Thursday, September 17, 2009

Poe and politics

Frederick William Thomas came to visit Poe at his house (then on Coates Street in Philadelphia) on September 17, 1842. Years later, he described Poe's home life in the so-called Quaker City:
He lived in a rural home on the outskirts of the city. His house was small, but comfortable inside for one of the kind. The rooms looked neat and orderly, but everything about the place wore an air of pecuniary want. Although I arrived late in the morning Mrs. Clemm, Poe's mother-in-law, was busy preparing for his breakfast. My presence possibly caused some confusion, but I noticed that there was delay and evident difficulty in procuring the meal. His wife entertained me. Her manners were agreeable and graceful... She and her mother showed much concern about Eddie, as they called Poe, and were anxious to have him secure work.
Thomas was a writer himself and, throughout his 60 years, lived in Providence, Charleston, Baltimore, Cincinnati — though it was in Philadelphia that he met Edgar Poe. Thomas maintained a long, frequent correspondence with Poe, three years his junior; letters between the two are very frank, honest, and interesting. Thomas also got his hands dirty in politics and campaigned on behalf of William Henry Harrison, who died shortly after his presidential inauguration. Harrison's successor, the "accidental president" John Tyler, compensated Thomas for his support by granting him a clerkship at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

Thomas hoped his connection with the new president would lead to a job for his friend Poe. Their September 1842 meeting was to discuss this possibility. Robert Tyler, son of the new president, was in town and would likely show his support for granting Poe a government job, Thomas believed. But, Poe knew his preferred path: even as Thomas chatted with Poe about obtaining a government post, Poe chatted about creating his own literary journal. Nevertheless, the struggling writer/critic was somewhat intrigued by government work, which he had heard was easy money. Thomas implied the job was all but his already; Robert Tyler was "remarkably fond of poetry." He agreed to meet Thomas the next morning.

Thomas likely didn't hear from Poe for several days. A letter from Poe dated September 21, 1842 excuses his absence:
I am afraid you will think that I keep my promises but indifferently well, since I failed to make my appearance at Congress Hall on Sunday, and I now, therefore, write to apologize... Upon reaching home Saturday night, I was taken with a severe chill and fever — the latter keeping me company the next day. I found myself too ill to venture out, but, nevertheless, would have done so had I been able to obtain the consent of all parties.
Poe blamed both illness and his wife for not allowing him to meet with Tyler, the president's son. Was he really sick? Was his wife concerned about his health? Or, as biographer Kenneth Silverman concludes, was he just nursing a hangover after a night's drinking? When Poe realized he had missed a good opportunity (apparently, the job promised an annual salary of $1,500 — nearly double what he was making at Graham's Magazine), he wrote he still wanted to pursue the job, "if he [Tyler] can look over matters & get me the Inspectorship I will join the Washingtonians" — a temperance group (years later, Poe did, in fact, join a temperance organization).

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