Monday, August 27, 2012

Two Obituary Notices of Rufus Griswold

Rufus w Griswold death
Rufus Wilmot Griswold is dead. He died in New York City on this day in 1857. This announcement startled many, but few were grieved by it. The anthologist was known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death were suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art lost one its most erratic stars.

By way of commemorating the Reverend’s sad fate (he had an end arguably more dismal--and certainly more painfully prolonged--than his most famous adversary,) I have reprinted passages from two contemporary obituaries. The first appeared in "Emerson's Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly" for October 1857. This biographical article is anonymous, but it was evidently written by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, as it echoes her known writings about Griswold. The article also has the same teeth-grittingly irritating tone of condescension that pervades virtually everything Mrs. Smith ever wrote. As I have noted several times before, Smith was a highly unreliable Poe source, but she knew Griswold much better and longer than she knew Poe, so her description of the former probably holds more weight. It certainly meshes with some of my own conclusions about the man. (I've come to see his more notorious actions, such as his Poe memoir and his strange marriages, as the pitiful fruits of poorly-thought-out impulses rather than calculated, cool-headed villainy. Frankly, the man strikes me as rather a goofball.) In any rate, this is one of the more balanced and intriguing depictions of Griswold’s complicated character that I’ve seen:
“The earthly career of this man has terminated, and, as public journalists, it is needful that we should have something to say of one who has been more widely associated with the literature of the country, and with literary persons, than any one left to us. We shall say little of the experience of Mr. Griswold, painful as it was,, and as full of sorrow to himself as to others. ‘Tread lightly upon the ashes of the dead,’ is a humane and Christian-like proverb. Creatures of harmony are not often born into the world…No one is evil without knowing pain; no one is weak without the pangs of weakness.

That Rufus W. Griswold was a weak and ill-judging man, no one will deny. As a man, there was much in him to regret; but those who knew something of his last lonely years, his bed of solitary and uncheered suffering, will feel for him only pity, as one who was made to atone deeply for all the mistakes of his life. He left three children, and we much doubt if either of them were with him in his last moments. [Ed. note: They were not with him, and not one of his children, or either of his two living wives--or, rather, "wives"--were mentioned in his will.]

…We have reason to be grateful to him, as Americans, for what he did for literature. He was untiring in his researches…That his judgment was not always to be trusted, is not much to say of one who did so much that was trustworthy. That he was capricious, and allowed his personal predilections and prejudices to sway him, is most true, for he had the whims of a woman coupled with a certain spleen which he took no pains to conceal; yet was he weakly placable, and could be diverted from some piece of mischief or malice by an appeal to his generosity--by some expression of wit or outbreak of indignation…

…He had the laugh of a child, and was strangely unable to see the world as an arena for forms, ceremonies and proprieties; hence his freakishness, and mistakes and errors had always something incomplete and childish about them. He should have been shut in a library, with some protective spirit to direct him, for he could not understand the world, nor how it should be met; hence, some few loved this man with a deep and abiding love, which tells of much that was noble and beautiful within him--others pursued him with hatred and malice, which shows that his sphere was one of power in some way; and in all this, the man was utterly ignorant of himself, and of what the world had a right to demand of him.”

Alas, an editorial writer in the “New Orleans Delta” was not nearly as benevolent. Soon after Griswold’s death, the newspaper published the following column:
“The recent death of Dr. Rufus W. Griswold has excited not a little comment in Northern newspaperdom. Some of the papers speak in no very complimentary terms of his abilities and honesty as a litterateur, while others with a disregard of one of the most beautiful traits in human nature, that of forgiving the mere frailties of man, do not refrain from alluding to the fact that, prior to his exit from the feverish stage of life, his unfortunate matrimonial relations produced considerable scandal of the literary and fashionable world.

No man in this country did greater harm to American literature than the subject of this article...

Deficient in all the elements of a sound and discerning critic, and destitute of that learning essential in a literary editor, Dr. Griswold, nevertheless, set himself up as an American Gifford, and passed judgment upon the ‘builders of the lofty rhyme’ with the air and audacity of that distinguished individual...Few persons can read his ‘Poets and Poetry of America’ without being struck with the truth. Verse writers of mediocre abilities are introduced into the sublime company of our masters of the lyre, and their feeble efforts ridiculously extolled.

But the crowning literary sin of Dr. Griswold was his assassination of the reputation of the brilliant but erratic Edgar A. Poe. Claiming to be his literary executor by the last words of this child of genius, he nevertheless took the earliest occasion after Poe’s death to indite a malignant and disgraceful article calculated to do much injury to the deceased poet...while we have much charity for his frailties as a man, we have none for errors and sins as a litterateur."

I would be the first to say I hope Griswold is resting in peace, but I know full well that’s impossible. You see, the Reverend is expiating his sins in an earthly Hell. He’s on Twitter.

Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus W Griswold