Friday, October 9, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe is dead

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
erratic stars.
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."

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."

Much of this obituary, which took up an entire column on the front page of that issue, is fair, but interspersed with enough vitriol that readers should have been suspicious of its author's bias. Griswold went on to claim that he was Poe's literary executor — whether true or not — and continued to malign Poe's character while reaping financial benefit from publishing Poe's collected works. Though he promised profits would be distributed to Poe's surviving aunt Maria Clemm, that never happened.

Poe, already buried, was not able to defend himself. Instead, people like Nathaniel Parker Willis, Sarah Helen Whitman, George Rex Graham, and Thomas Holley Chivers. Even a pair of known enemies of Poe jumped to his posthumous defense: Charles Frederick Briggs and Thomas Dunn English (who particularly disputed that Poe was a drug user). But Griswold continued his assault, presenting Poe as a perpetual drunk with little literary talent, an angry critical hand, easy to anger, and with few friends. He relegated Poe's comedic works to a less important role and forced the horror tales to the forefront. He even made Poe's three-part name the new standard reference to the man.

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.

Think of "The Tell-Tale Heart" being written by a normal person and it's less interesting. Think of the same for "The Black Cat," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Cask of Amontillado." It has become impossible for Poeists like me to convince the world that Poe was a normal guy with normal problems. They want him to be fantastic, larger than life, a piece of mythology rather than a real human being. It's what sells his books today and it's what sold Griswold's collected works of Poe in 1850.

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."

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great job on “Poe, Melville and the Maritime Tradition” last night in New Bedford! I didn't expect such an insightful and informative talk and was pleasantly impressed.

I spoke to you afterward and mentioned that I run a weekly newspaper in Asbury Park, NJ (just visit NB once a month) and had just printed some info about Poe-related events in that neck of the woods. So by way of FYI, here's the basic 411:

POE, TIMES TWO
Twin tales of mystery, murder and mortar.
 
and
 
DARK SOUNDINGS
Two ghostly tales of ship and shore
 
Greg Oliver Bodine returns to Paranormal Books & Curiosities on Wednesday, Oct. 7 to perform his critically acclaimed, one-man Halloween tour-de-force, POE, TIMES TWO -- a double-bill of short, one-man plays adapted from "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Black Cat", by Edgar Allan Poe.  On Wednesday, Oct. 21, Mr. Bodine performs his new, nautically-themed, solo show, DARK SOUNDINGS -- a double-bill of short, one-man plays adapted from two classic ghost stories, "The Screaming Skull" and "The Upper Berth" by F. Marion Crawford. 

www.paranormalbooksnj.com

North Shore Theatre Group &
North ShoreTheatre Productions 
P.O. Box 488
Oyster Bay, NY 11771
(516) 922-3897

Visit our website: www.nstg.org


I can forward the full release and images to you if you like: here's my email address(stevenfroias@aol.com); send me your address and I'll send it along (I think it's too much to post here in the comments section).

Great blog, by the way. I'll find a way to sneak it into a story in the newspaper at some point and will check in frequently.

Keep up the excellent work, Rob.

Steven Froias
Editor, triCityNews
www.triNews.com

Steven said...

(re-post as wi-fi got dodgy on me: forgive the redundancy if you received original! Also, used my Gmail address for simplicity's sake - SF))

Great job on “Poe, Melville and the Maritime Tradition” last night in New Bedford! I didn't expect such an insightful and informative talk and was pleasantly impressed.

I spoke to you afterward and mentioned that I run a weekly newspaper in Asbury Park, NJ (just visit NB once a month) and had just printed some info about Poe-related events in that neck of the woods. So by way of FYI, here's the basic 411:

POE, TIMES TWO
Twin tales of mystery, murder and .mortar.
 
and
 
DARK SOUNDINGS
Two ghostly tales of ship and shore
 
Greg Oliver Bodine returns to Paranormal Books & Curiosities on Wednesday, Oct. 7 to perform his critically acclaimed, one-man Halloween tour-de-force, POE, TIMES TWO -- a double-bill of short, one-man plays adapted from "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Black Cat", by Edgar Allan Poe.   On Wednesday, Oct. 21, Mr. Bodine performs his new, nautically-themed, solo show, DARK SOUNDINGS -- a double-bill of short, one-man plays adapted from two classic ghost stories, "The Screaming Skull" and "The Upper Berth" by F. Marion Crawford. 

www.paranormalbooksnj.com

North Shore Theatre Group &
North ShoreTheatre Productions 
P.O. Box 488
Oyster Bay, NY 11771
(516) 922-3897

Visit our website: www.nstg.org

I can forward the full release and images to you if you like: here's my email address (stevenfroias@aol.com); send me your address and I'll send it along (I think it's too much to post here in the comments section).

Great blog, by the way. I'll find a way to sneak it into a story in the newspaper at some point and will check in frequently.

Keep up the excellent work, Rob.

Steven Froias
Editor, triCityNews
www.triNews.com

Matthew Pearl said...

Rob, any sense of how much money Griswold made from being Poe's literary executor (or at least positioning himself as that)? I don't think I've ever seen a study of that, but it would be interesting.

Rob Velella said...

Matthew: I don't know about Griswold's financial benefit specifically (something I hope to find out more about). I have a speculation, however, that he continued promising profit would be delivered to Maria Clemm (though that never happened). She wrote in a letter to HWL that she was waiting for the initial cost of production to be covered before profits were calculated. It's not very likely that the initial investment was never balanced, I presume.