Monday, February 16, 2009

Maria Poe Clemm (1790-1871)

Maria Poe was the sister of David Poe, Jr., father of Edgar Poe, making her, by blood, his aunt. When Poe married Maria's daughter Virginia Clemm, she became his mother-in-law by marriage — she also became his "mother" by choice. Poe, Virginia, and Maria were a very close and very loving three-part family from then on. She served, at times, as Poe's adviser, as a financial aid and, occasional, as a literary agent — all in small ways, of course. There is some debate out there that she was a worse influence on Poe than a help, but I'll leave that aside to tell her tragic story today.

Maria outlived two husbands, three children, and one son-in-law before her death on February 16, 1871. When Poe died in 1849, she didn't hear about it right away, and missed his funeral. She left the Fordham Cottage shortly after. She may have given (not sold) the rights to all of her son-in-law's works to a man named Rufus Griswold — a controversial move for many reasons. Besides rumors that Griswold tricked her into this, Griswold was a hated enemy of Poe's and, technically, Maria didn't have the right to sell anything because Poe's closest next of kin was his sister Rosalie Poe in Richmond. Nevertheless, Griswold promised Maria that she would benefit from the multi-volume editions of Poe's works he edited. Or, so he said.

In the 22 years after Poe's death, she struggled to survive. Her only income would have come from doing odd jobs like sewing, selling off autographs of her son-in-law — and, of course, sales from Griswold's collected works of Poe. She was promised that, after the publisher had enough profit to cover initial printing costs, all profit would go to Maria. Desperate, she turned to several people for monetary hand-outs, including Senator Charles Sumner, Harvard President Jared Sparks, poet James Russell Lowell, and, quite famously, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Maria's fourteen surviving letters to Longfellow are a chronicle of her struggles after Poe's death. In March 1850, She offered him a few volumes of Poe's collected works that the publisher had given her (at $2 apiece) and he willingly bought several, thinking she would get the money. She didn't. She was living in Lowell, Massachusetts at the time (the home of Nancy "Annie" Richmond, one of Poe's infatuations at the end of his life) and she requested Longfellow kindly to give her a few of his autographs for "friends" (she likely sold them).

By December 1852, Maria was living in Milford, Connecticut, having left Lowell due to poor health. She planned on heading further South, to family in Louisiana. By February 1857, she was in Brooklyn instead. Later that year, she reported she suffered from "inflammation of the lungs."

By October 1858, she was living with the Johnston family in Alexandria, Virginia. She noted that she was still waiting for the publishers to finish bringing in enough profit from their initial publication of Poe's collected works by Griswold. Eight years after its printing, the publisher most certainly had covered their costs; Maria would never see profit from Griswold's edition.

Maria Clemm never made it further South than Virginia and Maryland. Her plans to Louisiana came up just as the country was on the eve of Civil War, not making travel for an old lady advisable. For a time, she instead found herself in Muskingham, Ohio. She finally was put up in the Church Home in Baltimore by about 1863, if not earlier. It was essentially a nursing home but, years before, it had been a hospital — the same hospital were Edgar Poe died on October 7, 1849. Maria died, perhaps unknowingly, in the same building where her beloved son-in-law had died 22 years earlier. She was 81 years old, and penniless.

Till the end of her life, she defended Poe as best she could. To James Russell Lowell in 1850, she wrote: "He was noble, generous, affectionate, and most amiable (Dr. Griswold's assertion notwithstanding). Poor poor Eddie, it matters little to him now, but it almost breaks my heart to hear him spoken of so unkindly and untrue." We could ask today, did Griswold cause more harm to Poe, or to Mrs. Clemm?

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