Thus began the most famous literary obituary in American history. Those words, written by the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold, were published on October 9, 1849, in the New York Tribune. Griswold's description of Poe as "erratic" with "few or no friends" who would not be grieved was coupled with some praise for his works, including "The Raven." Griswold noted, "As a writer of tales it will be admitted generally, that he was scarcely surpassed in ingenuity of construction or effective painting." Nevertheless, he added quickly, "As a critic, he was more remarkable as a dissector of sentences than as a commenter upon ideas. He was little better than a carping grammarian."
Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday.
This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was
well known personally or by reputation, in all this country. He had readers in
England and in several states of Continental Europe. But he had few or no
friends. The regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the
consideration that in him literary art lost one of its most brilliant, but
Originally signed "Ludwig," a portion of the obituary was plagiarized from The Caxtons by Edward Bulwer-Lyton, particularly Poe's characterization. People must not have picked up on the literary reference and the obituary was soon republished again and again. When confronted with the poor characterization by Sarah Helen Whitman, Griswold wrote, "I was not his friend, nor was he mine."
Asking why Griswold did this is complicated and there is no satisfactory answer. Instead, of asking why, we should ask, how was he capable of doing this? The fact is Griswold was a major influence, and the strength of his influence is rarely acknowledged these days. Additionally, readers wanted to (and, let's be honest, readers still want to) believe that Poe was an awful person. A figure who is depressed, suicidal, a loner, an alcoholic, one who wanders the streets muttering at imagined phantoms — this is the Poe that we want.
Should we give credit to Griswold for making sure he came to the forefront of antebellum American writing? Maybe. But he was just trying to sell a few books. Oh, in this obituary, Griswold also gave us the first published version of "Annabel Lee."