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.

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