Sunday, March 29, 2009

Poe writes to Griswold

An otherwise uninteresting letter can be made interesting just based on the correspondents involved. Nothing gets more exciting (to me) than letters between Edgar A. Poe and Rufus Wilmot Griswold.

It was March, 1841. Poe had only recently joined the staff of Graham's Magazine. As Mr. George Graham announced, "Mr. POE is too well known in the literary world to require a word of commendation. As a critic he is surpassed by no man in the country; and as in this Magazine his critical abilities shall have free scope, the rod will be very generously, and at the same time, justly administered." But, more than just a critic, Poe also wanted to be recognized as a poet — a dream he had harbored since a teenager.

At the same time Poe was starting at Graham's, Rufus Griswold was preparing a massive anthology to be named The Poets and Poetry of America. Griswold was seeking out the most representative pieces of American poetry to trace its progression since the Revolution. He was fairly thorough, aiming for the well-known (like Charles Sprague) to the lesser-known (like the upstart Transcendental poet Jones Very). Poe knew that, if he wanted to be take seriously as a poet, his inclusion in Griswold's book was imperative.

In a letter dated March 29, 1841, Poe offered several poems to Griswold, gushingly admitting that he would be honored to see "one or two of them in the book." Griswold was generous and published three: "The Coliseum," "The Haunted Palace," and "The Sleeper." Interesting choices, and none (with the possible exception of "The Haunted Palace") are particularly well-known today. Nevertheless, keep in mind that 1841 was before "The Raven," "Ulalume," "Annabel Lee," and "The Bells." What's important is that Poe secured a place in the book, even if only three mediocre poems were included.

When the book was published in 1842, Poe had just left Graham's. Griswold took advantage of Poe's poverty — by bribing him. He gave Poe money if he did a favor and reviewed The Poets and Poetry of America. In return, Griswold assured its publication. The deal implied that Poe owed Griswold a positive review. Poe must not have understood — or, perhaps, he was of too high integrity. Poe assumed he was merely being paid for the typical critical work for which he was known... as Graham said, "the rod will be very generously, and at the same time, justly administered." And Poe did just that: a mix of praise and criticism that can be labeled neither wholly positive nor wholly negative. Poe's biggest complaint, by the way, was based on which poets were or were not included.

Griswold was livid. But, he did as he promised: he took the review and found a publisher for it. Far from his home base of Philadelphia or even the publishing center of New York, Griswold instead sent it over to Boston directly into the hands of a young publisher named James Thomas Fields. Fields had only lately joined the publishing firm of William D. Ticknor — in four years, the company would be renamed Ticknor and Fields.

But it wasn't even Fields that Griswold asked to publish Poe's review. Instead, he referred it to the house of "Bradbury & Lodey." As Griswold wrote, "I thought likely the name of Poe — gratuitously furnished — might be of some consquence, though I care not a fig about the publication of the criticism, as the author and myself not being on the best terms." Poe's review of The Poets and Poetry of America was eventually published in the low-circulation Boston Miscellany in November 1842.

Griswold likely never forgave Poe for not giving the high-praise, laudatory review he expected. He was never known as a forgiving person, after all.

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