Friday, February 13, 2009

A day that will live in infamy

It was February 13, 1815, that one of the most despised figures in the story of Poe was born.

The man's name is Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and he was born humbly to a farming family in Vermont, thirty-five years before he destroyed the reputation of Edgar Poe (and stuck the name "Edgar Allan Poe" firmly in the mouths of his readers). Young Griswold was the twelfth of fourteen children but he didn't last long in this family and broke ties at age 15 to become a wanderer. He called himself a "solitary soul, wandering through the world, a homeless, joyless outcast." Throughout his life, he would live throughout Vermont, New York, Philadelphia, and even South Carolina intermittently.

At some point, Griswold decided he wanted to become the world's leading expert on the history of American literature. He claimed to have read every American book worth reading - amassing a library of hundreds and thousands of books over time. His anthology in 1842, The Poets and Poetry of America, was written intentionally as a chronicle of American poetry's development. His introduction alone was successful in this attempt (and worthwhile reading), as he traced the origins of poetry in the New World from colonization to Independence to his contemporary time. More than anything, he tried to show that we still needed to continue growing and improving.

But, far from being solely a scholarly work, Griswold directly appealed to the masses of mainstream poetry readers. Poetry was a huge entertainment in these days (we can't even begin to imagine the "family fun" of reading together by the fireplace), and Griswold took advantage even before his book's title page. Not leaving book sales to chance, he included an illustration that has been called "The Copperplate Five": images of the five top-selling poets of the day all in one image. The big five were: William Cullen Bryant, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Charles Sprague, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all topped by the idol-like image of Richard Henry Dana (did you guess wrong?).

The work instantly cemented Griswold as an important literary historian and an arbiter of taste in American poetry. The book sold immensely well and inspired many, many future editions (including posthumous ones) throughout the 19th century - I happen to own a third edition, in fact. Its success also spurned "sequels" of sorts, with titles like Gems from American Poets, The Prose Writers of America, and The Female Poets of America (which, he believed, required a separate book because men and women writers could not be judged equally).

The Poets and Poetry of America also connected Griswold to a man named Edgar Poe for the first time. Three of Poe's poems were included in the first edition, and Griswold asked Poe (being such an influential critic) to write a review... But, that is a story for another day.

Today, we remember Griswold, the man, whose birth this day 194 years ago today showed signs of promise. As he aged and his career progressed, he became an important figure in the story of American writing. What he would do with his fame and influence, of course, would be completely up to him, be it for good... or evil?

1 comment:

Rob Velella said...

Just for the sake of full disclosure, there are some sources that say February 15 is the actual birthday of Griswold. I haven't yet found his birth certificate, so I can't confirm either way. The 13th, then, is a best guess.