Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Poe's "Funeral" One More Time

If you have an interest in the "Edgar Allan Poe Funeral Do-Over" festivities they had in Baltimore awhile back, this lengthy article by Abigail Deutsch is probably the best wrap-up I've seen.

"Nevermoreland." I kinda wish I'd thought of that title.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Ida Grey"

frances osgood ida grey edgar allan poe
One of the articles of faith among modern-day Edgar Allan Poe scholars is that Frances S. Osgood's 1845 short story "Ida Grey" is an autobiographical sketch about her relationship with Poe. I can only assume that everyone who has repeated this legend has never actually read her story.

This view of "Ida Grey" as some sort of roman-a-clef originated with James H. Whitty, in the early 1900s. Whitty was one of the stranger and more fraudulent Poe enthusiasts. He had a mania for presenting "new" or "previously unnoticed" or "unpublished" Poe-related anecdotes or documents, and he didn't seem to give two hoots whether any of it was true. Even Thomas O. Mabbott--a model of credulity who accepted the most ludicrous material relating to Poe--had to acknowledge that Whitty was in the habit of mixing fact with fancy in a very peculiar way. In short, his notable contributions to the tsunami of stupidity that has swamped Poe scholarship makes Whitty a leading nominee for the Robins Award.

"Ida Grey" is a brief, plotless sketch, told mainly through the title character's fevered entries in her journal. It opens with a lengthy description of the protagonist, a beautiful twenty-four year-old widow, described by Osgood as "a child," who "seemed to think that the whole world was made for the accommodation and amusement of her own sweet self," but "in spite of her coquetry--her folly--her vanity--her sauciness--she was just the dearest, loveliest and most winning creature that ever breathed the breath of life!" At a party, Ida is introduced to a man (whose name is never given--in fact, we are told virtually nothing about him.) Their interaction is only momentary, the man is "strangely distant," but at first sight, Ida immediately sees that they are soul-mates. "We spoke but a few formal words, and then we parted--parted! ah no! we shall never part again! Our souls are one forever! Yes! cold and careless as he seems, he loves me--or will love me!"

After Ida pens these effusions--which in today's world would undoubtedly earn her a prescription for Valium--well, nothing happens. Her inamorato is married, albeit to a woman who "is cold and does not love him." Ida and Mr. X briefly meet once more, but we are given no description of what, if anything, happened between them. Ida says he wrote her a letter of "almost divine passion," which displeases her. She does not want their love to be an earthly one; rather, they should stay apart, and wait to meet in Heaven. She enters a convent. The end.

It takes a good deal of desperation to apply this silly, eccentrically-written little tale to Osgood and Poe. There are only two links between fact and fiction that anyone has ever been able to present. The first is that a line from "The Raven" is quoted in the beginning of the story (which means little, as Osgood frequently included quotes from fellow writers in both her private letters and her published writings--in fact, "Ida Grey" contains lines from other poets besides Poe.) Osgood's description of the meeting of her fictional couple--where the man is "cold and calm yet courteous" has a faint echo in her 1849 account of her introduction to Poe, who, she wrote, "greeted me calmly, gravely, almost coldly." Even this minor resemblance is rendered irrelevant by the fact that she was a fanciful, but extremely repetitive and unimaginative writer--she tended to use the same few words, themes, imagery, and even names repeatedly--before and after she met Poe. Whitty tried linking this story to an anonymous poem that appeared a few months later in "Graham's Magazine" (which published "Ida.") Whitty attributed this poem, "The Divine Right of Kings," to Poe, and argued it was a "response" to Osgood's story. Unfortunately, as I said in an earlier post, Whitty made this attribution based on his own manufactured evidence, and there is no legitimate reason whatsoever to think "Divine Right of Kings" had anything to do with Poe or "Ida Grey."

Just to round things off, "Ida" appeared in print only four months after Osgood and Poe first met, which makes it strongly possible that the story was written before they were even introduced.

It is hard to relate this story to reality. Osgood, of course, was a plain, happily-married mother in her mid-thirties, not an alluring twentysomething widow. Poe could never be described as someone with a cold, unloving wife--in fact, everyone who knew Virginia Poe noted how ardently she was devoted to her strange spouse. What is most overlooked, however, is that in "Ida Grey," her protagonists have literally no relationship. Their "love" is presented entirely as a figment of Ida's fantasies. She has two brief, inconsequential meetings with Dream-Man, where they barely even speak, and then she retreats from the world forever. The "love story" is described only through Ida's journal entries, which consist of her hysterical ramblings picturing the love they will share in the "soul world." (The entire story, like most of Osgood's prose writings, has a creepily hallucinatory air.) There is no real-world, in-person interaction between the pair. The whole story reads like the delusions of a crazed obsessed fan, and at the end, you seriously expect to learn that Ida wound up not in a convent, but in a madhouse. Ironically, if Osgood did intend the story to stand as an allegory for her association with Poe, she only proved that there was no real relationship between them at all.

The only evidence that any of Osgood's contemporaries took any notice of her weird little yarn comes from one of the letters Poe allegedly wrote to Sarah Helen Whitman. She had apparently asked where she could find Osgood's story, for the letter replied briefly that, "Mrs. O's 'Ida Grey' is in 'Graham' for August-45." That is all the letter says about the story. We have no idea why Mrs. Whitman would ask about "Ida Grey"--there is no record of her ever mentioning it to anyone, even though she frequently alluded to Osgood (not always in the most complimentary fashion) in her extensive correspondence. The query is mildly intriguing, but it is impossible to know what significance, if any, can be made of it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Sometime next month, an author named Lenore Hart will be presenting the world with yet another Poe novel, "Nevermore." From the description, it will have Virginia Poe narrating the inside scoop on what it was like being married to Big Guy.

I'm unfamiliar with Hart's work, so I have no idea what to expect. For all I know, I'll love it. I sincerely hope that at least this will not be merely the latest stinker in the long and largely horrifying history of Poe-oriented fiction. However, I must say the fact that Hart evidently couldn't come up with a more unique title doesn't make me very sanguine. (How many novels and plays about Poe have been called "Nevermore?" Thirty thousand? Forty?) Ah, well, let's hope for the best.

(Just please, Lord, don't let this be another "Poe & Fanny"...)

Update: Hart's novel is now to be called "The Raven's Bride," and is now scheduled to be out Feb. 2011. (That title was actually used a few years ago for a historical novel about Sam Houston's wife, but it's still a decided step up on the originality scale from "Nevermore.")The Raven's Bride a novel about Virginia Clemm PoeLet's keep our fingers crossed about this one. Believe it or not, I get tired of posting nothing but testy one and two-star reviews on Amazon about these seemingly endless piles of lousy Poe books. It would be nice for a change to have a good word about something. It'd certainly do wonders for my blood pressure.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Quote of the Day

Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman
"There is so much that is strange and almost incredible in our brief acquaintance that it must seem to one not acquainted with the private history of this epoch of his [Poe's] life apocryphal."
-Sarah Helen Whitman, trying to make sense of it all in a letter to John H. Ingram, March 17, 1874

You said it, lady.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Valentines

Valentine by Virginia Clemm PoeBaltimore's Enoch Pratt Library houses what is described as the "original manuscript" of Edgar Allan Poe's 1846 Valentine poem to Frances S. Osgood. The same library also has the poem Virginia Poe wrote to her husband, which is dated the day after the Osgood Valentine. Now, I'm not a professional handwriting expert, but I wish someone else would take a close look at this and this. Can I possibly be the only one who thinks that the handwriting in the "Osgood manuscript" is very much like Virginia's? Not to mention the fact that both poems are written on the same flower-embossed stationary (which hardly seems like the sort of paper a man would use.) The body of the Osgood poem does not match any accepted specimens of Poe's writing from that period (it certainly does not match the writing in Poe's other manuscript copies of this poem,) and the title and initials "EAP" at the bottom of the document are in a different, more "Poe-like" hand. If Virginia wrote out both poems, it would explain the otherwise inexplicable fact that Mrs. Clemm kept this copy of the Osgood verse among her papers, rather than forwarding it, among with Poe's other literary manuscripts, to Rufus Griswold after her son-in-law's death.

If Virginia did indeed make--and keep--a fair copy of the 1846 version of the Osgood Valentine, it opens the possibility, strange though it may sound, that she composed it, as well. Poe biographer Edward Wagenknecht commented that he doubted Virginia's Valentine to her husband was the only poem she ever composed, and it seems to me that he may have been more accurate than he knew. The sentiments expressed in the Osgood poem are mocking, rather than romantic, and could have been written by a woman as easily as a man. Virginia's authorship would also explain how Osgood's middle name came to be misspelled as "Sergeant" rather than "Sargent." Surely Edgar Poe, with his extensive magazine experience, would not make this mistake about a writer whose full name often appeared in print. In short, these two Valentines invite a certain amount of curiosity about the oft-ignored Mrs. Poe.Poe Valentine to Frances Osgood

(Header image via New York Public Library)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

More Poe-Related Fiction

For the benefit of those who are, as I am, interested in Virginia Poe, S.J. Chambers has written "Of Parallel and Parcel," a quaint and curious story indeed.

I must say that I'm convinced this letter from John Allan's widow never actually existed outside of Marie Louise Shew's extremely strange mind, but nonetheless, I invite you to investigate this little tale--a rarity, as it is told from Virginia's point of view.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Strangest Poe Anecdote Yet

The theory that Edgar Allan Poe was impotent is one of the more unusual canards associated with his name. This notion of his physical inadequacy was first popularized in the 1920s, when the Freudians got their claws into the poor man. They came up with what they liked to think were psychoanalytic interpretations of his stories and poems which "proved" that, for whatever physical or psychological reasons, Poe was unable to have sexual relations. (The limp plumes trailing in the dust in "Ulalume?" Three guesses what that really meant.) This is, of course, an unprovable assertion, but when did little matters like "proof" ever stop your typical Poe biographer?

The closest thing we have to anything approximating evidence for this theory was revealed by a literary critic named John Macy. In 1923, Macy wrote in "The Nation" magazine that a Poe scholar named Charles Richardson, who had known Poe's "Broadway Journal" colleague/personal enemy Charles F. Briggs, had told Macy that Briggs had told him (Richardson) that Poe was impotent. Macy said that in response to the obvious question: Namely, how the devil would Briggs know this?--Richardson admitted he had no idea, but that Briggs seemed quite certain about his claim.charles briggs edgar allan poe impotentThis is interesting, but all too based on hearsay for my liking. It reminds me of the children's game, "Telephone." Macy could have misinterpreted something Richardson said, or Richardson misinterpreted something from Briggs. Briggs could have either misinterpreted something he was told, or simply been spreading colorful lies about a man he had hated. (It would hardly have been the first time he had spread malicious falsehoods about Poe.) In any case, as Macy himself acknowledged, we are left with the problem of explaining how Briggs could have obtained such highly confidential information. The only two people in a position to provide him with this detail were Edgar and Virginia Poe, and it is difficult to picture either of them treating his virility--or, rather, absence of it--as a subject of casual social chit-chat. There were at least two people--Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Annie Richmond's brother Amos Bardwell Heywood--who reported Poe as stating that he and Virginia did not consummate their marriage for two years, with the inference that this was because they saw each other as "brother and sister." (Although his well-known August 1835 letter to Maria Clemm about Virginia certainly indicates that he did not see his relationship with her as any sibling act.) Assuming for the moment that Poe made such a bizarrely intimate revelation to the world, and leaving aside the question of whether he would have been telling the truth or indulging in his penchant for hoaxing his audiences--might this alleged statement, distorted in the telling to suggest that the marriage was never consummated at all, be the basis for Briggs' reputed declaration?

All in all, it is yet another unresolvable Poe mystery.

(A footnote: For what little it's worth, I doubt Poe was clinically impotent. I do suspect, however, that he was simply not very interested in sex. He was a man whose instincts and interests were intellectual and spiritual, not physical.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

"The Philosophy of Furniture"

"Philosophy has its merits, and is applicable to an infinity of purposes."

"The Philosophy of Furniture," which first appeared in "Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine," in May 1840, is unquestionably one of Edgar Allan Poe's more eccentric works. Ostensibly, it is a detailed, high-handed disquisition on interior decorating, focusing on indignant condemnations of the "Yankee" style of home furnishings, which he dismisses as "preposterous."

Poe's tone was obviously playful and satiric, leading the essay to be largely dismissed as a mere light-hearted oddity. (It is hard to take seriously any work which states, "A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.") However, Poe never published anything for no purpose. He was not a writer to throw words on paper for meaningless sport, or for a few easy dollars. "Furniture" utilizes Poe's penchant for codes, hoaxes, and double meanings to send a covert message. "There is reason," he wrote, "in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture." Just so. The essay, in fact, makes an interesting companion-piece to two of his most esoteric short stories, "The Domain of Arnheim," and its sequel, "Landor's Cottage."

Under his bantering veneer, Poe connected vulgarity of furnishings with vulgarity of soul. "The corruption of taste is a portion or a pendant of the dollar-manufacture. As we grow rich, our ideas grow rusty," Poe declared, comparing the "offensive" American decor with the "spirituality of a British boudoir." This American failing, according to Poe, stems from his countrymen's obsession with wealth. "We have no aristocracy of blood," he noted, "and having therefore as a national, and indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the place and perform the office of the heraldic display in monarchical countries...we have brought to merge in simple show our notions of taste itself." In short, Poe asserted that Americans have confused mere material display for spiritual worth, to their great detriment as a people.

In "The Domain of Arnheim," Ellison created an ideal landscape that enabled visitors to get in touch with their highest spiritual capabilities. "Furniture" illustrated how, in contrast, the typical American's corruptive pursuit of mere material gain has its correspondent in a "corruption of taste." The resulting "perfect farrago of discordant and displeasing effects" is the antithesis of Arnheim, creating a degradation, rather than an exaltation, of soul.

As in "Arnheim," Poe closed with a long and lovingly detailed description of an ideal landscape--only here, his man-made Paradise is interior, not exterior. This "small and not ostentatious chamber" is described as a "parallelogram" (an important figure in Pythagorean mysticism) with two large windows of crimson glass, with outer curtains of silver tissue and inner of crimson silk, fringed with gold.

Crimson and gold predominates the room, appearing also in the thick carpet, the sofas, and the single Argand lamp. (The "silver grey tint" of the wallpaper is similar to that described in "Landor's Cottage.") The artwork consists of "landscapes of an imaginative cast," (another Arnheim connection,) and "three or four female heads, of an ethereal beauty (redolent of Arnheim's "earth angels.")

"Repose speaks in all" in the room, investing the inhabitant with a sense of "tranquil but magical radiance." As with "Domain of Arnheim," the outer surroundings, which follow the laws of Nature, have helped guide its inhabitants to spiritual peace. (It is notable that the room's one occupant is described as deeply and peacefully asleep--a virtual state of Nirvana.)

It is curious that this essay echoes the Chinese concept of "Feng Shui," which holds that one's outer surroundings influence the inner life. Crimson and gold--the dominant colors in Poe's dream room--are the classic Oriental "power colors," symbolizing good fortune and happiness. (It is an odd--coincidence?--that at one of Virginia Poe's last public appearances, at one of the New York literary soirees, she was described as wearing a crimson gown with gold lace trim.) Poe loathed straight lines, or even curved lines that are forced into "unpleasant uniformity." "Undue precision spoils the appearance of many a room." Feng Shui refers to such "undue precision" as "Sha," or negative energy--"poison arrows" that create inner tension and ill luck to the inhabitants of such surroundings.

In Feng Shui, it is considered highly important that the carpeting blends harmoniously and inconspicuously with the rest of the room. Poe called the carpet "the soul of the apartment" and railed against "bedizzened" "Kaleidoscope" carpeting, which he calls "the wicked invention of a race of time-servers and money-lovers."

To Poe, "Glare is a leading error," harsh gas lighting and an overabundance of sparkling glass "a perversion of taste," creating light that is "unequal, broken, and painful." Feng Shui also classifies glare as "Sha," and recommends soft, warm lights--Poe's "tranquil radiance"--to improve one's mood and energy.

One could go on, but the point is clear. As strange as it sounds, in 1840, Poe, in the guise of mere tongue-in-cheek prattle about American bad taste, wrote a serious treatise following an ancient Chinese belief system that only became publicized in the West in very recent years.

Poe's writings were often humorous, but never meaningless.