Monday, November 2, 2009

Poe's Weirdest Woman, Sarah Helen Whitman; Or, The Biter Bit

"Even when the facts are available, most people seem to prefer the legend and refuse to believe the truth when it in any way dislodges the myth."
-John Mason Brown

Sarah Helen Whitman lived for thirty years after her disagreeable and still-mysterious parting of the ways with Edgar Allan Poe. Over the long course of these years, his memory took on ever-greater importance in her life. Her growing interest in his life and work both fostered and fed upon Poe's increasingly legendary reputation. She developed a widening correspondence with Poe biographers and associates, and drew to herself many young Poe cultists, deftly utilizing her three-month acquaintance with the poet and her unique status as his reputed sort-of fiancee to transform herself into "Poe's Helen." This aging, plain, rather affected, modestly-talented poetess, spiritualist, Transcendentalist, and habitual drug user--a woman, in short, who appeared to be a completely incompatible match for Poe--became, to many of his acolytes, the ultimate Girl Who Got Away, a goddess of sorts. It is hard to believe Poe sincerely wished to marry a woman fatuous enough to solemnly have herself photographed dressed as Pallas Athena, but thanks to her, most observers did believe just that. She convinced a great many people who really should have known better that she--and only she--was the one great love of Poe's life. (Although Whitman's campaign to convince the world that "Annabel Lee" was a paean to her was a utter failure.)sarah helen whitman edgar allan poeLike all the women who associated their names with Poe's, there was a predominant element of self-glorification in her desire to perpetuate the name and fame of "The Raven." One cannot but think the dead Poe meant much more to her than the live one ever did. A telling example of her narcissistic attitude came when she proudly allowed Richard Henry Stoddard to read the notorious letter she claimed to have received from Poe, which featured the poet mendaciously assuring Whitman, as a sign of his unique love for her, and of his sense of "honor," that by marrying Virginia, he had sacrificed his own happiness. Whitman was surprised and deeply upset when Stoddard expressed his dismay at the letter's depiction of Poe's callous disloyalty to the memory of a loving wife, rather than applauding the tribute to herself.

Of course, Sarah Whitman had a particular incentive to shape public perception about her "romance" with Poe--the widespread belief that he had jilted her, or worse, never really wanted to marry her at all. Rufus Griswold was the first to put into print the claim that when Poe went to Providence for the last time, he was determined to break his relationship with Whitman, even declaring to a New York poetess, Mary Hewitt, that the marriage would never take place. Griswold's lurid details about Poe deliberately staging a drunken tantrum at Whitman's house, all in order to compel her to break their engagement, were, of course, false, but after communicating with Hewitt herself, Whitman was forced to privately concede that Poe had denied they would marry. As late as 1877, she was irritated by a magazine columnist's assertion that Poe "disclaimed any personal interest in the projected marriage, in the presence of literary acquaintances here, even at the moment of receiving congratulations upon the sudden betterment of his prospects, and that his passionate letters to Mrs. Whitman were either wanting in sincerity, or he was weak enough to pretend an indifference that he did not feel." Whitman was understandably troubled and embarrassed to have such details become common knowledge, not because she had cared so deeply for Poe--in private letters, she asserted she never really loved him--but because of the blow to her pride. Any woman would surely find such talk painful--especially if she was aware there was truth to it--and Whitman was particularly vulnerable, being an emotionally fragile, hyper-sensitive and extremely vain personality. For her own psychological well-being, she had to do what she could to counter this perception of their relationship.

Nemesis finally came for Mrs. Whitman in the form of a Lowell, Massachusetts housewife, Annie Richmond. Whitman had never met her, but she knew of Mrs. Richmond as an acquaintance and admirer of Poe's, who was also corresponding with his biographer John H. Ingram. Ingram even told Whitman that "Annie" was providing him with interesting Poe letters.

Whitman had no idea just how interesting these letters were until Ingram published some of them as part of an 1878 "Appleton's Journal" article, "Unpublished Correspondence by Edgar A. Poe." This article revealed to her--and the world--the previously undreamed-of claim that, during Whitman's entire association with Poe--an association that had by then become central to her entire identity--he had been sending a married woman letters that made it painfully clear that she was his favored object of adoration, and the widowed, available "Poe's Helen" was a mere unsatisfactory consolation prize. If Mrs. Whitman had seen nothing wrong with informing the world that Poe had emotionally betrayed his dead wife to her, Mrs. Richmond was equally comfortable with asserting that Poe had betrayed both Virginia and Mrs. Whitman to her.

O. Henry could not have written a more stunning surprise ending to Mrs. Whitman's story. Her shock and humiliation must have been severe--the seventy-five year-old died about two months after the article's publication, and no wonder! What did the poor woman now have to live for?--but she publicly reacted with a commendable dignity.

Soon after Ingram's article appeared in print, she published a wry, telling commentary on the piece in a local paper, the "Providence Journal." She began by observing that "some of Poe's later memorialists may perhaps be blamed for not burning material confided to them for publication by Poe's nearest and dearest friends."

About the "material" itself, Whitman noted "the absence of all testimony as to the verbal authenticity of the letters." Referring in particular to a long, surreal letter Poe supposedly wrote Marie Shew Houghton, she pointed out that the text came from a mere copy provided by Mrs. Houghton, and was thus untrustworthy. Whitman wrote that when Ingram showed her the copy of this letter, she warned him that the "peculiarities of style" and phraseology were so different from Poe's known writings that it was impossible to accept this as a literal transcript, and that he ought not to present it as such. She said he had fully agreed with her opinion, and that he assured her nothing would be published until it had been "revised" and "recast." (The obvious irony here is that many of the letters by and about Poe among Whitman's papers exist only in copies written out by herself.)

Regarding Mrs. Richmond's contributions, Mrs. Whitman said only that she had no idea whether they had been "revised" or "recast," but "one can hardly imagine Poe to have said, 'You are the only being in the whole world whom I have loved at the same time with truth and with purity.'"

Whitman suggested to her readers that as an "offset to the confused and contradictory impression which these letters must inevitably leave," they should study the "Recollections" that Mrs. Richmond's sister Sarah provided for William Gill's "Life of Poe." Whitman praised the "exquisite fidelity" of Sarah Heywood's description of the poet. It is interesting that Whitman made this observation. Miss Heywood depicted Poe--whom, she made it clear, she scarcely knew--as a quiet, reserved, dignified, brilliant gentleman; always charming and courteous, but whose inner self was his own, something kept private from Sarah, from sister Annie, and from everyone else. She found a line from Wordsworth applicable to him: "Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart." In other words, he was the antithesis of the undignified, unmanly, ungrammatical jerk depicted in the letters both Mrs. Richmond and Mrs. Whitman claimed to have received from him.

Whitman summarized Ingram's article by stating that if Boileau's axiom, "a man's style is the man himself," is valid, the style of these letters leave us unable to find Poe the man in them. She closed with a quote from Samuel Johnson regarding Boswell: "Sir, if I thought that Bozzy was preparing to write my life, I should be tempted to anticipate him by taking his."

Whitman's short article is apt, witty, and insightful--one of the best brief Poe-related critiques I've seen. She obviously had a personal stake is discrediting letters that delivered such a grievous blow to herself, but that does not discount the validity of her criticism.

However, her article is the final, sardonic twist to her long career as a professional Poe fiancee. She seemed completely unaware--or was she, deep in her heart?--of one fact. All of the cogent arguments she used to cast suspicion on the integrity of these letters and the ladies who presented them--the reliance on mere copies, the startling stylistic variations from Poe's known writings, the inability to find "the man" Poe in any of these missives, the "absence of all testimony as to...authenticity of the letters," the dubious service Poe's "friends" provided him by bequeathing such material to posterity in the first place--all apply with equal force and justice to...herself.

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