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