Monday, May 16, 2011

Marginalia: Special J.H. Whitty Memorial Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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