Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Be of good cheer. At least you're not spending New Year's Eve with this guy.Actually, this card wouldn't make a bad illustration for "The Masque of the Red Death."

Enjoy the last of 2010, and look ahead to a wonderful 2011 for us all!

(Image via the ever-peculiar NYPL Digital Gallery.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Island of the Fay

"The Island of the Fay," which was first published in the June 1841 issue of "Graham's Magazine," is classified as merely an example of Poe's "plate articles"--brief essays that were written specifically to accompany magazine engravings. In this work, however, Poe took such a mundane enterprise to a sublime level. "Fay," is, indeed, one of his most ethereal and beautiful pieces of writing. It is also one of his earliest works to anticipate his magnum opus, "Eureka." Thus, this seemingly irrelevant piece actually plays a key role in the Poe canon.

The scenario of the sketch is a simple one. The narrator begins his tale by commenting that "the higher order of music is the most thoroughly estimated when we are exclusively alone." Only then, he states, can its "spiritual uses" be fully appreciated. "But there is one pleasure still within the reach of fallen mortality--and perhaps only one--which owes even more than does music to the accessory sentiment of seclusion. I mean the happiness experienced in the contemplation of natural scenery. In truth, the man who would behold aright the glory of God upon earth must in solitude behold that glory." The narrator explains that the presence of any other form of life other than "the green things which grow upon the soil and are voiceless" is "at war with the genius of the scene." The "dark valleys," the "grey rocks," the "waters that silently smile," the "proud watchful mountains" are "the colossal members of one vast animate and sentient whole...whose life is eternity; whose thought is that of a God; whose enjoyment is knowledge; whose destinies are lost in immensity; whose cognizance of ourselves is akin with our own cognizance of the animalculæe which infest the brain--a being which we, in consequence, regard as purely inanimate and material, much in the same manner as these animalculæe must thus regard us."

In a declaration Poe would echo seven years later in "Eureka," he states the unity of all things in the universe. "As we find cycle within cycle without end--yet all revolving around one far-distant centre which is the Godhead, may we not analogically suppose, in the same manner, life within life, the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine? In short, we are madly erring, through self-esteem, in believing man, in either his temporal or future destinies, to be of more moment in the universe than that vast 'clod of the valley' which he tills and contemns, and to which he denies a soul for no more profound reason than that he does not behold it in operation."

The narrator then describes how, on one of his solitary wanderings through the wilderness, he chanced upon a little river with a small circular island. The western extremity of this islet was "all one radiant harem of garden beauties" that "glowed and blushed beneath the eye of the slant sunlight...There seemed a deep sense of life and joy about all..."

The eastern end, by contrast, "was whelmed in the blackest shade. A sombre, yet beautiful and peaceful gloom here pervaded all things." The trees "conveyed ideas of mortal sorrow and untimely death," the grass had the aspect of mournful cypress, and the many small hillocks resembled graves.John Sartain engraving of The Island of the FayTo the narrator, the island appeared enchanted--"the haunt of the few gentle Fays who remain from the wreck of the race." As he daydreamed, he fancied he actually saw a fairy circling the island in a fragile canoe. She radiated joy as she floated amid the sunlight of the western half of the isle, but became deformed by sorrow as she passed into the shadows of the east. Over and over, the narrator watched her pass from light and life, to darkness and death, and back again. "The revolution which has just been made by the Fay," he thought, "is the cycle of the brief year of her life. She has floated through her winter and through her summer. She is a year nearer unto Death: for I did not fail to see that as she came into the shade, her shadow fell from her, and was swallowed up in the dark water, making its blackness more black." He asks, "What the wasting tree is to the water that imbibes its shade, growing thus blacker by what it preys upon, may not the life of the Fay be to the death which engulfs it?"

With each cycle, the fairy became increasingly indistinct, and enveloped in shadow. Finally, as the sun set, she and her boat disappeared into the "ebony flood," and "darkness fell over all things, and I beheld her magical figure no more."

What was Poe revealing in this allegorical prose poem? All that is, is intelligence, and intelligence is God. By contemplating nature and music in solitude, we come closer to communing with God and understanding our place in the universe. The meditative exploration of nature is the exploration of the universe, which is within all intelligence. In nature, we are able to observe ourselves--the God within us, or that is us--and we can establish a direct relationship with that God. (Poe explored these same themes in "The Domain of Arnheim," "Landor's Cottage," "Instinct vs. Reason," and "The Philosophy of Furniture.")

Even shadows are substance and therefore intelligence. As the intelligent waters "imbibe" them, the waters are nourished and enriched. The gradual dissolution of the fairy into the darkness is one aspect of eternity--the cycle of life, never-ending, repeated everywhere--which man can observe and comprehend as the work of God.

And it is still popularly believed that Poe was amoral and irreligious!

In "Marginalia," published in the "Southern Literary Messenger" in June 1849, Poe wrote that "Not only do I think it paradoxical to speak of a man of genius as personally ignoble, but I confidently maintain that the highest genius is but the loftiest moral nobility." He expressed this same sentiment indirectly in his more overtly metaphysical writings such as "Island of the Fay." Men and women of true genius (as opposed to those who are merely intellectually clever) are those rare individuals who exist on a higher plane, and because of their elevation, they have a better understanding of who we are, why we are here, our place in the universe, and our relation to "the Godhead." Figures such as Poe--one of the most purely idealistic writers of the modern era--channel their vision of heaven to less enlightened humanity through fiction, poetry, art, philosophy, music, and other creative expressions. Their proximity to what Poe called the Spirit Divine, or Supernal Beauty, eliminates the possibility of an ignoble nature. They cannot perceive, contemplate, and channel the world of the spirit and yet lead degraded lives--no matter how desperately Poe's enemies and his biographers (pardon the redundancy) want us to believe otherwise.

While those very rare geniuses, such as Poe, channel their vision of the universe through their creative work, he also made it clear that by contemplating nature, meditating upon it in solitude, any of us can achieve a more direct relationship with the Divine.

This is why it is exasperating how Poe is commonly labeled simply as a "horror" or "Gothic" writer. This is far from the case. In truth, he was a pure mystic (and a highly-underrated satirist.) Reducing his remarkable and utterly unique body of work to mere "sensationalist" fiction, or worse, simplistic Freudian autobiography, does him the ultimate disservice. Insult Poe if you please, but do not cheapen him.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Joy to the World

I wanted to offer everyone the most Poe-like seasonal cheer I could find.Have an Edgar Allan Poe Christmas!Seriously, I think this is the most malevolent-looking Santa Claus I've ever seen.

Merry Christmas and the very happiest of holidays to all!

And may this guy never come down your chimney.

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery. Which really should be more careful about what it digitizes.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Literary Life of Joseph Cosey, Esq.

Joseph Cosey the Edgar Allan Poe forgerThe period of the 1920s-1950s was a Golden Age for Edgar Allan Poe-related "discoveries." During these years, many previously unknown letters and documents of the legendary poet surfaced for the first time. Unfortunately, a great deal of credit for these additions to Poe lore can be given to an astoundingly imaginative, talented, and energetic forger named Martin Coneely.

Coneely, who was born in 1887, is best known by his favorite alias of "Joseph Cosey." Little is known of his early life. He ran away from home at an early age, and henceforth led a solitary, nomadic life, supporting himself through a series of petty crimes. He apparently had no friends or family ties. Despite his shady and hardscrabble background, he was a highly intelligent man with an instinctive love for books and history--19th century Americana in particular. In other circumstances, he would have become a genuine scholar, but as it happened, his fate was instead not to merely study history, but to make it. Literally.

In the 1920s, he paid what proved to be a life-changing visit to the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. His motives in requesting to see signatures and documents belonging to such greats as Jefferson and Washington were entirely innocent--he merely wished to gratify his passion for Americana. However, once he was able to actually see and touch these priceless relics of the past, he felt he could not let them all go. Settling his desire upon a pay warrant signed by Benjamin Franklin in 1786, he slipped the paper into his pocket, and, in those more trusting times, left the library unnoticed.

A year or so later, he was living in a tenement in New York City, drunk, alone, and flat broke. Desperate for money, he steeled himself to sell his one prized possession--his stolen Franklin document. Upon taking it to a book dealer, however, he was stunned and indignant when the man scornfully rejected it as a forgery. In his disgust, Cosey resolved to teach this impertinent fool a lesson. He, himself, would create a real forgery and sell it to him! He haunted the local public libraries, studying facsimiles of the handwriting of historical figures. He found that Abraham Lincoln's signature came easiest to him, and after some months of practice, whipped out a handsome "Yrs. Truly, A. Lincoln" on a scrap of paper. The same dealer who dismissed his authentic Franklin bought the bogus Cosey for ten dollars.

It was an epiphany. Cosey, after a lifetime of aimless and unproductive wanderings, felt he had finally found his mission in life. He threw all his previously dissipated energies into his new calling, and he exceeded beyond all expectations. He became to manuscript forging what Tiffany's is to diamonds. G. William Bergquest, an expert on literary hoaxes, called him "the greatest forger of his kind in this century." The renowned book and autograph dealer Charles Hamilton went even further, describing Cosey as "the most skilled and versatile forger of all time." During his long and prolific career, he forged many items of Americana, particularly ones imitating the handwriting of Lincoln and George Washington.

Alas for Poe scholarship, Cosey also had a personal devotion to the author of "The Raven," which he expressed in his own singular manner. He also, for whatever reason, had a predilection for Poe's literary contemporary Nathaniel Parker Willis. He is known to have created more than one letter from Poe to Willis, and enjoyed adding forged notations by Willis to his "Poe manuscripts." Physically, they were impeccable pieces of work, but Cosey occasionally made several factual errors in the text. The errors were relatively minor--I've seen far worse in many Poe biographies--but they were enough to discredit the documents. Otherwise, the letters may well have been permanently accepted as genuine. In fact, Hamilton stated that all of the extant Poe/Willis correspondence has to at least be suspected as being Cosey's handiwork. (All this makes me very curious about a manuscript copy of Poe's poem "For Annie" which sold at auction not long ago for a cool $830,000, even though very limited information was given about the document's provenance. Among the distinguishing features of this artifact were notations added by none other than N.P. Willis.)

Cosey was considerably more ambitious than the typical forger. Not content merely with reproducing signatures or brief snippets of already-published texts, he did serious preliminary research on his subjects, enabling him to convincingly channel the literary style of Poe and his other favorite targets, churning out with unnerving speed and agility lengthy, interesting letters, artifacts such as account books and legal papers, and long samples of documents (including manuscripts of "The Poetic Principle," "The Raven," and "The Fall of the House of Usher.") His instinctive skill for replicating handwritings was coupled with the savvy to use genuinely antiquated paper and writing implements, including a distinctive brown ink specific to the 18th and early 19th centuries. He even became adept at forging letters of verification to accompany his creations. All this combined to make him a formidable menace to the world of manuscript collecting.

Cosey was also clever enough to take advantage of an odd quirk in the penal codes of New York (and a number of other states.) According to the law, merely forging any "archaeological object" was not in itself illegal. The crime occurred only when the owner of the "object" deliberately presented it for sale it as a genuine artifact. Cosey would merely diffidently present his documents to dealers or private collectors as objects of unknown value that he had "inherited," or "been given," or simply "found," and left it up to the prospective buyer to decide whether it was of any worth. Ironically, his seeming casualness about the documents served to enhance their plausibility. And if the forgery was detected, all he had to do was innocently state that he had never claimed the manuscripts were anything other than old pieces of paper.

Another thing that made Cosey notable was that, like many other great figures of his unusual profession, he saw himself as no mere criminal, but as an artist, a craftsman. He took great pride in his output, which he invested with a care that arose not merely from a desire to avoid exposure, but from a love of the work itself. He was, in the words of one of his parole officers, "a likable, ingratiating fraud." To paraphrase one of his favorite subjects, for him forgery was not a purpose, but a passion.

What is more, he convinced himself that he was actually doing a public service. After all, relatively few of even the most ardent Poe devotees have the money or opportunity to possess a letter or other document in his writing. Thanks to Joseph Cosey, many more of them would get that chance! He once told a story about going to a bookstore with a "Poe letter" he had created. "The owner was out," he said, "but his secretary told me she was a student of Poe and would be thrilled to see something in his handwriting. I finally sold it to her for three dollars, but only because I was broke. Well my conscience bothered me about it for weeks, and the first time I had three dollars I went back to the shop to tell her it was a counterfeit, and buy it back from her. But when I heard her talk about how much pleasure that letter had given her, I didn't have the heart to disillusion her. So I walked out and let her keep it and believe in it."

I'd like to know where that letter is now. And how often it has been quoted as source material in Poe biographies.

For all his natural gift for chicanery, Cosey did sometimes turn out product sufficiently flawed to be exposed by the experts. He often ignored the fact that a person's handwriting inevitably changes with age. A Cosey "Benjamin Franklin," for example, would have the same signature in old age that he had in his prime. He would occasionally cut corners by chemically treating modern paper to give it the appearance of age. Such mistakes led to his arrest in 1937, after he sold an "Abraham Lincoln" letter. It was dated "December 2, 1846." but, with uncharacteristic sloppiness Cosey wrote it on paper bearing a discernible 1860 watermark. (By this time, Cosey was not only an alcoholic, but a heroin addict, which undoubtedly affected his talents.) His victim was content to chalk it up to the hazards of the business, but after he heard Cosey was attempting to sell a similar letter to another dealer, the police were summoned. The detectives who brought him in for questioning immediately saw from the marks on his arms that he was a drug user, and evidently promised him a much-needed "fix" if he confessed. He did, and was convicted of petty larceny. He was paroled after less than a year, and he inevitably immediately went back to his life's work. He is believed to have kept up his cheerfully felonious ways right until his death, which is generally thought to have taken place around 1950, when he simply dropped out of sight. Some sources, however, believe he was still producing "artifacts" for some years afterwards. His end, appropriately enough for a Poe impersonator, is a mystery.

Thankfully, many documents have been exposed as his handiwork. (A fine example can be seen here.) Such is his reputation, that many of them have fetched high prices at auction as "Genuine Cosey Forgeries." A side industry even emerged of--seriously--forged "Cosey forgeries." The New York Public Library did him the dubious, if unmistakable, honor of setting up a permanent collection of his "Greatest Hits." (One of the founding items in this file was an assortment of notes Poe supposedly wrote in relation to the printing of "Tamerlane.") However, it is acknowledged that there are many, many more "Coseys" in circulation that have gone undetected. Early on in this blog, I posted a quote from Charles Hamilton (who made a particular study of Cosey's career.) "Long ago," he wrote, "I concluded that there must be far more forgeries of Poe by Cosey than there are original Poe letters."Scribblers and Scoundrels forgery and Edgar Allan PoeConsidering how many leading items of Poeana--items which largely have a sketchy or nonexistent history--first appeared during Cosey's prolific heyday, Hamilton's words should be memorized by any student of Poe's life. And it must be remembered that Joseph Cosey was hardly the first Poe forger, nor the last. Caveat emptor. And then some.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Poe's Overlooked Enemy (Part Two)

Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Gaylord ClarkClark was now becoming truly unhinged on the subject of Poe--he seems to have found his enemy's teasing much harder to bear than mere hatred. He published an lengthy editorial devoted to working off some of his fury. Clark opened by addressing a correspondent he identified only as "J.G.H.," who had supposedly sent Clark a letter containing charges against Poe. (We do not know what these accusations may have been, or even if "J.G.H." existed outside of Clark's imagination.) Clark thanked "J.G.H." for his communication, but added, "bless your heart, man! you can't expect us to publish it," thus intimating to his audience that this letter contained revelations about Poe too shocking even for publication. (This clever tactic of hinting at horrifying scandals regarding Poe--while never, of course, describing what these scandals may have been, thus allowing the imagination of the reader to picture the worst--went on to become a favored, and highly effective, tactic among his defamers. Cf. the "Poe reminiscences" of Rufus W. Griswold, Charles F. Briggs and Thomas Dunn English.) Clark went on to describe Poe as "the wretched inebriate," a "jaded hack," who was "too mean for hate, and hardly worthy scorn." Clark sneered that "there are but two classes of persons who regard him in any light--those who despise and those who pity him; the first for his utter lack of principle, the latter for the infirmities which have overcome and ruined him." As a means of corroborating his insults, Clark also made reference to recent assaults against Poe that had been made by Hiram Fuller and others, painting a picture of Poe as a drunken, deranged, pitiful scoundrel whose critical opinions could not be taken seriously. For good measure, he closed with a brazen and deliberate lie--the claim that Poe satirized him in "The Literati" only because Clark had rejected some of his manuscripts.

This despicable piece of writing was something of a landmark in the destruction of Poe's reputation. As Moss noted, "Here for the first time--three years before his death--we have in print the allegations so familiar these days..."

The "Knickerbocker" followed up this rant with another clumsy jab at Poe in the form of some feeble doggerel entitled "Epitaph on a Modern 'Critic'," which was probably written by Clark himself:

"'Here Aristarchus lies!' (a pregnant phrase,
And greatly hackneyed, in his early days,
By those who saw him in hs maudlin scenes,
And those who read him in the magazines.)
Here Aristarchus lies, (nay, never smile,)
Cold as his muse, and stiffer than his style;
But whether Bacchus or Minerva claims
The crusty critic, all conjecture shames;
Nor shall the world know which the mortal sin,
Excessive genius or excessive gin!"

Poe, never one to be cowed, again favored Clark with his notice in the subsequent "Literati" essay on Charles Fenno Hoffman. Noting that Hoffman was the original editor of the "Knickerbocker," Poe lamented that the publication subsequently entered into a "dense region of unmitigated and unmitigable fog," a "dreary realm of outer darkness, of utter and inconceivable dunderheadism," under the editorship of "the august person of one Lewis Gaylord Clark."Lewis Gaylord Clark the Knickerbocker MagazineAfter this exchange, the public quarrel lapsed--possibly because Clark either realized he was quite literally outwitted or he simply ran out of nasty things to write about Poe. He largely avoided the topic of his old antagonist until Griswold's notorious biography of their common enemy appeared in 1850. Clark and Griswold were long-time friends, and this gave him additional motivation to defend Poe's literary executor from the outrage that arose over his defamation of the dead poet. As the volumes of Griswold's edition of Poe's works appeared, Clark published several reviews designed to offer Griswold support. Clark enthusiastically reiterated all of Griswold's calumnies, describing Poe as someone "destitute of moral or religious principle." Clark, like Griswold, accused Poe of being a serial plagiarist. In particular, he repeated a claim that Clark himself had originally made in print and that was echoed by Griswold--the allegation that Poe's poem "The Haunted Palace," was a shameless steal from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Beleaguered City." Longfellow--to his credit--refuted this charge, pointing out to Griswold that his own poem was written after "The Haunted Palace" had been published. (Poe himself, noting the similarities between the two poems, had drawn Griswold's attention to this fact as early as 1841.) Clark and Griswold coolly ignored him. As Sidney Moss (with remarkable understatement) wrote: "both Clark and Griswold were parties to deliberate falsehoods. To concur in a truth is simple; to concur in a lie betrays collaboration." We will likely never know just how many more of Poe's supposed sins and personal flaws were merely similar lies his enemies "collaborated" in creating and spreading.The Haunted Palace Edgar Allan PoeClark, like Griswold, could not allow his loathing of Poe to rest. As late as 1856, he was still on the attack, approvingly republishing a passage from an article in the "North American Review" which was essentially a rehash of Griswold's old libels (it has been noted that, however, he carefully omitted a section from this article referring to Poe's battle against "cliquism.") Clark added to this passage his declaration that Poe had had "no literary influence whatever," because he was "destitute of moral sentiment." His final public comment on Poe came in 1860, when he reviewed Sarah Helen Whitman's "Edgar Poe and His Critics." He wrote that his own negative assessments of Poe had been given "frankly and conscientiously." He asserted that "it would give us pleasure to add, that Mr. Poe's biographers had since given us occasion to change them." Clark made it clear that no such transformation had occurred by quoting another review of Whitman's book that asserted it "does not wipe out the...dishonorable records in the biography of Dr. Griswold." The "Knickerbocker" editor ultimately failed in his true goal of discrediting Poe as a critic, but succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in discrediting Poe as a man.

Lewis Gaylord Clark, the man who was, in Moss' words, "the man most guilty of creating and circulating calumnies of Poe while Poe was alive," died in 1873. His friend Thomas Bangs Thorpe eulogized him as a man "never else to the world than light-hearted, always kindly disposed," who "viewed every thing, if you please, from a delicate, truly refined, and humorous stand-point."

If such a petty, crude, unscrupulous and mendacious man was truly so admired by his contemporaries, it provides an eloquent, if unwittingly revealing, commentary on the literary milieu of Poe's time.

(Header image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Poe's Overlooked Enemy (Part One of Two)

Lewis Gaylord Clark and Edgar Allan PoeEveryone who has even a casual interest in Poe's life story knows of the posthumous attacks on his character made by Rufus W. Griswold. However, surprisingly few people are aware that Poe had another equally vicious, and arguably equally influential libeller: Lewis Gaylord Clark. Unlike Griswold, Clark began his public assaults on Poe while his enemy was still very much alive. Thus, he not only played a major role in laying the foundation for Poe's posthumous image, he did much to shape the living Poe's career and reputation.

Another notable thing about Clark is that, unlike other leading Poe enemies such as Griswold, Thomas Dunn English, and Charles F. Briggs, he had no known personal dealings with Poe. In fact, the two likely never even laid eyes on each other on more than two or three very brief occasions. Clark's efforts to destroy Poe's personal and literary reputation were solely and irrefutably based on nothing more than literary politics--thus contradicting the commonly-held assumption that Poe's controversial career was nothing but a self-inflicted wound, a downfall that was entirely due to his own personal foibles.

Clark, the long-time editor of the widely-circulated and extremely powerful "Knickerbocker" magazine, saw himself as the chief promoter and defender of New York's literary clique. Poe's efforts to weaken the influence of this group--which could be said to have commenced with his devastating review of NYC "insider" Theodore Fay's novel "Norman Leslie" in 1835--would in itself be enough to antagonize Clark. In addition, Clark was a determined sectionalist, promoting only New York (and, to a limited extent, New England) writers, and denigrating the literature of the South. Poe, as the guiding force of the "Southern Literary Messenger," that region's leading magazine, would inevitably be seen as his opponent.

It has also been suggested that a minor reason for the feud between Clark and Poe was the latter's resentment towards Richard Adams Locke. A few weeks after Poe published his "Hans Phaall" in the June 1835 issue of the "Messenger," the "New York Sun" came out with Locke's "Moon Hoax," which Poe considered--not without reason--to be a blatant plagiarism of his own work. Clark had had a hand in creating Locke's story, and it may be that when Poe heard of this, it served to increase his antagonism towards the "Knickerbocker" editor. This remains only speculation, however.

Clark launched his war upon Poe in August of 1838, when he wrote for his magazine a mocking review of "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." Professing to treat the novel as a factual account, he characterized "Pym" as "a great many tough stories...told in a loose and slip-shod style, seldom chequered by any of the more common graces of composition..." and loftily derided the "veracity" of the narrator. In those days, positive reviews were the only way to advertise a book, and negative notices were generally enough to kill a book's chances for success. Clark's review, appearing as it did in one of the country's leading literary magazines, is considered one of the major reasons why "Pym" was a commercial failure in America. (Ironically, a pirated edition of the novel that appeared in England did well--but, of course, did not earn Poe a penny.)

His next major attack came in 1840, when Poe published a prospectus for his planned "Penn" magazine. The prospectus made it clear that he saw the "Knickerbocker" as one of the magazines his own publication was intended to supplant, and Clark responded to the implied challenge with his usual gusto. He published a snide editorial hinting that Poe, when working for William Burton's "Gentleman's Magazine," had run that enterprise into the ground, and misquoted Poe's prospectus in a way that suggested he meant to merely imitate the "Knickerbocker."

Poe largely ignored such gibes--he apparently found Clark an unworthy opponent--but during the early 1840s, he continued to antagonize Clark by deriding the output of the "Knickerbocker's" favored writers, while establishing "Graham's Magazine" as Clark's chief competition. In 1843, the "New World" magazine published an anonymous article that was one long, scathing critique not just of the "Knickerbocker" itself, but of Clark personally, stating dryly that "Mr. Lewis Clark has made a considerable noise in the literary world, but how he has made it, would be difficult for his best friends to explain." (The article also lambasted Rufus W. Griswold, calling him "wholly unfit, either by intellect or character, to occupy the editorial chair of Graham's Magazine.")

The author of this article has never been determined, but the important point is that--rightly or wrongly--Clark believed it was Poe, and as a result he--in the words of Poe scholar Sidney P. Moss--"began gunning for Poe with a vengeance." Poe became one of the "Knickerbocker's" favorite targets. When Clark did not publish reviews of Poe's writings that were little more than excuses to attack him personally, he reprinted assaults on his enemy that had appeared elsewhere, thus giving these libels greater circulation and credibility. (For his part, Poe, during his editorship of the "Broadway Journal," published several notices of Clark's magazine that were so ostensibly genial and flattering that the effect is of mockery of a particularly polished order.)

With all this, it is not surprising that when Clark heard that he was to be included in Poe's "The Literati of New York City," a series of gossipy satirical essays about literary celebrities that appeared in "Godey's Lady's Book" in 1846, he panicked. He sought to head off what he assumed would be Poe's revenge against him by publishing an editorial on "The Literati," sneering at "a wandering specimen of 'The Literary Snob' continually obtruding himself upon public notice; today in the gutter, tomorrow in some milliner's magazine; but in all places, and at all times, magnificently snobbish and dirty..." and adding that "We do not think that the 'ungentlemanly and unpardonable personalities of this writer,' of which our contemporary complains, are worthy of notice simply because they are so notoriously false that they destroy themselves."

When Poe's sketch of Clark appeared in the September issue, it fully justified all the "Knickerbocker" editor's fears. Claiming derisively that his subject was "known principally as the twin brother of the late Willis Gaylord Clark," Poe characterized Clark's editorials as "easy writing and hard reading." He commented that "Mr. Clark once did me the honor to review my poems and--I forgive him." Poe playfully gave an insultingly low estimation of the "Knickerbocker's" circulation, and said that Clark "is noticeable for nothing in the world except for the markedness by which he is noticeable for nothing." As he did in all the "Literati" papers, Poe closed by giving a detailed, and highly unflattering, physical description of his subject, making Clark a number of years older than he really was, remarking on his "bullety" forehead, and concluding that his smile "is too constant and lacks expression."

In Part Two: The "Knickerbocker" strikes back.

(Header image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Brief Technical Note

The story of my life, right hereAs you can see, my list of "Followers" has suddenly vanished. (Bye, folks, nice knowing you!)

The Stats page still isn't working.

These seem to be pretty universal problems, and Blogger has been discreetly mum about when or if any of this will be fixed. And as I have all the computer know-how of a tree stump, I'm completely lost about what, if anything, I can do about it.

I fully expect the plague of locusts to come next.

I just knew that instead of attempting a blog, I should've simply handed out xeroxed copies of my Poe writings on street corners, like any self-respecting crank and public nuisance would do.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Further Note About Poe and Thomas H. Chivers

Thomas Holley Chivers and Edgar Allan PoeSome time ago, I wrote about the strange history of the so-called "Life of Poe" manuscript that was allegedly written by Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers.

There are additional details which make these documents even more questionable. To recap: Chivers' nephew John Q. Adams announced in 1888 (thirty years after Chivers' death) that he had, through mysterious and never-explained means, acquired an iron box containing letters from Poe to "a friend," as well as a complete MS. copy of a Poe biography penned by this same "friend." (Very strangely, he avoided giving the name of this "friend" of Poe's, let alone giving any hint that this Poe intimate was Adams' own uncle.) There is no proof Adams ever actually displayed these supposedly very valuable documents to anyone, although in 1903 the "Century" magazine published what are assumed to be excerpts from these papers (although no connection to Adams was stated--the magazine did not say where they acquired this material at all--and these published excerpts bear little resemblance to the papers he described.)

In the 1920s, Henry Huntington purchased Poe-related documents through a book dealer (who acquired them from an unknown source.) These papers, which are now in California's Huntington Library, are assumed to be the same Chivers/Adams/"Century" collection. However, again, it was never established that these were the same papers used for the 1903 publication. George Woodberry, the editor of the "Century" article, only worked with transcripts, not the original documents, and there is no known connection between Adams and the papers Huntington purchased. The "Chivers' 'Life of Poe,'" published in 1952, comes from this Huntington collection. (Although it does not consist of a complete manuscript, such as the one Adams described; it is merely a handful of brief, carelessly-written, virtually illegible fragments.)

Joel Benton In the Poe Circle Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Holley ChiversJoel Benton relied heavily upon Adams as a source for his 1899 book, "In the Poe Circle." Adams said nothing to Benton about this cache of important Poe/Chivers manuscripts he supposedly had acquired. Rather, Benton wrote that Chivers' library was destroyed during the Civil War, "and that all his manuscripts were more or less injured," indicating that Adams had told him there was virtually nothing left of Chivers' papers. Benton stated that Adams had in his possession one--evidently only one--letter that Poe wrote to Chivers. All Adams provided from this letter was one line: "Please lend me $50 for three months--I am so poor and friendless I am half distracted; but I shall be all right when you and I start our magazine." This rather artificial-sounding quote does not appear in any extant letter Poe wrote to Chivers or anyone else, which just adds to the general air of shenanigans which surrounds the "Chivers manuscripts" we have today.

Further complicating an already convoluted story is an article which appeared in the "Atlanta Constitution" on June 20, 1909. The writer of the column made a reference to Chivers' papers, commenting that "The wife of Dr. Chivers lived for several years after him, and through the war, many valuable documents were lost, together with an iron box, always a mysterious thing in the family, and remains a mystery till today. This box, I learn, was buried and hid about during the war till eventually it was lost--whether the soldiers found it, or whether it still remains where it was hid and the place forgotten, remains unknown."

Now, where does this leave Mr. Adams and his story about acquiring this "iron box" of documents--documents he never displayed--a discovery he announced 21 years before in the pages of the "Atlanta Constitution?" We appear to be dealing with four unconnected sets of documents: The set Adams claimed to have (but never displayed,) the set published by the "Century" (which came from an unnamed source, and where the original documents were not even used,) the set purchased by Henry Huntington (a transaction where--according to a staff member of the Huntington Library itself--the dealer who sold them would not or could not reveal their provenance,) and the set the "Atlanta Constitution" writer said had disappeared during the Civil War!

Every story connected with the history of the "Poe/Chivers papers" reeks of mystery, evasion, and hopeless contradiction. Nevertheless, since their publication, these same papers have been extensively quoted--as unimpeachable fact--in all Poe biographies. Why do Poe scholars blithely assume the Poe/Chivers documents in the Huntington Library are perfectly trustworthy as source material, when the "chain of custody" linking them to Chivers himself--or even John Quincy Adams--is not merely broken, but utterly nonexistent? Why is this material still used today to shape public perceptions of Poe, particularly since the "Chivers' Life of Poe" itself, even if genuine, is intrinsically worthless as source material? (It must be kept in mind that even if Chivers truly wrote these manuscript fragments--which is, to put it mildly, not proven--he scarcely knew Poe personally, and had--to his mind at least--reason to resent him. After Poe's death, Chivers made a laughingstock of himself by making increasingly strident and unbalanced claims that the late poet had plagiarized Chivers' own work.)

When studying Poe's history, I find myself continually reminded of his biographer William Bittner's wry observation that "The forging of Poe documents has proved to be so profitable that ingenuity has been expended on it that might better have been put to legitimate Poe research, perhaps with a little counterfeiting on the side to finance the long work required."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More Search Term Revelations

Edgar Allan PoeJust to keep everyone au courant, I offer a few more recent glimpses into the life of a Poe Blogger--and what a life it is--courtesy of the ever-fascinating Stats page. (Which, of course, has been non-operational for some days now, with Blogger seemingly unable to say when--or if--it will ever be fixed. Good going, guys.) What better way to anticipate tomorrow than by presenting a real turkey of a post?Happy vegetarian Thanksgiving, Edgar Allan Poe fans.  Spare these birds!For those of you keeping score at home, Poe's sister is still the big draw here (I just may throw up my hands and rename this blog "The World of Rosalie Mackenzie Poe,") but lately I've seen a number of hits from people looking for information about Thomas Dunn English, of all people. I can't say that surprises me. English may have been a lying creep with all the finer sensibilities of a sewer rat, but the man certainly played a lively role in Poe's life. Other current keyword searches that have brought people here include:

1. edgar allan poes male lovers

I wonder what Charles F. Briggs would make of this.

2. undines curse symptoms and explanations

I admit I'm easily irritated (most of what gets written about Poe has done absolutely nothing to help,) and I'm not what you'd call the soul of tact, but isn't that going a bit far?

3. undineblog

I'm becoming almost as popular as Rosalie Poe.

4. edgar allan poe annabel lee burton

Burton? Poe's old boss William Burton? Poe specialist Burton R. Pollin? The actor Richard Burton? The scholar and explorer Sir Richard Burton? The film director Tim Burton? Burton, Ohio? Dan Burton, the Representative for Indiana's Fifth District? The excellent guitarist James Burton? Burton's Foods? (The second largest biscuit maker in the UK!) Burton Cummings, lead singer for The Guess Who? I'm curious about this one.

5. poe stole lyrics for raven from which poem

Sigh. Over here.

6. edgar poe confessional type letter to pen pal

I confess this one has me stumped. Could you be referring to this letter to George W. Eveleth?

7. edgar allan poe change the world

Well, he thought "Eureka" would do that. For all I know, he was right. Reading it certainly changed my world.

8. is there a grave site for e.a. poe in prov. ri

Particularly when she was high on ether, Sarah Helen Whitman must have been a grave sight indeed for Poe.

9. edgar allan poe strange life

You don't know the half of it.

10. edgar allan poe's letter of marriage to Maria Clemm
edgar allen poe's marriage proposal to Maria Clemm

I sincerely hope these Googlers were not looking for what they appear to have been looking for. If you know what I mean.

Does anyone here have an aspirin handy?

11. are there dinner plates with edgar allan poe or his characters on them

You know, I just don't think "King Pest" dinner plates will do much to whet the appetites of your guests.

Although, now that I think about it, there are possibilities in the Poe tableware line: "Pit and the Pendulum" cutlery. "Cask of Amontillado" wine glasses. "Hop-Frog" candelabrums. And after the meal is over...

..."Berenice" toothbrushes!

I could really, really, use that aspirin.

12. what was poe's uncle's name

Judging by the online Poe family trees, George Washington Poe was Edgar's only uncle to live past infancy. He had little or nothing to do with Edgar's life so far as we know. Oddly, though, in the deposition Thomas Dunn English gave during Poe's libel suit against the "New York Mirror," he claimed Poe had committed an unspecified act of forgery against a man identified only as "his uncle." English gave no further details, and we have no other information that would clarify the matter. As I have said in earlier posts, that libel suit of Poe's is a veritable minefield of weird little mysteries.

13. why didn't virginia poe have a baby

She never shared that bit of information with the world.

14. why did people hate edgar allan poe

Now, there's a long story, and one not for the squeamish. I go into some of the reasons in these two posts.

15. maria poe clemm's hometown

Baltimore, MD. If only all of life's questions were that simple to answer.

16. george fordham painting "the demon"

I take it this is what you were looking for.George Fordham the DemonI find it strangely intriguing that a hunt for a picture of a Victorian-era jockey should somehow lead you to a blog about Edgar Poe. Google truly moves in mysterious ways.

Incidentally, there's a Poe quote you might appreciate: "The speed of a horse is sublime--that of a man absurd." That line said it all about Zenyatta's run in this last Breeders' Cup. There's no way in the world anyone could call a magnificent performance like that a "losing" one. That race still broke my heart, though. To again borrow Poe's words:
"Ah, dream too bright to last!
Ah, starry Hope! that didst arise
But to be overcast!
A voice from out the Future cries,
'On! on!'--but o'er the Past
(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies
Mute, motionless, aghast!"

17. edgar allan poe voting scandal

I assume you're referring to the legend that Poe was "cooped," i.e., drugged and forced to vote in Baltimore's election numerous times, and that this impolite treatment led to his death. I've never been able to put much stock in this tale (although I'm sure the sheer perversity of the claim would have amused Poe himself enormously,) but a remarkable number of Baltimoreans, including Neilson Poe, were convinced it was the truth. In any case, it says much for Poe's life history that this is far from the weirdest story told about him.

18. what kind of man was edgar allen poe's father?

There is not enough information available about David Poe to say for certain. The little we have about him gives the impression of an obnoxious jerk with a drinking problem, but we simply don't know if that's a fair assessment. He also has the reputation of having been a mediocre actor, but Edgar's biographer Arthur H. Quinn argued that the fact that David Poe consistently found work--often in major roles--suggests he had more talent than is generally believed. And, of course, it's anyone's guess where or how or when he died. All in all, the man is a puzzle.

Another strange thing about David Poe: Edgar had a sentimental affection for the memory of his mother, Eliza Arnold Poe, and took pride in being the son of a performer of beauty and talent. However, he gave no sign of having the least interest in his father--even though he lived for years with David's sister Maria. This may have been because he was aware of the stories that David deserted his wife and young children, but, again, who knows?

19. letter to maria clemm hidden message

I have no idea what this message might have been, but I'm praying it wasn't a marriage proposal.

20. evidence poe died because of gas lighting

You might want to read this article, if you haven't already. In short, it indicates that while Poe was exposed to a high level of heavy metal exposure while he lived in New York City, largely due to exposure to gas, these levels dropped after his move to Fordham, which did not have such illumination. In any case, if gas lighting was enough to kill you, I presume most of the civilized world of that period would have dropped down dead.

Speaking of that article, is anyone else disturbed by the amount of various poisons found in Virginia's hair? I'm hardly an expert in such matters, but considering she was already weakened by tuberculosis, it does not seem improbable those toxins would have done something to hasten her death. I'd be curious to hear a professional opinion on the subject. I'd also be curious to know exactly how all those poisons got into her system.

21. edgar allen poe irresponsible family man?

Oh, please don't tell me you've been reading "Poe & Fanny." Or its equally notorious inspiration, "Plumes in the Dust." (I'd love to once write what I really think of those two books, and all the damage they caused to what little personal reputation Poe had left, not to mention the damage they caused to standards of scholarship and good writing--Undine's curse, indeed--but I don't care to get this blog deleted.) In reality, while Poe couldn't be called the world's greatest provider--something which was largely no fault of his own--he took his responsibilities to his wife and mother-in-law very seriously, and, in his admittedly offbeat fashion, always tried his best for them.

22. edgar allan poe's daughter

See #21 above. Trust me in this: He never had one.

John Evangelist Walsh has a good deal to answer for.

23. did poe come to saratoga?

Glad you asked. Read this, and marvel at the Creation of a Poe Legend. These fables about his Saratoga jaunts have always particularly annoyed me, because they are usually repeated as hard fact. Rather like the myth that Fanny Osgood was estranged from her husband.

Trying to refute Poe Mythology is like battling the Hydra.

24. neal songy edgard

Undine ponders, weak and weary.

25. marai clemm's riddles

On second thought, forget the aspirin. How about a bottle of a nice Merlot?

(Header images: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Quote of the Day

Horace Greeley and Edgar Allan Poe
"Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman? Of course, you have heard it rumored that she is to marry Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and--you know what Poe is. Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction. Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her..."
-letter of Horace Greeley to Rufus W. Griswold, Jan. 21, 1849

This is one of those quotations which, even though it has appeared in print since 1898, has been almost completely ignored by Poe scholars, likely because it does not, as the saying goes, "fit the narrative." Kenneth Silverman, in fact, repeats this quote in his biography of Poe--but omits that crucial last sentence.

This letter of Greeley's--someone who did not know Poe well, but was close to both Griswold and Frances S. Osgood--is proof that at least some of Poe's contemporaries did not regard his relationship with Mrs. Osgood as a "flirtation," a "romantic friendship," a "sentimental friendship," or even any sort of friendship at all! Greeley's testimony suggests that at least after the uproar centered around Poe and Elizabeth F. Ellet, a period when Greeley, in another letter, described Poe as having "scandalized"--in other words, antagonized or offended--both Ellet and Osgood, Poe and Frances were known to be on the outs. Why else would Greeley name Mrs. Osgood as a suitable agent to poison Mrs. Whitman's mind against Poe? (I have written a great deal about the Poe/Osgood relationship on this blog--normal people would probably say way too much--but I have dealt specifically with this unreported aspect of their history here and here.)

How, with letters like this in existence, along with all the other hints suggesting a very real enmity between Poe and Frances Osgood, can his biographers continue to assert without qualification that there was a warm affection between them that lasted until his death?

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Poe in 1844

"In truth, the man who would behold aright the glory of God upon earth must in solitude behold that glory."
-"The Island of the Fay"

"For the heart whose woes are legion
'Tis a peaceful, soothing region--
For the spirit that walks in shadow
'Tis--oh 'tis an Eldorado!"

In April of 1844, Poe and his family moved from Philadelphia to New York City. Urban life was never to the liking of any of the trio (and Poe immediately developed a particular distaste for Gotham,) so soon afterwards they retreated to the country. They found lodgings in the home of Patrick Brennan and his family, who lived on a 200-acre dairy farm, on what later became Eighty-fourth Street and Broadway. In Poe's time, however, it was about five miles from the heart of the city, a charming rustic retreat full of ponds, hills, and forests near the Hudson River. He and his family occupied a spacious double room on the second story of the house, with two large windows that faced the Hudson (we are told that in the evenings, Poe and Virginia enjoyed sitting by these windows to watch the sun set over the river,) and two toward the East. During the day, Poe, along with his wife and mother-in-law, used the larger bedroom as an all-purpose living room, with Mrs. Clemm retiring to the smaller room at night.Edgar Allan Poe and the Brennan Farm where he wrote The RavenThe solitude and quiet of the farm was exactly to Poe's liking. The Brennan's eldest daughter Martha, who was a child of about ten during his stay in the household, later described the poet as a "shy, solitary, taciturn sort of man, fond of rambling down in the woods, between the house and the river, and sitting for hours upon a certain stump on the edge of the bank of the river." Another favorite spot was "Mount Tom," an immense rock in Riverside Park, where he would sit silently for hours gazing out at the Hudson.

In September of that year, he contentedly wrote his friend Frederick W. Thomas that he was "playing the hermit in earnest," that for months he had not even spoken to anyone outside his family. It is most likely that "The Raven" was composed, or at the very least perfected, in these tranquil surroundings. Mrs. Brennan later recalled him reading the poem to her after it was completed, and the sheer lack of drama in her account gives it credibility.The Raven Edgar Allan PoeIt has also been observed that his stories which were probably written during his stay with the Brennans, such as "The Angel of the Odd," and "The Literary Life of Thingum-Bob" are notable for their playful amiability--a quality not normally associated with his writings.

Poe's months of self-imposed retirement on the farm have a peculiar charm and fascination for me, because they give the impression of an interregnum in his harried life; a rare taste of peace. During the increasingly grim four years he experienced afterwards, the Brennan home must have seemed in retrospect like Arnheim itself. I instinctively sense he was happy there--and happiness certainly is a rare commodity in his biography.

Unfortunately, his seclusion during this period means that few details of it remain. Our main source of information comes from brief accounts given by members of the Brennan family to various journalists and biographers. Martha Brennan said Poe was kindly towards children, and that she would sit on the floor of his room at his feet and arrange his manuscripts. She could never understand his habit of turning the written pages toward the floor, and she would insist on reversing them and putting the pages in their proper order. Martha and her mother Mary also described him as "the gentlest of husbands and devoted to his invalid wife."

It was Mary Brennan who gave the most detailed description of Poe in late 1844. She recalled him as "eccentric" and reticent, but very good-natured and courteous, and that her relations with him and his family "were of the pleasantest nature." Mrs. Brennan, who was a strict prohibitionist, added that when she knew him, she would never have dreamed that he ever had a problem with liquor. Whatever illnesses he had during that time of his life were, she averred, due to "the great care he so cheerfully and untiringly bestowed upon his wife," which "greatly undermined his constitution." She assumed he must have acquired the liquor habit after his wife's death, as she had never heard, even by rumor, of his having a problem with alcohol before that loss.

She testified that Poe seldom left the farm, with Mrs. Clemm generally taking his manuscripts to the publishers. He was modest about his writings, she said, never referring to them. Like her daughter, Mrs. Brennan described him as spending much of his time wandering through the woods, lost in thought, or sitting for hours on a stone, "tapping the ground with a small stick." Afterwards, he would retire to his room for days, writing down whatever he had been thinking about with such intensity.

Mrs. Brennan described Virginia as "a slight little woman, but very beautiful." She was, however, so frail that Poe sometimes had to carry her up and down stairs. Their landlady said of Poe and his wife that "the most loving relations subsisted between them...They never quarreled, and he never addressed her except in the most endearing terms. He used to call her 'Diddie' [sic] and she would call him 'Darling,' and they both addressed Mrs. Clemm as 'Muddie.'" She also said that the floor of Poe and Virginia's bedroom was generally completely strewn with manuscripts. She recalled one in particular that stretched across the entire room, with the pages held down by large stones which Poe had gathered from the yard.

The Poes probably lodged with the Brennans until about February of 1845, when his duties at the "Broadway Journal" necessitated a return to the metropolis, although some sources indicated that they did not move into the city until spring. (As I mentioned in an earlier post, they probably made a brief return to the Brennan household in the spring of 1846, just before their move to Fordham.) The farmhouse itself--which was very old even in Poe's time--was torn down in 1888, and now, of course, the area is completely unrecognizable from what he knew. (The site now hosts a coffeehouse called--but of course--"Edgar's Cafe." If anyone reading this is ever in the neighborhood of 255 W. 84th Street, it would be nice if you could stop by and have a bite to eat on his behalf.)

When the Brennan house was demolished, an enterprising Poe enthusiast rescued the mantel from what had been Poe and Virginia's room, and later donated it to Columbia University. The University eventually mounted it in their Carpenter Library with a plaque identifying it as "the mantel before which E.A. Poe wrote 'The Raven.'"The Raven on the bust of Pallas Edgar Allan Poe

(Images: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Update: Since writing the above post, I've learned that Edgar's Cafe is, alas, no more, yet another victim of a bad economy. Ave atque vale.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In Defense of Maria Clemm (Part Three)

Rufus W Griswold and Edgar Allan Poe New York Public Library4. Mrs. Clemm's fourth and final affront against the sensibilities of the biographers is the fact that she allowed Rufus W. Griswold to serve as Poe's literary executor. We will never know how Griswold got that fatal task--as so often happens in Poe's history, everyone involved offered completely different and utterly incompatible explanations, leaving the truth hopelessly buried. The Lewises, however--"Stella" was already angling for Griswold to become her next literary patron--clearly played a central, and quite sinister, role in it all. (Mr. Lewis acted as Mrs. Clemm's legal advisor, and Mrs. Lewis proudly took "credit" for enlisting Griswold on the dead poet's behalf.) Mrs. Clemm stated afterwards that Poe had not intended that Griswold be his executor, but she never made it clear what, if any, plans he had made in that respect.

What often gets overlooked is that Griswold's appointment as executor was disastrous only in retrospect. At the time of Poe's death, he and Griswold had been on outwardly amicable terms for some time. Griswold, in his usual oily fashion, had managed to bamboozle Mrs. Clemm (and other people as well) into thinking he was not unfriendly towards her son. And Griswold may have been a shameless and mediocre literary hack, but he was a highly successful and influential one. All in all, he must have seemed to Mrs. Clemm as good a choice to handle Poe's literary estate as anyone.

While the poor woman must gone on to blame herself every day of her life for allowing Griswold anywhere near Poe's legacy, the fact that she did so is completely understandable.

There have been several minor accusations made against Maria Clemm, as well--largely from Annie Richmond and Marie Louise Houghton. These personal resentments were vague and often illogical. We have a letter "Annie" wrote in the early 1850s to Mrs. Houghton--who appears from this document to have been a close personal friend, although oddly neither woman, in their dealings with Poe biographer John H. Ingram, gave any other mention of their relationship. In this letter, "Annie" complains cryptically of Mrs. Clemm having betrayed some sort of secrets or confidences of hers. What these could have been is anybody's guess.

Mrs. Richmond also told Ingram that certain of Poe's letters to her had disappeared, and accused Mrs. Clemm of having stolen them. (When Ingram's bitter biographical rival William Gill published quotes from one of her Poe letters, "Annie" sensed that Ingram resented her collaboration with his enemy. She shiftily excused herself to him by stating that Gill also must have obtained those letters through thievery.) She never made it clear why Poe's aunt would have done such a thing, and her credibility is not enhanced by the fact that, during Mrs. Clemm's lifetime, she wrote to her wailing that a daguerreotype of Poe she owned had disappeared. She declared that someone must have stolen it, and (rather tactlessly) begged Mrs. Clemm to see to it that she (Mrs. Richmond) got Mrs. Clemm's own Poe daguerreotype after she (Mrs. C.) died. As we know Mrs. Richmond had this "stolen" daguerreotype in her possession some years later, her story smacks of either extreme carelessness or suspicious craftiness. At any rate, for all her fondness for back-stabbing Mrs. Clemm, Mrs. Richmond fooled her into thinking she was her warm friend to the end. ("Annie" had hoped to obtain Mrs. Clemm's papers after she died, and grumbled to Ingram about how her husband's illness at the time Poe's aunt passed on prevented her from marching to Baltimore and insisting upon her "claim" to them.)

As for Mrs. Houghton, her bitterness appears to have stemmed from resentment that Mrs. Clemm had not expressed sufficient "gratitude" for all her alleged services to the Poe family. Mrs. Houghton--from what little can be deciphered from her rambling, hysterical and incredibly incoherent letters to Ingram--was indignant that the world was unaware what a Godsend she had been to the Poes, as (she obviously believed) Mrs. Clemm should have told one and all of how much Poe "owed" to her. (At the time Mrs. Houghton was writing to Ingram, she and Mrs. Lewis were locked in a fierce, and most unseemly competition. Each lady was desperate to convince Poe's biographer that she herself--and not the other woman--had been Poe's chief "benefactress.") Mrs. Houghton also made some disparaging remarks about Mrs. Clemm's "worldly wisdom." Rather perversely, she went on to imply that Poe's aunt was to blame for their indigence because she had too much pride to admit to anyone the family was in need of charity, which hardly seems to indicate "worldliness."

Sarah Helen Whitman once said that Frances S. Osgood had told her that Mrs. Clemm was nothing but a thorn in Poe's side, and was always getting him into difficulties. Whether Osgood actually said such a thing is unknown, but if she did it shows that her claims of being so friendly with the Poe family were self-serving lies. Whitman herself made it clear she was dubious about the truth of this remark. She stated that to her, Poe had always spoken of his aunt with the greatest love and gratitude for the devoted care she had given him and Virginia. Indeed, everyone else who knew Poe unanimously agreed this was his attitude--an attitude they also agreed was entirely justified, as the poor man would not have lasted five minutes in the world without her mothering. In spite of all the poverty and discord of Poe's life, Mrs. Clemm always managed somehow to provide him with a stable, affectionate, comforting home life that was his one refuge from the world. Without her and Virginia, Poe would undoubtedly have met a far earlier, and even worse end than he did.

All in all, Mrs. Clemm's accusers wind up looking far worse than their target.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, Mrs. Clemm had her flaws. In her long battles with the world, she could be insincere, manipulative, even exploitative towards anyone who could provide aid and comfort to her family. In the long "lonesome latter years" after Poe's death, she usually comes off as self-pitying and lugubrious--although God knows she had justification. However, I know of no instance where she was proven to be deliberately harmful or hurtful to anyone--no matter how they may have deserved it. While Edgar and Virginia lived, Mrs. Clemm was invariably described as a cheerful, dignified, remarkably capable, very motherly woman whose devotion to her "children" was completely unselfish and virtually limitless. Everything she did, however questionable, was done for her loved ones, and given the odds against her, she managed to do an impressive amount. The woman was a survivor if ever there was one. As Edward Wagenknecht said, "she was as immovable as the hills and as tireless as the sea; no human being was ever more faithful to those who put their trust in her."

It's rather a pity that when the Civil War broke out, neither side thought to make her a General. If they had, whichever army she served would have won the conflict within a week.

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Monday, November 1, 2010

In Defense of Maria Clemm (Part Two of Three)

2. The next indictment against Mrs. Clemm centers around The Purloined Book. From what we know of this strange and poorly-defined story, when the Poes were living in Philadelphia early in 1844, Poe mentioned to his friend Henry B. Hirst that, for reference purposes, he needed a certain volume of the "Southern Literary Messenger." Hirst said that a friend of his named William Duane had a copy of the book in question. According to Poe, he wanted to ask Duane himself for a loan of the book, but Hirst, for some mysterious reason, insisted on acting as go-between in the transaction. When the Poe family moved to New York City in April of 1844, Edgar and Virginia went on ahead to find lodgings for the three of them, leaving Mrs. Clemm in Philadelphia to close up their house and settle any unfinished business. Among this business was the task of returning the "Messenger" volume to Hirst. The true subsequent chain of events is something we will never know, but the upshot was that Duane claimed the book was never returned to him. Mrs. Clemm evidently insisted that she had gone to Hirst's office with the volume, but as he was not in at the time, she left it with someone else there. Duane said he eventually tracked it to a bookseller in Richmond--the inference being that Mrs. Clemm, instead of returning the book, had merely sold it. Also according to Duane--we have remarkably little in this story directly from Edgar or his mother-in-law--Poe later discovered Mrs. Clemm's error, and was thoroughly ashamed of having sent Duane a stinging letter defending her veracity. (We have no other evidence Poe truly expressed such remorse.)

It is remarkable how this petty little story has somehow, in Poe's biography, been magnified to the status of scandal, if not outright felony. Even though everyone who writes about the incident assumes that Mrs. Clemm was lying about returning the book, and that she sold it either through carelessness or cupidity, I see no reason for that assumption. For all we know, she did indeed deposit the book in Hirst's office, and that it wound up in this bookstore though some sort of shenanigans there. She would hardly have been stupid enough to knowingly sell a book she knew belonged to someone else, (particularly since it had Duane's name on it,) and if she disposed of it through an innocent accident, she had no reason not to say so. In any case, the entire brouhaha revolves around a book that was worth a grand total of five dollars. The fact that nearly everyone from that time to this has behaved as though the theft of the Crown Jewels was involved is frankly baffling, and suggests either that there was some sort of "hidden history" to the whole affair of which we know nothing, or that Poe's antagonists have always been simply desperate to use any weapon they can to send him and his family into disrepute. (According to biographer Arthur H. Quinn, wildly exaggerated versions of this dispute were used for years afterward to sully Poe's reputation. This suggests that there was indeed some sort of strange orchestration against him in the matter. One would very much like to know why Hirst insisted in the first place on playing the middleman in this seemingly trivial loan.)

3. The next black mark on Mrs. Clemm's record comes from her association with a wealthy lawyer named Sylvanus Lewis and his wife, an untalented but alarmingly ambitious poetess named Sarah Anna, who eventually opted to be known as the more glamorous "Stella." Mrs. Lewis--a lady who comes off as a cross between Tallulah Bankhead and a slow-witted but particularly dangerous piranha--made the acquaintance of (or, to be more precise, latched her claws into) Poe by late 1846/early 1847, the nightmare period right before and immediately following Virginia's death. Marie Louise Shew Houghton and her friend Mary Gove Nichols both claimed that Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Clemm had a blatant "quid pro quo" deal where the Lewises would give the Poes money in exchange for Edgar rewriting Mrs. Lewis' output in order to (as John H. Ingram put it) "transform the lady's commonplace verses into some semblance of poetry," and writing glowing reviews of her work for the magazines. (Mrs. Lewis also had the dubious honor of inspiring Poe's worst poem, "An Enigma.")An Enigma Edgar Allan PoeAssuming such a "deal" took place, it is odd that they allowed outsiders like Houghton and Nichols to be aware of it. Surely, this mutually embarrassing arrangement would be something all parties involved would want kept extremely private. Poe, these two tattling busybodies stated, loathed Mrs. Lewis (a sentiment, it must be said, shared by absolutely everyone who knew her,) but he felt he had no choice but to become her cat's paw.

This is a distressing story indeed, but not half as distressing as the air of smug moral superiority adopted by nearly every biographer who mentions it. If Mrs. Clemm did accept such a deal, it was only out of sheer desperation. Her daughter was dying, her son ill, hounded by enemies, and on the verge of a breakdown, all of which made it impossible for him to consistently earn even a bare living. In that pre-welfare, pre-unemployment benefits era, homelessness and starvation were not outlandish prospects for the family. Mrs. Clemm was the only thing keeping the trio afloat during this period, and she had to make full use of the very, very few options for survival she had. Needs must, when the devil drives. If, thanks to her and Mrs. Lewis, Poe was compelled to act as "Stella's" paid pet critic, it was certainly unfortunate, but hardly illegal, or even, considering the literary mores of the time, unusual. The self-righteous condemnations of Poe and Mrs. Clemm for acquiescing in this pitiful little charade also ignore the fact that, if he had been so unwilling to temporarily compromise literary principles for the sake of keeping loved ones from dire want, that would have made him a monster.

Mary Gove Nichols and Edgar Allan PoeIn her 1863 "Reminiscences of Poe," Mary Gove Nichols related an alleged conversation with Poe in late 1846 that touched upon his distasteful relations with the Lewises. Nichols' stories about Poe are decidedly untrustworthy--she was one of the multitude that Ingram classified as genus imaginative--but whether Poe actually uttered these words or not, they serve as an unanswerable defense of his painful position.

In response to Nichols' question whether reviewers "sell their literary conscience," she has Poe reply:
"'A literary critic must be loth to violate his taste, his sense of the fit and the beautiful. To sin against these, and praise an unworthy author, is to him an unpardonable sin. But if he were placed on the rack, or if one he loved better than his own life were writhing there, I can conceive of his forging a note against the Bank of Fame, in favour of some would-be poetess, who is able and willing to buy his poems and opinions.'"

"He turned almost fiercely upon me, his fine eyes piercing me, 'Would you blame a man for not allowing his sick wife to starve?' said he."

In Part Three: The Griswold Connection

Monday, October 25, 2010

In Defense of Maria Clemm (Part One of Three)

Maria ClemmPoe's aunt/mother-in-law is often nearly as disparaged, albeit for different reasons, as her beloved "Eddie." Poe's early biographer John H. Ingram was the pioneer in this field--largely because he found Mrs. Clemm a convenient scapegoat for her nephew's problems. In our day, Poe specialists Thomas O. Mabbott, John Carl Miller, and Burton R. Pollin, in particular, have denounced the woman with a cruelty and sheer illogicality that forces one to suspect that they were grappling with unresolved and unpleasant "mother issues" of their own. The dislike such men have for her appears to stem from simple--dare I say it?--misogyny. Mabbott in particular stressed that his distaste for her largely arose from the fact that Maria Clemm was a physically unattractive, mannish sort who was indisputably the master of the house. (Both Mabbott and Pollin made it clear that their tastes ran to cutesy, childish balls of fluff like Frances S. Osgood.) These writers assume Poe himself at heart shared their resentment of "Muddy" and her take-charge character, without providing one atom of evidence this was the case. Mrs. Clemm was hardly a saint, but saints have a very low survival rate in our world, and most of this woman's long life was one constant, single-handed battle for survival--not for herself, but for the only two people she loved and who loved her.

The outline of her life is a starkly simple one. This sister of Edgar Poe's father David was born in Baltimore on March 17, 1790. In 1817 she married William Clemm, the widower of her first cousin Harriet Poe. (As a side note, those who look askance at Edgar's marriage to his first cousin should note that in those times intermarriage within clans was commonplace.) Maria and William had three children: Henry, Virginia Sarah or Virginia Maria (who died at the age of two,) and Virginia Eliza. William Clemm died in 1826, leaving both his families (he had five children from his first marriage) virtually nothing.

Although we do not know why, Maria's relatives evidently so disapproved of her marriage that they offered little help in her widowhood. Adding to her burdens was the fact that around this time she took responsibility for nursing her mother Elizabeth, a bedridden invalid. Elizabeth Poe received a small government pension, which Maria supplemented by taking on whatever work, such as washing and sewing, that she could find. She may have worked as a schoolteacher at some point, but as there was another Maria Clemm living in Baltimore at that time, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the two women in the available city records. At some point in the late 1820s, her family gained the addition of her nephew William Henry Leonard Poe. This likely was of no help to her, as W.H.L. was reportedly a sickly, hard-drinking, and quite useless young man. Her only biological son, Henry, went to sea at some point during this period, and evidently never returned. Family legend said he died young during one of his voyages, but we have no details of when and how he died. For all her preoccupation with Edgar and Virginia, Maria Clemm herself left no known mention of Henry at all, which is one of the biggest peculiarities in her entire biography.

Edgar visited the household in 1829 (and possibly earlier, in 1827 and/or1828.) Sometime just before or after William Henry's death in August 1831, he moved in with the little family, inaugurating a long and remarkably close bond with his aunt and little cousin. In July 1835 Maria's mother died. Most unfortunately, her pension, which, meagre as it was, provided a crucial support for the household, died with her. The next month, Edgar went to Richmond to pursue some much-needed regular employment. He appears to have hoped to find a teaching position, but instead found a position at Thomas W. White's "Southern Literary Messenger." Maria and her daughter joined him there that October, and in the following May he and Virginia married. From that time until the deaths of Virginia in 1847 and Edgar two years later, the three were, through thick and thin (and Lord knows there was enough of the latter) almost literally inseparable.

Edgar's death left Maria completely adrift, both financially and emotionally. The fifty-nine year old woman found herself not only without monetary resources, but without a reason to live. For the past twenty years, her entire existence centered around taking care of her "two strange children," (as Mary Gove Nichols dubbed them.) Without them, she had no idea what to do with herself. She lived a sad, nomadic existence, living mostly with a succession of friends or Poe admirers, drifting rather aimlessly until 1863, when she entered the Episcopal Church Home in Baltimore. She died there in February 1871.

The condescending, if not overtly hostile, attitude so many Poe biographers have towards this remarkably unfortunate woman stems from four major charges:

1. The claim that she (through some sort of occult means never really defined) somehow "forced" or "pressured" Edgar into marrying her daughter. This is perhaps the ugliest story Susan Archer Talley Weiss ever unleashed upon the world, and is one of the easiest to refute.

Neither Weiss nor the subsequent biographers who mindlessly parroted her ever decided why, precisely, Maria Clemm risked ruining the lives of her much-loved nephew and her idolized only daughter by arranging a coerced marriage that was bound to bring misery to them both. Sometimes, it is claimed that it was because Virginia was so wildly infatuated with her cousin that her mother feared for her physical and emotional health if she did not immediately become his bride. Or it was because Maria herself wished to secure Edgar as a meal ticket. (If this was the case, Poe biographer Edward Wagenknecht dryly observed, she must have been painfully disappointed.) Or it was to keep him from marrying Thomas W. White's daughter Eliza. Or she "made the match" simply because that would allow Edgar and Virginia to share one bedroom, rather than using two separate ones, thus making their lives in the boardinghouse more economical. (I swear, I am not making that last one up.)

It has also often been suggested that Mrs. Clemm "brokered" the marriage in order to keep their little family together, which is truly peculiar reasoning. They were already together as a family, and had been for years. There was no reason why Poe could not continue living with and/or supporting his aunt and her young daughter, without having the additional, essentially superfluous, tie of marriage to bind them. And if, as so many assume, Mrs. Clemm felt this need to exploit her daughter in order to gain financial security, why didn't she cast Virginia's lot with the more prosperous and stable Neilson Poe when given the opportunity? As biographer William Bittner put it, with, perhaps, unnecessary frankness: "The only reason they could have had for getting married was that they wanted to go to bed together."

As I have said several times before, this sordid "forced marriage" legend is singlehandedly destroyed by a letter Edgar wrote Maria and Virginia from Richmond late in August of 1835. This letter proves that when he left Baltimore in search of steady employment, he already saw Virginia as his "darling little wifey," and that, instead of being manipulated into this marriage, he was terrified "my own sweetest Sissy" might be persuaded to postpone their wedding, or even call it off altogether. Reading between the lines, it is clear that if anyone had any doubts about the planned marriage, it was Maria herself. The fact that so many still insistently cling to Weiss' story is simply incomprehensible.

In Part Two: More dirt will be dished.

(Image of Maria Clemm via Library of Congress)

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Many Faces of Virginia Poe

"When a man makes up his mind without evidence, no evidence disproving his opinion will change his mind."
-Robert A. Heinlein
Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe deathbed portraitThe only likeness of Virginia Clemm Poe with any claims to authenticity is the famous "deathbed portrait," a watercolor presumably painted immediately after her death. Even this picture has a number of question marks surrounding it. The portrait--which was not made public until 1893--was said to be in the possession of her mother Maria Clemm, who evidently bequeathed it to the family of her relative Neilson Poe, which suggests it is genuine. However, we have no information about when and by whom the painting was done (there is no basis for the speculation that the portrait, which is obviously the work of a professional artist, was executed by Marie Louise Shew,) or whether the picture is even a good likeness.

It would be odd if Virginia, who had grown very thin and slight during her long battle with tuberculosis, had been as facially plump as the girl in the portrait. The painting shows a young woman with hazel eyes, when the most reliable descriptions give Virginia's eyes as unusually large and very dark. Also, one of the few areas of consensus among Poe's contemporaries is that Virginia was very beautiful, even until the time of her death. The portrait depicts someone who, while pleasant-looking, could hardly be called lovely, or even noticeably pretty. It may be that this painting was not done from an "in-person" view of Virginia, but merely from a description of her provided to the artist.

Given the unsatisfactory nature of this portrait, it is not surprising that a number of attempts have been made to find a "from-life" image of Poe's wife. There are three pictures in particular that in recent years have often been presented as authentic portraits of Virginia. Unfortunately, there is no solid reason in the world to think they have any connection with her at all.

The first of these I discussed in an earlier post. It is one of three drawings that in 1930 were sold as artwork done by Poe himself. The sketches were immediately unmasked as forgeries, but that has not prevented them from having a surprisingly persistent circulation.

The second image is an oil painting of a young woman holding flowers that first surfaced in 1929. (It can be seen here.) It appeared as part of an art collection sold by the widow of an Englishman named Joseph Thomas Scott. Mrs. Scott claimed that he acquired the painting during a visit to the United States sometime in the 1870s, and that it "was always said to represent Virginia Clemm." Mrs. Scott had no documentation for this claim, and she wrote several letters dealing with this painting that are suspiciously contradictory in their details. (When Richmond's Poe Museum was invited in the 1930s to buy the portrait, they declined because of the impossibility of authenticating the work.) Later, it was suggested that the picture--which is unsigned--had been done by Thomas Sully.

Sully has a place all to himself in the incredibly large world of bogus Poe pictures. Poe was reputedly a boyhood friend of the artist's nephew, a less-talented painter named Robert Sully--although it should be noted Robert was six years Poe's senior, and nearly all we know about this "friendship" comes to us via Susan Archer Talley Weiss. However, there is no evidence that Poe and Thomas Sully even met. Art historian Michael Deas, in his book "The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe," noted that although Thomas Sully left an enormous amount of documentation about his life and work, including portrait registers, diaries, letters, and autobiographical manuscripts, Poe's name is never so much as mentioned in any of them. Poe himself left no known indication that he knew either of the Sullys, much less that he or his wife may have sat for either of them. Despite this, over the years a number of anonymous portraits of dark-haired men--most of which bear not the faintest resemblance to Poe--have been hopefully labeled as "Poe by Sully" artwork. (Deas devoted an entire section of his book to the long and strange history of faux Poe portraiture.) It is most likely that this "Virginia portrait" is merely a way of giving Poe's wife equal time in the spurious picture sweepstakes.

Some have thought the portrait is modelled after Sully's style, (which would not be surprising, as he was one of the most popular artists of his day,) but even that has been debated. The girl in the picture bears a vague general resemblance to the one in the "deathbed portrait" (although this oil painting is so stylized it is hard to be certain.) However, the lack of provenance for the painting, and the complete absence of any evidence linking it to either Poe or Sully, makes it impossible to put trust in its authenticity.

The third "Virginia portrait" (which can be seen here) surfaced only a few years ago, in the possession of a descendant of Virginia's cousin Elizabeth Herring. This portrait, as well, suffers from a complete lack of documentation, other than this descendant's unverifiable assertion that she had always been "told" it was of Virginia. It is--like the other two paintings--unsigned, and, except for a stamp on the back reading "Richmond, Virginia," unlabeled. It has been conjectured that the painting was done during the brief period Edgar and Virginia lived in Richmond, possibly by--inevitably--Thomas or Robert Sully. Again, we do not have a shadow of proof this is the case. The woman in the portrait does not bear much resemblance to either the "deathbed portrait" or the Joseph Thomas Scott painting, and she looks too mature to have been Virginia, who was only fourteen when she left Richmond for good in early 1837. It seems far more logical that the sitter is another relative, possibly Elizabeth Herring herself. (When Herring married in 1834, she moved to her husband's hometown in Virginia. It is not improbable that during her marriage, she went to Richmond to have her portrait done.)

In 1970, the auction house of Adam A. Weschler & Son, Inc. offered for sale a miniature painting by an unknown artist that was described as a portrait of Virginia Clemm. I have been unable to trace any other mention of this picture (Michael Deas seemed unaware of its existence,) which suggests its genuineness was also highly suspect.

What is also telling against the authenticity of these pictures is the simple fact that there is absolutely no contemporary evidence of any life portrait or daguerreotype of Virginia. In the years following Poe's death, as his legend grew, his biographers and other admirers were understandably eager to find images of his young and beautiful wife. Although their quest for pictures of Virginia was well-publicized, not one of her friends or relatives--including members of the Herring family (who had been contacted by many of these Poe collectors)--were able to offer anything other than the "deathbed portrait." And if either of the Sullys--or any other artist--did paint Virginia, why did they not sign any of these portraits? Why would they fail to leave any sort of documentation at all that they had the honor of creating an image of Poe's wife?

It is natural that Poe scholars would be anxious to uncover representations of the living Virginia. I'd love to see one myself. However, that cannot blind anyone to the fact that these pictures that have emerged--charming to look at as they are--simply cannot be treated as trustworthy likenesses.

A postscript: Undoubtedly, the strangest contribution to the list of dubious images of Virginia--indeed, one of the strangest contributions to Poe "scholarship" in general--was made by J.H. Whitty and Thomas O. Mabbott. (That pair managed, between them, to be responsible for an astonishing number of the loonier myths about Poe.) At some point in the early 20th century, Whitty came to fancy--no one has the slightest idea how--that Poe, his wife (and Mrs. Clemm!) modeled for "fashion plates" published in "Graham's Magazine." Mabbott, who had been something of a protégé of Whitty's (which explains a lot about him,) took up the idea, even though he could never decide which "Graham's" engraving he thought may contain likenesses of the trio. He also never succeeded in formulating a reason why he imagined Poe and his womenfolk had served as models, other than weak mutterings about "vague tradition" and "probability of appearance." (Even though, in the same breath, he said that "I am not sure we should call these things portraits.")

If there is anything that illustrates the generally pathetic state of Poe research, this is it. Whitty and Mabbott, two men who--Heaven knows why--are considered among the leading Poe scholars, invented out of thin air a story that is ludicrous on its face and that has absolutely no evidence to support it. There is no "tradition"--vague or otherwise--that the Poe household ever posed as antebellum centerfolds, and the wooden, generic figures depicted in the "Graham's" engravings do not even show the slightest resemblance to the trio, or anyone else for that matter. (An obviously bemused Michael Deas commented, "It is almost needless to add that Edgar and Virginia Poe would seem odd choices for fashion models.")Graham's Magazine and Edgar Allan PoeWhen it is also considered that Poe is on record as stating that one of his main reasons for resigning from "Graham's" in 1842 was his "disgust" with the "namby-pamby character of the Magazine," calling particular attention to "the contemptible pictures, fashion plates, music, and love-tales" found therein, one has to wonder if Whitty and Mabbott were secretly staging a Poe-esque hoax on us all. Certainly, that is the kindest explanation of their actions.

("Graham's" engraving that has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe: NYPL Digital Gallery)