Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Defense of Poe

Friends of Poe came to Poe's defense almost immediately after Rufus Griswold began maligning the dead author's character. Even before his full-length memoir of Poe in 1850, Griswold was being criticized for his short obituary of Poe in October 1849.

One of the first to respond was George Lippard, a novelist who had gained attention with his The Quaker City, Or, the Monks of Monk-Hall in 1845. On October 20, 1849, Lippard offered his own obituary to Poe:
Edgar Allan Poe died, in the city of Baltimore, on Sunday, nearly two weeks ago. He is dead and we are conscious that words are fruitless to express our feelings in relation to his death. Only a few weeks ago we took him by the hand in our office... Poe spent a day with us. We talked of the time we had first met, in his quiet home on Seventh Street, Philadelphia, when it was made happy by the presence of his wife -- a pure and beautiful woman. He talked also of his last book "Eureka," well termed a "Prose Poem," and spoke much of projects for the future.
Lippard makes a clear reference to Griswold and others:
We frankly confess that, on this occasion, we cannot imitate a number of editors who have taken upon themselves to speak of Poe, and his faults in a tone of condescending pity! That Poe had faults we do not deny. He was a harsh, a bitter and sometimes an unjust critic. But he was a man of genius -- a man of high honor -- a man of good heart... As an author his name will live, while three-fourths of the bastard critics and mongrel authors of the present day go down to nothingness and night. And the men who now spit upon his grave, by way of retaliation for some injury which they imagined they have received from Poe living, would do well to remember, that it is only an idiot or a coward who strikes the cold forehead of a corpse.
It's hard to dispute Lippard's final assessment, that anyone who attacks a corpse is a bit foolish (or cowardly). However, Lippard's later writings on Poe will continue to add to the Poe mythos, in many cases making himself a much more important character in the life of Poe than is credible.

The same day, October 20, Nathaniel Parker Willis also published a defense of Poe, though he hardly stands as one of Poe's greatest defenders. In fact, N. P. Willis ends up working with Griswold in preparing Poe's collected works, and continues a lengthy business relationship with him ever after. If Willis was so concerned about Griswold's cruel depiction of Poe, you would think he would have broken off communication with him. However, Willis liked to play both sides and avoided making enemies wherever possible. Even as a defender of Poe, Willis was hardly a strong advocate.

In Griswold's edition of Poe's collected works, Willis notes: "Our own impression of the nature of Edgar A. Poe differs in some important degree, however, from that which has been generally conveyed in the notices of his death." So, he disputes how Poe's life has been reported — immediately after those lines, he republished Griswold's scandalous obituary in its entirety, introducing it as "a graphic and highly finished portraiture." He then casually notes how he is avoiding comment on Griswold's negative description: "Apropos of the disparaging portion of the above well-written sketch..." he writes, before giving his personal account of his relationship with Poe.

Clearly, the battle over Poe's reputation after the writer's death is confusing. Lippard deserves the title of one of his staunchest defenders. Nevertheless, we know we can't trust all the information he gives us. Willis, as was typical of Willis, played both sides, didn't fight very hard, and dared to work closely with Poe's greatest enemy. Further fuel to the mystery of Poe?

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