Monday, May 28, 2012

Sergeant Major Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Day poppy

How dark a woe! Yet how sublime a hope!
How silently serene a sea of pride!
How daring an ambition! Yet how deep—
How fathomless a capacity for love!

There is no exquisite beauty without
some strangeness in the proportion.
--inscription on a tablet in the library at West Point

For anyone unfamiliar with the details of Poe’s life, it usually comes as a great surprise to learn that he did a stint in the U.S. Army, and, moreover, was a very good soldier. It seems appropriate—or, at least, as appropriate as I could get within the theme of this strange blog—to devote a Memorial Day post to his short, curious military career.

When eighteen-year-old Edgar Poe arrived in Boston from Richmond, VA in April of 1827, he had reached the end of his old life, with no firm plans on how to start a new one. After the end of his first and only term at the University of Virginia, he had quarreled so bitterly with his foster-father John Allan that he quit his adopted hometown altogether, determined to strike out on his own. We do not know exactly what he did during this period, until he enlisted in the Army on May 26 of that year, under the name “Edgar A. Perry.” His reasons for taking this seemingly uncharacteristic career move—and doing so under an alias, to boot—are unknown. It is assumed that he signed up out of sheer desperation, because he was unable to find any other work. If this is the case, Poe must have been in dire straits indeed, as the contemporary military was notorious for, as one historian put it, “Small pay, little recreation, hard duty, and scant opportunity for advancement.”

Poe’s education—highly unusual for the average recruit of the era—served him well in his new position. He quickly became clerk for Company H, 1st Artillery, under Lieutenant Joshua Howard. His duties involved handling routine papers, serving as messenger between his company and regimental headquarters, writing Howard’s letters, and preparing payrolls and muster-rolls. However tedious this work may have been, it at least excused him from the even more tiresome garrison duties of his comrades, and gave him a relatively large amount of leisure time.

Poe was soon promoted to the highly important job of an artificer, with the tasks of preparing the battery’s bombs and shells, and helping to supervise the ammunition supply. His new status gave him a raise in pay—from $5 to $10 dollars a month, as well as “one ration of whiskey or rum per day.” He performed so effectively that on January 1, 1829, he was promoted to regimental sergeant-major—the highest non-commissioned grade in the Army—which was a remarkably speedy rise in the ranks.

However, Poe soon realized that as things stood, his chances for further advancement in the Army were limited. The military was, as he later wrote, “no place for a poor man.” The following month, he wrote John Allan asking his help in procuring an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point. Poe was under the impression that his Army experience would enable him to breeze through his cadetship in only six months or so—an erroneous assumption that would cause him a good deal of trouble later on.

Three weeks after Poe wrote this letter, his foster-mother Frances Allan died, and he obtained a week’s furlough to attend her funeral. During his visit to Richmond, he and Allan came to something of a reconciliation, and they agreed Poe would apply for a discharge from the Army and seek an appointment to West Point. Accordingly, on April 4, 1829 “Sergeant-Major Edgar A. Perry” was ordered discharged “on furnishing an acceptable substitute without expense to the government.” This order took effect—under his real name—on April 25.

Poe had made an excellent impression on his superiors. Lieutenant Howard wrote a letter of recommendation stating that his habits were “good and entirely free from drinking.” Other officers wrote a similar letters to the Academy, asserting that the young soldier was “highly worthy of confidence,” “highly praiseworthy and deserving of confidence,” “free of bad habits,” and would follow the responsibilities of a cadet “studiously and faithfully.” Allan himself wrote an appallingly cold letter on Poe’s behalf that fell into the “with friends like these…” category. He made a point of stating that "the youth" “is no relation to me whatever” and that he had only interested himself in the young man because “every Man is my care, if he be in distress.” This ungenerous letter—written by someone who had raised “the youth” from infancy—alone does much to excuse Poe’s resentful attitude toward the man he once called “Pa.”

Unfortunately, Poe’s attempts at finding a substitute did not go smoothly. Under normal circumstances, he could, with the permission of his commanding officer, pay a bounty of $12 to the first man who had enlisted after he filed the request to be discharged, or deliver a larger bounty to any other man who was deemed acceptable. However, when Poe applied for his discharge, his superiors were all away on other business, forcing him to pay a bounty of $75. He paid $25 in cash, and wrote a note for the remainder.

Poe obtained his appointment to the Academy in the spring of 1830, and on June 28 passed the entrance examinations. Cadet life soon proved to be a surprise for him, and a most unpleasant one. Discipline was much stricter than anything he had previously experienced, his duties were monotonous, if not distasteful, and although he excelled academically, he found his studies unchallenging. What must have been most galling for a budding literary genius were the rules allowing cadets to visit the library only on Saturdays, when they could only check out one book “calculated to assist him in his class studies,” and forbidding them to “keep in his room any novel, poem, or other book not related to his studies.” He had fled one dead-end position for one that was quickly looking even deader.

Poe doubtless found his new circumstances disagreeable, but he appears to have kept his troubles to himself for the first months of his cadetship. However, in January 1831, disaster struck. His substitute in the Army, Sergeant Samuel “Bully” Graves, to whom Poe owed money, (it is still disputed whether or not this loan related to the $75 bounty,) had sent John Allan a letter Poe had written Graves, contemptuously dismissing Allan as a brutal, drunken skinflint.

Allan, unsurprisingly, did not take this well. He had long been greatly dissatisfied with his increasingly uncongenial ward, and he took this opportunity to write Poe a letter announcing that he was washing his hands of the young man for good. Poe—who never did learn the First Rule of Holes (“when you’re in one, stop digging”)—responded with an equally bitter missive detailing every stored-up grievance he ever had with Allan—it was an impressive list—and announcing his decision to resign from the Academy, declaring he was too tired and too poor “to put up with the fatigues of this place.” Allan did not bother to reply, merely annotating the letter with the words, “I do not think the Boy has one good quality. He may do or act as he pleases.”

It was a supreme tragedy for both Poe and Allan—particularly, of course, for the former—that these two men had an uncanny genius for bringing out the worst in each other.

Poe carried through with his threat. He began deliberately missing parades and all other class formations. On January 23, the first record of disciplinary action against him appeared: He was arrested “for absenting himself from his academic duties.” On February 8, he was court-martialed for neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. Poe does not appear to have offered any real defense, and he was quickly found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed from the Academy effective March 6. This delayed dismissal was the work of the Superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. Thayer was fond of the wayward cadet, and, as a final favor, arranged to keep him on the Academy roster long enough to earn sufficient pay to settle his debts. On February 19, he departed for New York City. He took with him the money he had on credit with the treasurer of the Academy—twenty-four cents.

He left West Point with one of the strangest legacies ever offered by a cadet. Before his departure he solicited subscriptions among his fellow students for a new edition of his poems. One hundred and thirty one cadets (out of a total of two hundred and thirty two) put up $1.25 each to cover the cost of publication. (This suggests Poe was hardly the forbidding, friendless outcast of popular imagination.) Soon after his arrival in New York, the volume—dedicated to “The U.S. Corps of Cadets”—appeared. It contained, among other now-famous poems, “To Helen,” “Israfel,” and "Irene" (later retitled, “The Sleeper.")

It was said many years later that when Poe’s former classmates read the book, they were outraged. They had given Poe their money expecting more of the little rhymes satirizing cadet life he had composed for their amusement. This “ridiculous doggerel” he produced instead, was, they proclaimed, a complete waste of their money.

Poe always did face tough audiences.

(Note: For anyone interested in further details of Poe’s Army period, William F. Hecker’s brief, but highly insightful book, “Private Perry and Mister Poe,” is the definitive work on this under-analyzed period of his life. Major Hecker--a West Point graduate and career military officer, as well as a literary scholar--was, very sadly, killed in action in Iraq in 2006. This Memorial Day post is particularly dedicated to him.)

Image via New York Public Library

Monday, May 21, 2012


This post is designed to provide a home for a few stray bits of Poeana I've encountered here and there.

1. The Case of the Postponed Pym

"The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" was issued by Harper's in July of 1838. However, the firm applied for copyright and had a title page prepared over a year earlier, in June 1837. (A month before, the "Knickerbocker" announced that the novel was "nearly ready for publication.") Why the long delay? We have no idea. Poe researcher Kenneth Rede suggested "they withheld the volume from the public to give Poe, desperately in need of funds, and without employment at the time, a reasonable opportunity to find a periodical willing to continue the serialization of the tale...and that when he failed in this quest, they then brought out the book as originally planned." It has also been theorized that Harper's held off releasing the book because of the uncertain economic climate of the times. (May 1837 saw a financial panic which inaugurated a severe depression that lasted until 1843.)

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
These theories, though plausible, fail to completely convince me. Admittedly, however, I cannot think of any better explanations. It is a curious coincidence that we know almost nothing of Poe's personal and professional activities between his move to New York City early in 1837 and his relocation to Philadelphia about a year later. Could this strange gap in his timeline have any connection to the simultaneous pause in the life of "Pym?"

Rene Magritte Not to Be Reproduced

2. Bayard Taylor's Poe Parody

In October of 1845, Poe became the sole proprietor of the "Broadway Journal." He bought out his partner, John Bisco, with the help of a promissory note for fifty dollars, which was endorsed by Horace Greeley. When it came due, Bisco evidently collected it from the endorser. ("As was to be anticipated," snorted Poe biographer George Woodberry.) Greeley, rather tastelessly, dined out on the episode for years to come, even proclaiming in his autobiography that he offered the note to someone seeking Poe's autograph "for half that amount."

The episode itself, thanks to Greeley, is relatively famous. What is less well-known is the fact that Greeley's friend Bayard Taylor was, for reasons known only to himself, inspired to commemorate it in a poem, "The Promissory Note." The result is one of the weirder Poe spoofs:

Bayard Taylor

In the lonesome latter years,
(Fatal years!)
To the dropping of my tears
Danced the mad and mystic spheres
In a rounded, reeling rune,
'Neath the moon,
To the dripping and the dropping of my tears

Ah my soul is swathed in gloom,
In a dim Titanic tomb,
For my gaunt and gloomy soul
Ponders o'er the penal scroll
O'er the parchment (not a rhyme,)
Out of place out of time,
I am shredded, shorn, unshifty,
(O, the fifty!)
And the days have passed, the three,
Over me!
And the debit and the credit are as one to him and me!

'Twas the random runes I wrote
At the bottom of the note
(Wrote and freely,
Gave to Greeley,)
In the middle of the night
On the yellow, moonless night,
When the stars were out of sight,
When my pulses, like a knell,
Danced with dim and dying fays
O'er the ruins of my days,
O'er the dimeless, timeless days,
When the fifty, drawn at thirty,
Seeming thrifty, yet the dirty
Lucre of the market, was the most that I could raise!

Fiends controlled it,
(Let him hold it!)
Devils held for me the inkstand and the pen;
Now the days of grace are o'er,
(Ah, Lenore!)
I am but as other men;
What is time, time, time,
To my rare and runic rhyme,
To my random, reeling rhyme,
By the sands along the shore,
Where the tempest whispers, "Pay him!" and I answer "Never more!"

Many poems made money, but this is the only case I know where money made poems.

3. Rufus W. Griswold, Poetic Muse

Another example of bizarre verses from the World of Poe comes to us courtesy of Frances S. Osgood. It is well known that in 1846 Poe wrote her an acrostic Valentine poem containing her name. His more frivolous biographers have tried to twist this innocuous--and probably commissioned--contribution to a Valentine party into evidence that they had some sort of close relationship (overlooking the fact that the poem misspelled her middle name and called her a dunce.) Left largely ignored is the fact that in 1850, Mrs. Osgood wrote a similar, but far more intimate poem to none other than everyone's favorite fraud, Rufus Wilmot Griswold. This poem, which George Woodberry dryly called "an illustrative document in regard to the literary group," rarely has appeared in print. I propose to do my part in correcting that omission. Fanny and the Reverend won't live this one down--in a manner of speaking--if I can help it. (Note: By reading the italicized letters, their names can be found--hers, left to right, his, right to left.)
For one, whose being is to mine a star,
Trembling I weave in lines of love and fun
What Fame before has echoed near and far.
A sonnet if you like--I'll give you one
To be cross-questioned ere it's truth is solv'd.
Here veiled and hidden in a rhyming wreath
A name is turned with mine in cunning sheath,
And unless by some marvel rare evolved,
Forever folded from all idler eyes
Silent and secret still it treasured lies,
Whilst mine goes winding onward, as a rill
Thro' a deep wood in unseen joyance dances,
Calling in melody's bewildering thrill
Whilst thro' dim leaves its partner dreams and glances.

Even more embarrassing evidence of her partiality (however self-serving) for Griswold can be found in her 1850 collection of poems, which "his attached friend" dedicated to him "As a souvenir of admiration for his genius, of regard for his generous character, and of gratitude for his valuable literary counsels."

4. In Which I Give John Evangelist Walsh the Plot of His Next Book

On a related note, an Edward A. Oldman wrote a peculiar letter to the New York Times which appeared in the August 11, 1929 issue. He claimed to know "the real reason" behind Griswold's enmity for Poe, information he gathered from "reminiscences at first-hand" he acquired from Poe's old classmates at the University of Virginia. (It was not explained how these youthful acquaintances would have the slightest "first-hand" knowledge about the relations between the two men, but never mind that.)

Rufus Wilmot Griswold

"From this material," wrote Oldham, "one important statement is recalled. It was in the effect that Rufus Wilmot Griswold was smitten with the flower-like charms of the poet's wife, and had on at least one occasion been rebuffed by her, the incident very nearly causing a permanent rupture between Poe and Griswold. The latter never forgot the circumstance and was known to have harbored a feeling of rancor against the poet."

This is nearly as silly a tale as the old cliché that Poe and Griswold were rivals for the dubious charms of Mrs. Osgood, but far more delightful. As long as the world is going to be plagued by badly-written, ahistorical Poe novels, I wish somebody would write one featuring a scene where the lustful Reverend makes impassioned advances to Virginia, only to have flowery Mrs. Poe "rebuff" him with a well-aimed knee to the groin. And perhaps a karate chop to the neck.

I may have to write it myself.

Poe scholars, showing a distressing lack of humor, have ignored Mr. Oldham's revelations, with the exception of Thomas O. Mabbott. He wrote the Times a week later, saying that he had never heard the story, "but it is one of those things that may very well be true." Thus proving a point I have made several times on this blog: There were no, I repeat, no Poe myths too nutty for Mr. Mabbott to embrace.

5. A "Lost" Portrait of Virginia Poe?

Mrs. W. H. Jackson, a self-described "admirer of Poe," wrote an article for the May 7, 1899 issue of the Detroit Free Press describing a visit she paid "many years ago" to Maria Clemm when Poe's aunt/mother-in-law was living in the Church Home in Baltimore. The article is brief and says nothing new or interesting, except for one brief statement that caught my eye. Mrs. Jackson said that on the wall of Mrs. Clemm's room hung "a colored lithograph" of Virginia holding "her favorite cat." She added, "Mrs. Clemm looked with a mother's tenderness upon this shadow of her frail child, whose nature 'touched to finer issues' was an inspiration to her gifted husband, sitting at his feet while many of the fantastic though purely rhythmic lines were dictated."

This does not fit the description of any known picture of Virginia, either accepted or apocryphal, and I have yet to find any other reference to this alleged portrait. There are several possibilities: This lithograph was lost or destroyed at some early date. Mrs. Jackson saw a generic portrait of a young woman and mistakenly assumed it was of Mrs. Clemm's daughter. Possibly, the portrait is still extant and simply has yet to be identified as Virginia. Finally, and most probably, Mrs. Jackson simply made that detail up. (That would be entirely typical of the newspaper stories of the day.)

6. A Glimpse of Poe in 1845

The May 1, 1895 issue of the Boston Globe carried a letter from a George Barron, who claimed to have been a fellow-boarder with the Poe family ("on Greenwich St., near the Battery") in the early half of 1845. I have never seen his brief reminiscences reprinted, so I quote them here. Barron described Poe as "particularly kind and attentive" to Virginia and Mrs. Clemm, "and they all seemed much devoted to each other."

"From what I saw of this remarkable man at that time, his kind attentions to his wife and mother-in-law, and his natural politeness to his fellow-boarders sitting near him at the table, I was sure he was at heart a true gentleman, notwithstanding what his detractors may have then or since said of him. While he was not a communicative man, but rather reticent and reserved in his manner, yet he was always courteous in responding to those who addressed him. He was always neatly and well dressed when I saw him, although I had the impression he was suffering somewhat from poverty at that time."

Barron's only specific anecdote regarding Poe was about the poet giving him and some of the other boarders complimentary passes to a lecture he was giving, only to have it cancelled due to bad weather, "to the great disappointment of those of us who were present." (The April 18, 1845 issue of the New York Evening Mirror noted that Poe was scheduled to lecture the previous evening, but was forced to postpone "in consequence of the inclemency of the weather.")

7. All You Need to Know About Sarah Helen Whitman

In 1874, she wrote John H. Ingram that she had never seen a ghost, "though I once saw a beautiful luminous hand that wrote for me three initial letters, which I still preserve & look upon with awe & wonder!"

8. Stop the Internet, I Want to Get Off

Finally, let me address a few of the utterly idiotic and equally indestructible Poe Myths I've seen floating around online:

A. No, Poe was not kicked out of West Point for showing up for drill stark naked. Sorry, flashers.

B. No, Poe was not an atheist. A widely-circulated quote attributed to him, that "all religion is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry," is apocryphal. It originated from a justifiably obscure 1901 biography by a noisy crackpot named John Alexander Joyce, which is full of outlandish and clearly fictional statements. (Of especial note is his chapter claiming that "The Raven" was stolen from an 1809 poem called "The Parrot"--a work which never actually existed outside of Mr. Joyce's fevered mind.) Joyce claimed to have received this quote from a "Mr. William Barton, who was a typo and foreman on the 'Broadway Journal' when Poe was editor of the paper." I have not found any other indication this Barton even existed, and there is absolutely no reason to take this as evidence of Poe's spiritual beliefs. His views were unquestionably unorthodox, but I dare anyone to read "Eureka," "The Island of the Fay," "Mesmeric Revelation," "The Poetic Principle"--to make it short, just about anything he ever wrote--and still say he was an atheist.

C. No, as far as we know, Poe did not have any sort of connection to "Barnaby's Castle" in Providence, Rhode Island. However, judging by the keyword searches used to find this blog, a puzzling number of people seem to think he did, which makes me suspect that an overimaginative tour guide is lurking somewhere in the background.

D. No, Poe did not die of poison on a park bench, he never had a pet raccoon, he never wore a goatee, and Sarah Elmira Shelton was no Alice Eve. Thanks a bunch, Cusack.

E. I shall close with one sentence I never thought I'd ever have to write: No, Elizabeth Poe was not pecked to death by crows. Please, people. You're beginning to depress me.
Le Corbeau