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)