Monday, March 28, 2011

The Name of Annabel Lee (Part One of Two)

"It was many and many a year ago
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee..."

The debate over which woman--or women--inspired what is arguably Poe's most beautiful poem has raged with remarkable vigor practically from the moment "Annabel Lee" first appeared in print, only days after the author's death.

It is a tribute to the unique emotional resonance of the poem that such a controversy even exists, considering that it is so overtly allegorical, rather than autobiographical, and there is certainly no valid evidence that Poe himself gave clues about any personal significance it may have had for him. (Poe was never one to offer explanations for any of his writings--in fact, he seemed to rather enjoy mystifying his readers with an air of, "It's none of my concern if you're too dull-witted to know what I mean.") However, this has not stopped Poe fans from linking his fable of the "kingdom by the sea" with virtually every woman he ever knew--something that, I suspect, would have both amused and disgusted him.

The leading actresses who have auditioned for the role of "Annabel Lee" are, roughly in order of popularity:

1. Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe

Poe's wife, is, by far, the woman most identified with the poem, and, while one Poe scholar perhaps became overly partisan when he said it was "sacrilege" to associate any other name with "Annabel Lee," she is the only logical choice if one wishes to read the lines as having any basis in fact.
virginia eliza clemm poe
The first to publicly state that the poem was a tribute to Virginia was Frances S. Osgood, in the "Reminiscences of Edgar A. Poe" she published in "Saroni's Musical Times" in December 1849. (Rufus W. Griswold later reprinted her account in his "Poe memoir.") Osgood's stated aim was to counter a current rumor that the poem was written in memory of a "late love affair" of the poet's. (It is not known if she was referring to Sarah Helen Whitman, Sarah Elmira Shelton, Sarah Anna Lewis, or some other lady--who hopefully was not named "Sarah.") Osgood commented disdainfully that "There seems a strange and almost profane disregard of the sacred purity and spiritual tenderness of this delicious ballad, in thus overlooking the allusion to the kindred angels and the heavenly Father of the lost and loved and unforgotten wife."

Whatever Osgood's motives may have been in making this assertion--whether it was out of spite against one of these other women, a desire to show intimate knowledge of the love between Poe and his wife, or simply a wish to give Virginia her due--she may have, for once, told the truth. Aside from the probability that Virginia was, as Mrs. Osgood conceded, his one genuine love, of all the women Poe knew, she was the only one who had "no other thought than to love and be loved by me," she alone was his "bride," and, of course, unlike the other leading candidates, she was dead when he wrote the poem. (The "wind" that "came out of the cloud, chilling/And killing my Annabel Lee" could be interpreted as a reference to Virginia's tuberculosis.) "Annabel Lee" is very possibly simply a lovely piece of imagery with no specific personal implications, but if Poe did intend it as autobiography, applying it to anyone other than his late wife is pure absurdity.

Not that this has stopped many people from trying.

2. Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton

Mrs. Shelton is the only other "Annabel" whose candidacy has developed any sort of following, in spite of the fact that her sole claim to the role rests upon a 1901 article by Edward Alfriend, "Unpublished Recollections of Edgar Allan Poe." Alfriend, who claimed to have been a friend of Shelton's (even though he gave her first name as "Elizabeth,") stated that she told him that Poe had assured her that she was his inspiration for the poem (and that she was the "lost Lenore," to boot!) Alfriend's piece is among the most easily-ridiculed Poe articles--it is packed from beginning to end with statements that are both easily disproved and manifestly ludicrous. It is impossible to read his "recollections" without coming to the conclusion that he didn't know the first thing about either Poe or Mrs. Shelton.

There is absolutely no other valid reason to link La Royster to "Annabel Lee," (and it should be noted that in the interview Mrs. Shelton allegedly gave Edward V. Valentine in 1875, she stated that Poe never addressed any poems to her.) Nevertheless, she still has her champions, most notably Thomas O. Mabbott.

Mabbott, as was often his habit in many other matters, gave varied and uncertain opinions about the poem's origins, but he was fondest of naming Mrs. Shelton as the poem's inspiration--largely, it seems, because of his strange antipathy towards Virginia Poe. For whatever reason, he swallowed whole all of Susan Archer Talley Weiss' unfounded slurs against Virginia and her marriage, making it impossible for him to accept the possibility that Poe had loved his wife enough to immortalize her memory in verse. (Mabbott was also under the impression that Poe wrote the poem during the brief period of his 1849 reacquaintance with Mrs. Shelton. He seemed oblivious to the fact that "Annabel Lee" was completed by the early spring of that year--months before Poe reconnected with his old neighbor.)

Here I must pause for an admittedly off-topic rant: What made all of Mabbott's pronouncements regarding Virginia all the more exasperating is the fact that--like other Poe biographers, most notably Hervey Allen, George Woodberry, and Frances Winwar--he seldom directly named Weiss as his source. He would instead write statements along the lines of, "Rosalie Poe's foster-brother John Mackenzie said..." or "Rosalie said..." or simply relate anecdotes without giving any source at all. (He often did this trickery with other sources as well.)

This was completely misleading Mabbott's readers. What he quoted was, rather, what Mrs. Weiss--a chronicler who made King Rufus himself seem a model of probity--alleged these people said to her. (Susan Weiss is also, lest we forget, the same person who asserted that Elmira Shelton instigated Poe's murder.) The fact is, we have no statements about Poe that come directly from any of the Mackenzies--I suspect they had only a formal social acquaintance with him--and nothing of any interest or importance from Rosalie, who made it clear to John H. Ingram that she had virtually no personal knowledge about her famous brother--she did not even know she had siblings until she was "a good size girl." In short, Mabbott, Allen, Winwar, Woodberry, et al, relied on uncorroborated and easily discredited hearsay. Mabbott's boast that, unlike others who wrote about Virginia, he was relying on the words of people who were close to Poe, while dismissing first-hand testimony from those who actually did know both the Poes, all of whom lauded Virginia and testified to the couple's devotion to each other, witnesses such as Maria Clemm, Lambert A. Wilmer, George Lippard, Mayne Reid, George R. Graham, Thomas C. Clarke and his daughter Anne, Mary Brennan, William Gowans--even Rufus W. Griswold and Frances S. Osgood, for crying out loud--makes one wonder if Mabbott wasn't permanently possessed by the Imp of the Perverse.

Mabbott's copious and incredibly influential writings (the question of how he obtained this influence is a mystery I will likely never solve) were usually not even bad scholarship--they were bad historical fiction.

3. Sarah Helen Power Whitman

What makes Mrs. Whitman stand out among the parade of Annabel wannabes is that she herself was the sole promoter for her connection to the poem. Sometime after Poe's death, she conceived the notion that "Annabel Lee" was written to her as a "peace offering." She insisted the poem disproved the common belief that Poe went to his grave harboring negative feelings towards her. (Although, in a letter to Rufus W. Griswold written two months after Poe's death, Mrs. Whitman evinced no personal knowledge about the origins of "Annabel Lee"--in fact, she even asked Griswold if he had any idea who had inspired the poem. He offered no opinion on the subject.) To the end of her life, Mrs. Whitman tried, with increasing desperation, to convince the world of her link to "Annabel Lee," and how it proved she had a special place in Poe's heart--despite the fact that she must have been aware that few people, if any, believed her. Of all the parade of possible Annabels, Mrs. Whitman's exercise in self-delusion is undoubtedly the saddest and most pitiful of the lot.

annabel lee music

Next post: The Annabel Also-Rans.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

History Is Not the Only Thing That Repeats Itself

"Is this plagiarism or is it not?--I merely ask for information."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Marginalia"

Sorry for the lack of activity this week. My computer had some sort of wardrobe malfunction that stripped off what I had planned to post yesterday, and "real life" events are delaying me from rewriting it all. While I put Humpty Dumpty back together again, I couldn't resist presenting you, just for fun, with a brief encore from my last post. Here are a few more "Raven's Bride"/"Very Young Mrs. Poe" comparisons:

The scene: The newly-married Edgar and Virginia are on the train to Petersburg...
O'Neal: "As the train pulled out of the depot and onto the bridge across the James River, Eddy pointed out Gamble's Hill rising to the right above the State Armory and the ironworks situated on the banks of the canal. He shouted the names into her ear. But when the train stopped for a few minutes outside Manchester, just across the river, they were both mute again."

Hart: "As we chugged away from the confines of Richmond, Eddy leaned over and shouted the names of landmarks into my ear: 'Gamble's Hill. The State Armory, there. Oh--and the Tredegar Iron Works.' By the time we stopped briefly at Manchester, on the opposite side of the James River, he'd fallen silent again, either out of names or out of breath."

O'Neal: "Sissy was sure that she could smell the blossoms in spite of the wood smoke which funneled out of the locomotive stack and sometimes swirled around the ladies' coach, stinging her eyes and bringing on fits of coughing. Whenever anything seemed to mar her comfort Eddy's eyes would become filled with anxiety, but she would smile, and, if the ladies were not looking, reach for his hand and give it a reassuring squeeze."

Hart: "Sometimes smoke swirled around inside the car like an evil genie, stinging our eyes and making us cough. Whenever that happened Eddy bent to me with concern, until I smiled and shook my head to let him know I was fine." "During the rare moments the ladies weren't looking our way, I'd slide a hand along the seat behind the swell of my skirts, capture Eddy's fingers, and give a quick squeeze."

The newlyweds arrive in Petersburg for their honeymoon, where they are greeted by their hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Hiram Haines:
O'Neal: "'Welcome to Petersburg,' Mr. Haines said jovially."
Hart: "'Welcome to Petersburg, Mrs. Poe,' he [Haines] boomed."

O'Neal: "'Did the trip tire you, Mrs. Poe?' Mrs. Haines asked as her husband clucked the horses into motion. 'No. I enjoyed it very much.' 'Of course. Imagine my asking a bride if a train trip tired her on her wedding day. They didn't have trains when I was married. We rode all day in a stagecoach. But I don't think I was tired either.'"

Hart: "Hiram Haines asked whether the trip had tired me out. 'No, not a bit,' I assured him." "Mrs. Haines laughed. 'Pshaw. She can't possibly be tired, Mr. Haines. Remember back when we wed? There were no trains then so we rode all day long on a stagecoach to our honeymoon cottage. And yet I was not fatigued, not one little bit!"

Enough. I'm starting to feel like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." See you next week, when, I swear it, things will get back to what passes for normal around here. In the meantime, let me leave everyone with a question that has been nagging at me ever since I did this little experiment of reading both these novels simultaneously. I have yet to find a solution to the mystery; perhaps one of you will have better luck. What I would like answered is this:

What in hell was Lenore Hart thinking??!!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Little Longfellow War

"Is it altogether impossible that a critic be instigated to the exposure of a plagiarism, or still better, of plagiarism generally wherever he meets it, by a strictly honorable and even charitable motive?"
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Mr. Longfellow and Other Plagiarists"

Yes, one more "Raven's Bride" post. Not to fear, I'll be getting back to regularly scheduled programming next week or so. But my observations that many parts of this novel are a virtual cut-and-paste job from "The Very Young Mrs. Poe" have caused a certain amount of, shall we say, unrest in some quarters. Much to my amusement, I've even acquired my very own Outis--although he is hardly of the same caliber as his distinguished predecessor. As a result, I wanted to post a short "reader's guide" listing a sampling of the too-close-to-be-coincidental resemblances between the two novels. I won't list all the exact resemblances I've found--I'm sure they'd be as tedious for you to read as they were for me to compile--but enough for my point to be made.The Very Young Mrs PoeThere are entire episodes these two books have in common, which are too lengthy to quote verbatim. Mind you--and this is a point I cannot emphasize enough--I am not speaking of episodes that both writers merely repeated from historical sources. It is, of course, a given that biographical novels about the same person will repeat many of the same incidents of that person's life. I am saying that Lenore Hart's novel repeats events that Cothburn O'Neal invented out of whole cloth. In other words, she used another work of fiction as her main source. For instance, history tells us that when Poe returned to Richmond in the summer of 1835, he stayed at a boardinghouse run by a Mrs. Poore. In October of that year, when he brought Mrs. Clemm and Virginia to live with him in that city, the two women lodged with a Mrs. Yarrington. It is not clear if Poe lived in the same boardinghouse with them, or returned to Mrs. Poore's. That is all we know.

O'Neal expanded upon these few details, creating a scene where the trio arrive at Mrs. Poore's, hoping to find rooms. She refuses to let them in the house. Poe is utterly puzzled by her attitude, but the implication is that her hostility is due to Poe's drunkenness while he lived there. Thomas Cleland then helpfully leads them to Mrs. Yarrington's, where they all take lodgings. These imaginary details--including their initial walk through Richmond to Mrs. Poore's and the description of the room Virginia and her mother are given at the Yarrington house--are all repeated in Hart's book.The Raven's Bride"The Raven's Bride" is even peppered with lines of dialogue and descriptive passages that were copied only from "The Very Young Mrs. Poe." (The main difference is that, while both novels are told from Virginia's viewpoint, "The Raven's Bride" is directly narrated by her.) Some examples from the opening chapters of each book:

In both novels, when Virginia first meets "Eddy" she is a small girl who arrives home after playing with two French neighbor girls.
O'Neal: "...making puppet motions with her hands and repeating the words to a gamesong they had been playing..."

Hart: "...making the sweeping hand motions that went along with our last shared song..."

She comes in to be introduced to her cousin:
O'Neal: "A stranger was sitting...before the empty fireplace, talking to Granny Poe, who was propped up on her couch as usual."

Hart: "Granny Poe was propped up on her settee by the fire, a sight which I'd expected."

In both novels Sissy feels "shy" as she approaches him.

In both novels "Eddy" remarks to her how much he likes her black curls and black eyes.

Later in both books, "Sissy" and "Muddy" are shown on the Light Street Wharf in Baltimore, ready to travel to Richmond. Muddy remarks to her daughter:
O'Neal: "I hope Eddy gets a letter...I'd feel better...if he had had some word from Mr. White."

Hart: "I do wish Eddy had received another letter from Mr. White."
Same scene:
O'Neal: "Sissy felt like hugging her mother. But it was such a public place, so many people around...That would look childish." (She wanted to live up to the chic traveling dress Maria had made for her.)

Hart: "For a moment I wanted to cling to my mother...But people were thronging all around us. Such behavior would look so childish..." (Even the dark traveling dress Muddy had cut down and restitched would not be sufficient to mark her as a grown woman.)

O'Neal: "She [Virginia] turned to look out across the basin toward Federal Hall."

Hart: "I turned away to look out across the basin toward Federal Hall."

O'Neal: "The docks...looked like a forest bare of leaves, the tall masts and spiky yards of...clippers standing naked...resting between trips to Brazil."

Hart: "Clipper ships...[with]...tall naked masts and spiky yards were bare of sails, their snarl of lines a thick forest without leaves...resting between dashes to Brazil and New York and Cuba."

O'Neal: "...his [Eddy's] plain black suit amid the colorful clothes...was all to his advantage. His fine head and scholarly demeanor set him apart."

Hart: "Eddy's black sack coat, black trousers...his broad pale forehead...set him apart to advantage."

O'Neal: "...there was no one on the pier to see them off, since they had already said good-bye to the family. Sissy waved anyway...she could wave farewell to Baltimore."

Hart: "There was no one to say good-bye and see us off...we'd already written or called on the few family and friends left in Baltimore....I waved from my spot at the rail...'She's waving good-bye to Baltimore,' he said..."

O'Neal: "The boat from Norfolk to Richmond was smaller and slower than the one they had boarded in Baltimore. The trip up the James River was more leisurely, too..."

Hart: "The boat we boarded in Norfolk to continue on to Richmond was smaller and a good deal slower than the Baltimore Line steamer. Our trip up the James was more leisurely too."

O'Neal: "Beyond ...the confluence of the Appomattox, the James grew narrower and wound in great loops around Bermuda Hundred."

Hart: "Beyond the confluence of the Appomattox, the James grew narrower and wound in great loops around Bermuda Hundred."

On their arrival in Richmond, Eddy describes Mrs. Poore's boardinghouse.
O'Neal: "She has a large house. There's always room."

Hart: "It's a large house. There's always space."

O'Neal: "The docks were busy, and the wagonette was held up now and then by dray wagons loaded with hogsheads of tobacco and sacks of flour and cornmeal. Sometimes an empty collier's wagon rumbled toward the coal yards...farther upstream."

Hart: "...the docks were very busy. We would lurch forward, only to stop for a dray loaded with sacks of flour and cornmeal, or an empty collier's wagon rumbling...toward the coal yards upstream."

The trio arrives at Mrs. Poore's (and, keep in mind that there is no detailed historical description of the house):
O'Neal: "'This is Capitol Square,' he said. 'Mrs. Poore's house is the next one here on Bank Street.'" "They turned into the yard of a large two-story brick house with a Greek portico fronting in the square. The half-paned front door revealed a well lighted hallway inside. Eddy climbed the steps and opened the door without knocking, just as though he still lived there."

Hart: "'Capitol Square,' he said. 'Mrs. Poore's is the next house on Bank Street.'" "We turned into the yard of a two-story brick structure with a whitewashed Greek portico facing the neatly-planted square. Within lay a wide, well-lighted hall. Eddy opened the door without even ringing a bell or knocking." "'Well, he used to live here,' I whispered."

In both books, the little family gets a negative reception (again, a scene that does not exist in the historical record):
O'Neal: "There was a wait, then the sound of a door opening upstairs. 'What was that, Tom?' a voice shrilled. 'I say Mr. Poe is back--' 'That's what I thought you said,' the voice interrupted. 'Well, you can tell him I don't have a vacancy and I'm not likely to have one.' The door slammed shut....'She doesn't have a vacancy,' he [Cleland] said with a grin. Eddy looked helplessly from Tom to Maria to Sissy and back to Tom. 'What are we to do?' he asked, of anybody."

Hart: "A door creaked shrilly on protesting hinges upstairs, and an equally high voice called down, 'What was that, Tom?'...'I said Edgar Poe is back, and he--' 'That's what I thought you said," the woman shouted. 'Well, you can tell him for me, I do not have lodgings for him, and am not likely to have any now or later!' The hinges squealed derisively as the door slammed again...Cleland turned back, avoiding our eyes. 'Ah, well, It seems my mother-in-law has no vacancy here just now.' Eddy stared at him helplessly. 'But I--then what are we to do?'"

In both books is the same completely imaginary scene where, after Virginia has some very unsettling "lessons" with the mentally disturbed Rosalie Poe--something that never happened in reality--she upsets "Eddy" by saying she can't help but love Rosalie, as he is so much like her. He runs off hysterically, crying out (in both books) "We are nothing alike." Later that night, he returns to their boardinghouse, and visits the room Virginia and her mother share.
O'Neal: "'I wanted to say good night,' he [Eddy] said...He pecked her [Mrs. Clemm] on the cheek. Then he kissed Sissy on the lips. There was no liquor on his breath. Perhaps that was what he wanted known. He made no explanations. No one asked him where he had been or what he had been doing. He looked tired, haggard...'It is good to come home to a room that has love and beauty in it,' he said."

Hart: "I wanted to say good night,' Eddy muttered from the foot of the bed...He came around and kissed my mother's cheek, then moved to my side and pressed his mouth to mine...He did not explain, and I did not ask where he'd been...he looked gaunt and hollow and tired. 'It's good to come home to such love and beauty,' he whispered...There'd been no taint of liquor on his breath. Perhaps that was why he'd kissed me full on the mouth, in front of my mother. So I would know that."

After Eddy and Virginia are married, they take a train to Petersburg for their honeymoon. In both novels, the conductor, recognizing them as newlyweds, escorts them to the ladies' coach so they may sit together.
O'Neal: "He [the conductor] asked permission of the half-dozen lady passengers to bring them aboard. 'If you ladies don't object,' he said, 'I will close my eyes to company rules and allow the groom to sit in the ladies' coach with his lovely bride.'...She [Sissy] felt that she passed inspection...It was difficult to determine the age of a young lady, especially if she were reasonably well filled out and modestly veiled. 'I must ask you not to smoke, Mr. Poe,' the conductor warned in parting. 'Smoking is restricted to the gentleman's car on the rear.' 'Thank you,' Eddy said. 'I seldom smoke.'"

Hart: "'Going to flout company rules, folks, and seat you all in the second coach.' He [the conductor] grinned at Eddy. 'Already cleared it with the ladies aboard.' When we climbed up no one looked askance or asked how old I was. Of course, if a female is veiled and reasonably well filled out, it's hard to tell her exact age anyhow. The conductor left after admonishing the groom, 'Smoking is restricted to the gentleman's car at the rear, sir.'...'Thank you for the information,' he said. 'In any case, I seldom smoke.'"

Both novels have a scene where William Burton comes to their house for dinner. (There is no historical record of this happening, and it is highly unlikely, as the two detested each other.) In both scenes, Burton offers to hire Virginia for his theatre, has an identical discussion with her about comedy being "a very serious business," (an observation of Virginia's which in both scenes has Burton holding a piece of cake halfway to his mouth in surprise,) and where Burton seeks to hire Poe for his new magazine.

In both novels, the scene with Burton is immediately followed by one where the Poes go boating on the Wissahickon. (O'Neal drew the scene from Poe's essay, "Morning On the Wissahickon," but added Virginia to the outing.) Again, we have no proof this ever actually took place. In both novels, Poe comes up with a skiff that someone had left on the bank. When Virginia objects to him appropriating it, he answers that the owner can steal their horse in exchange. They have a picnic where, afterwards, Eddy rests with his head in Virginia's lap. In both scenes, there is reference to their hopes of living someday in a cottage overlooking the river.

In both books is a scene where Eddy gets drunk on his way back from Henry Hirst's office. He stays away overnight, although there is hot soup waiting for him. Virginia spends the night in her mother's room, suffering terrible nightmares about what might have befallen him. The next day, as Mrs. Clemm goes out to look for him, Virginia anxiously prepares dinner for three--hot biscuits and sweet potatoes. Mrs. Clemm finally brings back the intoxicated Eddy. He has with him a caged talking bird (in O'Neal's book, it is a parrot; in Hart's, a black bird.)

In both books is a scene where Virginia forces her doctor (in O'Neal's book, Dr. Mitchell; in Hart's, Dr. English) to tell her how much time she has left. These two scenes--of which we have no historical record--are virtually similar.

In both novels, Virginia develops pneumonia. (Again, there is no factual evidence for this.) In both cases, Rosalie comes to help attend her. The combination of Virginia's illness and his sister's presence causes Eddy to go on a bender. Their landlady brings her some broth, commenting on how thin Virginia looks.

Both novels have Eddy getting into a quarrel with a "young lieutenant" at his gymnasium after Eddy outpoints him in a pistol-shooting contest. In both cases, the lieutenant tells Eddy that poets have no intelligence or common sense, and can't be trusted with firearms. In both novels, Virginia is suffering from a touch of pleurisy at the time. The Poes are both feeling ill, and are confined to bed, much to their mutual boredom, although Virginia suspects Eddy is just "sulking." Virginia recovers, although Muddy won't let her out of bed until she is free of pain and fever for two days. While the two invalids are recuperating, Eddy quickly solves a magazine's word puzzle, which gives him the idea of offering a public challenge for people to send him cryptograms to solve. The thought inspires him to rise from his sickbed, get dressed, and go out the door, fully recovered. To repeat: This fictitious scenario O'Neal invented appears in both books.

In both novels, after Virginia has her first hemorrhage, doctors order her to bed for many months. This evidently did not happen in reality. (Also, in both novels her initial physician is none other than a kindly Thomas Dunn English. Although English had a physician's license, he does not seem to have ever actually practiced as a doctor--and we certainly have no reason to believe Virginia was ever his patient.)

In both novels, there is the same scene when they are living at the Brennan Farm. Eddy is going into town, so Virginia--who is trying to convince him that she is well--takes advantage of his absence to take some laudanum and rest. Because of the heavy snowfall, he returns unexpectedly, and is aghast to find her in bed. In both scenes, he picks up the laudanum bottle and asks her, "How long have you been taking this?" In O'Neal's book, his question is described as "not an accusation; it was a petition, a supplication, a plea for a reprieve from doom." In Hart's, it is "less a medical inquiry than a child's plea: Tell me a story. Make me believe all is well, and will end happily ever after." In both cases, the scene ends with Poe brooding on birds and coming up with the genesis for "The Raven."

All the above does not fully detail all the fictional resemblances to be found in these two books. Not even close. I think, however, I have given enough examples. I find it impossible to believe that, after reading all this, any disinterested observer could fail to see that there are major-league shenanigans afoot. I truly have never come across anything like this.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Hazards of Poe Fiction: "The Raven's Bride" Revisited

Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe and The Raven's BrideI have noticed that over the past two weeks or so, this blog have gotten a number of hits where people appear to be looking for information related to Lenore Hart's recent Virginia Poe novel. Elsewhere online, it has struck me that readers who are unfamiliar with Poe take this work of fiction as some sort of "guidebook" to his real life--which is hardly the case. The novel is well-written and often intriguing, and I always appreciate Poe's wife getting some of the spotlight. However, certain things about "Bride" were simply utterly misguided, and I hate the thought that unwary readers will assume they were based on solid historical research. This seems to be a common trap for fans of historical fiction, and if it seems odd that I'm spending so much time discussing a mere novel, it's because I have come to believe that works of fiction have a greater influence than any biography in shaping general public perceptions of a historical figure. Just look at Shakespeare and Richard III.

Leaving aside the "Raven's Bride"/"Very Young Mrs. Poe" connection (and, again, I hope fans of Hart's novel will read Cothburn O'Neal's book and come to their own conclusions about that matter,) these are a few of the myths I fear this novel will popularize:

1. I assume in the interests of heightened drama, Hart way oversold the "Poe lived in poverty" angle. Yes, the Poes were never rolling in wealth. (Something that, I am convinced, was never important to them anyway.) Yes, there were several periods when they faced serious financial problems, most notably in the months before and after Virginia's death. However, Hart gives the impression that the Poe trio lived in practically unrelieved depressing and degrading squalor. Their lodgings are consistently described as "dingy," their clothes as humiliatingly "shabby," their tableware cracked and chipped. If you take Hart's word for it, Poe made Oliver Twist look like Louis XIV. And Virginia is depicted as privately gnashing her teeth in misery at the deplorable existence her feckless husband has imposed upon her.

This is, to say the least, exaggerated. Despite their lack of funds, contemporaries agree that Poe and his wife always dressed quietly, but with taste and even a modicum of style. Their clothing was always perfectly respectable. Similarly, their various living quarters were invariably described as simple, but comfortable, immaculate, and even charming. We know that, right into 1846, Virginia even owned unnecessary little luxuries such as stationery--which must have been custom-made--embossed with her initials (she owned another set with a flowered pattern,) and an elegant cut-glass perfume bottle. An acquaintance later described Virginia as having been "brought up in the South in perfect indolence and perfectly unfitted for toil. Her hands have never been soiled with work." Such details hardly indicate a hardscrabble existence. The Poe household may have been monetarily poor, but they surrounded themselves with what Poe's biographer Arthur H. Quinn described as "the neatness and self-respecting atmosphere, for which all three of the family were responsible." Their final New York City residence was located in what was then the most fashionable part of town. It should be noted that, even with the ill health she endured the last five years of her life, Virginia's friends all described her as a very cheerful, vivacious, happy personality who appeared utterly content with her lot. It is a disservice to both Virginia and Edgar that Hart failed to acknowledge that aspect of their story. There is no indication anywhere that Virginia ever regretted her life, or blamed her husband in any way for whatever problems they faced. Not one.

2. Poe's drinking was also overemphasized. It would be futile to deny that he had a problem with alcohol, but he was hardly the chronic "dipsomaniac" (Hart's words) portrayed in the novel. However, "Poe the drunk" has become such a beloved legendary figure--rather like Santa Claus--that it scarcely seems worthwhile pointing this out.

3. Hart completely misrepresents Poe's view of the afterlife. She depicts him as basically an atheist, convinced that there is nothing after we die, and that everyone we love is lost to us forever. If she had ever bothered to read "Eureka," or "The Island of the Fay," or "The Poetic Principle"--practically anything he ever wrote, for all that--she would have realized her grave error. (For anyone interested in Poe's religious views, Edward Wagenknecht's "Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend" closes with a fine chapter on the subject.)

4. Hart made a complete muddle of the Poe/Ellet/Osgood scandal. Most books about Poe inevitably do, as the subject is so murky and confounding, but I get the feeling she didn't even try to understand what happened. (And, of course, she also included that stale canard about Mrs. Osgood supposedly being estranged from her husband.) Hart simply combined two different, contradictory pieces of completely unverified gossip, and wound up with an illogical mess that doesn't even fit the few facts we have on the subject. For anyone who's interested, I've chronicled the whole complicated unpleasantness involving Poe and those two women here, here and here. (Incidentally, Hart's sloppy research is typified by her description of the very married Elizabeth Ellet as "Miss." And I am confounded by Hart's decision to have all the other characters call her "Lizzie." Mrs. Ellet was called a great many things by her contemporaries--few of which are repeatable here--but I can guarantee "Lizzie" was not among them. And I feel equally confident in asserting that Mrs. Osgood was never on a first-name basis with Poe or Virginia.)

I also found it interesting that Hart couldn't even make up her mind what Poe's relationship to Frances S. Osgood may have been. At one point, he mocks her personally and is unenthusiastic about her poetry. Then, he suddenly winds up in a public "flirtation" with her, and Hart describes him as appearing "disappointed" when Virginia tells him Osgood wants to be friends with both of them--the implication being that he had hoped for something more with the lady. This, of course, makes a startling and inexplicable contrast to Virginia's calm certainty that her husband "loved only me. I had his undying devotion, and all his true attention, in life and on the page..." Then, towards the end of the novel, Virginia classifies Osgood as just another of the literary women whom Poe "wooed" simply in the hopes of getting "favors" or "patronage" from them. (A rather ugly and unfounded smear Hart seems to have picked up from Cothburn O'Neal. In truth, these women were doing the "wooing" to win "favors" or "patronage" from him.) Also, Virginia feels no jealousy about the poems Poe and Osgood published to each other, as she realizes that such writings were merely "a reflection of the poet's ego, not the subject's life." But then, Virginia is depicted as being aware that "Poor Frances Osgood" is in love with Poe. How does she know this? From Osgood's poetry!

Couldn't Hart have made up her mind what she wanted to write before she sat down at the keyboard?

5. Hart's lack of knowledge about Poe is revealed by her ludicrous depiction of Thomas Dunn English as a kindly fellow who acted as Virginia's physician. (This bizarre touch is among her "borrowings" from Cothburn O'Neal.) For anyone who knows the true Poe/English history, this adds a positively surreal tone to the novel.

6. A central theme of the novel is Virginia's stifled dream to be a professional singer. Although we know she played the harp and piano, and was said to have a lovely singing voice, we have no indication she ever harbored any sort of professional ambitions. Virginia was described by everyone who knew her as a strong character, but very modest, dignified, and private, which makes this supposed aching desire to perform publicly seem unlikely. And I doubt her mother and husband would have objected if she had harbored such longings. After all, Poe's mother was an actress and singer, and he was very proud of the fact. As I noted in an earlier post, he publicly asserted the intrinsic morality of the stage, and strongly championed female performers. If his wife had dreamed of following in Eliza Poe's footsteps, I suspect he and "Muddy" would have been supportive, rather than horrified. However, I did not find the idea that she had such dreams convincing. I suspect Hart devised this "would-be career woman" plotline--which comes off as jarringly anachronistic--in order to make it easier for the modern-day female reader to "relate" to Virginia. (I got the strong feeling that "The Raven's Bride" was essentially written for teenage girls.)

7. As was the case in O'Neal's book, Poe's sister Rosalie plays a much larger role than the facts warrant. Rosalie herself admitted that she knew virtually nothing about Edgar and did not even know she had siblings until she was grown. There was always little contact between the two, and what relationship they had was decidedly chilly on both sides. (Although, once Edgar was dead, Rosalie never hesitated to exploit her connection to him.)

8. If I had to pick one thing I disliked about this novel, it was the air of subterranean hostility between the three principals. If you believe Hart, Virginia and her mother secretly resented Poe because he drank and couldn't hold a job. Virginia secretly resented her mother for dominating her. (This domination extended to the point where Mrs. Clemm was able to intimidate Edgar and Virginia into not consummating their marriage for two years!) Mrs. Clemm secretly resented Virginia for fighting this domination. Poe secretly resented them both because their presence kept him from speedily drinking himself to death. (And, of course, Virginia sensed his resentment--and resented him back for it, with interest.) I would not object to seeing such emotions depicted, if it wasn't for the fact that there is nothing on record to support any of it. Even Poe's worst enemies acknowledged that his family life was unusually close, loving, happy, and mutually supportive, with no hint of the clenched-fist antagonisms Hart imagined. Mrs. Clemm expressed nothing less than the truth when she wrote, "We three lived only for each other." Why do modern-day novelists have to turn every family relationship into something out of Tennessee Williams?

9. Just for the record, history gives no indication that Virginia ever had pneumonia. Hart evidently acquired that plotline from Cothburn O'Neal's novel. Similarly, we have no evidence that "Sissy" was a general "family name" for Virginia. As far as we know, no one except her husband ever called her by that pet name. Make of that what you will. The source for Hart's belief that "Sissy" was an appellation used by all her relatives appears to be...Cothburn O'Neal. (The same goes for the idea that Maria Clemm's mother was called "Granny Poe.")

I realize this entire post has an "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" quality. There are some things to like about this novel, and I would not wish to dissuade anyone from reading "The Raven's Bride"--if for no other reason than that Virginia is in desperate need of reappraisals. There certainly are worse books about Poe in circulation. I just want to emphasize that this is very definitely a work of fiction. Magna est veritas et praevalebit.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Poe's Perplexing Parents: Elizabeth Arnold Poe

In regards to Edgar Poe's mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, her mystery lies not in her death, but her life. It is a curious fact that the mother of one of literature's best-known and most-scrutinized figures is virtually an enigma to us. She was born in England, possibly in 1787. Her mother was also an actress named Elizabeth Arnold, who came with her daughter to America in 1796. We do not know the identity of her father. Edgar's biographer Mary E. Phillips discovered a 1784 London marriage record for a Henry Arnold and Elizabeth Smith, and, in her usual highly fanciful fashion, imagined she had located documentation of her subject's maternal grandparents. "Arnold" and "Elizabeth," are, however, among the most common British names imaginable, so it is impossible to know if Phillips was correct. Historians discount Edgar's own assertion that his mother was an illegitimate daughter of Benedict Arnold, although it would be interesting to know if he himself believed the story.

Elizabeth Arnold, senior, disappeared from the historical record in May of 1798, and it is presumed she died around that time. In 1802, young Elizabeth married another actor named Charles Hopkins. Her husband died in October of 1805, and five or six months later, she and David Poe Jr. entered into their brief union--a marriage she probably heartily regretted by the time she died on December 8, 1811.

Those are the only facts about Eliza Poe's life that can be stated with any certainty. She was by all accounts a performer possessing beauty and charisma, with a particular talent for comedic and musical roles, but we have little idea of what she was like off the stage. The only personal relic we have of her is a very brief, unimportant, poorly-written note thanking a Mrs. Tazewell "for her great kindness." Her posthumous reputation has always been haunted by allegations that her youngest child Rosalie was illegitimate (according to more than one source, her sister-in-law Maria Clemm asserted that Rosalie was not the child of either David or Eliza,) but we cannot know if there was a firm basis for the legend. Many years later, Mrs. Clemm described Edgar's mother as "a lovely little creature and highly talented. I loved her most devotedly." However, she admitted that the Poe family had violently disapproved of David's marriage, only unbending somewhat when the couple's children were born. Unfortunately, Mrs. Clemm volunteered little other information about a woman she evidently barely knew.

Our main source of personal information about Eliza is Marie Louise Shew Houghton, of all people. She often mentioned Edgar's mother in the long, incoherent, bizarre letters she sent to John H. Ingram in the 1870s, but unfortunately her information is largely uncorroborated and usually unbelievable. (In truth, it is nearly impossible to think of anything she wrote that can be verified.) Mrs. Houghton told Ingram that Edgar had had a bundle of his mother's letters, and two sketches she had made, including one of Boston Harbor that contained the inscription "For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends." Houghton claimed that Mrs. Clemm resented any mention of Eliza and disparaged these mementos.

We have no other evidence of any of this. These letters and sketches are not extant, and there is no record of anyone else seeing, or even mentioning, these items, leading one to doubt they ever existed. There is also no other testimony that Mrs. Clemm had any negative attitudes towards Edgar's mother. (It must always be remembered that although Ingram--very inexplicably and irresponsibly--used Mrs. Houghton as a major source for his biography of Poe, he privately admitted that he found her mentally unstable and "imaginative.")Eliza Poe mother of Edgar Allan Poe We can also credit Mrs. Houghton for the well-known miniature painting that we have of Eliza, but even that comes with a decided question mark. Houghton admitted that the portrait had been painted by herself, using as a model a miniature once owned by Edgar. This alleged original portrait, like the other artifacts mentioned by Mrs. Houghton, has never been found, making it impossible to verify if it is an authentic likeness. (Art historian Michael Deas dismissed the Houghton picture as "questionable.")

It is unfortunate that we know little about one crucial question involving David and Eliza Poe--their son Edgar's true opinion of them. It can be taken for granted that he keenly felt his orphaned status, but everyone who ever knew him--save the verbose and imaginative Nurse Marie Louise--agreed that he very seldom, if ever, even mentioned his parents. Mrs. Houghton quoted him as declaring that he owed to his mother "every good gift of his intellect, & his heart," and that Eliza was "as pure, as angelic and altogether lovely, as any woman could be on earth." Poe may have uttered words of the sort--even though he evidently had no personal memories of his mother--but, again, we only have Mrs. Houghton's ever-unreliable word for it. (Marie Louise was, let us not forget, the same source who also insisted to Ingram that Richard Henry Stoddard--who we know met Poe on only two very brief and ultimately very unpleasant occasions in 1845--had not only attended Virginia Poe's funeral, but helped her arrange flowers and sprinkle cologne about the house. "With green goggles over his eyes.")

The most revealing remark we have from Poe about his parents comes from a letter he wrote in December of 1835 to Beverley Tucker, a friend of Poe's then-employer Thomas W. White. Tucker had written White a letter mentioning his memories of seeing the beautiful Eliza Poe on stage, a statement which White passed on to Edgar. Poe responded with some of the most touching words he ever wrote, telling Tucker that, "In speaking of my mother you have touched a string to which my heart fully responds. To have known her is to be an object of great interest in my eyes. I myself never knew her--and never knew the affection of a father. Both died (as you may remember) within a few weeks of each other. I have many occasional dealings with Adversity--but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials."

Ten years later, he wrote in the "Broadway Journal" a spirited defense of the acting profession, concluding that "The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress--has invariably made it his boast--and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty." (We have no idea if his claim that his mother was "well born" came from any genuine information or--much more likely--simply his habitual fondness for fictionalizing his background.)

With David and Eliza Poe, we are faced with the common themes of Edgar's history--rumor, speculation, hearsay, contradiction, and facts that are all too few and far between.