Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poe Hits the Lecture Circuit

Even fans of Poe’s writings are often unaware that for the last six years of his life, he was also a successful lecturer. Unfortunately, the still-fragmentary documentation we have of his life means that some of the details of his speaking career are incomplete, relying mostly on whatever contemporary newspaper reports have been uncovered by scholars. We can usually only estimate how much he was paid for his lectures, and with the exception of “The Poetic Principle,” which was published shortly after his death, and “The Universe,” which became the basis for “Eureka,” we do not have full texts of his performances. It is also possible that he did additional lectures for which we have no surviving record. We know, however, that he was a popular and effective speaker, and it is somewhat mysterious that he did not, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, make more of what would have been a relatively easy and fast way to raise cash.

Poe’s first known stage appearance took place at Philadelphia’s William Wirt Institute on November 21, 1843. Ticket prices were $1 for “a gentleman and two ladies” to attend the Institute’s entire season of lectures, 25 cents for the same to attend one evening, and 12 ½ cents to admit a single person.

The local papers had given Poe’s talk on “American Poetry” an enthusiastic buildup. George Lippard in the “Citizen Soldier” promised attendees would be given “a refined intellectual repast,” and the “Philadelphia Inquirer” predicted a “large and intellectual audience.” Poe was indeed greeted by an overflow crowd, with “hundreds” being turned away at the gate. His debut proved popular with the critics, as well. The “Saturday Courier” reported it was “a very learned critique, marked by the severity of illustration for which the author is so ably known.” The “Saturday Museum” noted that Poe’s poetic talents, his “great analytical power,” and “command of language and strength of voice” gave him “qualities which are rarely associated in a public speaker.” They added that despite his “occasional severity,” “the lecture gave general satisfaction.” Lippard went even further, declaring that “it was agreed by all” that Poe’s lecture “was second to none, if not superior to all lectures ever delivered before the Wirt Institute.”

Poe repeated his lecture in Wilmington, Delaware, one week later, with tickets at the same prices as at the Wirt Institute. A local correspondent described his talk as “Good, but rather severe.”

He delivered an encore performance in Delaware on December 23, at the Newark Academy, a preparatory school for boys. On January 2, 1844, the “Delaware State Journal” published a review of this lecture written by “Academicus.” This critic’s identity is unknown, but he may have been the Academy’s principal,William S. Graham. In any case, it is one of the most detailed and interesting accounts we have of any of Poe’s lectures.

“Academicus” recorded that Poe began by denouncing “the system of puffery” so common in the publications of the day. “Editors of newspapers building up large Libraries for which they pay by wholesale and indiscriminate puffs of works whose title pages they have hardly had time to copy--Authors reviewing and praising their own writings, or securing the bespoke praises of a friend--booksellers and publishers promoting the sale of their goods by measures equally corrupt, all received their full share of severe rebuke…While on the subject of criticism our Lecturer was especially witty and sarcastic in reference to a peculiar style of reviewing not unknown in New England, ‘yclept the ‘Transcendental.’ The wonderful involutions and dislocations by which good English words were made to wrap up the fancies of their mis-users until the little sense that was intended was forever buried like the Roman nymph…”

Poe used that as an introduction to his analysis of current anthologies of American poetry, culminating with Rufus W. Griswold’s “Poets and Poetry of America,” which was “handled by the critical Lecturer in not the most gentle manner.” In essence, Poe said Griswold’s reliance on his personal favoritism caused “a miserable want of judgment.”

After discussing individually some of the prominent poets of the time, Poe concluded with “a highly philosophical and eloquent discourse on the true end and province of poetry,” which was probably a precursor to his themes in “The Poetic Principle.”

“Academicus” concluded by calling Poe’s visit “one of the most interesting and instructive lectures I have ever had the pleasure of hearing,” and expressed hopes that the speaker could be persuaded to return to Newark.

On January 10, Poe repeated his lecture (which was described as “one of the most brilliant and successful of the season,” and “A literary treat of no common kind,”) in the Philadelphia Museum. He commanded a higher ticket price this time around, with single tickets going for 25 cents, while “a gentleman and two ladies” cost 50.

On January 31, Poe brought his lecture to Baltimore’s Odd Fellows Hall. The “Sun” predicted “The name of the lecturer, the subject of the lecture, and the well known adaptation of the talents of the one to the material of the other, form a combination of attractions which will irresistibly result in a crowded audience—and our word for it a delighted one.” Three days later, Joseph Snodgrass in the “Saturday Visiter” admitted his talk was “very entertaining,” but disagreed with Poe’s view that “the inculcation of truth is not the highest aim of poetry.”

Poe’s next stop was Reading, Pennsylvania’s Mechanics’ Institute, on March 12. We are told he “was greeted by a large and highly respectable audience, and they testified their approbation of the lecture by repeated bursts of applause.”

So far as we know, Poe did not lecture again until early 1845. On February 28, he spoke about “The Poets and Poetry of America” (evidently an updated version of his previous talk,) in New York’s Society Library. Nathaniel Willis’ “Evening Mirror” predicted “those who would witness fine carving will probably be there.” In the “Morning News,” Evert Duyckinck noted the success of Poe’s earlier lectures, and commented that his New York appearance “will differ from anything he has ever done before, if it do[es] not prove novel, ingenious, and a capital antidote to dullness.”

An audience of “some three hundred” came out to see Poe, who was, thanks to the newly-published “The Raven,” at the height of his fame. He was dismissive of Lucretia and Margaret Davidson, two “sentimental poetesses” whose death in girlhood had given them what Poe saw as a largely undeserved vogue. He called Griswold’s poetry anthology the best of the current collections, (although he was clearly damning with faint praise,) then judiciously, and, on the whole, kindly, evaluated the currently fashionable poets, repeated his denunciations of “puffery,” (particularly when it came to “the Dunderheaded critics of Boston,”) and accused Longfellow of plagiarism.

New York Society Library Edgar Allan Poe

The reviews were largely favorable. Horace Greeley’s “Daily Tribune” called it “a remarkable Lecture,” with “much acute and fearless criticism.” However, Greeley deprecated some of Poe’s harsher denunciations, and did not think much of his elocution. (“Mr. Poe writes better than he reads.”) His most severe rebukes, however, went to the people of New York City. He was “rather ashamed” that a city of four hundred thousand could not summon up a larger audience for “a critic of genius and established reputation.” Willis reported that Poe’s audience listened “with breathless attention.” Onstage, he wrote, Poe “becomes a desk--his beautiful head showing like a statuary embodiment of Discrimination; his accent drops like a knife through water, and his style is so much purer and clearer than the pulpit commonly gets or requires, that the effect of what he says, besides other things, pampers the ear.” The “New York Herald” felt Poe was overly harsh on American poets, particularly the most popular ones. When quoting the female poets, they complained, for every good passage he cited “what he deemed ten bad ones,” and the male writers were treated with even more disdain. On the whole, it “was the severest piece of criticism that has come within our recollection for some time….certainly, if we are to judge from what he advanced on this occasion, and take him at his own valuation, he is the only man in the country that is able to write a poem, or form a proper judgment of the writings of others.” The critic for the Boston “Daily Atlas” was not in attendance, but took umbrage at Poe’s reported slights of Sprague and Longfellow. “If he was to come before a Boston audience with such stuff, they would poh him at once.”

The editor of the Boston “Evening Transcript” responded to Poe’s contempt for that city’s literati with a rhyming sneer:
“There lies, by Death’s relentless blow,
A would-be critic here below;
His name was Poe
His life was woe:
You ask,’What of this Mister Poe?’
Why nothing of him that I know;
But echo, answering, saith—‘Poh.’"
Poe was scheduled to return to the Society Library on April 17, but “in consequence of the inclemency of the weather,” the lecture was cancelled.

His next stage appearance is one of the most notorious—and misunderstood—episodes of his entire literary career. Early in the fall of 1845, he accepted an invitation to read an original poem at the Boston Lyceum on October 16. As I have already analyzed the entire complicated episode here and here, I will only repeat that it is, to say the least, debatable whether or not his recital of “Al Aaraaf” before a “densely crowded” audience was truly the unmitigated disaster of modern-day opinion.

The next two years were famously difficult ones for Poe. Virginia’s increasingly failing health, ending with her death early in 1847, combined with Poe’s own physical and emotional debility, probably accounts for the fact that he made no further lecture appearances until early in 1848. On February 3 of that year, he delivered “The Universe” at New York’s Society Library, with a ticket price of 50 cents. His aim was not merely to air his metaphysical theories, but to raise money for his cherished magazine project, “The Stylus.” Unfortunately, the weather was extremely stormy, keeping the audience down to about sixty people. The small band who braved the rain and wind to hear his nearly three-hour talk were rewarded with a memorable night. A spectator later marveled that “I have seen no portrait of Poe that does justice to his pale, delicate, intellectual face and magnificent eyes. His lecture was a rhapsody of the most intense brilliancy. He appeared inspired, and his inspiration affected the scant audience almost painfully.” Another member of the audience said Poe’s “brilliant effort was greeted with warm applause by the audience, who had listened with enchanted attention throughout.” The other reviews were, on the whole, equally positive. Even those who found Poe’s philosophy unconvincing or unintelligible acknowledged his remarkable persuasive powers. The main dissenter was Evert Duyckinck. In contrast to the other observers, he groused that Poe’s lecture was “full of a ludicrous dryness of scientific phrase…Why it drove people from the room…”

Can’t please everyone.

Poe’s next public appearance came about through the intervention of Mrs. Jane Ermina Locke, a regrettably unhinged admirer who had recently managed to shoehorn herself into his life. In the summer of 1848, she arranged to have him speak in her city of Lowell, Massachusetts. On July 10, he lectured at Lowell’s Wentworth’s Hall on “The Poets and Poetry of America.” Annie Richmond’s sister Sarah Heywood Trumbull said many years later that Poe’s lecture “fascinated” her. “Everything was rendered with pure intonation and perfect enunciation…he almost sang the more musical versifications.” It was evidently, as the “Lowell Advertiser” said, “no every-day affair.” He was apparently invited to repeat his lecture in October, but the event never materialized. According to Sarah Helen Whitman, this was due to local excitement surrounding the upcoming Presidential election.

On December 20, Poe delivered his talk on “The Poetic Principle” at the Franklin Lyceum in Providence, Rhode Island. His ever-growing reputation as both author and speaker drew what was considered a huge and enthusiastic crowd of about 1800-2000 people. (It was later said to be the Lyceum’s largest audience of the season.)

Poe’s final speaking engagements began in Richmond, Virginia, in the summer of 1849, where he repeated his successful “The Poetic Principle.” He appeared at the Exchange Concert Room on August 17, with tickets selling for 25 cents. It was another critical and popular triumph. Poe himself wrote Maria Clemm that “I never was received with so much enthusiasm.”

Exchange Hotel Richmond Virginia Edgar Allan Poe

One of the attendees, novelist John Esten Cooke, recalled how Poe’s “wonderfully clear and musical voice speedily brought the audience under its spell. Those who heard this strange voice once, never afterwards forgot it.” Cooke objected to the “sing-song” manner in which Poe recited poems, although he admitted the “exquisite” readings “resembled music.” The Richmond “Daily Republican” called the “clearness and melody of his voice” and elocution “soul-inspiring.” The “Richmond Whig” praised his “strong, manly sense.” In the “Semi-Weekly Examiner,” editor John M. Daniel enjoyed Poe’s critical remarks, but found his manner of reciting poetry ineffective. After making some disparaging remarks about Poe’s writings as a whole, he added, somewhat contradictorily, that “Had Mr. Poe possessed talent in the place of genius, he might have been a popular and money making author. He would have written a great many more good things than he has; but his title to immortality would not and could not be surer than it is.”

On September 14, he brought “The Poetic Principle” to nearby Norfolk, with tickets at the Academy’s Lecture Room going for 50 cents. The audience was smaller than in the more metropolitan Richmond, but equally adoring. The “Daily Southern Argus” called the lecture “Chaste and classic in its style of composition—smooth and graceful in its delivery, it had the happiest effect upon the fashionable audience, who manifested their appreciation by the profoundest attention.”

Poe closed his lecturing career by repeating “The Poetic Principle” at Richmond’s Exchange Hotel on September 24. It was reported that the spectators were not quite as numerous as before, but there was still “a large, attentive, and appreciative audience.” Twenty-five years later, Edward Valentine recorded the impression this lecture made on his brother William, who had been in the audience. He said “There was little variation and much sadness in the intonations of his voice—yet this very sadness was so completely in harmony with his history as to excite on the part of this community a deep interest in him both as a lecturer and reader.”

Two weeks later, Poe was dead.

It is clear that Poe was a unique and talented lecturer, but, as I noted earlier, judging the financial side is more difficult, particularly as it is usually unrecorded whether he was paid a flat fee or a percentage of the box office. Poe scholar John Ward Ostrom calculated Poe’s proceeds, but they seem to be largely educated guesses. Ostrom estimated Poe’s 1843 lectures netted him about $100, with his three 1844 engagements earning a total of $75. His February 1845 talk perhaps earned $25. The Boston Lyceum appearance possibly earned the same sum, or it may have been double that. His lecture on “The Universe,” may have earned him only about $10, due to the bad weather keeping attendance down. Ostrom estimated his July 1848 trip to Lowell paid $20, and his Providence sojourn $50. Ostrom believed Poe cleared about $75 from his Richmond/Norfolk tours.

These sums seem small to us, but compared to earnings from his published writings, it was good money for two hours or so at a podium. (And it is possible these are low estimates. Bishop O. P. Fitzgerald, an eyewitness to Poe's final visit to Richmond, stated the poet's final lecture netted him $1500. Although this is uncorroborated and generally disbelieved, it suggests Poe's lectures could conceivably have been more profitable than we think.) As I said at the beginning of this post, it is a bit curious that Poe did not further exploit his evidently remarkable stage presence.

But then, Poe always had his own agenda.

(Images of the Society Library and Exchange Hotel via NYPL Digital Gallery.)