Sunday, January 30, 2011

It Was Many and Many a Year Ago...

Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe death
"Both we, and the beings I have mentioned as inhabiting the other elements, vanish into air at death, and go out of existence, spirit and body, so that no vestige of us remains; and when you hereafter awake to a purer state of being, we shall remain where sand, and sparks, and wind and waves remain...The element moves us, and, again, is obedient to our will, while we live, though it scatters us like dust when we die..."
-Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, "Undine"

Forget about who's buried in Grant's Tomb. I want to know who's in Virginia Poe's. Poe biographer William Gill claimed that when the Fordham cemetery where Virginia lay was razed, many years after her death, he "just happened"--mirabile dictu!--to be visiting the burial ground at the precise moment when her remains, which lacked anyone to claim them, were to be discarded. Gill said he recovered what he could of her bones, and kept them in his bedroom for some time.

This rather ghoulish tale--which does not appear to have ever been independently verified--seems just too coincidental and fortuitous (not to mention self-glorifying) to be automatically believed, particularly since Gill, like J.H. Whitty, was among the more eccentric and untruthful Poe acolytes. (Published accounts of Gill's story vary in their details, making the truth all the harder to pin down.) In 1885, what was said to be these same bones were reburied with Poe and Maria Clemm in Baltimore. (What was left of them, at any rate--the sexton at the Baltimore churchyard later described Virginia's remains as being delivered to him in a container the size of a cigar box!) Of course, it would have been impossible in that pre-DNA-testing era to prove these bones were actually Virginia's. However, no one ever even tried to examine them to determine if they at least could have belonged to a woman of Virginia's age. Gill's account is simply too strange to be completely trusted, and it is also curious that he supposedly kept these bones for some indeterminate length of time before delivering them to a decent resting-place. It really is not at all certain who--or what--is buried under Virginia's name.

And, of course, there is a very curious allegation that when Edgar himself was reburied under an elaborate monument in 1875, they accidentally exhumed the wrong corpse, that of a young man named Philip Mosher Jr. Unless yet another exhumation takes place--which is unlikely, as the Baltimoreans, who are understandably touchy about the issue, prefer to literally let sleeping bones lie--the controversy can never be resolved with any certainty, as the various accounts of Poe's death, burials, and exhumation abound in contradictions. However, Poe himself would undoubtedly delight in the thought that, for all those years, his monument was graced by annual visits from the Mosher Toaster. It would certainly be his last, greatest hoax. In short, there is at least an outside chance that poor Maria Clemm is spending eternity in the company of complete strangers.

Edgar Allan Poe graveIn an earlier post, I discussed an oddly disquieting reminiscence of Poe and Virginia entitled, "The Bones of Annabel Lee." The anonymous author was either unaware of or unconvinced by the stories that Virginia had been reburied at her husband's side, as he presumed that her "fragments" "are still wandering about..." Perhaps he was nearer the truth than we know.

In any case, spare a thought today for the gallant and undervalued spirit of Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, who died on this date in 1847.

In pace requiescat!

virginia poe death undine

(Image: John William Waterhouse, "Undine," 1872. Via Wikipedia.)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

And the World Has Been Raven Mad Ever Since

The Raven Edgar Allan Poe DoreIn honor of the anniversary of the first appearance in print of Poe's most famous work, I offer several contemporary tributes, which, whatever their merits--or lack of same--as poetry, serve as eloquent testimony to the immediate and remarkable cultural effect of his grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.

One of the earliest "Raven" parodies appeared in the April 19, 1845 issue of the "New World." Poe reprinted it in the "Broadway Journal" a week later under the headline, "A Gentle Puff." He added, "If we copied into our Journal all the complimentary notices that are bestowed upon us, it would contain hardly anything besides; the following done into poetry is probably the only one of the kind that we shall receive, and we extract it from our neighbour, the 'New World,' for the sake of its uniqueness."

Small wonder Poe was pleased; the anonymous lines not only defend, but celebrate his contemporary reputation as the critical "Tomahawk Man"--a novelty indeed in those days.
Then with step sedate and stately, as if thrones had borne him lately,
Came a bold and daring warrior up the distant echoing floor;
As he passed the Courier's Colonel, then I saw The Broadway Journal,
In a character supernal, on his gallant front he bore,
And with stately step and solemn marched he proudly through the door,
As if he pondered, evermore.

With his keen sardonic smiling, every other care beguiling,
Right and left he bravely wielded a double-edged and broad claymore,
And with gallant presence dashing, 'mid his confreres stoutly clashing,
He unpityingly went slashing, as he keenly scanned them o'er,
And with eye and mien undaunted, such a gallant presence bore,
As might awe them, evermore.

Neither rank nor station heeding, with his foes around him bleeding,
Sternly, singly and alone, his course he kept upon that floor
While the countless foes attacking, neither strength nor valor lacking,
On his goodly armor hacking, wrought no change his visage o'er,
As with high and honest aim, he still his falchion proudly bore,
Resisting error, evermore.

It is fascinating how, even in Poe's own lifetime, his contemporaries were eager to identify him with his renowned poem. He became, in their eyes, a creature straight out of his own fancy--an impression, unfortunately, that still lingers today. He was not merely "the writer of 'The Raven'"--to many, even people who knew him personally, he was the Raven. One of the better-known poems to embody this view was published in April 1847 in "Godey's Lady's Book." It was, "To Edgar A. Poe," the most famous work by an otherwise utterly forgotten poet named Alonzo Lewis, who styled himself "the Lynn Bard." According to Annie Richmond's testimony, she considered the poem notable enough to ask Poe to send her a copy a couple of years later.
I read thy "Song of the Raven," Poe:
The thrilling notes of its magic flow
Sunk into my heart, like the summer rain
In the thirsty earth, till it glowed again.

When I read the first lines of that wondrous song,
That doth to a brighter world belong,
I said--no poet of Freedom's land
On the summit of such a height can stand.

'Tis a clime of supernal ether rare,
No mortal poet can breathe and bear;
And he must make, in his sad confusion,
A ''most lame and impotent conclusion."

Another verse, and I seemed to stand
On the verge of limitless Fairy Land,
While spirits were passing to and fro,
And the earth lay far and dark below.

Then I went higher, and higher still,
O'er the summit of many a star-crowned hill,
Through the trackless realms of immortal mind,
Which the sons of song alone can find

Could I have my choice of the treasured lore
Of classic land, I would give more
The author of that strange song to be,
Than of volumes of unread casuistry.

There are hearts so cold they may never feel
The thrills which the harp's fine strings reveal;
But while my life's warm pulses flow,
I bless thy name and thy memory, Poe.

A thousand brilliant years may flit,
And still that classic bird will sit,
As he sat in the golden days of yore,
On the bust of Pallas above the door.

A thousand strains may rise and sink
In the bubbles of old Castalia's brink--
But thy lay shall float by Song's bright shore,
On the countless tides of "Evermore."

And many a heart in this dark, cold world,
From its throne of sweet affection hurled,
As it cons that strange, wild ballad o'er,
Will sigh for its own loved, lost Lenore.
The Raven Poe DulacAn even more sentimental Raven-inspired effusion, "One of Our Poets," was published in 1848 by Frances A. Fuller. It captures perfectly the intensely emotional response Poe's image inspired, particularly among women--even women, like Fuller, who never even met the man.
Oft my fancy draws the picture, and for evermore he seems
Sitting silent in his chamber, brooding o'er his wondrous dreams;
Sitting motionless and weaving visions in his mighty brain--
Visions soft, and pure, and glowing, and with scarce an earthly stain--
Weaving into them his being, all its pleasures and its pain.

Coyly through the open casement steals the fragrant air of June,
Humming to itself the murmur of the woodland's pleasant tune;
Lifting up the silken curtain, through which comes the ruby tinge
Glowing in the chamber's twilight, toying with the golden fringe,
Prisoning the window-roses in its tassel-tangled swinge.

Fitful gleams of yellow sunlight flash across the velvet floor,
As the breeze in rising gladness lifts the curtain more and more,
And a smile seems stealing over the dim faces in the room,
'Till the pictured wall looks breathing through the soft and dreamy
Antique jewels seem to sparkle, and to wave the bending plume.

Nothing cares the silent dreamer that those pictures, old and dim,
Give more sense of life and motion to the gazer's eye than him;
Little heeds he sun or shadow, pleasant sounds or fragrant air;
He is in a world whose visions are a thousand times more fair,
Musing, speechless with enchantment, on the glorious beauties

More and more the curtain flutters, and upon the dreamer's hair
Falls the crimson glow of sunset, resting in a halo there;
On a brow so proud and pensive fitly placed the glory seems--
Looking like the lingering radiance borrowed in his land of dreams,
Broken, as the curtain flutters, into bright and changing gleams.

But anon the sun is setting, and the breeze has died away,
And the curtain and the sunbeam cease to quiver and to play,
And the spell so deeply woven round the dreamer seems to part,
Till the tide of life comes rushing faster from his fettered heart,
And his own unconscious murmurs wake him with a sudden start.

Hard upon his fevered eyelids presses he his trembling hand,
While a troop of white-winged visions vanish at his sad command;
Still he murmurs lightly to them, whispers to them o'er and o'er,
As he paces, in the twilight, noiselessly the chamber floor,
Murmuring ever, like a river, one same sound, and that Lenore!

Talking to his love in heaven, she who never leaves his side,
Hovering near, a winged spirit, still his angel and his bride;
Counting ceaselessly the hoarded treasures of his memory's store;
Burning out his heart in incense at the shrine he loved of yore,
Haunted by the "rare and radiant" maiden of his heart, Lenore.

And whatever you do, don't forget to read the real thing.The Raven parody

Monday, January 24, 2011


Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Edgar Allan PoeIn his recent book, "Poe in His Own Time," Benjamin F. Fisher made reference to Elizabeth Oakes Smith's copious writings about Poe by commenting that Smith "knew well the American literary milieu of Poe's own day, even if she hadn't known Poe himself." Strangely, Fisher either overlooked or deliberately disregarded the significance of his own observation. If Fisher is correct that Smith never actually knew Poe at all, then everything she wrote about him--most particularly her detailed, and highly implausible, accounts of her meetings and conversations with the poet, which his biographers have extensively used for source material--were massive and flagrant fictions.

Evidence that Fisher's statement was accurate comes from Smith's close friend Sarah Helen Whitman. When writing to John H. Ingram in the 1870s, Whitman expressed her contempt for a recent article Smith had published about Poe. In particular, she pointed to Smith's description of an intimate talk she claimed to have had with Poe about his relationship with Mrs. Whitman. Whitman, who described Smith as "constitutionally inaccurate," stated flatly that she was certain no such conversation had ever taken place. How could Whitman know Poe had never expressed the sentiments in question unless she was aware that Smith had never had any conversations with Poe at all?

Whitman made an even more intriguing remark on the subject. She wrote Ingram a strangely cryptic reference to Smith's Poe reminiscences. She stated they "did not spring so much from genuine friendliness & regard as from other motives which are betrayed in some of the--but I will not carp or criticize."

Maddeningly, Whitman never explained what these "other motives" may have been. I'd certainly like to know.
Maria ClemmOne of the innumerable overlooked little oddities in Poe's history is that Maria Clemm's handwriting bore a distinct resemblance to her nephew's. In fact, it was said that she could copy his manuscripts so exactly that no one could guess it was not his writing. (A copy, presumed to have been made by Mrs. Clemm, of a letter Poe sent her on September 18, 1849 has sometimes been mistaken for an actual Poe MS. Incidentally, for whatever mysterious reason, we have only a fragment of the original letter.) Richard Henry Stoddard even quoted her as saying to him that after Poe's death, she received so many requests for his autograph that she would simply forge samples of his writing and send them on to his admirers.

All of this puts a curious question mark over many of our extant "Poe" letters and manuscripts.
Annie Richmond and Edgar Allan PoeThe only full transcript we have of the last letter Poe sent to Sarah Helen Whitman comes to us from Annie Richmond, of all people. (Whitman herself, in her typically strange fashion, preserved only an meaningless eight-line fragment of the original letter. She always aimed to shape the historical record by carefully copying, destroying, and mutilating her Poe-related correspondence in an effort to display the story she wanted told.) Mrs. Richmond told John Ingram that before Poe sent Mrs. Whitman this letter discussing the end of their relationship and the ugly gossip surrounding that event, he sent it to her so that she could read it over and then forward it (anonymously, I presume) to Whitman in Providence. Mrs. Richmond claimed to have made a copy of this letter, which she sent to Ingram.

Now, can I possibly be the only one who finds her story to be exceedingly suspicious? First of all, I find it odd that Poe would send Mrs. Richmond the actual letter to forward to the other woman. Aside from the unseemliness in sharing his private relations with Mrs. Whitman with a third party, if he wished to defend his actions in the Whitman episode to Annie (she told Ingram that the stories she had heard about his disgraceful behavior in Providence led her to contemplate ending her friendship with Poe--which says a lot about her "devotion" to him,) it would have been sufficient for Poe to tell her "I wrote Mrs. Whitman this-and-this..." Secondly, why in the world would Mrs. Richmond have bothered to write out and keep a copy of this letter--particularly since the contents were certainly none of her business? Surely, in January of 1849 she could have had no idea that, nearly thirty years later, her transcript of this letter might be useful biographical source material.

The final oddity about this story is that Mrs. Whitman--a fragile and cowardly woman who shrank from even the mildest confrontation--never worked up the nerve to even answer this letter. (Which confirms my suspicion that she was hardly blameless in whatever went on between her and Poe.) Mrs. Richmond, however, told Ingram that Whitman had responded, with a letter exonerating Poe's behavior. What makes Annie's statement even more peculiar is the fact that among the copies of Poe's letters to her that she gave Ingram is one where he commented on Whitman's failure to answer his letter!

Annie Richmond, like so many other figures in Poe's history, made a very unsatisfactory witness. Nearly everything she ever said about him inevitably took on an air of shenanigans.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Happy Birthday, Edgar!

The following lines were written by an anonymous wit in 1909. The writer was having a bit of fun with the various events held for the Poe Centennial, but it's worth reviving today.
The Bells Edgar Allan Poe birthdayHear the tributes paid to Poe!
(Might he know!)
What a world of immortality his celebrants bestow!
Hear the speakers clear their throats
And consult their little notes!
Hear them laud him to the skies!
How they prize, prize, prize
All he wrote;
How they dote
On his “Raven” and his “Bells”;
How they quote
“Ulalume” and all the rest
Of his verseUlalume Edgar Allan PoeAnd rehearse
His catalogue of triumphs with a breast
All a-glow,
Praising Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe,
Poe, Poe, Poe,
Their thrice-inspired Poe,
The only son of genius that we ever had, you know!
So it’s natural to blow
The trumpet blast of Poe,
Of Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe,
Poe, Poe, Poe!--
For perhaps ten days or so,
Of emotion and commotion over Poe!
The Bells Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Reticent Mrs. Shelton (Part Two)

"The more meticulously we scrutinize the documents, the more painfully do we become aware how dubious is the authenticity of historical evidence, and how untrustworthy therefore the conclusions of historians. For no matter how incontestably genuine an ancient document may be, this genuineness does not provide any guarantee as to the human validity of its contents."
-Stefan Zweig, "Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles." Pity he never tackled writing a biography of Poe.

Clearly, there is something deeply wrong with this entire picture. During the forty years that she survived Poe, Sarah Shelton was completely mute about him, even to relatives, only breaking her silence to state that she had no important recollections of him. Then, if Valentine is to be believed, she somehow decided to honor him--and only him--with these strange, illogical revelations that were unknown to her own kin. (Another peculiarity of these "notes" is their garbled, disconnected quality--they read like confused scraps of conversation Valentine happened to eavesdrop upon. This impression is heightened when, immediately following a description of Poe's childhood friend Ebenezer Burling, Shelton is quoted as saying, "Spoke of the first Mrs. Allan in the most affectionate manner." Valentine added the parenthetical note, "This last remark I think refers to Poe." If Valentine was truly talking to her, wouldn't he know to whom she referred? And if he was unsure, why not ask her at the time?) After supposedly pouring her secret history out to him, she maintained her previous Sphinx-like silence the rest of her life, failing to either confirm or deny Valentine's account of their conversation. (Her newspaper obituaries even made a point of noting that no one ever heard her so much as speak Poe's name.)Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton and Edgar Allan PoeNone of this fits. If it was true that she had little to say about Poe, where did Valentine's story come from, except his own desperate imagination, cobbling together bits of local gossip? (It is one of the many peculiarities of this incident that Valentine wrote out at least two versions of his Shelton interview, which contain some substantial textual differences between them.) If she wished to draw a discreet veil over her love life, why not simply say so from the beginning? If she truly granted him this interview--an interview which raises more questions than it answers--why bother maintaining her silence after it appeared in print? And if she had decided the time had come to bare her soul, why not deal directly with Ingram himself, to ensure that her relationship with Poe would be described the way she wished it to be told, instead of trusting her long-hidden confidences to be transmitted by an unreliable third-party? And if she gave this interview, either her previous declaration that she knew virtually nothing about Poe or the interview itself was a brazen lie. Either way, what does that say about Shelton's credibility? And if--as nearly everyone assumes--she lied when she denied being engaged to Poe in 1849, again, why should we trust anything in these "notes?" As the lawyers would say, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus--"false in one, false in all."

In short, the "Valentine notes"--however you choose to look at them--are impossible to reconcile with reality.

**A footnote: "The Poe Log" described the reunion between Poe and Mrs. Shelton as having taken place in the summer of 1848. (Kenneth Silverman, taking his information from TPL, repeated this statement.) This is simply wrong. The Valentine notes make it clear that Poe's sudden reappearance in her life was in the summer of 1849. "The Poe Log" evidently made this change in chronology in order to make the Valentine/Shelton account fit in with Sarah Helen Whitman's claim that Poe told her he had considered marrying Shelton during his (very brief) visit to Richmond in 1848, but on finding that his old neighbor had become uncongenial to him, resolved to woo Whitman instead. As with so many of the stories related by "Poe's Helen," we have only her word that Poe made this odd and rather ungallant remark, and what little evidence we have directly contradicts the idea that he and Shelton had any renewal of their acquaintance before 1849. (As an aside, Maria Clemm stated years later that Poe was never in Richmond at all in 1848, and the evidence for this visit is so generally unsatisfactory that his biographer Arthur H. Quinn was tempted to agree with her!)

"The Poe Log," incidentally, did a similar juggling of dates with Mary Gove Nichols' description of a visit to Fordham late in 1846. In order to reconcile her account of Poe offering for sale a poem that is presumed to be "Ulalume" with that work's publication at the end of 1847, they give her visit a date of c. November '47. This ignores Nichols' statement that Virginia Poe was still alive at the time described. Of course, Nichols' account also conflicts with Poe's own description to George W. Eveleth of how and when he sold "Ulalume," making her story worthless as a historical source in any case.

***Another footnote: Among the items that were published in the "Century" magazine in 1903 as part of the "Poe/Chivers Papers" is the text of a hysterical letter Mrs. Shelton supposedly wrote Maria Clemm immediately after hearing of Poe's death. (The assumption is that Mrs. Clemm sent it to Chivers for his edification.) It is universally accepted as genuine by historians. However, there are reasons for doubting the authenticity of the "Chivers letter."

For one, we only have a copy among the "Chivers papers" in the Huntington Library--made allegedly by Chivers himself--of the letter. No original manuscript has ever been seen. (Although Maria Clemm told Annie Richmond that Shelton had written her about the tragedy in Baltimore, she gave no details about the letter, and as the manuscript is not extant, it is impossible to verify if the text of the letter in the "Chivers papers" matches the one sent to Mrs. Clemm.)

Even taking the view that Mrs. Shelton would have been greatly distressed at the time of writing this letter, the writing style simply does not sound like any other known letter of hers. In addition, the little evidence we have indicates that after Poe's death Mrs. Shelton immediately tried to distance herself from Mrs. Clemm, as well as anything else concerning Poe. (A few years afterward, Mrs. Clemm told Sarah Helen Whitman that she knew nothing of Mrs. Shelton's life, and even suggested that she and Poe's putative final fiancee were on hostile terms. Unfortunately, she did not say why.) Also, the description in this letter of Mrs. Shelton's final meeting with Poe, and his physical condition when they parted, directly contradicts the Valentine notes, as well as all other accounts we have of Poe's departure from Richmond. Finally, the whole history surrounding the "Poe/Chivers Papers"--as I have said before--is enough to embarrass Joseph Cosey.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Reticent Mrs. Shelton (Part One of Two)

Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton and Edgar Allan Poe
"In biography the truth is everything, and in auto-biography it is especially so."
-"The Business Man"

In 1874, a Richmond, VA Poe admirer named Edward V. Valentine made efforts, on behalf of biographer John Ingram, to persuade Sarah Elmira Shelton to clarify her relationship with Edgar Allan Poe. For many years, it was rumored that she had had a youthful romance with him, and that, shortly before his death, they had rekindled their old relationship and planned to marry. However, no one seemed to have any definite knowledge about this story, and Mrs. Shelton herself had yet to speak a word on the subject.

She answered Valentine's pleas for information with the simple and seemingly sincere statement (in a letter now in Richmond's Valentine Museum,) that "I am not prepared to give any information in regard to Mr. Poe's early life--we were both very young when I did know him, and the slight recollection I have of his history (at that time) will not justify any attempt that I might make, to undertake it. The meridian and latter part of his life, there are many others, who profess to know much more than I do."

That, one would think, would be that. The lady herself declared--in writing--that she barely remembered Poe in his youth, and knew scarcely anything of his adult life. However, according to Valentine, just a year after penning him these unequivocal words, Shelton granted him an exclusive interview about Poe where, in modern parlance, she sang like a canary. The notes he made of this alleged interview (now also in the Valentine Museum,) tell a disjointed, fragmentary, but quite intimate history, revealing her precocious engagement to Poe (the "notes" have her say she was "15 or 16" at the time, but in truth she would have been 14. Also, the "notes" seem to indicate that at the time of their supposed engagement, their "acquaintance" must have been only a few months old, which makes the idea of a betrothal between a sixteen-year-old boy and a girl barely into her teens seem all the more implausible.)

The "notes" say that when Poe departed for the University of Virginia, her father, objecting to the pair corresponding because of their youth, secretly intercepted Poe's letters to her. (It is not explained how she and Poe both--without so much as exchanging a word--apparently took this mutual failure to receive correspondence as a sign that their relationship was irrevocably over, why her father resorted to such cruel and unnecessary measures, or how she eventually came to discover the truth.) Then, in the summer of 1849, by which time the pair had lost both their spouses, Poe--a stranger to her for some twenty-three years--suddenly appeared in her parlor, and after barely saying more than "hello," pressed for an immediate marriage. However, the "notes" have Mrs. Shelton declaring that this marriage never would have actually transpired.

This last statement, at least, could very well have been the truth. Poe scholars take a letter Shelton wrote Maria Clemm in late September 1849 as proof she had consented to marry Poe. However, while this letter certainly expressed fondness towards him and a desire to ingratiate herself with his aunt--a complete stranger to Shelton--she said nothing to indicate she and Poe were betrothed. Actually, Shelton's references to her jealousy when she happened to see Poe and "his lovely wife" together soon after their marriage, and her descriptions of how often and lovingly Poe talked to her of "his Virginia" seem, if anything, to argue against the idea that Poe was ardently and successfully wooing her! Poe's own letters to Mrs. Clemm during this period, if authentic, confirm Shelton's infatuation with him, but they also betray a positive distaste at the thought of wedlock with his childhood neighbor. His penultimate letter to "Muddy" even warned her not to count on getting an addition to their family, as "my heart sinks at the idea of this marriage..." (This is oddly reminiscent of his earlier recorded comment about his reputed engagement to Mrs. Whitman: "That marriage will never take place.")

In short, if you accept the testimony of the "Valentine interview," Poe was desperate to wed Mrs. Shelton as soon as possible, but she, for unspecified reasons, had strong reservations against the idea. On the other hand, the letters to Maria Clemm from both Poe and Mrs. Shelton paint Elmira as deeply enamored of her childhood friend and the assertive one in the relationship, while he is depicted as haunted by grave doubts about marrying a woman he knew he did not really love. (His qualms would not be surprising, as the little we know about Mrs. Shelton suggests a Victorian Hilda Rumpole.)

This was, after all, the man who wrote that "the mere death of a beloved wife does not imply a final separation so complete as to justify a union with another."

After these "notes"--upon which the entire history of the Poe/Shelton relationship is based--were published by Ingram, Shelton continued to maintain her old blank silence. All her family members agreed that they never heard her so much as mention Poe's name. Her granddaughter--who lived under the same roof with her--later stated that she grew up having no idea the family matriarch even knew Poe. And Mrs. Shelton failed to provide her--or anyone else--with additional details. Biographers, like nature, abhor a vacuum. As a result of this paucity of information, no relationship in Poe's life has been more exaggerated or mythologized than the "romance" with Sarah Royster Shelton, his so-called "first and last love."

J.J. Moran, the doctor who claimed to have attended Poe on his deathbed--although even that has been disputed--published an account of a call he supposedly paid to Shelton sometime before her death in 1888. According to him, he and Shelton shared an emotional and highly theatrical-sounding conversation about Poe. Unfortunately, Moran's anecdotes about his most famous patient grew increasingly colorful and fictional over the years, particularly once he hit the lecture circuit. Like so many others, he found Poe to be an irresistible cash cow. These alleged confidences of Shelton's are believed to be just one more of his fables. The same holds true for a widely-circulated 1901 article about Poe and Shelton written by a Richmond journalist named Edward Alfriend, as well as legends about the Poe/Shelton relationship promulgated by fellow Richmond folklorists Charles Marshall Graves and the ineffable, ubiquitous, reality-challenged J.H. Whitty. All these men depict Mrs. Shelton as doing little over the years except endlessly chattering about Poe to anyone who would listen--which would surely have come as a surprise to her own family. Furthermore, the stories they related (which not only contradict each other, but the Valentine notes as well,) are all so unrealistic, when they're not demonstrably untrue, (Alfriend, who claimed to know Mrs. Shelton well, even gave her first name as "Elizabeth!") that even most Poe scholars--a lot normally willing to swallow virtually anything--have treated them gingerly, relying instead on the Valentine interview.

In Part Two: More on the Shelton/Valentine interview, plus a note on why you can't blindly trust "The Poe Log."

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Quote of the Day

"It is observable that, while among all nations the omni-color, white, has been received as an emblem of the Pure, the no-color, black, has by no means been generally admitted as sufficiently typical of Impurity. There are blue devils as well as black; and when we think very ill of a woman, and wish to blacken her character, we merely call her 'a blue-stocking,' and advise her to read, in Rabelais' 'Gargantua,' the chapter 'de ce qui est signife par les couleurs blanc et bleu.' There is far more difference between these 'couleurs,' in fact, than that which exists between simple black and white. Your 'blue,' when we come to talk of stockings, is black in issimo--'nigrum nigrius nigro'--like the matter from which Raymond Lully first manufactured his alcohol."
-"Fifty Suggestions," "Graham's Magazine," May 1849

The above passage is--with the possible exception of "Ulalume"--the most enigmatic and subtly sinister thing Poe ever published. (One wonders what the unsuspecting readers of "Graham's" made of it.) And, for whatever reason, it has gone almost completely unnoticed by mainstream Poe scholars. Burton R. Pollin, in his book "Discoveries in Poe," noted that a couple of phrases in this quote were borrowed from Horace Binney Wallace's 1838 novel "Stanley," but this did nothing to explicate Poe's meaning. (As a side note, it is interesting that Wallace wrote under the name "William Landor." The obvious tribute in "Landor's Cottage," and the long-acknowledged fact that Wallace helped influence other Poe writings, suggests that he was a more significant figure than we now think.)

Many of Poe's works reveal a familiarity with alchemical lore, but we simply do not know enough about his true private life to say with certainty if this familiarity was merely academic, or an indication that he himself practiced the ancient art. (It should be noted that true alchemy is a process to transform the alchemist himself--or herself--mentally, physically, and spiritually, not merely an effort to turn base metals into gold. In fact, the genuine alchemist disdains the single-minded quest for gold as a childish, and ultimately destructive, parlor trick--something Poe himself intimated in "Von Kempelen and His Discovery.")

I would very much like to know exactly what cryptic message Poe was conveying by tying together references to "blue-stockings" (he obviously had in mind some pseudo-learned women--or one woman in particular--whom he had cause to despise,) "Gargantua and Pantagruel," (another highly esoteric work,) and the legendary alchemist Lully.Raymond Lully the alchemist and Edgar Allan PoeWhatever it was, I am certain it would explain a lot.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Particularly Questionable Poe Letter

Edgar Allan Poe and Elizabeth Herring
"My dear little wife grew much better from the very first day after taking the Jew's Beer. It seemed to have the most instantaneous and miraculous effect. She had been dreadfully weakened, as you know, by continual night-perspirations; but the very night on which she first took the Beer she missed her usual one, and had them no more until an accident occurred by which we got out of Beer, and could not replenish our stock for three days. In this interval the perspirations returned, and her cough, which had almost ceased, came back. Upon procuring the Beer again, however, she grew better at once, and became in a short time quite strong and well. About ten days ago, however, I was obliged to go on to New York on business which absolutely required my personal attendance, and no sooner had I turned my back than she began to fret...because she did not hear from me twice a day, she became nearly crazy, and in spite of all Muddy could do, she would neither eat or sleep...I will never leave her again, as long as I live, for more than six hours at a time. What it is to be pestered with a wife!...I myself am quite well...and doing well, although I have resigned the editorship of 'Graham's Magazine'..."
This is all we have of a letter Poe supposedly wrote on July 7, 1842 to his cousin Elizabeth Herring Tutt. No complete text of the letter exists. For nearly a hundred years, his biographers have frequently quoted from this passage. However, there are solid reasons for believing it is yet another example of a Poe forgery.

To begin with, this clumsily jocular, rather puerile letter is simply nothing like Poe's writing style. The part about the "Jew's Beer"--a popular tonic for consumptives that was also known, less offensively but just as unappetizingly, as "Wine of Tar"--reads like a contemporary quack advertisement. The passage about Virginia fretting and going "nearly crazy" because "she did not hear from me twice a day" is patently absurd. (It should also be noted that Maria Clemm once stated that there was never any correspondence between Poe and Virginia, as she generally accompanied him whenever he left town for more than a day or two.)

The existence of this letter was unknown until 1922, when it was put up for auction. (We have no other letters between Poe and this cousin.) The auction catalog gave no details about its history. After the sale, the letter promptly disappeared, and has never been seen since. (The text quoted above comes from the catalog.) If this was a genuine Poe document, would not this very valuable artifact have turned up sometime during the past nine decades?

In the 1880s, Neilson Poe's daughter Amelia related to Poe biographer George Woodberry what she claimed were reminiscences of Poe that had been told to her by Elizabeth Herring. (We have nothing about Poe from Herring herself, and it is quite suspicious that she did not simply directly communicate with Woodberry.) These reminiscences say nothing of Herring possessing letters--or any other mementos--of her famous relative. Even more striking is the fact that her account claims that during the exact period that the "Poe letter" was supposedly written, Herring--who was by then a widow--was living with her father in Philadelphia. This "Poe letter" indicates that Herring was then residing in Woodville, Virginia. In other words, either this letter or Amelia Poe's information is fraudulent. Or, even more likely, both are artificial.

Until the actual manuscript of this letter is found, it is impossible to know if it is genuine. In the meantime, however, it is impossible to implicitly trust as source material.

***A footnote: Several Poe historians (most notably Mary E. Phillips, Hervey Allen, and the compilers of "The Poe Log") assume that the Herring cousin who supposedly gave information to Amelia Poe was Elizabeth's much younger half-sister, Mary Estelle Herring. (Woodberry only referred to his source as "Miss Herring," and Amelia Poe's letters to him are not extant.) It is a mystery how they could come to this conclusion. "Miss Herring" claimed that Poe paid her frequent "attentions" during a period from 1830 until 1834, when she married (these alleged "attentions" could not have been very serious,) and left Baltimore. Elizabeth Herring married Arthur Turner Tutt in 1834. Mary Estelle, who was only a child then, did not marry until some years later. "Miss Herring" also stated that beginning around 1840, after the death of her husband, she lived with her father in Philadelphia for several years before they returned to Baltimore. This, again, could only apply to Elizabeth, not Mary Estelle.

There are other problems with these "reminiscences." This account indicated that Poe did not actually live in Baltimore during the early 1830s, but only paid occasional "flying visits" to the city. Of course, this completely contradicts all the other evidence that he was living in Maria Clemm's Baltimore household at the time in question. (It also conflicts with the evidence given by the 1889 "Poe's Mary" article, where "Mary" claimed that Poe was courting her during this exact period.) Amelia Poe also stated that "Miss Herring" told her that Poe was an opium addict. This is a smear that was vigorously denied by many others who knew him--even virulent enemies such as Thomas Dunn English.

In short, both the "Herring letter" and the "Herring reminiscences" are more of the untrustworthy, implausible, and contradictory items one comes to expect from Poe biography.

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

January History Carnival

Yours truly has the admittedly undeserved honor of being part of 2011's first History Carnival, hosted this month by Jen Newby's terrific blog Writing Women's History.

Do click on over and see the show. You'll get the inside scoop on everyone's favorite warlock John Dee, celebrity quacks, Victorian pawnbrokers, looking for love in 19th century New York, and much, much more!

First time in years I've been part of respectable society.