Monday, June 14, 2010

Poe and Saratoga: The Usual Unholy Biographical Mess

Edgar Allan Poe and Saratoga
Among the innumerable minor mysteries in Edgar Allan Poe's biography is the question of whether or not he ever visited Saratoga Springs, New York. In the "Home Journal" in 1884, and again in the New York Times in 1924, a man named William Elliot Griffis published an article ("Behind the Mystery of Poe's 'Raven'") based on what he said had been reminiscences of Poe told him by a James Barhyte, whose parents owned an estate at the watering place. Griffis said Barhyte told him that when he was a small boy, he saw Poe in Saratoga during the summers of 1842 and 1843. (Where, we are told, the poet rarely mingled "with the gay throngs," and "looked like a prairie cowboy.") Arthur S. Wright, the husband of Barhyte's granddaughter, told Poe biographer Mary Phillips in 1919 that James Barhyte and his younger sister Mary had told him essentially the same tale published by Griffis (not that Wright would have any way of knowing if the story was actually true.) However, we have nothing directly from Barhyte himself.

The Griffis/Barhyte story is, on the face of it, utterly ridiculous. During the period of these supposed visits to Saratoga, Poe was at a low ebb, financially and personally. He simply did not have anything like the money that would be necessary for vacationing at a fashionable resort. The idea that he would leave his sick wife and his mother-in-law to fend for themselves in Philadelphia, while he wasted precious time and money to go off on solitary holidays is so patently absurd that it is amazing that anyone has given this account any credibility whatsoever.

The irrepressible Susan Talley Weiss dealt with this obvious difficulty by adding further layers of fiction to Griffis' story. In her 1907 "Home Life of Poe," she borrowed his Saratoga tale, but in her version, Poe made a scandalous visit as the guest of an unidentified wealthy married Philadelphia woman. Her story was in turn repeated and distorted further in the retelling by Poe biographers George Woodberry and Hervey Allen. The entire fantasy actually snowballed to the point where it has been assumed that the "wealthy Philadelphia woman" was none other than James' mother, Ann! Thus, Mrs. Barhyte and Poe were romantically involved! (Never mind that Ann Barhyte was not a Philadelphian, and Griffis' own story showed she and Poe were strangers when he allegedly first came to Saratoga.) The "Gigolo Poe" story, like nearly all of Weiss' fables, can be easily dismissed in disgust, but, amazingly, it still is repeated here and there--which, as in the case of those fraudulent sketches of Virginia Poe and Elmira Royster, just shows that some Poe legends are impossible to kill, no matter how provably false they may be.

To return to Griffis: He (or Barhyte) goes on to further insult our intelligence by giving an account of young James and his mother helping the visiting poet write "The Raven":
On one day, never to be forgotten, the little fellow [Barhyte] had been out fishing for trout on the pond down in the direction of the old gristmill. Having caught his pail full, he was rowing back toward the house oblivious of visitors, and suspecting no one near, when, suddenly, the silence was broken by the deep echo of "nevermore!" As he neared the house, the sonorous polysyllable rolled over the pond and came back in echo at regular intervals.

The sound which issued from the grove seemed to be that of some one reading aloud, though only the one word "nevermore" could be distinguished. The boy, wondering to the verge of fright, knew not what to make of it, having never heard the strange word in such fashion.

As he neared the landing he began to hear whole lines, and to catch a regular cadence of sound. He now made up his mind that some one was "speaking a piece," and that it was likely to be none other than Mr. Poe. Laughing to himself at the idea of having been so scared, he gave the oars a fresh pull and the mystery was solved. There was Poe in something of a fine frenzy, pacing up and down the space cleared among the trees, reciting to himself the poem, the refrain of which had so frightened the lad at a distance--the semicroak, the demi-thunder of "nevermore."

His fears over, the boy now resolved to have some fun. Knowing the poet so well, he had by this time lost all fear of "the Mexican." [Young James' nickname for the visitor.] So, leaping ashore with his fish he walked up to the man in long hair and slouch hat, and shouted mockingly:

"Oh! what a name for a bird! Who ever heard of a bird named 'Nevermore?'"

Instead of scowling or taking offense, Poe's face brightened. He clapped his hands and seemed delighted with a new idea.

"I have it," he cried. "Just the thing. That will make the stanza I need to complete the poem."

Poe then submitted the poem to Ann Barhyte for criticism, a task she "conscientiously undertook," making a number of corrections to the work, which the poet said were great improvements. (The story claimed she wrote poems for the "New York Mirror" under the pen name of "Tabitha"--an assertion that no one to date has been able to verify.) Yes, according to Griffis, these are the people we have to thank for Poe's most famous poem--the Barhytes, mother and son.

Now, while all this certainly makes for light entertainment, it has no place in serious biography. (Incidentally, if I ever have a decade or two of time to spare, I plan to compile a list of the multitudes of people who informed us that they witnessed the composition of, or helped Poe write, "The Raven." It would make for an even longer roster than that of all the women who claimed to be Annabel Lee.) Stories like the one published by Griffis always remind me of the old David Letterman skit, "Brush With Greatness"--where people related fleeting, inconsequential meetings with celebrities, and then added increasingly wild and ludicrous details about the encounter. The only difference is, these Poe reminiscences were not intended as humor.

One other claim that Poe was ever in Saratoga comes from a Theodore Pease Sterns. In 1920, ("The Outlook" magazine, "A Prohibitionist Shakes Dice With Poe,") he published what he said were reminiscences of the poet given to him by his great-uncle, Peter Pindar Pease. (Again, these stories are all second or third-hand.) Sterns wrote that his relative told him that an E.M. Murdock had told him (Pease) of his own acquaintance with Poe. The story claimed that in 1843, Poe visited Saratoga in the hopes of arranging to bring his invalid wife there for medical treatment. According to the Sterns/Pease/Murdock tale, Poe paid for this trip from a loan he had obtained, as well as money from the recent sale of one of his stories. However, on arrival at the spa, he discovered not only that Saratoga was unaffordably expensive, but that the journey would likely be far too arduous for Virginia. He stayed only a few days, returning to Philadelphia "utterly cast down in spirit over this additional disappointment."

This story has been cited as corroboration of the Griffis/Barhyte account, but in fact it essentially contradicts it. While it places Poe in Saratoga, this article depicts him making only one trip to the resort, and that of very short and unsatisfactory duration. While, unlike the Griffis yarn, this tale at least has the virtue of plausibility, its lack of documentation and questionable source makes it untrustworthy.Saratoga Springs and Edgar Allan Poe
Saratoga Springs c. 1830. NYPL.

If Poe ever was in Saratoga, his visit must have been something like that which was described by Sterns. Lacking any better evidence, however, his alleged sojourn has to remain among the vast pile of Poe Apocrypha.