Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year From the World of Poe

Ringing in the New Year at Washington Cathedral:

...What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future!--how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells!--
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells--
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Decking the Halls, Edgar Allan Poe Style

A little gem I found on YouTube. Poe! Poe! Poe! Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Plagiarism Carnival #1

“We repeat that ‘somebody is a thief,’ and the only doubt in our mind is about the sincerity of any one who shall say that somebody is not.”
-Edgar Allan Poe, “Plagiarism,” the Evening Mirror, February 17, 1845

I thought it was time to hold a (nearly) end-of-week wrap-up of the latest developments in the ever odd and contentious "Raven's Bride" saga. There have been times lately when I find myself picturing this:

Or perhaps this:Hieronymus Bosch HellIn any case, here's a sampling of the most recent online commentary on the controversy:

The Christian Science Monitor gives us Plagiarism's Greatest Hits, with a special guest appearance by "The Raven's Bride."

Archie Valparaiso and Jeremy Duns both examine one of the main arguments Lenore Hart has made in her defense, and find a real train wreck.

Ellis Shuman sees a resemblance between "The Raven's Bride" and an earlier plagiarism case.

A poster at an online discussion forum for writers explains it all: Spectral writing!

The Left Room looks at the attitude St. Martin's Press has taken and wonders, "Surely St Martin’s can’t really expect people to be satisfied with that, or for the whole thing to just… go away?"

Lloyd Shepherd offers some colorful musings on the Impenetrable Skin of the Plagiarist.

Dennis Johnson of Melville House, who has been following this story for some time now, weighs in with vivid style. He also contributes the more-painful-than-plagiarism detail that "Raven's Bride" has sold a whopping 548 copies to date, at least half of which, I'll wager, were bought by people who have heard of this dispute and wished to do their own forensic examination of the book. Ms. Hart should be thanking us for all this free publicity. (And while you're visiting MH, do check out their Adopt-a-Penguin program. Greatest book-promotion idea ever.)

Lit Reactor presents us with the Five Lame Excuses For Plagiarism. Our Lenore is #3 with a bullet.

And finally, the other day on Amazon Mr. Duns found himself in an increasingly strange showdown with a remarkably, ah, excitable friend and colleague of Hart's. At least one of "Red Radiator's" comments--the most vulgar of the lot--has already been deleted by Amazon (she should be grateful to them for that,) but you can still read this discussion thread.

Her responses to Duns' attempts to have a reasoned debate over the book are remarkably similar to the ones I encountered from Hart's myrmidons some months ago, when I first drew attention to "The Raven's Bride." For me, the strangest part of this story is not only that she has a pack of online Baghdad Bobs willing to fight her dismal personal battles for her, but that they all seem to read their lines from the same peculiar script. Ironically, their arguments on her behalf--largely characterized as they are by illogicality and personal attacks--do absolutely nothing to add to Hart's credibility. Indeed, they only serve to highlight the weakness of her case, and alienate spectators who might otherwise be neutral or even sympathetic. As the old saying goes, with "friends" like these, she has no need whatsoever for enemies.

Speaking of odd scripts, I shall end with a link to St. Martin's statement, such as it is, on the entire rumpus. What I find most interesting about their very brief remarks is that they carefully avoid saying that anyone at SMP has compared "The Raven's Bride," and "The Very Young Mrs. Poe," for themselves. They make it clear that they are basing their public belief in Hart's innocence entirely on this 18,000 word defense she wrote some months ago--a defense that Jeremy Duns succinctly described as "astonishing and utterly bonkers." In other words, they appear to be aiming for "plausible deniability," where, if need be, they can excuse themselves from any responsibility in the matter by saying they were guilty of nothing more than trusting their author. SMP appears to be tacitly admitting that they realize they cannot get away with saying they themselves read the two novels, and still found no alarming similarities between them.

Update 12/17: Over on Jeremy Duns' blog, Lawrence Block, whom Duns describes as "one of the great crime novelists of our age," offers his opinion on "The Raven's Bride," and St. Martin's stubborn efforts to acknowledge the obvious. "What this woman has done, clearly, is sit down with a book and rewrite it."

We shall see where things go from here. In the meantime, believe it or not, one of these days I will tear myself away from contemporary literary scandals and come up with a post that is actually about Edgar Allan Poe. Although, as I have said before, I think Edgar himself would have had the time of his life with this. Longfellow wasn't a patch on Lenore Hart.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Which We Recall the Old Saying, "It's Not the Crime, It's the Cover-Up"

Edgar Allan Poe Lenore Hart Raven's Bride Very Young Mrs. Poe
"But the man who shall deny the plagiarism abstractly--what is it that he calls upon us to believe?...Now the chances that these...coincidences, so peculiar in character...the chances, I say, that these coincidences are merely accidental, may be estimated, possibly, as about one to one hundred millions; and any man who reasons at all, is of course grossly insulted in being called upon to credit them as accidental."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "More of the Voluminous History of the Little Longfellow War," Broadway Journal, March 22, 1845

In today's episode of that "Raven's Bride"-inspired soap opera, "As the Plagiarist Turns":

As we have seen, St. Martin's efforts to deal with the plagiarism charges being brought against Lenore Hart's Poe novel have consisted of stonewalling, followed by denial and obfuscation. As a lovely little example of "unintended consequences," this curious PR campaign has not only gained them some much-deserved online mockery, but it has brought the controversy to the attention of first, the Associated Press, and now, the New York Times.

I find it particularly interesting that, according to the Times, "St. Martin's declined to make Ms. Hart available," which indicates that SMP is at least familiar with the First Rule of Holes.

Very good work, Mr. Duns, and thank you. You are clearly a troublemaker and rabblerouser after my own heart.

(P.S. Just for the benefit of newcomers, here's The Post That Started It All.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

St. Martin's Press Channels Their Inner Outis, With Predictable Results

I think this news story speaks for itself. (Yes, the whole "Raven's Bride" kerfuffle has now drawn the attention of the Associated Press.) Such a response is sad, but given St. Martin's overall attitude, not unexpected. However, judging by the response it's been getting from the online community, I suspect this "see no evil" tactic will backfire on the Flatiron Building, sooner rather than later.

In response, all I can do is offer some more words of wisdom from Mr. Poe himself: "To attempt the rebutting of a charge of plagiarism by the broad assertion that no such thing as plagiarism exists, is a sotticism, and no more."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lenore Hart, the Guardian...and World of Poe

Poe Lenore Hart plagiarism
Regarding that column in today's Guardian : Hart claims that I have “made a crusade of attacking anyone who writes about Poe.” No. I have read enough about Poe, and done enough research into his life to know that he has often been maligned by history. I try to correct misrepresentations and lies, and those are what I attack. I don’t think of myself as someone who attacks others for sport. (Incidentally, anyone reading this blog’s archives will notice that there are writers--both in fiction and nonfiction--that I’ve gratefully praised. It is particularly ironic that Hart would make this charge, as when I first heard of her book, I posted that I hoped I would like it, and at first--before I reread “Young Mrs. Poe”--I did like certain things about her novel, and said so.)

Hart also says, “if you know the sources…then you certainly might say, I and the previous author are both guilty of sticking to our sources.” You certainly might say anything you want, but the truth is that, as there is very little historical documentation about Virginia Poe, Cothburn O’Neal fabricated much of his book from whole cloth. As I have said before, he invented several incidents which were reproduced in Hart’s novel--incidents which do not appear in any “sources.” I am curious to know if Hart can produce any specific examples where I criticized her for merely “sticking to our sources.”

When Hart accuses me of posting text that was “altered, edited, and in some cases even transposed…to make it more closely resemble [O’Neal]” I take offense. Many of the words I copied don’t just resemble O’Neal’s, they’re identical. I, as well as the friend who helped me compile the quotations I used, want only to present an honest and unbiased case, not start a “crusade.” I have repeatedly urged everyone interested in this issue to read the two novels themselves, and come to their own conclusions. However, if Hart can give me any specific examples of where I erred in describing her book, I will instantly and humbly apologize. Unlike some writers, I am always ready to concede when I am in the wrong.

P.S. I'm reminded of yet another passage Poe wrote during his "Little Longfellow War":

“But to be serious; if Outis has his own private reasons for being disgusted with what he terms the ‘wholesale mangling of victims without rhyme or reason,’ there is not a man living, of common sense and common honesty, who has not better reason (if possible) to be disgusted with the insufferable cant and shameless misrepresentation practiced habitually by just such persons as Outis, with the view of decrying by sheer strength of lungs--of trampling down--of rioting down--of mobbing down any man with a soul that bids him come out from among the general corruption of our public press, and take his stand upon the open ground of rectitude and honor.”

“The Outises who practice this species of bullyism…are either the ‘victims without rhyme or reason who have been mangled by wholesale,’ or they are the relatives, or the relatives of the relatives of the ‘victims without rhyme or reason who have been mangled by wholesale.’ Their watchwords are ‘carping littleness,’ ‘envious malignity,’ and ‘personal abuse.’ Their low artifices are insinuated calumnies, and indefatigable whispers of regret, from post to pillar, that ‘Mr. So-and-So, or Mr. This-and-That will persist in rendering himself so dreadfully unpopular’--no one, in the meantime, being more thoroughly and painfully aware than these very Outises, that the unpopularity of the just critic who reasons his way, guiltless of dogmatism, is confined altogether within the limits of the influence of the victims without rhyme and reason who have been mangled by wholesale.”

–“Imitation--Plagiarism,” “Broadway Journal” March 29, 1845

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Tell-Tale Hart

Edgar Allan Poe Ravens Bride Lenore Hart
Apologies to anyone getting bored by the fact that this blog seems to have morphed into “Plagiarism ‘R’ Us,” but I wanted to summarize the progress of “The Raven’s Bride”/”The Very Young Mrs. Poe” affair. (AKA The Case of the Purloined Novel.)

As the old-timers around this blog may remember, the whole mess started back in February 2011, when I read Lenore Hart’s newly-published novel, “The Raven’s Bride.” At first, I liked it well enough—particularly compared to the excruciatingly insulting drivel that is the average Poe novel—but as I read further, I realized parts of the book seemed oddly reminiscent of another novel about Virginia Poe that I had read some years earlier, Cothburn O’Neal’s “The Very Young Mrs. Poe.” I exhumed my copy of O’Neal’s book, and the more I read, the more stunned I became. I realized I was looking at something very strange indeed. I shared my discovery at Goodreads and other book sites that were discussing Hart’s novel.

At this point, one of the weirdest developments in this very weird tale emerged. From out of nowhere, a group of newly-registered posters emerged at all these places, touting “Raven’s Bride” as the greatest thing to hit publishing since Gutenberg and attacking me as some sort of delusional crackpot for daring to say one word against this obvious masterpiece. These were obviously all personal friends of Hart’s, but seeing such hyperbolic enthusiasm being used in such an obviously unworthy cause was a bizarre experience. I had never before seen a third-rate scribbler with a claque.

These sycophantic trolls made the mistake of annoying me. Ironically, if they had only left me alone—or at least been a bit more civil—I probably would have let the matter drop. Instead, out of a sense of self-defense, I was compelled to write a blog post, “My Little Longfellow War,” where I detailed some of the more egregious “similarities” between the two books, just as proof that I was not making the whole thing up. (I later compiled more “similarities” here and here.)

My post was noticed by a couple of the book blogs, but this was not enough to bring the controversy to any sort of widespread attention. I wrote to St. Martin’s Press, Hart’s publisher, but they never replied. I admit that I was a bit puzzled by this apparent indifference to my discovery, as previous cases of plagiarism, such as the one involving the romance novelist Cassie Edwards, inspired immediate public outcry. However, not knowing what else to do, I just shrugged it off as part of the “ways of the world,” although I retained in the back of my mind a slight feeling of irritation that Hart had “gotten away with it”…and I also wondered how many other writers had pulled off the same stunt.

Then, the case of the plagiarized spy novel “Assassin of Secrets” hit the news, becoming a major scandal in the publishing industry. Just on a whim, I left comments at several online stories about “Assassin,” mentioning “Raven’s Bride” as an overlooked example of what was beginning to look like a plague of plagiarism.

Enter novelist Jeremy Duns. He had played a role in the “Assassin of Secrets” unmasking, and when he read my comments, he was sufficiently curious to look into the matter. He came across “My Little Longfellow War,” and thankfully for us all, he was inspired to put on his Superman cape and see that justice was finally done. As an established author, he had the credibility and influence that an unknown, eccentric, pseudonymous Poe blogger lacked.

He wrote about the matter on his own blog, as well as Twitter, giving his opinion that what Hart did was unquestionably literary thievery. He also contacted St. Martin’s, and spoke to others about Hart’s book, in the hope of finally making her actions publicly known. (There was also an utterly surreal confrontation with Hart on her Facebook page, where the lady demonstrated debating tactics that Orwell’s Ministry of Truth would have envied.) He’s become the hero of this sorry little story.

So…where do things stand, to date? Who knows? So far, St. Martin’s is ignoring Duns as completely as they ignored me. (I learned from Duns that at least one other person had also alerted the publishers about "Raven's Bride," to no avail.) Hart is still evidently hoping to continue to ride out the storm by attempting to befuddle us into ignoring the obvious. “Raven’s Bride” is still on the bookshelves, and I assume people are still buying it, unaware they are purchasing questionable goods. O’Neal’s novel is still under copyright, but unfortunately he died a few years ago. If he left any heirs to his literary estate, as far as I know they have yet to weigh in on the matter. “Vox populi” is our only hope of coming to any sort of resolution in this dispute. If you have read my posts on the issue, or if you have read these two novels for yourself, and agree that there is mischief afoot, all I can say is: Speak out. Spread the word. Let’s make ourselves so noisy and obnoxious (something that comes easily enough for yours truly) that St. Martin’s can no longer sweep the business under the rug. Without public exposure, I fear that cases like "The Raven's Bride" will become commonplace. (As an aside, for anyone who has the time and/or curiosity, Hart's previous novels might be worth investigating...)

If in the future I have any updates, I’ll add them to this post. In the meantime, we should all feel grateful to Jeremy Duns for taking the time from his own busy career to right what he sees as an obvious wrong. I’m sure that Edgar himself, wherever he is now, certainly does. The General of the original "Little Longfellow War” must be enjoying all this immensely.

Update 11/21: We've made the Guardian!

Update II: Archie Valparaiso compiled Hart's most egregious "similarities" to O'Neal's book into one document, including a few examples not included in my blog posts. (Thank you!)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Quote of the Day

Edgar Allan Poe Very Young Mrs Poe Raven's Bride
“…if the theft had to be committed ‘in open day’ it would not be committed; if the thief ‘knew’ that everyone would cry him down, he would be too excessive a fool to make even a decent thief if he indulged his thieving propensities in any respect. But he thieves at night--in the dark--not in the open day (if he suspects it), and he does not know that he will be detected at all. Of the class of willful plagiarists nine out of ten are authors of established reputation, who plunder recondite, neglected, or forgotten books.”

-Edgar Allan Poe, "Imitation--Plagiarism," “Broadway Journal,” March 8, 1845

...Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Joke of the Thing: Poe and George Lippard

George Lippard and Edgar Allan PoeOn this date in 1849 the writer George Lippard, a strange, colorful purveyor of ultra-lurid melodrama, Gothic mysticism and eccentric social activism who probably deserves a blog all of his own, published in the Philadelphia “Quaker City” a characteristically iconoclastic eulogy of Edgar Allan Poe, a man he revered both personally and professionally. Unfortunately, Lippard's exotic, if undoubtedly heartfelt, recollections are virtually all we know of the friendship between two of the most unusual figures in American literature.

He described the last time he saw Poe, just a few months before the poet's death, when his friend was clearly feeling weary of the world. “We talked of the time we had first met, in his quiet home on Seventh Street, Philadelphia, when it was made happy by the presence of his wife--a pure and beautiful woman. He talked also of his last book ‘Eureka,’ well termed a ‘Prose Poem,’ and spoke much of projects for the future.”

Lippard described Poe as “a man of genius, hunted by the world, trampled upon by the men whom he had loaded with favors, and disappointed on every turn of life.” He went on to say, with a palpable snarl, “We frankly confess that, on this occasion, we cannot imitate a number of editors who have taken upon themselves to speak of Poe and his faults in a tone of condescending pity! That Poe had faults we do not deny…He was a harsh, a bitter and sometimes an unjust critic. But he was a man of genius--a man of high honor--a man of good heart…As an author his name will live, while three-fourths of the bastard critics and mongrel authors of the present day go down to nothingness and night. And the men who now spit upon his grave, by way of retaliation for some injury which they imagined they have received from Poe living, would do well to remember that it is only an idiot or a coward who strikes the cold forehead of a corpse.”

Almost exactly five years later, on October 21, 1854, the Boston publication “Dodge’s Literary Museum” printed another column Lippard wrote about Poe. Although, like his earlier reminiscences, he was ostensibly discussing only Poe's personal and professional travails, Lippard was a literary and political firebrand who had himself suffered battles with the establishment. (His brief, hectic life ended a few months before the publication of this article, when he was only thirty-one.) Lippard's writings about Poe show a clear identification with his struggles. He obviously intended more than a mere personal account of his friend--he wished to make a statement, to hold up Poe's sad last days as a cautionary tale showing the evil wrought by the current literary and social hierarchy. This being the case, it is possible that Lippard's descriptions of Poe were somewhat exaggerated, but they are nonetheless both interesting and moving.

Lippard's article is one of the stranger contemporary reminiscences of the late poet, never even directly mentioning him by name. It is a cryptic, dreamlike account of his encounter with Poe in Philadelphia during the summer of 1849.

He described his late friend as sick in mind and body, missing one shoe (an odd and unlikely detail that may be a coded reference of some sort,) and desperately in need of money. Lippard claimed he made the rounds of the city’s literary set on Poe's behalf, and finally managed to put together a small amount of money to enable his beleaguered companion to continue his journey. Lippard said he never forgot “that saddest of all sights--a great man whose genius had enriched publishers, begging his bread in Philadelphia, on a hot summer’s day.”

He continued, “One day, news came that the poet was dead. All at once the world found out his greatness. Literary hucksters who had lied about him, booksellers who had left him to starve, gentlemen of literature, who had seen him walk the hot streets of Philadelphia without food or shelter—these all opened their floodgates of eulogy, and slavered with panegyric the man whom living they would have seen die in the next ditch without one effort to save him.

This is the joke of the thing.”

Lippard concluded sardonically: "Great is the poet who is dead! Allah il Allah! Allah bismallah!”

Friday, October 7, 2011

In Memoriam

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old--
This knight so bold--
And o'er his heart a shadow
Fell, as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow--
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be--
This land of Eldorado?"

"Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,"
The shade replied,--
"If you seek for Eldorado!"

RIP, Edgar, wherever you are. Here's hoping you finally found your Eldorado.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

I'm back...

...Temporarily, at least. And not here. Today I'm guest-posting over at that lethally interesting blog, Executed Today. I'm exploring a sordid little mystery from 1876: Was Mary Stanley's death the result of natural causes, criminal neglect...or murder? (And, yes, there is a Poe connection.)

Hope you like it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Be That Word Our Sign of Parting...

This is just to say that I'll be taking a hiatus from this blog. (I'm suddenly picturing all of you responding to this statement by quoting to me the words of Oliver Cromwell: "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately...Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!")

I had only one reason for starting World of Poe back in 2009--to leave "on the record" (even if it's in this obscure back alley of cyberspace) some sort of counterargument to the many errors, misconceptions, deliberate lies, and, here and there, (particularly on the Internet) sheer gibbering insanity that have hopelessly befuddled any efforts to truly understand Edgar Allan Poe.

Like so many others before me, I found it very difficult to reconcile the profound idealism and deep spiritual insight of Poe's writings with the degraded, almost buffoonish person found in his biographies. It is easy to imagine that a man can be a deeply flawed person and still be a talented writer. It is impossible to imagine that such an individual can be a wise writer. And Poe was not only a wise and enlightened writer indeed--one of the very wisest I have ever encountered--but an eminently sane, even compassionate one. ("Not only do I think it paradoxical to speak of a man of genius as personally ignoble, but I confidently maintain that the highest genius is but the loftiest moral nobility.") I realized that something had to be wrong somewhere. So I began examining his history more closely, and soon discovered that nearly everything was wrong. His "accepted" life story consisted largely of one bizarre falsehood after another. Rufus Griswold's memoir was not an anomaly. It was a template. (And, if you can imagine it, I have avoided writing here about some of the more appalling crimes that have been perpetrated against Poe, simply because I knew few would believe me.)

However eccentric or inept my rebuttals may have been, well, Edgar, at least I tried. I only hope I've done my "mite" (as George W. Eveleth would say) in aiding what I have come to think of as the Poe samizdat. Let me put it this way: If I've managed to persuade just one person to look at everything said or written about the man with a certain healthy skepticism, it will all have been worth it.

I suppose my admittedly odd crusade is all thanks to "Eureka." For many years, the work was generally regarded as the ravings of a madman or megalomaniac. In recent times, the focus has been almost exclusively on Poe's cosmology, reducing his book to a mere scientific essay. What both schools of thought have largely overlooked is that "Eureka" is, as Poe himself said, "a poem"--to my mind, one of the greatest ever written. It is difficult to pull individual quotes from this work--it must be read as a whole, really, or not read at all--but there are some particular passages that I have studied so often I practically have them memorized:
"...But now comes the period at which a conventional World-Reason awakens us from the truth of our dream. ­ Doubt, Surprise and Incomprehensibility arrive at the same moment. They say:--'You live and the time was when you lived not. You have been created. An Intelligence exists greater than your own; and it is only through this Intelligence you live at all.' These things we struggle to comprehend and cannot:--cannot, because these things, being untrue, are thus, of necessity, incomprehensible.

No thinking being lives who, at some luminous point of his life of thought, has not felt himself lost amid the surges of futile efforts at understanding, or believing, that anything exists greater than his own soul. The utter impossibility of any one’s soul feeling itself inferior to another; the intense, overwhelming dissatisfaction and rebellion at the thought;--these, with the omniprevalent aspirations at perfection, are but the spiritual, coincident with the material, struggles towards the original Unity--are, to my mind at least, a species of proof far surpassing what Man terms demonstration, that no one soul is inferior to another--that nothing is, or can be, superior to any one soul--that each soul is, in part, its own God--its own Creator:--in a word, that God--the material and spiritual God--now exists solely in the diffused Matter and Spirit of the Universe; and that the regathering of this diffused Matter and Spirit will be but the re-constitution of the purely Spiritual and Individual God.

In this view, and in this view alone, we comprehend the riddles of Divine Injustice--of Inexorable Fate. In this view alone the existence of Evil becomes intelligible; but in this view it becomes more--it becomes endurable. Our souls no longer rebel at a Sorrow which we ourselves have ­imposed upon ourselves, in furtherance of our own purposes--with a view--if even with a futile view--to the extension of our own Joy."

The close of "Eureka" contains the two finest lines he ever wrote:
"Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness--that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life--Life--Life within Life--the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine."

Strange, and to some, outrageous, though it may sound, "Eureka" has been a vital help and consolation in my long, painful struggles to make some sense of this "material and spiritual universe." For that reason alone, I will always feel love and gratitude towards Edgar Poe, and a corresponding desire to defend his name against all the dirty work--whether anyone in the world listens to me or not. I owe the man at least that much.

I hope to continue posting here from time to time, whenever I come across anything else in Poe "scholarship" that particularly annoys me. (Or if, God help us, Lenore Hart decides to lift from write another Poe novel.) I find abandoned blogs peculiarly depressing; it's like walking into a ghost town. For now, however, I'll "sling the knapsack for new fields," and focus my energies, such as they are, elsewhere.

So, as far as this space is concerned, I bid farewell--as cordially to foes as to friends.Edgar Allan Poe blog final post

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mr. Poe Takes the Stage (Part Two)

"The Frogpondians may as well spare us their abuse. If we cared a fig for their wrath we should not first have insulted them to their teeth, and then subjected to their tender mercies a volume of our Poems:--that, we think, is sufficiently clear. The fact is, we despise them and defy them (the transcendental vagabonds!) and they may all go to the devil together."
-Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the "Broadway Journal," November 22, 1845
Edgar Allan Poe Al AaraafPoe was clearly having far too much fun with his antagonists. When reading his editorial, it is difficult to imagine anything better suited to add fat to the fire, and it is even more difficult to imagine that this was not precisely his intention. Inevitably, this only invited further attacks upon him from Miss Walter and her editorial allies, who seemed to never tire of informing their readers that Poe was a pathetic, indigent madman who had, it was suggested, been visibly drunk during his Lyceum recital. (The allegation that Poe took the stage intoxicated is still widely repeated today, despite the fact that it is utterly fictitious. Despite what such unfortunate productions as Jeffrey Combs’ recent one-man show about Poe would have us believe, he never made any sort of stage appearance when he was under the influence.) Poe himself snorted at such insinuations, wondering why “these miserable hypocrites” couldn't “say ‘drunk’ at once and be done with it?”

The literary battle over his Lyceum appearance continued for an astonishing length of time, at least partly due to the fact that, whenever it showed any signs of dying a natural death, Poe would use the pages of the “Broadway Journal” to eagerly bring it back to full strength. Other newspapers and magazines were drawn into the fray, either for or against him, and Poe responded to both praise and abuse with equal gusto. (When the "Harbinger," the official journal of the transcendental Brook Farm commune, published a column questioning Poe's mental condition, he responded, "Insanity is a word that the Brook Farm Phalanx should never be brought to mention under any circumstances whatsoever." He added condescendingly that the "Harbinger" was "the most reputable organ of the Crazyites," run by people whose objects were honorable, "all that anybody can understand of them." He also noted with malicious delight that the circulation of the "Broadway Journal" had doubled since his Lyceum appearance.)

He probably would have kept the debate going in perpetuity—the opportunity it gave him to publicly mock the Transcendentalists was clearly a source of unflagging joy to him—if it had not been for the untimely demise of the “Broadway Journal” in January of 1846. Deprived of his public forum, Poe was forced to retreat from the field, a complication which allowed his enemies to attack him with impunity.

When the "Journal" folded, the Transcendentalists immediately proclaimed victory over Poe. Cornelia Walter even published a clumsy little poem in which she hinted that a conspiracy had deliberately brought down the magazine:
"To trust in friends is but so so,
Especially when cash is low;
The Broadway Journal's proved 'no go'--
Friends would not pay the pen of Poe."
Clearly, Poe and the Transcendentalists were adversaries to the death. But why? Initially, the Transcendentalists had wanted to bring Poe into the fold; to make him one of their own. Poe, however, felt contempt for them from the beginning.

Many of the early Transcendentalists were evolving Unitarians who desperately wanted to be spiritual, but could not commit themselves to the existence of God. They chose to instead worship environmentalism, and European philosophers, and communitarianism, and "good works," and anti-industrialization.

And Poe considered them frauds, phonies, and misguided lost souls. He said as much often enough, and he said it to their faces when he mischievously recited "Al Aaraaf." As a truly spiritual man, Poe disdained the pretensions of the Transcendentalists, whose religion was the movement itself. So many of Poe's poems and stories are about the soul's quest for Heaven, for God, for escape from earthly entombment. Yet, some souls don't make the grade. In "Ulalume," the soul briefly soars, but then falls back to the hell of earth. In "Al Aaraaf," the souls choose to exist in a grey area where they will eventually perish because they retained earthly thoughts and desires, and never achieved true spirituality. "I know how to get to Heaven," he seemed to be saying, "and you don't."

This was the message he intended to convey to his Boston audience.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the Boston incident is that, contrary to what one would assume, it had no discernible impact on Poe’s career as a lecturer. Even though the Lyceum’s Board of Trustees would later censure him, (not so much for his appearance there itself, but for the insulting things he published about it afterwards,) he continued to receive invitations to lecture or recite at various venues. Although he did not make very many more public appearances in the four years before his death, this appears to have been by choice. His lectures were generally very well reviewed, and frequently well-attended. If he had wished to, Poe, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, probably could have made a good living by concentrating on lecture tours. His reasons for not doing so are unknown, but he probably simply had other priorities. In any case, the controversy which surrounded his Lyceum appearance was never repeated in any of his other stage performances.

There is another thing that needs to be said about his Boston Lyceum failure— it was hardly universally regarded as having been a failure. As was noted earlier, some of the more objective papers found his recital mystically compelling. The “Boston Daily Courier” called “Al Aaraaf” “an elegant and classic production,” that was, they implied, simply too good for his audience. In 1879, the Transcendentalist writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had been in the audience on that memorable night in Boston, recorded the remarkable impact of Poe’s performance. Higginson recalled that the spectators found the poem “rather perplexing,” and it failed to make a great impression upon them until Poe began to read the second half of the poem. His tone began “softening to a finer melody." When he came to the verse that began:
Ligeia! Ligeia!
My beautiful one!
Whose harshest idea
Will to melody run,
O! is it thy will
On the breezes to toss?
Or, capriciously still,
Like the lone Albatross,
Incumbent on night
(As she on the air)
To keep watch with delight
On the harmony there?
Higginson said Poe’s voice “seemed attenuated to the finest golden thread; the audience became hushed, and, as it were, breathless; there seemed no life in the hall but his.” He added that “every syllable was accentuated with such delicacy, and sustained with such sweetness as I never heard equaled by other lips...I remember nothing more, except in walking back to Cambridge my comrades and I felt we had been under the spell of some wizard.” Surely, any event that could elicit such a reaction could hardly be called disastrous.Robinson Al AaraafWhen Cornelia Walter began trumpeting his performance as a pitiful debacle, Poe clearly relished the attention, no matter how negative it may have been. He was an instinctive showman, who would have been in full agreement with the old Hollywood adage of “say anything you like about me, as long as you spell my name right.” He saw Walter’s campaigns against him as chances to not only publicize the “Broadway Journal,” and his recent book, “The Raven and Other Poems,” but to highlight what he saw as the mendacity and imbecility of his enemies. He certainly accomplished both those goals. Poe’s so-called “madness” had a cool-headed method to it much more often than is popularly assumed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mr. Poe Takes the Stage (Part One of Two)

“[T]he most exquisite of sublunary pleasures…[is] the making of a fuss, or, in the classical words of a western friend, the ‘kicking up a bobbery.’”
-Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the “Broadway Journal,” November 22, 1845
One of the most notable incidents that led to the destruction of Poe's reputation was his appearance at the Boston Lyceum on October 16, 1845. The uproar surrounding his recital of "Al Aaraaf"--a performance that seems to have largely confounded his audience--and his subsequent public war of words with "Boston Transcript" editor Cornelia Walter served, perhaps more than any other event during his lifetime, to cement Poe's image as a drunken, erratic lunatic. While at least some of Poe's biographers realize that the disastrous nature of his actual appearance before the Lyceum was greatly exaggerated afterwards--in no small part due to the efforts of Poe himself--there has been no consensus about Poe's motives and intentions regarding the notorious recital. Did his failure to produce an “original” address for the occasion lead him to recycle an old poem out of desperation, or, as he asserted, did he deliberately mean to "quiz the Bostonians?" Or was it a sign he was simply going mad?

It is possible that Poe did find himself unable to produce a new poem “on order” for the occasion—like most men of genius, he was unable to “commercialize” himself—and so resorted to this obscure early work. However, I suspect that Poe's own explanation was closest to the truth. His disdain for the Bostonians was certainly quite genuine. It is easy to picture him presenting them with "Al Aaraaf"--a mystical exploration of Heaven, Hell and the grey area that lies between--as a deliberate challenge to their well-known intellectual and spiritual pretensions. He likely assumed the poem, a cousin of "Ulalume," "Israfel," "Dream-Land," "The Conqueror Worm," and others, would be completely over their heads, and he undoubtedly saw their confusion as further proof of their inferiority.

When Poe accepted the invitation to appear in Boston, he knew perfectly well that he was entering enemy territory. His very public mockery of the New England intelligentsia, as well as his recent campaign to prove that Longfellow, the darling of the Bostonians, was a plagiarist, ensured that his appearance would be controversial. The Boston newspapers even predicted that if Poe dared to show his face in their city, the audience "would poh at him, at once." It is usually assumed that Poe's motives in taking on such an obviously hazardous assignment were purely financial. Pressed for money, he agreed to appear in front of the Lyceum, despite the potential for disaster. However, just the opposite may be true--that he welcomed the invitation precisely because of the potential for disaster. Poe was never happier than when in the thick of literary battle--the noisier and more violent it was, the better he liked it. When he cheerfully asserted in the "Broadway Journal" that he accepted the chance to appear before a Boston audience because he was curious to see what it would be like to be hissed at in public, he may not have been entirely facetious.Edgar Allan Poe and BostonCertainly, his performance seemed designed to confuse and irritate his audience as much as possible. After delivering a brief, self-deprecating address that was clearly dripping with sarcasm, he proceeded to recite “Al Aaraaf"—lengthy, complicated verses that are probably the most abstruse he--or just about anyone else, for that matter--ever wrote. Although he followed up his performance by fulfilling audience requests to hear "The Raven"--a recitation that, by most accounts, went over well--the damage had been done. Some attendees, already stupefied by a three-hour speech by Massachusetts politician Caleb Cushing, found Poe's obscurities too much to handle, and walked out on him with the vague feeling that they had been insulted.

That feeling was entirely justified. At a private gathering that was held after the recital, Poe asserted that "Al Aaraaf" was intended to spoof the audience. It had, he claimed, been written before he was twelve years old, and that such a juvenile work was quite sufficient for the likes of the Bostonians. His expressions of contempt for his audience were, of course, widely circulated, and, of course, the local papers responded in kind. Cornelia Walter, who already had it in for Poe because of his "Longfellow War," immediately published an editorial describing Poe's performance as a humiliating failure. From then on, she used the "Boston Transcript" as a forum to regularly mock him, often in the crudest terms possible. Although at least one other Boston paper, as well as several members of the audience, described Poe's recital as beautiful, if somewhat baffling to most listeners, they were drowned out by the catcalls of his enemies, who made full use of the means Poe had provided to attack him.

Say what you will about Poe, but he was always ready to give his opponents as good, or better, than he received. As his contemporary John Du Solle once remarked, "If Mr. P. had not been gifted with considerable gall, he would have been devoured long ago by the host of enemies his genius has created." Two weeks after his Lyceum appearance, Poe wrote a lengthy editorial in the "Broadway Journal" giving his side of the story. He showed no remorse for his actions. Indeed, he countered that “that most beguiling of all beguiling little divinities" Miss Walter "has been telling a parcel of fibs about us, by way of revenge for something we did to Mr. Longfellow (who admires her very much) and for calling her ‘a pretty little witch’ into the bargain." According to Poe, his recital was a smashing success. The approbation he received “was considerably more (the more the pity too) than that bestowed upon Mr. Cushing.” He asserted that all the claims his appearance had been a failure were entirely due to “that amiable little enemy of ours,” at the “Boston Transcript.” (He added that “We shall never call a woman ‘a pretty little witch’ again, as long as we live.”)

Having finished with his defense, Poe gleefully went on the offense. He acknowledged that he himself had been born in Boston, “and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact.” Bostonians “have always evinced towards us individually, the basest ingratitude for the services we rendered them in enlightening them about the originality of Mr. Longfellow.” This prejudice against him, Poe explained, made it scarcely possible that he would put himself to the trouble of composing an original poem for such an audience, so he favored them with one that was “quite as good as new—one, at all events, that we considered would answer sufficiently well for an audience of Transcendentalists.” This poem, he blandly assured his readers, was one which he had written, printed, and published in book form “before we had fairly completed our tenth year.” He sardonically commented that “We do not, ourselves, think the poem a remarkably good one:--it is not sufficiently transcendental.” However, his listeners “evinced characteristic discrimination in understanding, and especially applauding, all those knotty passages which we ourselves have not yet been able to understand.” Unfortunately, he sighed, he could not resist “letting some of our cat out of the bag a few hours sooner than we had intended,” when he told his dinner companions of the success of his hoax. His conclusion: “We should have waited a couple of days.”

Next post: The power of words.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Many Deaths of Edgar Poe

"And all the woe that moved him so
That he gave that bitter cry
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die"
-Oscar Wilde, "Ballad of Reading Gaol"
The major roadblock in the efforts to solve the mystery of Poe's death is the strange fact that none of the witnesses to his final days ever managed to coordinate their testimonies with each other, or even themselves. Poe's biographers tend to cherry-pick among the various accounts given over the years by Joseph Snodgrass, Dr. Moran, Neilson Poe, and other minor figures, selecting and arranging statements as they would pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in order to build whatever narrative most pleases them. For the most part, these chroniclers find it easiest to ignore the fact that whenever you are presented with multiple conflicting accounts of the same event, that only means that none of them can be trusted.

The most commonly accepted story is that a Joseph Walker encountered a disheveled, semi-conscious man "who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe," in Baltimore's Ryan's Tavern. Walker was able to ascertain that the unfortunate man was an acquaintance of Snodgrass, who was immediately summoned. According to Snodgrass, he accompanied the poet to the hospital. Unfortunately, his details of the event varied over the years that he told and re-told the story, and it is established that he manipulated facts in at least one crucial area--the text of the note Walker supposedly sent alerting him to Poe's desperate condition. He falsely claimed Walker warned him that Poe was intoxicated, a lie which does little for Snodgrass' credibility.

Then, of course, the biographies go on to relate Dr. Moran's colorful and harrowing descriptions of his famous patient screaming the name "Reynolds" in his delirium, declaring that the best thing his friends could do for him was to blow out his brains, finally conquering the fever called living with the plaintive plea for God to help his poor soul, etc., etc. (Historians generally ignore Moran's later accounts, which are, amazingly, even more lurid. He also showed a remarkable inconsistency with even the most basic facts, such as the day Poe was brought to the hospital, where he was found--he occasionally liked to say the poet was discovered by an anonymous passerby "lying on a bench by a wharf"--and when he died. According to Poe’s biographer Eugene Didier, Moran lied about having personally attended Poe at all. Again, the point has to be made--if Moran's later versions of Poe's death are demonstrably inconsistent and untrustworthy, why should his original tale be trusted?)

What further complicates the whole matter is the fact that there is a much lesser known, and seemingly equally credible, version of Poe's death that utterly contradicts everything cited above. It comes from a distant relative of his, Elisabeth Ellicott Poe. According to Miss Poe, on October 3, 1849, her grandfather, George Poe Sr. (who was Edgar’s first cousin,) was walking along the streets of Baltimore when saw a man, whom he presumed to be in a drunken stupor, lying beneath the steps of the Baltimore Museum. When he looked closer at the figure, he realized, to his horror, that it was his literary cousin. After sending for Neilson Poe, who lived nearby, George Poe took his unconscious relative to the hospital. Mrs. Clemm was sent for, and doctors worked for days to save the poet. However, he never fully regained consciousness, and finally died on the morning of October 7. Elisabeth Poe was an advocate of the “cooping” theory—that Edgar had been shanghaied by the “Plug Uglies,” a local political organization, drugged, and utilized for their curious electoral purposes. The combination of drugs and exposure, she declared, had killed her famous relative.

Now, of course, Miss Poe’s story—which she claimed was verified by Neilson Poe himself—contradicts the accepted Snodgrass/Moran accounts in practically every detail. Neilson Poe himself was of little help in getting to the bottom of the mystery. Others who knew him asserted that he believed Poe had indeed been “cooped,” a misadventure which resulted in his death. However, a month after Edgar’s demise, Neilson wrote Rufus Griswold that "The history of the last few days of his life is known to no one so well as to myself...I think I can demonstrate that he passed, by a single indulgence, from a condition of perfect sobriety to one bordering upon the madness usually occasioned only by long continued intoxication, and that he is entitled to a far more favorable judgment upon his last hours than he has received..." In short, his famous cousin went on one spree too many. Neilson promised to make a “deliberate communication” on the subject, but so far as we know, he never did.

In 1871, a journalist provided Richard Henry Stoddard with an account he claimed to have received from Neilson. Assuming this journalist quoted him accurately, Neilson claimed that he somehow found Edgar “in a state of insensibility,” and brought him to the hospital. In this version of the story, there was merely a “horrible suspicion” that he had been “cooped.” According to this journalist, while Edgar was traveling to Philadelphia from Baltimore, he took one drink that immediately sent him into a “state of delirium,” and the conductor of the train returned him to Baltimore (presumably, just dumping this stricken stranger on the street to fend for himself.) What happened next was unclear, but the implication was that he then somehow fell into the hands of the unscrupulous ward managers.

Unfortunately, this story is, of course, undocumented (and this journalist never made it clear how Neilson Poe learned all this, as Edgar himself was unable to say what had happened to him.) It does not even come directly from Neilson. It is one of the many inexplicable enigmas surrounding Edgar Poe’s death that, although Neilson evidently spent a good deal of effort investigating the tragedy, he never publicly gave any detailed, first-hand account of what he believed had happened. The reasons for his odd reticence are unknown.

It is strange enough that we do not know for certain where Edgar Poe was or what he was doing in the five or so days between his departure from Richmond and his arrival in Moran’s hospital, or that we cannot even make an educated guess about what killed him. It is virtually incomprehensible that so basic a matter as who first discovered him in Baltimore and brought him to the doctors, where he was found, and whether or not he was intoxicated at the time should be such a matter of dispute. It all makes George W. Eveleth’s assertion that Poe’s death was simply a hoax seem quite rational in comparison.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Poe and the Milk of Paradise

"[I] was afraid, from the wild imaginations manifested in your writings, that you were an opium-eater--had some chance for hope that this might not be the case, as the same wildness was evident in your childhood productions--supposed that you could not have acquired the habit when so young, and therefore hoped."
-George W. Eveleth, letter to Edgar Allan Poe, January 11, 1848
One of the many disastrous effects of a strange, near-universal mania for reading Poe’s writings as hidden autobiography is the fact that, because several of the narrators of his stories used opium, it is often assumed that he himself was familiar with the narcotic. No serious modern-day Poe biographer credits the idea that he was a habitual drug user, as scholars recognize that his literary depictions of the drug were inspired by contemporary works such as Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” However, the image of him as the wild-eyed poète maudit ecstatically scribbling verses and stories while in an opium-fueled frenzy is amazingly durable, particularly on the Internet. Never underestimate the power of mythology.Edgar Allan Poe and opiumConsidering the popularity of the belief that Poe was an opium addict, it is rather remarkable that the evidence in its favor is so weak. In 1850, the poet William Ross Wallace wrote John Neal that alcohol, taken alternately with opium, “kept him [Poe] half his days in madness.” Wallace knew Poe, but not at all intimately, and Poe seems to have privately disliked him, although he admired some of Wallace’s poetry. The tone of Wallace’s letter is of someone passing on gossip rather than relaying first-hand information. (Ironically, Wallace himself was an unstable character notorious for his dissipation. He may well have been projecting his own failings on Poe.) Poe’s biographer George Woodberry said that Neilson Poe’s daughter Amelia told him that Edgar’s cousin Elizabeth Herring stated that “his periods of excess were occasioned by a free use of opium.” I have mentioned my reasons for doubting this—at best—third-hand testimony here. Our ubiquitous old friend Susan Archer Talley Weiss wrote that Rosalie Poe had visited Fordham in the spring of 1846 (we have no other evidence this visit took place,) and had witnessed an incident where her brother “begged for morphine.”

I have chronicled Mrs. Weiss’ amazing powers of imagination since literally the first day of this blog. Suffice to say that if she asserted the sun rose in the east, that alone would be enough to make me dismiss the notion.

In the 1870s, Annie Richmond produced a copy of a letter she claimed to have received from Poe in November of 1848, describing his attempts to commit suicide through an overdose of laudanum. According to this letter, he miscalculated. His body, unused to such poison, rejected the laudanum and sent him into unconsciousness before he could take the full dose. Assuming Mrs. Richmond provided an accurate transcript of this letter—and it must be said I believe her to be only slightly more honest than Susan Weiss—and also assuming the incident was not one of the colorful fables Poe enjoyed telling about himself, this has been seen as proof that Poe was not accustomed to taking drugs.

In his 1896 “Reminiscences of Poe,” Thomas Dunn English firmly rejected the idea that Poe took drugs. He said, “Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him, I should, both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it…” English’s account is a remarkably ingenious work of libel, relying on malicious, sly intimations against Poe which he did not have even have the courage to explicitly describe (likely because he knew they could be refuted if he did.) It is something of a minor masterwork of the use of vague insinuation in the cause of character assassination. As I have said before, I do not believe English knew Poe nearly as well as he claimed, but in any case, it is reasonable to believe that if he thought he could get away with using charges of drug use against his old enemy, he would have done so. The fact that he did not is surely a strong piece of evidence in Poe’s favor.

Similarly, English’s business associate Thomas H. Lane, who knew Poe in his Philadelphia and New York years, alleged that one or two drinks could instantly transform Poe from someone “in every way a gentleman” into a surly drunk. However, he was positive the poet was never a drug user.

John Carter, a Richmond doctor who had socialized with Poe during the poet’s visit there in 1849, wrote Woodberry that “Poe never used opium in any instance that I am aware of, and if it had been a habitual practice, we certainly would have detected it, as he numbered amongst his associates half-dozen physicians…I never heard it hinted before, and if he had contracted the habit, it would have accompanied him to Richmond.” (Unfortunately for Poe, Woodberry ignored this unequivocal, first-hand medical testimony in favor of the Susan Weiss/Amelia Poe hearsay. In his biography of Poe, he asserted his belief that Poe used drugs, although he admitted that “it is only a personal view, and may be erroneous.”)

Incidentally, this passage from Woodberry’s book serves as an example of the dangers of trusting Poe biographies too implicitly. Hervey Allen, in his inexplicably popular “Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe,” quoted—whether through a deliberate desire to smear Poe or sheer stupidity (the baroque silliness of his book makes either theory plausible) repeated Woodberry’s conjecture that Poe used drugs—but quoted it as part of Dr. Carter’s letter to Woodberry. Thus, the unsuspecting reader of Allen’s book was left to believe that a medical man who knew Poe well believed he was an addict, when, in truth, he said precisely the opposite. This is just one of the many reasons why, whenever I begin to peruse Allen’s biography, I am faced with the strong urge to hurl it against the wall. (I refrain, however—flinging around Kenneth Silverman’s “Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance” left enough damage in my home.)

In short, while it cannot be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Poe did not take opium—in history, nothing is more futile than trying to prove a negative—there is no reliable evidence of his drug use, and the testimony refuting the charge is considerably more assertive and credible.

There is, as well, an odd legend that Poe also took absinthe, which, in his day, acted as a hallucinogenic. The sole evidence for this is a 1988 book describing itself as a “history” of the liqueur. It listed “Edgar Allen Poe” (whenever a Poe source cannot get the middle name right, you know you’re in for a rocky ride,) as a drinker of “absinthe and brandy.” This claim is found nowhere else in history, and the author provided no documentation or source for his statement.

Unfortunately, once any allegation, no matter how absurd and unproven, gets into print, it takes on an invincible life of its own. Sure enough, every few weeks or so I stumble upon a blog, website, or newspaper article chattering merrily about the notorious madman Edgar Poe, opium and absinthe addict.
Edgar Allan Poe Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder
It’s all enough to make a poor-devil Poe blogger want to reach for the laudanum bottle herself. With an absinthe-and-brandy chaser, please.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Whether You Loved or Hated "Arthur Gordon Pym"...

Mat Johnson Pym
...I recommend reading Mat Johnson's "Pym." It's often hilarious, and refreshingly original. I thought the first half of the book was much better than the second, but, then, that's what a lot of people have said about Poe's original work. If, like me, you've had some harrowing experiences in the deranged world of academia, you'll find some of the mockery particularly delicious. However, even if you have no interest in Poe (in which case, pray tell, why are you here?) this is one of the best social satires (a sadly dying breed) I've read since "A Confederacy of Dunces." A comedic novel based largely on racial issues is a particularly tricky business, but I think Johnson handled that aspect of the book cleverly and sanely, simply by lampooning us all.

In any case, how could I not like a book containing the line, "In this age when reality is built on big lies, what better place for truth than fiction?"

Despite what most of the reviews have said, however, I think it's a good idea to read (or re-read) Poe's novel before tackling this book. I've always believed "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" was itself meant as satire--albeit of a characteristically cryptic and mystical kind--so having a detailed familiarity with his work brings a fuller dimension to Johnson's reinvention. (Incidentally, I largely disagree with Johnson's interpretation of Poe's "Pym," but that's irrelevant to this novel, particularly since, considering the context of his book, I question whether he meant this interpretation to be treated completely seriously.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Yet Another Cautionary Tale

The letters of George W Eveleth to Edgar Allan PoeOn January 11, 1848, George W. Eveleth wrote Poe a letter in which he quoted from a statement made by an editor of a paper called the "Weekly Universe." This statement said, "Edgar A. Poe, in the estimation of the editors of the 'Universe,' holds a high rank, regarded either as an elegant tale-writer, a poet, or a critic. He will be more fairly judged after his death than during his life. His habits have been shockingly irregular, but what amendment they have undergone within the past six months we cannot say, for Mr. Poe, during that time, has been in the country--we know him personally--he is a gentleman--a man of fine taste and warm impulses, with a generous heart. The little eccentricities of his character are never offensive except when he is drunk..." Eveleth went on to say that he had been told the names of the editors and contributors of the "Universe," and asked if Poe indeed knew them.

On February 29, Poe responded, "The editor of the 'Weekly Universe' speaks kindly and I find no fault with his representing my habits as 'shockingly irregular.' He could not have had the 'personal acquaintance' with me of which he writes; but has fallen into a very natural error...I do not know the 'editors & contributors' of the 'Weekly Universe' and was not aware of the existence of such a paper."

Poe's statement is something to be kept in mind when weighing the validity of the numerous "reminiscences of Poe" that were brought before the public after his death. With many of these reminiscences, not only are the stories they offered completely uncorroborated, but we have only the speaker's unsupported word that he or she had ever even laid eyes on the poet--and Poe, unlike in the case noted above, was no longer around to confirm or deny their acquaintance.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Poetic Principle

Edgar Allan Poe The Poetic Principle"The Poetic Principle" was Poe's last major prose work. It was a lecture he delivered several times in 1848 and 1849, although it was not published until after his death. While ostensibly merely an analysis on his pet theories about verse, it is also, like "Eureka," and "The Domain of Arnheim," an exploration of his most deeply-held personal philosophies.

He began with his famous claim that "a long poem does not exist." While verses should not be so brief that they "degenerate into mere epigrammatism," a poem "deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul...But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient...After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags--fails--a revulsion ensues--and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such."

Anyone who had to read "The Faerie Queene" in school can't disagree.

His next dictum was that the sole effect of a poem should be to "elevate the soul," that "the value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement." Again, he made the point that a long poem would necessarily be a failure because "that degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length."

Thirdly, he called for poetry to have unity, a "totality of effect or impression." In other words, one part of a poem should not clash in style or mood with another. This unity, Poe believed, was impossible with lengthy poems.

Most importantly, he said, the poet had to discard what he called "the heresy of the didactic." "It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged...We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force."

Poe was having none of that. He stated that the enforcement of the True required severity, simplicity, preciseness, coolness--in other words, the exact opposite of the poetic spirit. The aim of all genuine poetry was not Truth, but Beauty; to invoke an instinctive response that awakens the reader to a sense of his or her own divinity--an "elevation of the soul." His description of this goal is impossible to paraphrase:

"An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, or sentiments, a duplicate source of delight...We have still a thirst unquenchable...This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us--but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone."

Poe saw this human instinct to connect with the world of the spirit as taking various forms--painting, sculpture, dance, architecture, landscape gardening (a look back at "The Domain of Arnheim,") but particularly in music, where "the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles--the creation of supernal Beauty." He saw poetry and music, with their similar modes of rhythm and rhyme, as virtual partners in this creation. (Although one wonders how much of the Beautiful he would find in your typical Top 40 playlist of today. But I digress.) The true artist acts as a guide for the rest of humanity in their unconscious need to transcend the earthly bodies which cage our souls, and unite with God--a God whose spirit is within every object and creature in our world. "The struggle to apprehend the supernal loveliness--this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted--has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic."The Poetic Principle a lecture by Edgar Allan PoeHis description of the "Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty" should be read by everyone who accepts with the utmost seriousness all the legends of his many bizarre romantic entanglements. One finds it hard to reconcile the man depicted in, say, "Poe's Mary," or the libels of John Evangelist Walsh with the writer of these lines:

"...the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul, quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart--or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade, rather than to elevate the Soul. Love, on the contrary--Love--the true, the divine Eros--the Uranian, as distinguished from the Dionæan Venus--is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetical themes."

At the end of the essay, Poe gave us his conception of true Poetry by listing some of the elements "which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect." It is among my favorite passages in any of his works, and if I ever get my hands on a time machine, one of the first places I'm going is Richmond in the summer of 1849 to hear them recited by their author. This peroration, in the opinion of Arthur H. Quinn, was where "Poe's true self flashed out." If he was correct, it would serve as proof for what I have argued on practically every post on this blog--that the Edgar Allan Poe depicted in most of his biographies never existed, that nearly all we think we know about him is based on some of the most shameless lies imaginable.

The Poet, Poe said, "...recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven--in the volutes of the flower--in the clustering of low shrubberies--in the waving of the grain-fields--in the slanting of tall, Eastern trees--in the blue distance of mountains--in the grouping of clouds--in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks--in the gleaming of silver rivers--in the repose of sequestered lakes--in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds--in the harp of Æolus--in the sighing of the night-wind--in the repining voice of the forest--in the surf that complains to the shore--in the fresh breath of the woods--in the scent of the violet--in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth--in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts--in all unworldly motives--in all holy impulses--in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman--in the grace of her step--in the lustre of her eye--in the melody of her voice--in her soft laughter--in her sigh--in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments--in her burning enthusiasms--in her gentle charities--in her meek and devotional endurances--but above all--ah, far above all--he kneels to it--he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty--of her love."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Two Questionable Poe Poems [Updated]

Complete works of Edgar Allan PoeOver the years, many works that have either disappeared or that were published anonymously have been "attributed" to Poe. Some of these attributions are credible, but far too many writings have been attached to his name due to sheer reckless disregard for any standards of normal scholarship. Two of the best-known examples of the latter category are two "lost" poems, "Lines on Ale," and "The Beloved Physician."

The responsibility for anointing "Lines on Ale" as a Poe composition rests upon Thomas O. Mabbott. In 1939, he published in the journal "Notes and Queries" the claim that on one of Poe's visits to Lowell, Massachusetts, he visited a local tavern and was inspired to pen the following lines:
Fill with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chamber of my brain--
Quaintest thoughts--queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away;
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.
This so-called poem was quoted to Mabbott by a man who claimed to be a former bartender at this establishment. Supposedly, the manuscript hung on the wall of the tavern for some years, but this Poe relic disappeared, as Mabbott vaguely put it, "before 1920." Despite the lack of any sort of corroboration of this man's story, as well as the inherent implausibility that Poe would have written such puerile doggerel, Mabbott--as was his habit in many matters--fell for it with a gullibility that almost defies belief. Simply because he chose to give this poem his official seal of approval, it is widely accepted as a genuine Poe work. However, it is far more likely that this bartender was enjoying a good joke at Mabbott's--and Poe's--expense.

"The Beloved Physician" may be an even more astonishing attribution. In 1875, Marie Louise Shew Houghton wrote Poe's biographer John H. Ingram that the late poet had written a ten-stanza poem in her honor. She was, as usual with her, unable to provide any proof of this assertion--as was the case with "Lines on Ale," the manuscript of the poem was conveniently "lost"--but she supplied Ingram with some stray lines that she claimed to remember from the composition:
The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God nerve the soul that ne'er forgets
In calm or storm, by night or day,
Its steady toil, its loyalty.

The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God shield the soul that ne'er forgets.

The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God guide the soul that ne'er forgets. tired, so weary,
The soft head bows, the sweet eyes close,
The faithful heart yields to repose.

If Poe wrote these lines, I'm Rufus Griswold's grandma.

It's hard to even know what else to say about these poems. You might say they speak for themselves. It has long been a marvel to me how Poe specialists, even more than most other historians, seem utterly incapable of judging evidence. As Josephine Tey observed in "The Daughter of Time," historians "have no talent for the likeliness of any situation." What is worse, they usually appear indifferent to the fact that the need for such scrutiny even exists. And poor old Edgar has certainly paid the price for this indifference.

Update: Vindication!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Marginalia: Special J.H. Whitty Memorial Edition

Zolany bust of PoeIn 1911, Poe enthusiast J.H. Whitty published what he said were previously unknown recollections of Poe written by the poet's close friend Frederick W. Thomas (who died in 1866.) These lengthy, detailed reminiscences have been used as source material by Poe biographers ever since. There are, however, certain obvious problems with these "Thomas Reminiscences":

1. All we have of Thomas' alleged acount is what Whitty published. The actual manuscript is not extant, and there is no record of it being seen by anyone other than Whitty. (His long-time associate Thomas O. Mabbott wrote that Whitty became "evasive" when Mabbott asked to see the document.)

2. We have only Whitty's word that he even acquired this previously unknown MS., and he was very vague about how they came into his hands. (He also claimed to have acquired proof-sheets of "late drafts" of several of Poe's poems that also somehow came into Thomas' hands, but these have similarly vanished.)

3. Whitty was, as one acquaintance described him, a "crank." He was an extremely peculiar fanatic who, like so many of the more unbalanced amateur Poe specialists, had an egomaniacal obsession with showing the world "new and previously unknown" material related to his idol. And--again like others of his type--it seems to have been unimportant to him if this material was genuine or not. During his long career, he came up with many other examples of "previously unknown" Poeana--much of which proved to be, as other Poe scholars were forced to admit, completely imaginary. The editors of the published collection of Poe's letters wrote tactfully that Whitty was "inclined to make exaggerated claims without documentation, and prone to romantic fancies." They admitted that Whitty's "veracity" has been questioned. Mabbott nonchalantly conceded that Whitty was "eccentric," "often wrong," "far from reliable," and inclined to mix fact with colorful fiction. He also wrote that Whitty "brought himself into disrepute by farfetched claims to 'discoveries about Poe'."

Given all of this, why in the world is this "Thomas manuscript" accepted unreservedly?

Incidentally, there are a number of other Whitty "discoveries" that are also, inexplicably, still used as source material, such as his completely lunatic--and completely undocumented--claim that Poe wrote two poems that appeared anonymously in "Graham's Magazine" in 1845, "Stanzas," and "Divine Right of Kings." Whitty claimed his source for this attribution was an old volume of "Graham's" in his possession, where Frances S. Osgood had written Poe's name at the bottom of these two poems. When asked to bring forth this volume, Whitty flatly refused, and to this day it has yet to be seen. Despite this highly self-incriminating refusal to prove his claims, these two dreadful poems are still to this day--for reasons that frankly baffle me--often republished as Poe's work, an attribution that undoubtedly would mortify the poor man. (Mabbott, who is largely responsible for these poems being accepted as Poe's, claimed that years after Whitty's "discovery" of these verses, a volume of "Graham's" was discovered in the Boston Public Library, with annotations in an unknown handwriting--definitely not Osgood's--assigning them to Poe. As I have pointed out before, it never occurred to Mabbott that we have no idea who wrote these notations and when it was done. It was undoubtedly the work of someone who had heard of Whitty's claims--or even Whitty himself. In any case, anonymous notations to anonymous poems can hardly be considered scholarly proof of anything.)

This attribution also ignores the fact that what evidence we have on the subject indicates that the poems in question, which were signed merely "P," were authored by Charles J. Peterson, who was then on the staff of "Graham's." Thomas O. Mabbott even admitted that signing poems with a single initial of a surname was "usually an editor's prerogative," which made his agreement to attribute these poems to Poe, rather than editor Peterson--who is accepted to have written other poems for "Graham's" signed "P"--utterly incomprehensible.

Incidentally, it was also Whitty who first posited the curious notion that Poe and Mrs. Osgood conducted a poetic "literary flirtation" in the pages of the "Broadway Journal." Until he began weaving this strange yarn in the early 1900s, no one had ever taken the least notice of these poems as any sort of biographical source material. (He also devised the even more ridiculous idea that Osgood's story "Ida Grey" reflected their relationship.) There really is little basis for his assertions, but Poe's biographers, charmed by the implied salaciousness of it all, have automatically parroted Whitty's fantasies ever since. All in all, if Whitty, like Susan Archer Talley Weiss, had not displayed the complete humorlessness that characterizes the true crackpot, I would seriously suspect that everything they wrote about Poe was an elaborate prank on history.

Edgar and Virginia PoeIt is exasperatingly typical of Poe that even details about his wedding are uncertain. His Richmond marriage to Virginia, which took place on this date in 1836, (happy anniversary, kids!) is usually described as having taken place in the parlor of the boardinghouse run by a Mrs. Yarrington, where he and the ladies Clemm were then living. It is also accepted that the young couple enjoyed a brief honeymoon in Petersburg, Virginia, as the guests of a local newspaper publisher named Hiram Haines. These claims, as well as nearly all the other details we have about the wedding, were first publicized in 1926, in Mary E. Phillips' "Edgar Allan Poe: The Man." Phillips' source for her account of the marriage and honeymoon was--wait for it!--none other than James Howard Whitty, who cited a "Jane Foster" who was supposedly one of the wedding guests.

However, F. B. Converse, the son of Amasa Converse, the minister who married the pair, told a journalist years later that the wedding was held in the parlor of his father's home. Dr. Converse added, "There were very few persons present at the wedding; my mother and the members of the family, and perhaps one or more companions, whom they brought with them." A Mrs. Mallory, who also lived in Mrs. Yarrington's boardinghouse, described Mrs. Clemm inviting her and some other ladies into her room, where she offered them cake and wine in celebration of the marriage, but this witness said nothing about the ceremony itself being held in the house. (Mrs. Mallory indicated that Mrs. Clemm's little impromptu party was the first she or any of the other women had heard of the marriage.)

If these accounts are true (and they at least have the virtue of being first-hand) it would discredit everything Whitty said this Jane Foster--who makes no other appearances in Poe's history--told him about the Poe wedding. I am not aware of any other independent source that verifies this alleged honeymoon--if anyone out there has found any such documentation, I would certainly like to know about it. (We also have nothing directly from Jane Foster herself.) Having Whitty's fingerprints on the tale is alone enough to make me uneasy about practically everything we think we "know" about the wedding, including Poe and Virginia's supposed Petersburg sojourn--as much as I'd like to think this star-crossed pair had at least one pleasant vacation during their union. The story of their honeymoon may well be true--at least, we know of no evidence that directly disproves it. (I emphasize this point in order to keep the good citizens of Petersburg from coming after me with the feathers and tar.) However, as is usual with Poe's history, it comes with a bit of a question mark. In any case, I hear that Petersburg's "Hiram Haines Coffee House," located in the building where the Poes supposedly resided during their honeymoon, is a charming place, and well worth a visit if you're ever in the area.

(Images of Poe bust and antebellum wedding courtesy NYPL Digital Gallery)

Update 12/10/11: While researching the "Raven's Bride" plagiarism case, blogger Archie Valparaiso unearthed a bit of historical information that not only refutes Lenore Hart's claims to have done original "historical research" on her now-discredited novel, it demolishes the legend of the entire Petersburg trip. Read of his discovery here, and savor the pure comedy gold.

If the railway from Richmond to Petersburg was only built after Edgar and Virginia were married, it, of course, renders the Whitty/Foster story about the newlyweds traveling by train an impossibility. And if that detail is false, it naturally discredits all of Whitty's account about the wedding and alleged honeymoon--a story that has been endlessly and trustingly repeated to this day.