Monday, April 26, 2010

More on the Amazing Susan Weiss

On this blog, I have often referred to Susan Archer Talley Weiss, that prolific and pathological liar. It is hard, however, to describe her writings in a way that do them justice--they really have to be read in their entirety to appreciate their true horror. Her claims that she was a mere slip of a wee girl--"little more than a child"--when she claimed to have met Edgar Allan Poe in 1849 (she was 27 at the time.) The complete lack of any proof that she met Poe in person at all, not to mention his sister Rosalie and the Mackenzie family (Weiss claimed they were her main sources about Poe's personal life--after, of course, all these alleged witnesses were safely dead. It is also worth noting that there is no evidence that Rosalie or any member of her foster family related any of this spicy inside information about Poe to anyone else.) Weiss' descriptions of her lengthy and intimate conversations with the poet, who had, she claimed, immediately adopted her as a favored confidante (these descriptions coyly avoid mentioning the fact that she was completely deaf since childhood.) Her account of Poe enlisting her to re-write "The Raven." (Weiss sniffed that she "did not feel particularly flattered by his proposal, knowing that since his coming to Richmond he had made a similar request to at least two other persons.") Her complete invention of the current popular image of Virginia Poe as a childlike nincompoop who could not even be bothered to read any of her husband's writings. Her inconsistent, contradictory, and frequently quite insane claims. All these factors, as well as many, many more, leave the reader frankly in awe of the sheer magnitude of her powers of fantasy. The world lost a potentially great novelist of the Grand Guignol school when Mrs. Weiss made the decision to peddle her work as non-fiction. Unfortunately, however, her writings have been allowed to pass largely without challenge, or even close examination. As a result, she became an eminent member of that Rogues' Gallery led by Rufus Griswold, Thomas Dunn English, Sarah Helen Whitman, J.H. Whitty, etc., all dedicated to distorting the historical record about Poe.

After having read everything Susan Weiss wrote about Poe, as well as researching what little we know about her decidedly strange personal life, (particularly her curious alleged "marriage" to the mysterious Louis Weiss,) I have come to the quite serious, unexaggerated conclusion that the woman was mentally ill. It is hard to tell whether she reached her peak of lunacy in discussing Poe's marriage or his death. Early on, she often implied that his demise resulted from one drinking binge too many. In the mid-1870s, when Elizabeth Oakes Smith's story about Poe's death resulting from a beating (which Smith linked to his quarrel with Elizabeth F. Ellet over her letters) got wide circulation, Weiss wrote a short magazine piece contemptuously refuting the charge. Afterwards, however, she became increasingly enamored of the idea. She wound up not only embracing Smith's story, but outdoing it altogether. By 1885, this is what Weiss was writing to Poe's biographer George Woodberry:
"I have mentioned the quarrel between himself & Mrs. Shelton in regard to certain letters of hers which he refused to give up until his own had been returned to him. On her part the feeling was most bitter & vindictive, she having been told of some unflattering remarks he had made in regard to her and his sending an open and verbal reply in answer to her note demanding the return of the letters. [Note her obvious plagiarism of the Ellet scandal.] We all heard on that occasion that she said 'she would have him chastised within an inch of his life, if she had to wait seven years for it,' or words to that effect, if not verbatim. I did not at the time believe that she could so have expressed herself--but have since heard from more than one source that Poe died from the effects of a severe beating, administered by Mrs. Shelton's order."

I do not have the most admiring opinion of the Widow Shelton, but even I can't quite see her as a cross between Catherine de Medici and Vito Corleone.

Arthur H. Quinn, who authored practically the only Poe biography that does not read like a supermarket tabloid, discussed a particularly amusing passage from her book, "Home Life of Poe," that is a fine representation of the lady's remarkable style. Here, she quotes her mother as relating to her an account of being neighbors with Poe's parents in Norfolk, VA, in 1811.

"'At this time,' continued my mother, 'we were living on Main Street, and my uncle, Dr. Robert Butt, of the House of Burgesses, lived close by, on Burmuda Street.'" Weiss then drew a detailed picture of David and Eliza Poe, who, with their children, lived next door to Mr. Butt, along with an "old Welsh nurse," (Eliza Poe's mother, according to Weiss.)

Quinn did a little research into this statement, and discovered the following:

1. In 1811, Virginia had no legislative body known as the "House of Burgesses."
2. No one named "Robert Butt" was ever, at any time, a member of Virginia's House of Burgesses.
3. There is not one record showing that anyone named "Robert Butt" ever even lived in Norfolk.
4. Quinn did not mention this, but we know that Eliza Poe's mother was an English actress named Elizabeth Arnold, who died long before her daughter married David Poe.

And this was the woman Poe specialist Thomas O. Mabbott treated as a highly trustworthy source! "Seldom," Quinn noted dryly, "has one sentence contained so many errors." On the contrary. Mrs. Weiss wrote many other sentences that could leave the one he quoted in the dust.