Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Return good for evil

Psychoanalytic critics often suggest that Poe was obsessed with sick, dying women that he was personally attracted only to women who were closely aligned with death (rather than it being a literary theory for how to draw in the largest audience with the most poetical topic in the world). Others say that Poe was a pedophile, looking particularly at his relationship with his wife Virginia (I've said this before, I'll say it again: she did grow up) or, at the very least, that he was only attracted to women younger than him.

These critics and analysts conveniently ignore Poe's engagement to Sarah Helen Power, the widowed Mrs. Whitman. She was an accomplished woman and published poet who was exactly six years older than Poe to the day and, being quite healthy, outlived him by nearly thirty years.

The couple became engaged after Poe's proposal in a cemetery in December 1848, but there were several compromises for this to happen. One major one was that Poe promised to stop drinking (a promise he seems to have kept, despite meddling from an anonymous interloper). More importantly, however, was Whitman's financial compromise. She was, after all, quite wealthy.

Whitman's family (particularly her mother Mrs. Anna Power) opposed her relationship with Poe, by then a well-known but financially-struggling writer. They assumed he was only interested in the family’s wealth. To assuage them, she signed over her claim to the estate in a contract dated December 15, 1848. She informed Poe the same day, and he added his own signature a week later. He asked Whitman to "Keep up heart for all will go well. My mother [i.e. Maria Clemm] sends her dearest love and says she will return good for evil & treat you much better than your mother has treated me." That settled, the wedding date was soon chosen. As we all know, however, the wedding never took place.

Unmarried, Whitman never had to give up on her family's wealth (nor did she give up on Poe, who she staunchly defended). When she died in 1878, she gave a substantial portion of her savings to charity, including a fund for "Colored People" and the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

*The image above is a portrait of Sarah Helen Whitman by Cephas Giovanni Thompson, now in the collection of the Providence Athenaeum.

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