunity to become acquainted with this fascinating literary celebrity.

Edgar Allan Poe Annie RichmondFor years after Poe's death, even Mrs. Richmond's intimates believed the two were no more than friendly acquaintances. A series of letters written by her own brother, Amos Bardwell Heywood, which only surfaced in 1942, give detailed accounts of Poe's Lowell visits, but give no hint of any romantic friendship between the poet and Heywood's sister. (In fact, these letters--assuming they are authentic--indicate that Heywood was fascinated by Poe, but rather disliked him as well.) Then, in the late 1870s, Mrs. Richmond announced to biographer John H. Ingram that Poe had been deeply in love with her. As proof, she gave Ingram copies of letters she said she had received from the poet. (She never showed him--or anyone else--the originals of these letters, none of which have ever been discovered, aside from one or two items of unknown provenance and highly questionable authenticity.)

These strange, hysterical, poorly-written letters depict Poe as consumed by an unbalanced, obsessive passion for the woman he, for reasons unknown, rechristened "Annie." This passion, according to the letters, persisted throughout his brief, ill-fated 1848 relationship with Sarah Helen Whitman--who was simultaneously receiving similar letters expressing Poe's undying love for her. "Annie" apparently was either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that by revealing these letters, she was making Poe look not just like a horribly untalented letter-writer, but an insincere, disloyal human being. It was a great way to make known to the world the incredible wonderfulness of herself, but an odd way to show her devotion to his memory. She claimed repeatedly to Ingram and William Gill that she considered her relationship with Poe too "sacred" to share with the world; that she was only revealing his letters to prove what a fine, noble human being he was. First of all--if her romance with him was so private and "sacred," why tell anyone at all? Why not simply say, "my family and I became friends with him during his Lowell visits, and we all thought he was just wonderful," without dragging in these "sacred" details about his wild love for her? And if she was so concerned about rehabilitating his personal reputation, could even she have been stupid enough to think the way to do so was by displaying to his biographers letters that made him sound like a half-mad, suicidal, infantile wreck of a human being? And one who was capable of something so despicable as wooing one woman with assurances that he loved her only, and was desperate to marry her, while telling "Annie" that he loved her only, and hated the idea of marrying this other woman? If one believes the accounts and the letters provided by both Mrs. Whitman and Mrs. Richmond in toto--and let me make it quite clear that I do not--it puts Poe in the worst light and certainly does not reflect well on the two women, either. It has always been to me one of the stranger ironies in Poeworld, that both Sarah Helen Whitman and "Annie," by making known to the world all the details of their "romances" with him, under the guise of "helping" his good name, managed instead to do incalculable damage to it.

It is a curious fact that Mrs. Richmond's friends and relatives knew her only as "Nancy" during Poe's lifetime. A niece of her husband's later revealed that when she was a child, probably sometime in the late 1850s, her "Aunt Nancy" suddenly announced that she wished to be called "Annie," letting it be known that Poe had said it "sounded better." It was difficult for everyone to make the adjustment, the niece recalled, but everyone eventually complied. (The niece described her aunt as a strong-willed, assertive woman, and "Annie's" surviving letters certainly do have a "She Who Must Be Obeyed" air.) After Charles Richmond died in 1873, his widow made her name change official. We can only conjecture why she was so insistent on this switch, so long after Poe's death, but presumably she wished to publicly associate herself with the late writer's poem "For Annie" and his story "Landor's Cottage," which includes a brief cameo by a character called merely "Annie."

"Annie" soon regretted her decision to "go public" with her tale of romance. Her daughter, Mrs. Caroline Coffin, was infuriated when Ingram's book was released and she learned--only then--of her mother's collaboration with Poe's biographer. According to family friends, she saw "Annie's" account of her great, hitherto secret, platonic love affair with Poe as a cruel insult to the memory of Caroline's beloved father, and she never forgave her mother's emotional infidelity. The family feud that resulted from "Annie's" indiscretion lingered until her death in 1898, making her last years bitter and lonely ones. Her efforts at self-promotion gained her fame of a sort, but at a high price.

I must say, however, that it is hard for me to work up much sympathy for Mrs. Richmond. Her surviving letters show her to have been a strangely unpleasant woman of little intelligence or genuine feeling for others--including Poe. She had a nasty habit of back-biting. She convinced Mrs. Clemm that she was her devoted friend, (she was angling for Clemm to bequeath Poe's papers to her when the older woman died,) while denouncing her to Marie Shew Houghton, Ingram, and Heaven knows who else. She wrote Ingram letters praising him and reviling his biographical rival, William Gill, and wrote Gill letters praising him and reviling Ingram. According to her own account, she encouraged Poe to court and marry Sarah H. Whitman, even though he was writing "Annie" letters assuring her that she was his true love, and disdainfully referring to poor Mrs. Whitman as "her." Any woman who could--particularly while Whitman was still alive--write out such letters and send them to a biographer was someone lacking in some sort of basic humanity. Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that "Annie" appears to have had a close association with none other than our old friend Elizabeth F. Ellet, who was last seen writing the dying Virginia Poe poison-pen letters and blithely agreeing with Frances S. Osgood's claims that Poe had forged her letters. There is extant a letter Ellet wrote "My dear Annie" in 1864. In this letter, Ellet promises her help with some sort of charity fund-raising efforts organized by one of the numerous clubs and societies to which "Annie" belonged. The tone of the letter is quite intimate and affectionate, indicating the two women knew each other well. One wonders what Poe would have made of that.

Perhaps the most disturbing characteristic of Mrs. Richmond's was that her only apparent interest in Poe's memory consisted of glorifying herself by promoting their "romance." She seemed indifferent to his body of work. She could tell Ingram practically nothing about him--she claimed not to remember any of their conversations--and she expressed little curiosity about any aspect of his life that did not directly involve herself. (Her answers to Ingram's efforts to seek Poe information from her largely consisted of "I don't know," "I don't remember," or "I was never interested enough to ask.") Her manifest callousness could be stunning. "Annie"--stupid, shallow, self-absorbed, deceitful and spiteful--was one of the most unlikable of all Poe's Weird Women. If the poet truly imagined himself to be in love with this lady during the last year of his life, it would be the best evidence I've seen yet for the theory that before his death, he was beginning to go mad.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How Did Edgar Allan Poe Die?

Edgar Allan Poe death
I haven't the slightest idea. And neither do you. All of the usual suspects--delirium tremens, rabies (you'd think they'd figure Poe was rabid enough already,) brain tumor, syphilis, meningitis, tuberculosis, accidental poisoning, suicide, or (pace John Evangelist Walsh) a beating at the hands of robbers/emissaries of scorned women/crazed would-be brothers-in-law (take your pick)--are, for various reasons, uncertain or unconvincing. And while the "cooping" scenario has a certain Poesque quality that I'm sure would have delighted him, I think it's safe to put that one out of the running altogether. One can understand how good old George W. Eveleth came to the conclusion that the story we're told of Poe's demise was so nonsensical, it could not have happened at all.

It is an ironic blow to history that most of our information about Poe's death comes from Dr. John J. Moran, the resident physician of the hospital where the poet breathed his last. From the very start, Dr. Moran (I keep having the urge to type "Dr. Moron," but that would not be kind) evidently told different versions of the end of his most famous patient to different people. His descriptions took on increasingly baroque details as time went on, to the point that, by the time he published a booklet about Poe and hit the lecture circuit, the good doctor had made himself a public laughingstock. A letter he wrote to Maria Clemm in November 1849 has been used as the basis of all theorizing about Poe's last days. However, Moran was so unreliable (and, as even this early letter shows,) so intoxicated by the reflected glory he felt he gained from being a part of Poe's tragic end, that I would not trust him if he stated that rain was wet.Edgar Allan Poe Tales of Mystery and ImaginationThe nineteenth-century Poe biographer Eugene Didier claimed that Poe's attending physician was a Dr. William M. Cullen (or Cullan,) not Moran, and that Dr. Cullen flatly contradicted everything Moran said about the poet's end. Michael Powell, a modern-day researcher into Poe's death, was also of the opinion that Moran never knew anything first-hand about the poet's demise. Moran's letter to Mrs. Clemm might be said to bear all this out. He gives no cause of death, stating only, "presuming you are already aware of the malady of which Mr. Poe died..." This could be interpreted as implying Moran wasn't sure himself what "the malady" was. He claimed the details he gave about Poe's death came from "the record of his case"--a record no one else from that day to this has ever seen. His reliance on this possibly mythical "record" again argues against Moran having any personal knowledge about Poe. Moran's claim that Poe's last words were "Lord help my poor soul," sounds like someone quoting the final speech of the lead villain in a third-rate Victorian stage melodrama. And the part about Poe spending his last night calling repeatedly for "one Reynolds" is simply lunatic. (It's interesting that Moran afterwards dropped that part altogether.) And, of course, all the details Moran provided Mrs. Clemm found themselves, shall we say, "evolving" over time, which implies that the doctor never had a solid account of Poe's death to begin with. I see no reason to trust Moran's first story any more than his millionth.

Where does all this leave us? Truly, in the Valley of Unrest. We know that, from at least the mid-1830s on, Poe suffered from periodic attacks of incapacitating illness--his "bad spells" as Mrs. Clemm reputedly called them--possibly accentuated or precipitated by depression, that became increasingly acute during the particularly stressful period right before and following Virginia's death. Periods of delirium were said to have set in. Losing Virginia, who was more of a mental and emotional support than possibly even he realized, did nothing to help his condition. Poe clearly deteriorated emotionally, although the oft-expressed theory that he was going mad is debatable. On the one hand, if the letters he allegedly sent Sarah Helen Whitman and "Annie" Richmond are geniune, increasing insanity is the only way to explain those singularly revolting epistles. On the other hand, his published work remained as precise and controlled as ever. It is hard to picture a crazed madman writing "Annabel Lee," "The Bells," or "Eureka." It is yet another unanswerable mystery.

These "bad spells" were often clearly not alcohol-related, although whatever drinking he did obviously must have exacerbated the problem. Blaming his death on drink alone seems far too simplistic. It is logical that, at some point after he left Richmond, he came down with another attack of his malady--whether or not he had been drinking at the time was possibly almost irrelevant--and left to what I suspect was (Moran's suspiciously defensive words to the contrary) the indifferent care of hospital workers, the combination of emotional stress, exhaustion, and possible starvation and dehydration finished him off. I'm convinced he did not have much of a will to live at this point, and it would not have taken a lot to end his existence. It was said that Mrs. Clemm always maintained that if she had only been able to nurse Poe herself, she could have pulled him through the episode as she had so often done before. That may have been true.

Marie Louise Shew Houghton told John Ingram that a doctor of her acquaintance had diagnosed Poe as having a "brain lesion," and heart trouble, which she knew would send him to an early grave. None of this is substantiated--certainly not by the doctor she named--and at the time she was writing to Ingram, Mrs. Houghton--who died soon afterwards--was not at all well herself. Her letters to Ingram are so strange, wild, and at times downright hallucinatory, they are patently the work of someone who tragically was losing--or had already completely lost--whatever wits she had once possessed. Her hysterical ravings can, at times, be downright frightening to read, and it is a sad indication of Ingram's desperate need for source material that he made biographical use of the few semi-coherent things she wrote. She may have been telling the truth. She may have been telling a complete fantasy. Either way, her statements do little to explain his known symptoms.

So...back we go to Square One: What was this episodic, increasingly debilitating condition? Where was he during those "lost days" between the time he left Richmond late in September, only to be found half-dead in a Baltimore tavern nearly a week later? No one has found the answer. I see no way anyone ever will. And I'm certain the old boy himself would have it no other way.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

October 7, 1849

Lo! 'tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly--
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Wo!

That motley drama--oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore,
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!--it writhes!--with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

Out!--out are the lights--out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm,
That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Poe's Weird Women (Part Two) - Mary Starr

edgar allan poe poe's mary
Mary Fosdick Starr Jennings was the wife of a prominent New York clothing manufacturer, William T. Jennings. She is known to history because of an 1889 Harper's Magazine article entitled "Poe's Mary." (The piece--in all its gruesomeness--can be read here.) The article, written by Augustus Van Cleef (who is erroneously referred to as her nephew--their relation was more distant than that,) purports to be her first-person reminiscences of a year-long love affair she had with Edgar Allan Poe in 1830s Baltimore. (The exact date of this alleged affair is uncertain. The year of 1835 was given in the article, but the description of actual events, such as Poe's return from West Point, place the story in 1831-32.) This story is accepted by most Poe biographers, despite the fact that the article contains a multitude of provable inaccuracies, contradictions, and anecdotes so comically weird as to be completely unbelievable.

First, there is the strange air of secrecy surrounding Mary's identity. The story--published several years after Mary Jennings' death, when she was no longer available for questioning about it--pointedly avoided giving her last name, her husband's occupation, or any other way to identify her. In the early 1900s, J.H. Whitty published what he claimed were reminiscences about Poe written by the poet's friend Frederick W. Thomas. These reminiscences--which are of highly questionable authenticity (Whitty never showed Thomas' actual purported manuscript notes to anyone, which suggests they never existed out of Mr. Whitty's imagination)--mention a failed romance Poe had in Baltimore with a "Miss Devereaux." For many years, this was assumed to be the last name of "Poe's Mary."**

Then, in 1935, a granddaughter of Mary Jennings volunteered her identity to Poe scholar Thomas Mabbott, although, oddly, she refused to have the family name published. She admitted that the "Harper's" story was "overcolored," but evidently failed to provide further clarification. Jennings' name was not made public until many years later, when Mabbott's edition of Poe's works was published--after both Mabbott and the granddaughter were dead. This lady, Minnie Aletha Jennings, provided no proof of her grandmother's acquaintance with Poe, or even that she was truly the subject of the "Harper's" article, but her identification has been accepted ever since.

Marie Louise Shew Houghton, a nurse who knew the Poe family in 1847-48, mentioned to Poe biographer John Ingram a "Mary Starr," (at one point she vaguely thought the lady's first name might have been "Helen.") She said "Mary" (or "Helen") was an old Baltimore "friend" of Poe's, who introduced herself to Houghton around the time of Virginia Poe's death. Houghton depicted the woman as something of a Poe family hanger-on, that over the years Mary "always looked up all his [Poe's] whereabouts." It rests merely on assumption that this is the same woman as Mary Starr Jennings. Houghton, strangely, claimed not to be able to remember "Mary Starr's" married name. (How could she know this woman's maiden name, but not the married name by which she would have known her?) Ingram made determined efforts to track down "Mary Starr," but he was unable to find any other Poe acquaintance who had ever even heard of the woman. (To add to the general peculiarity of the story, Mrs. Houghton is the only person who has ever claimed that Poe even knew a "Mary Starr." Similarly, the only Poe acquaintance "Poe's Mary" mentions ever meeting is...Mrs. Houghton.)

The magazine story itself is frankly bizarre, a long-drawn-out assault on reality. It offers a markedly schizophrenic account of "Mary's" relations with Poe. It begins by telling the story of an impulsive, stormy, (and, by the standards of the era, remarkably improper) courtship, marked by frequent jealousies and quarrels, which ends with a drunken Poe attempting to seduce her, and then, when she refused to see him again, publishing an insulting poem about her in a local paper (a poem that has never been found,) and taking a whip to her uncle. (Her relatives retaliate by beating Poe and tearing his frock coat.) The couple part in anger, with "Mary" declaring she never wanted to see him again. The whole thing reads like the worst type of romantic fiction of the era, with Poe described as a passionate, rakish caricature straight out of Rufus Griswold's famously slanderous, long-discredited biography. As Poe biographer Arthur Quinn noted, "among all the women who knew him, she ["Mary"] alone has spoken of him in this way." William Bittner put it even more colorfully, dismissing "Baltimore Mary" as being in the category of "reminiscences drawn from imaginative old women by even more imaginative interviewers to suit a pre-conceived image of the man most of them remembered only vaguely," and that her descriptions of Poe were "patently absurd."

Suddenly, the "Harper's" story's wild, melodramatic tone does a 180-degree shift. According to the article, "Mary" encounters Poe and his wife by accident a few years later, visits them at their home, and thereafter is described as an intimate chum of the entire Poe household, complete with Virginia dramatically clasping the former lovers' hands together over her deathbed, begging "Mary" to be "a friend" to Poe ("he always loved you--didn't you, Eddie?") As the old saying goes, one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

The magazine story is also full of demonstrable inaccuracies. It gives an account of Poe's relations with Sarah Elmira Shelton which is pure science fiction. It depicts "Mary" inviting Poe and Mrs. Clemm to her daughter's wedding (Mary Jennings' daughter did not marry until 1858--nine years after Poe died!) It depicts Poe showing her a letter from John Allan that could not have actually existed. It gives a physical description of Virginia Clemm Poe that is so inaccurate that one is forced to assume "Mary" never actually laid eyes on her. Even more suspiciously, the very few incidents given in the article that appear to be based on fact had all already appeared in print--as Van Cleef rather ingenuously proves, adding footnotes to the story that liberally cite previously published works about Poe. The idea was obviously to lend authenticity to the story, by repeating already accepted material, but it instead raises the suspicion that Van Cleef "salted" this clearly improbable tale with stories provided by other writers, in order to lend much-needed verisimilitude to his work.

In short, as Quinn noted, the entire tale should have been relegated to the trash basket a long time ago.

**A footnote: Mabbott tried to identify Whitty's "Miss Devereaux" with Mary Starr Jennings by claiming that she had an uncle named "James Devereaux," and that Mary used his surname when she went out socially. (?!) This peculiar argument--so typical of Mabbott's odd mind--is demolished by a simple check of Mary Starr Jennings' genealogy. She had no uncle--or any other relative--by the name of "Devereaux." "Miss Devereaux" is simply one of Whitty's many fictions.

(A sequel to this post can be found here.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Poe's Weird Women (Part One) - Sarah Elmira Shelton

sarah elmira royster shelton edgar allan poe
Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, known to history for reputedly being twice engaged to Edgar Allan Poe, is among the more mysterious figures in Poe's notoriously mystery-plagued life. There have been many fanciful stories told about their alleged youthful romance--most notably from J.H. Whitty and Hervey Allen--but they all seem to spring from unverifiable and unbelievable years-after-the fact local legends and overactive literary imaginations. The closest thing we have to solid evidence detailing their relationship are "notes" a Richmond journalist named Edward Valentine wrote of a conversation he claimed to have with Shelton one day in 1875, which he provided to Poe biographer John H. Ingram. (Strangely, when Ingram himself contacted Shelton, she declined the opportunity to directly cooperate with his research.)

These "notes" of Valentine's claim vaguely that before Poe left Richmond for the University of Virginia, when he was not yet seventeen and Miss Royster only fourteen, she "engaged myself to him." (The "notes" seem to indicate that they had only known each other for a few months at that time.) Her father, believing her too young for a serious attachment, secretly intercepted the letters Poe wrote her from the University. (Why Mr. Royster, instead of resorting to complicated and heartless subterfuge, did not merely openly forbid the pair from making a premature commitment to each other is not explained.) The "notes" claim Sarah Elmira did not learn that Poe had written to her until sometime after she married Alexander Shelton in December 1828. The inference is that she assumed Poe had jilted her, leaving her free to marry another, but the "notes" do not explain when and how she discovered her father's deception, why she did not ask Poe, after he returned to Richmond eight months later, about his evident rejection of her, or why Poe himself seemingly dismissed their engagement without so much as a word being spoken between them.

There is no legitimate evidence that Poe gave Sarah Elmira another thought during the quarter-century of their separation. Some of the more fanciful Poe specialists have speculated that several of his early poems, such as "Tamerlane" and "Song" ("I saw thee on thy bridal day") were inspired by their failed relationship, but there is absolutely no factual basis for this theory. Thomas Mabbott's claim that Poe's friend Lambert A. Wilmer based his play "Merlin" (published in a Baltimore paper in 1827) on the Poe/Royster "romance" is also untenable. (Mabbott was unaware that "Merlin" was first published in Philadelphia in 1823, long before Poe knew Wilmer or Miss Royster.)

Poe and Sarah disappeared from each other's lives until his final visit to Richmond in the summer of 1849. (Sarah Helen Whitman's bizarre claim that Poe courted Mrs. Shelton during his brief visit to Richmond in 1848, before he changed his mind and began courting her instead, is--as is often the case with Mrs. Whitman's yarns--contradicted by all the other known evidence.) At some point in the latter half of 1849, local rumor, later boosted by Rufus Griswold's notorious obituary of Poe, claimed the poet had become engaged to Shelton, who had been widowed for several years. However, no one claimed to have heard this directly from either of the pair themselves. The Valentine "notes" have Mrs. Shelton denying that they were engaged at the time of Poe's death. This account claims that Poe suddenly turned up on her doorstep in the summer of 1849, and immediately--after a separation of over twenty years--begged her to become his wife, but there had been nothing between them beyond a "partial understanding." The "notes" added that she did not believe they ever would have married, if Poe had lived.

What we know of Poe's feelings in the matter is equally ambiguous. We have several letters he allegedly wrote from Richmond to his aunt (and former mother-in-law) Maria Clemm, which refer unenthusiastically to his plans to marry the wealthy widow Shelton. (There has always been the strong implication that he was seeking her hand strictly for financial reasons.) However, the letters conclude by cautioning Mrs. Clemm that the wedding may never take place because "my heart sinks at the idea of this marriage." During Poe's stay in Richmond, Sarah Elmira herself wrote to Mrs. Clemm, whom she had never met. The letter indicates that she had cherished the memory of her childhood infatuation with Poe for all these years--it relates a story of the intense jealousy she felt when she accidentally saw Poe and his wife together soon after their marriage--(an oddly uncomfortable thing to say to Virginia's mother) but the missive, interestingly, makes no mention of any marriage plans. It was later said that after Poe's death that October, Mrs. Shelton donned mourning for him, but she denied this as well.

Aside from those enigmatic, confusing, unsatisfactory, and altogether suspicious "notes" Valentine provided Ingram, there is no trustworthy evidence of Shelton ever speaking about Poe. Whether her silence arose out of discretion, or a lack of anything to say on the subject, is a matter of conjecture. Her own granddaughter, who had lived with Shelton for years, once stated that it was not until she herself was a grown woman that she heard--presumably, when Ingram's book came out--that Poe had even the slightest connection with her family. When Shelton died in 1888, her obituary in a local paper stated that after Poe's death, she never so much as uttered his name to anyone. We can only assume that Mrs. Shelton went to her grave preferring that whatever knowledge we have of her dealings with the legendary poet should be based largely on speculation and myth.