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