Friday, February 27, 2009

Longfellow damns censorious Poe

America's most beloved poet for the majority of the 19th century was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was born this day, February 27, back in 1807. The relationship between Longfellow and Poe — if it can be called that — has become somewhat infamous. Poe made many strong statements against Longfellow (to put it lightly), and people today consider his "war" on Longfellow an example of Poe's declining mental health, a sign of his raging jealousy of successful poets, or of his endless enmity towards all things Boston.

Those superficial interpretations are great examples of how we oversimplify parts of Poe's life.

Poe and Longfellow never met face-to-face, though they certainly corresponded. As an editor, Poe contacted him to urge him to submit to Graham's Magazine (he did, but moreso under Poe's successor Rufus Griswold). Longfellow was one of the most popular poets of the day and, shortly after Poe's death, did what Poe was never able to do: sustain himself financially solely as a poet — no small feat!

Poe's criticism began as early as 1840, after Longfellow had published his collection Voices of the Night (unlike many poets of his generation, Longfellow generally released books of brand new poetry, rather than releasing piecemeal in magazines then collecting the so-called "fugitive" poems later; he had this option because he had a full-time job as a Harvard professor and didn't need constant money from his writing like Poe did). Poe noted that one particular poem in the collection was very similar to one by Lord Tennyson. He wrote (anonymously) of it as the "most barbarous class of literary robbery; that class in which, while the words of the wronged author are avoided, his most intangible, and therefore least defensible and least reclaimable property is purloined." The so-called "Longfellow War" continued with several accusations of plagiarism throughout the 1840s, especially in the Broadway Journal while Poe was its editor. It became such a heated feud that others, including James Russell Lowell and Margaret Fuller, jumped in and took sides (the former took Longfellow's, the latter took Poe's). The oddest to join in was the pseudonymous "Outis" (translates to "nobody") — which generally is agreed to be Poe himself as an attempt at keeping the spotlight a bit longer. But, even the friendly, non-confrontational Nathaniel Parker Willis noted that Longfellow was too free from criticism and that the controversy would "do him good to rouse him."

Critics or readers who think the Longfellow War is about plagiarism are overstating things. When Poe used the term "plagiarism," it didn't mean what it does today. In fact, it was the opposite of "originality." Like that quote above makes clear, it's not a word-for-word theft, but a theft of poetic ideas.

Poe was strung up as a bad guy in all of this, and critics and scholars today refer to it as Poe's attempt to destroy his own reputation — his "imp of the perverse," if you will. Others say it shows Poe was merely jealous of success, or he was inspired by his hatred of New England and the Boston elite literary circle. Even in Poe circles, there is no consensus and it still brings up debate. Longfellow, on the other hand, universally comes out squeaky clean, and didn't actually engage in the feud personally. After Poe's death, Longfellow noted that all was forgiven and called him "richly endowed with genius." He added, famously: "The harshness of his criticisms, I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong."

Longfellow never publicly responded, but he did make an obscure response, which I have yet to see noted by Poe scholars. In his journal in 1845, Longfellow wrote a line in verse: "In Hexameter sings serenely a Harvard professor / In Pentameter him damns censorious Poe." Amidst these accusations of imitation, Longfellow carefully noted that this impromptu couplet was an imitation of another poem, thereby admitting his guilt as a plagiarist.

And it's quite true: Longfellow often lifted ideas from other poems. He was incredibly well-read and often paid homage to his influences. He wasn't ground-breaking as a poet; he did not significantly experiment with poetic structure or invent anything new. Instead, he went back to classic poems — especially European poems — and copied their meter. Remember, of course, that this was a time (the 1840s in particular) where we as Americans were really trying to define and create an American literature — Emerson asked for it, as did Lowell and Fuller. But, instead of trying to be distinctly American, Longfellow said he was trying to be "universal" (read: "European"). Poe, on the other hand, was part of this newly-developing world of American literature that, as Emerson said, aimed to be "free" from the "courtly muses of Europe."

So, was Poe right?

If anyone is interested, I will be speaking much more in-depth on "A War of the Words: Poe's Battle With Longfellow" on Thursday, April 9 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts (the former home of Margaret Fuller!). The lecture is free and open to the public. Later, in October, I'll be making a similar presentation at the Poe Bicentennial Conference in Philadelphia.

In the meantime, I cheerily wish Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a happy 202nd birthday.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A regular business man

One of Edgar A. Poe's more enduring comedy stories, "The Business Man" was first published in the February 1840 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in Philadelphia. Poe, of course, wrote a substantial number of comedies and satires (and, really, started his prose career with them) but many have lost their humor after 150 years. "The Business Man," however, is still funny — especially in the context of today's economy!

Poe makes fun of the "typical" businessman (people like John Allan?) who profits through ruthlessness and questionable ethics. The businessman of the story, Peter Pendulum (later renamed to "Peter Proffit"), describes himself:

I am a business man. I am a methodical man. Method is the thing, after all. But there are no people I more heartily despise than our eccentric fools who prate about method without understanding it; attending strictly to its letter, and violating its spirit. These fellow are always doing the most out-of-the-way things in what they call an orderly manner. Now here, I conceive is a positive paradox. The true method appertains to the ordinary and the obvious alone, and cannot be applied to the outre.

Pendulum's "method" is simple: make money, no matter how. Presumably he never violates the spirit of being a businessman throughout his many business ventures. Through the course of the story, he has many careers. For one, he joins the "Eye-Sore" business: purposely building ugly homes and structures adjacent to beautiful new buildings, and asking for 500% of the value to tear it down. He also joins the "Assault-and-Battery" business by provoking people on the street into fights, then suing them for attacking him. He also becomes a "Mud-Dabbler" and asks people to pay him not to splash mud on them as they walk by. Later, he makes his money as a "Cat-Grower": raising cats and selling their tails ("tales"? Could this be an indictment of the businessmen in the publishing industry??).

"The Business Man" is still funny 169 years after its publication — if you don't mind the absolute ridiculousness of it, of course. But, to sum up, here is Poe's version of the great businessman, in the words of Pendulum:

If there is any thing on earth I hate, it is a genius. Your geniuses are all arrant asses—the greater the genius the greater the ass—and to this rule there is no exception whatever. Especially, you cannot make a man of business out of a genius... The creatures are always going off at a tangent into some fantastic employment, or ridiculous speculation, entirely at variance with the "fitness of things," and having no business whatever to be considered as a business at all. Thus you may tell these characters immediately by the nature of their occupations... Now I am not in any respect a genius, but a regular business man.

It's important to remember that Poe was a business owner for a while too, albeit years after this story was printed. Read more about The Broadway Journal in previous blog posts.

After Poe's death, his infamous literary executor Rufus W. Griswold collected his works into a multi-volume edition in 1850. Griswold excluded "The Business Man" from this collection, either because he didn't know about it, or because he considered all of Poe's comedies to be miserable failures. Griswold is at least partially responsible for burying Poe's humor works — and that influence remains to this day. Who out there thinks of Poe as a comic writer?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reclaiming Poe's name

Poe's signature reproduced at Poe Park in Fordham, The Bronx, NY

I would like to make a simple proposal: We should rename Poe.

I suggest this for a couple of reasons. For one, the man often referred to as "Edgar Allan Poe" did not often use that name for himself. Most often, he was "Edgar Poe" or "Edgar A. Poe." Here's the story of his name.

He was born simply Edgar Poe (no middle name) in 1809. When he was taken in by the Allan family of Richmond, they christened him under the name "Edgar Allan Poe" — though, this was never made a legal name, nor was he legally their son. When the family moved to England, Poe was enrolled at a boarding-school as "Edgar Allan," though the name never stuck. The Allan family, after all, were only foster-parents or guardians (something John Allan reminded Edgar of quite often) and never formally adopted him. John Allan never considered Poe an heir — especially after he got re-married and had his own biological children. Allan was incredibly wealthy, a millionaire in fact — but Poe was left out of Allan's will (though Allan was sure to include money for his bastard children — more on that another day).

Despite how little Poe cared for John Allan, he did love his foster-mother. Frances Allan had been a kind and doting woman, but she died much sooner than John. Here's Poe's problem: The orphaned Edgar was taken in to live the life of high-society Virginia, raised as a true Southern gentleman. But John Allan didn't seem to want children (Frances Allan did) and never took the boy too far into his heart. Though early letters and journals indicate the potential for a loving father-son relationship was there, John Allan was never a proper father. He sent Poe to the University of Virginia with less money than it cost to enroll in two courses — and was disappointed when he didn't enroll in three. It was because of John Allan that Edgar A. Poe went into debt for the first time — from which he never recovered. All the while, there was the very, very wealthy John Allan, refusing to send enough money for Poe to get back on his feet. As Daniel Hoffman wrote in his fantastic Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1972): "If there is a villain in Poe's destiny, a malign person insinuated into his fortunes by the machinations of that evil fairy who always spoils the christening party, it may have been his nonadoptive guardian."

It was Poe's desperation that led him to join the military (under the name "Edgar A. Perry"). His first published work with his name used "Edgar A. Poe" — a name he would use in most of his correspondence and in his future publications. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman immortalized this fact by daring to title his book Edgar A. Poe: A Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance — a book which has continuously been in print since 1991. There are, of course, instances where "Edgar Allan Poe" is used by the man himself — some of them are letters addressed to John Allan (feel free to argue strategy; Poe was asking for money) or shortly after Allan's death (despite any ill feelings, Poe considered the man his "Pa" for two decades, so we'll allow the nostalgia for brief moments of happiness).

The name "Edgar Allan Poe" was so unusual during his lifetime, he had to actually explain what the "A." stood for in a letter to a relative!

I believe that the name "Edgar Allan Poe" was not cemented onto the collective tongue of the world until October 9, 1850, when Poe's most despised rival Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote: "Edgar Allan Poe is dead." That's right, the name did not become popular until after Poe's death — and by his enemy. If we continue to call him by that three-letter name, Griswold has won.

As a Poeist myself, I also find the misspelling "Edgar Allen Poe" the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. The number of reputable scholars, publishers, and claimed diehard Poe fans that have made this mistake is astounding. If nothing else, we should rename Poe to make it easier on them.

So, here is my proposal: Strike out "Edgar Allan Poe" and forever claim "Edgar A. Poe." Will you join me in this cause?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Fable for James Russell Lowell

It was on this day in 1819 that James Russell Lowell was born. Over the next 72 years, he would lead a diverse life — as a professor, a poet, an editor, a critic, an ambassador, and as an ardent abolitionist. His most famous connection to Poe comes from his book-length satirical poem A Fable for Critics,* in which he writes:

There comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge,
Who talks like a book of iambs and pentameters,

In a way to make people of common sense damn metres,

Who has written some things quite the best of their kind,
But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind,

Who — But hey-day! What's this? Messieurs [Cornelius] Mathews and Poe,

You mustn't fling mud-balls at
Longfellow so (But, more on him in a few days)...

Poe did not leave this mention unanswered. He reviewed A Fable for Critics (rather late) in March 1849 for the Southern Literary Messenger. Unfortunately, Poe proves Lowell's characterization to be accurate by spending far too much time writing about the Fable's structure and poetic meter: "Mr. L. should not have meddled with the anapaestic [sic] rhythm; it is exceedingly awkward in the hands of one who knows nothing about it and who will persist in fancying that he can write it by ear." He also spends too much time judging Lowell's abolitionism rather than looking at the poem independently. Reading the review, I keep thinking, "Lighten up, Poe! It's a joke!" Having read A Fable for Critics, I have to say, I always laugh like crazy, regardless of what meter he used — though I'd agree with Poe that Lowell's attempt at a "plot" is weak.

It's easy to assume from this information that Lowell hated Poe and Poe hated Lowell. But, as is often the case, things are quite a bit more complicated than that.

Poe actually liked Lowell's poetry. For one example, well before Lowell's potshot against him, Poe wrote that he was surprised Rufus Griswold didn't dedicate more space to Lowell in the ground-breaking anthology The Poets and Poetry of America in 1842 (Griswold actually gave Lowell less space by the 1851 edition). A bit earlier, in the December 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine, Poe ranked Lowell to "at least the second or third place among the poets of America. We say this on account of the vigor of his imagination — a faculty to be first considered in all criticism upon poetry" (though, even here, he notes that Lowell doesn't quite have an ear for meter).

I believe Poe appreciated Lowell because of similar aesthetic theories (very disparate from Lowell's close friend Longfellow's theories, but more on that in an upcoming entry). Besides the spirits and sadness in some of Lowell's works which Poe undoubtedly appreciated, Lowell placed the aesthetic beauty of a poem as its foremost quality. He also believed that the poet held a special role because he had an insight that the general population lacked. Poe must have agreed; he once wrote, a writer must "explain the unexplainable."

Lowell and Poe had a falling out for a couple of reasons. For one, Lowell was a New Englander (Elmwood, at right, is where he lived the majority of his life, from birth to death, in Cambridge, MA) and, like many New Englanders, was an abolitionist — a quick turn-off to Southerners like Poe ("Out from the land of bondage 'tis decreed our slaves shall go," Lowell wrote in the poem "On the Capture of Fugitive Slaves Near Washington" in 1845). Additionally, Lowell was sucked into that dreaded idea that poetry should teach lessons (like Longfellow believed) or that poetry could be used for social reform (like Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed). Poe hated both didacticism and Transcendentalism, and the snot-nosed Boston literary culture that embraced Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell.

This dislike of New England came to a head in the mid-1840s, when Poe paid special critical attention to Lowell's good friend and neighbor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Too endeared by Longfellow to look at Poe's criticism objectively, he took his neighbor's side in the conflict. And that endearment is what led to the quote from A Fable for Critics above.

Even amidst the beginnings of the "Longfellow War," however, in 1843 Lowell was the first to publish Poe's now-famous story "The Tell-Tale Heart" in his short-lived journal Pioneer. The journal only lasted three issues and, upon its cancellation, Poe lamented it as "a most severe blow to the cause—the cause of a Pure Taste." In fact, the prospectus for the Pioneer sounds strikingly like the prospectus for Poe's dream-project The Stylus. Around this time, Lowell also referred to Poe as having "that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius.” Lowell later helped Poe find his way to a role at the Broadway Journal because of his connection to a very good friend named Charles Frederick Briggs (to whom A Fable for Critics was dedicated). Shortly after, Lowell helped set-up a prestigious speaking engagement for Poe in Boston in late 1845. Of course, Poe's "Messenger Star" poem turned out to be... well, that will be a post for another day, perhaps.

In the meantime — if I haven't bored you too much already — here's a great example of Lowell's more typical poetry, an excerpt from "To the Dandelion":

Dear common flower, that grow'st beside the way,

Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,
First pledge of blithesome May,
Which children pluck, and, full of pride, uphold,
High-hearted buccaneers, o'erjoyed that they
An Eldorado in the grass have found.

Or, perhaps, an excerpt from "The Syrens":

The sea is lonely, the sea is dreary,
The sea is restless and uneasy;
Thou seekest quiet, thou art weary,
Wandering thou knowest not whither;
Our little isle is green and breezy,

Come and rest thee! O come hither!
Come to this peaceful home of ours
Where evermore
The low west-wind creeps panting up the shore
To be at rest among the flowers;
Full of rest, the green moss lifts,
As the dark waves of the sea
Draw in and out of rocky rifts,
Calling solemnly to thee
With voice deep and hollow,
"To the shore
Follow! O follow!
To be at rest forevermore!
For evermore!"

Happy birthday, James Russell Lowell.*

Above: Your fearless blogger paying his respects at the grave of James Russell Lowell, Mount Auburn Cemetery

* I had difficulty finding a full version of the Fable online so I started transposing it from an 1888 edition I own (you're welcome).

**My apologies for the extra-long entry. Poe and Lowell intertwine so much and, from there, branch out into so many other stories; the number of tags on this post has to be a record-breaker. And, of course, I am a big fan of Lowell (not just Poe)!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Poe and The Broadway Journal

Still reeling from the success of his poem "The Raven," Edgar A. Poe signed into a business partnership on February 21, 1845, as one-third owner of the New York periodical, The Broadway Journal. His partners were John Bisco and Charles Frederick Briggs (a good friend, by the way, of James Russell Lowell - if you're interested in him, come back here tomorrow). The New York-based publication was brand new when Poe signed his year-long contract which also entitled him to one-third of all profits.

Briggs was well-known as the author of the two-volume romp through New York, The Adventures of Harry Franco (1839). He was headstrong and intended to keep his fingers tightly around his editorial duties, but he met his match in Poe. By then the "tomahawk" criticism of Poe was well-known, and Briggs thought it was too much. Partly inspired by Poe's accusations against Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Briggs gave up on the Broadway Journal by June 1845. And then there were two.

Bisco didn't last much longer. He wasn't the editorial type, but more of a businessman. Poe really could have used his expertise but, by October, Bisco sold his part ownership to Poe for $50. Poe paid him using a loan from, of all people, the newspaper powerhouse Horace Greeley.

Thus, by October 1845, Poe was the sole proprietor and editor of his very own journal. It was the closest he ever got to launching his dream project, The Stylus. With full editorial control, Poe was able to continue his special brand of literary criticism amidst the "puffers" of the time without a boss giving him a hard time for it. Of course, his partners had abandoned ship for a reason: the Broadway Journal never gained its financial footing, and it was sinking. Poe continued as best he could but the market was flooded with competing magazines and periodicals. The final issue was dated January 3, 1846.

Poe never really abandoned his hope for a new journal, however. To inherit a journal is one thing, but to create one in his image was something entirely different. The Stylus, Poe believed, would be superior to the competition in every way, not just in content and scope, but also in its physical presentation: Poe even detailed the high quality paper he wanted to use. Alas, The Stylus, never came to be, and his brief stint as sole owner and editor of the Broadway Journal was as close as he ever got.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Upcoming lectures

Looking for some of Rob's famous Poe-expertise outside the electronic/digital realm? Here are some "real world" appearances and lectures coming up:

"Poe and the Maritime Literary Tradition"
Wednesday, March 4 at 7:00 p.m.
160 Derby Street, Salem, Massachusetts
Part of a maritime lecture series by the schooner Fame and Salem Maritime National Park

Join Rob Velella, creator of the Edgar Allan Poe Bicentennial Desk Calendar, to discuss why sea adventures were popular, how Poe was inspired to write several of his own, Poe's personal experience of the sea, and how one particularly famous sailor who has a link to Salem's Friendship may have a connection to Poe`s mysterious (and as yet unsolved) death in 1849.

"A War of the Words: Poe's Battle With Longfellow"
Thursday, April 9 at 7:00 p.m. (I'll confirm the time later)
Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts

In the 1840s, at the height of his literary fame, Edgar Allan Poe publicly accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of being a weak poetic imitator. Poe's infamous conflict with the Brattle Street poet drew the attention of other writers with deep connections to Cambridge. Was Poe right or was he just jealous? This discussion will reexamine the various theories behind Poe's accusations and determine his true motivation.

"Edgar A. Poe's Friends and Enemies: A Walk Among the Dead"
Sunday, April 19 at 2:00 p.m.
Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Nothing goes together better than cemeteries and Edgar Allan Poe. Meet many of his interred literary contemporaries at Mount Auburn. As a critic, Poe had much to say about many of these figures, both well-known and lesser-known. Some were friends, and some were enemies.

"Poe and Publishing"
Tuesday, May 12 at 6:00 p.m. (I'll confirm the time later)
Boston Public Library (room TBD)
Sponsored by the Ticknor Society

In addition to his poetry and fiction, Poe was also an editor and magazine proprietor at a time when the publishing industry was changing and technology was rapidly improving. This lecture will discuss Poe's knowledge of the industry, his role in it, and how it changed around him - though, ultimately, he was never able to profit significantly from it.

More to come, I hope!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Presidents Day and Literature

A special (belated) Presidents Day edition of the Poe Calendar...

Edgar A. Poe did not have many run-ins with presidents — as you might imagine — and, for the most part, his fiction writing veered far away from politics. Even in his critical work and his editorials he rarely ventured into politics and, when he did, it had more to do with publishing law than anything else. Still, there are a couple of opportunities to connect Poe with Presidents.

One example actually connects to a presidential candidate. In the relatively-obscure 1839 story "The Man That Was Used Up," Poe satirizes the warrior-turned-hero image common in the 19th century (and today). He took aim specifically at General Winfield Scott, a general during the War of 1812. Under President Andrew Jackson, Scott also helped oversee the removal of some 4,000 members of the Cherokee Nation — now known as the infamous "Trail of Tears." "Old Fuss and Feathers," as he was called, was considered a hero and an indomitable force, despite being captured at one point and also receiving various injuries throughout his storied military career. In Poe's story, the famous hero, A. B. C. Smith, turns out to have been so broken apart over the years that he is, quite literally, "used up" and in need of assembly. Years later, in 1852 (after Poe's death), Winfield Scott would be a candidate for president under the Whig Party.

Poe almost had a run-in with a sitting president, too. In the early 1840s, Poe's very good friend Frederick Thomas pointed out how many people were getting great appointments to political jobs under John Tyler's new administration. Thomas was a close friend of Robert Tyler, the new president's son. He arranged for a meeting between Poe and Tyler, hoping that Poe could be procured a customhouse job in Philadelphia. Poe took the opportunity to voice that, conveniently, he had been a supporter of Whig politics (a statement that can't be backed up with sincere evidence). However, in preparing to meet Tyler, Poe nervously turned to drink — and missed the meeting.

However, politics and literature aren't so disparate. Here is a quick list of literary figures in the 19th century who were granted political appointments by certain presidents. Just to name a few:

*James Fenimore Cooper — United States Consul to France (1826), appointed by John Quincy Adams
*Washington Irving — Secretary to the American Legation in London (1829), appointed by Andrew Jackson, later Minister to Spain (1842), appointed by John Tyler
*Nathaniel Hawthorne — United States Consul to Liverpool (1853), appointed by Franklin Pierce (also spent several years at the Boston and Salem Customhouse, appointed by Massachusetts Democrats)
*James Russell Lowell — Minister to the Court of Spain (1877), appointed by Rutherford B. Hayes, later promoted to Minister to England (1880)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Maria Poe Clemm (1790-1871)

Maria Poe was the sister of David Poe, Jr., father of Edgar Poe, making her, by blood, his aunt. When Poe married Maria's daughter Virginia Clemm, she became his mother-in-law by marriage — she also became his "mother" by choice. Poe, Virginia, and Maria were a very close and very loving three-part family from then on. She served, at times, as Poe's adviser, as a financial aid and, occasional, as a literary agent — all in small ways, of course. There is some debate out there that she was a worse influence on Poe than a help, but I'll leave that aside to tell her tragic story today.

Maria outlived two husbands, three children, and one son-in-law before her death on February 16, 1871. When Poe died in 1849, she didn't hear about it right away, and missed his funeral. She left the Fordham Cottage shortly after. She may have given (not sold) the rights to all of her son-in-law's works to a man named Rufus Griswold — a controversial move for many reasons. Besides rumors that Griswold tricked her into this, Griswold was a hated enemy of Poe's and, technically, Maria didn't have the right to sell anything because Poe's closest next of kin was his sister Rosalie Poe in Richmond. Nevertheless, Griswold promised Maria that she would benefit from the multi-volume editions of Poe's works he edited. Or, so he said.

In the 22 years after Poe's death, she struggled to survive. Her only income would have come from doing odd jobs like sewing, selling off autographs of her son-in-law — and, of course, sales from Griswold's collected works of Poe. She was promised that, after the publisher had enough profit to cover initial printing costs, all profit would go to Maria. Desperate, she turned to several people for monetary hand-outs, including Senator Charles Sumner, Harvard President Jared Sparks, poet James Russell Lowell, and, quite famously, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Maria's fourteen surviving letters to Longfellow are a chronicle of her struggles after Poe's death. In March 1850, She offered him a few volumes of Poe's collected works that the publisher had given her (at $2 apiece) and he willingly bought several, thinking she would get the money. She didn't. She was living in Lowell, Massachusetts at the time (the home of Nancy "Annie" Richmond, one of Poe's infatuations at the end of his life) and she requested Longfellow kindly to give her a few of his autographs for "friends" (she likely sold them).

By December 1852, Maria was living in Milford, Connecticut, having left Lowell due to poor health. She planned on heading further South, to family in Louisiana. By February 1857, she was in Brooklyn instead. Later that year, she reported she suffered from "inflammation of the lungs."

By October 1858, she was living with the Johnston family in Alexandria, Virginia. She noted that she was still waiting for the publishers to finish bringing in enough profit from their initial publication of Poe's collected works by Griswold. Eight years after its printing, the publisher most certainly had covered their costs; Maria would never see profit from Griswold's edition.

Maria Clemm never made it further South than Virginia and Maryland. Her plans to Louisiana came up just as the country was on the eve of Civil War, not making travel for an old lady advisable. For a time, she instead found herself in Muskingham, Ohio. She finally was put up in the Church Home in Baltimore by about 1863, if not earlier. It was essentially a nursing home but, years before, it had been a hospital — the same hospital were Edgar Poe died on October 7, 1849. Maria died, perhaps unknowingly, in the same building where her beloved son-in-law had died 22 years earlier. She was 81 years old, and penniless.

Till the end of her life, she defended Poe as best she could. To James Russell Lowell in 1850, she wrote: "He was noble, generous, affectionate, and most amiable (Dr. Griswold's assertion notwithstanding). Poor poor Eddie, it matters little to him now, but it almost breaks my heart to hear him spoken of so unkindly and untrue." We could ask today, did Griswold cause more harm to Poe, or to Mrs. Clemm?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Poe Valentine's Day

As you spread love, chocolate, and flowers this February 14, keep in mind that Poe got into the spirit of Valentine's Day himself. Here are a few examples:

-An acrostic poem written by Poe's wife Virginia, February 14, 1846

Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we'll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we'll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we'll be.

(These are the only surviving words written by Virginia. If it's not enough of a tearjerker, check out this musical rendition by an acquaintance of mine.)

Knowing that his wife was dying, Poe kept up flirtations with other women. The same day Virginia presented the above poem, Poe wrote this to Frances Osgood:

-A Valentine February 14, 1846

For her this rhyme is penned, whose luminous eyes,
Brightly expressive as the twins of Leda,
Shall find her own sweet name, that nestling lies
Upon the page, enwrapped from every reader.
Search narrowly the lines!- they hold a treasure
Divine- a talisman- an amulet
That must be worn at heart. Search well the measure-
The words- the syllables! Do not forget
The trivialest point, or you may lose your labor
And yet there is in this no Gordian knot
Which one might not undo without a sabre,
If one could merely comprehend the plot.
Enwritten upon the leaf where now are peering
Eyes scintillating soul, there lie perdus
Three eloquent words oft uttered in the hearing
Of poets, by poets- as the name is a poet's, too,
Its letters, although naturally lying
Like the knight Pinto- Mendez Ferdinando-
Still form a synonym for Truth- Cease trying!
You will not read the riddle, though you do the best you can do.

This next one was written to Marie Louise Shew, a woman who had served as a volunteer nurse as Virginia was dying. It is likely meant platonically.

-To M. L. S.--, dated February 14, 1847

Of all who hail thy presence as the morning-
Of all to whom thine absence is the night-
The blotting utterly from out high heaven
The sacred sun- of all who, weeping, bless thee
Hourly for hope- for life- ah! above all,
For the resurrection of deep-buried faith
In Truth- in Virtue- in Humanity-
Of all who, on Despair's unhallowed bed
Lying down to die, have suddenly arisen
At thy soft-murmured words, "Let there be light!"
At the soft-murmured words that were fulfilled
In the seraphic glancing of thine eyes-
Of all who owe thee most- whose gratitude
Nearest resembles worship- oh, remember
The truest- the most fervently devoted,
And think that these weak lines are written by him-
By him who, as he pens them, thrills to think
His spirit is communing with an angel's.

Poe was surprised in 1848 when he heard that a poem was dedicated to him at a Valentine's party that year. The author, Sarah Helen Whitman, was very, very close to becoming Poe's second wife. Here is the Valentine poem she wrote for him:

-The Raven, February 14, 1848

Raven, from the dim dominions
On the Night's Plutonian shore,
Oft I hear thy dusky pinions
Wave and flutter round my door—
See the shadow of thy pinions
Float along the moon-lit floor;

Often, from the oak-woods glooming
Round some dim ancestral tower,
In the lurid distance looming—
Some high solitary tower—
I can hear thy storm-cry booming
Through the lonely midnight hour.

When the moon is at the zenith,
Thou dost haunt the moated hall,
Where the marish flower greeneth
O'er the waters, like a pall—
Where the House of Usher leaneth,
Darkly nodding to its fall:

There I see thee, dimly gliding—
See thy black plumes waving slow—
In its hollow casements hiding,
When their shadow yawns below,
To the sullen tarn confiding
The dark secrets of their woe:—

See thee, when the stars are burning
In their cressets, silver clear—
When Ligeia's spirit yearning
For the earth-life, wanders near—
When Morella's soul returning,
Weirdly whispers "I am here."

Once, within a realm enchanted,
On a far isle of the seas,
By unearthly visions haunted,
By unearthly melodies,
Where the evening sunlight slanted
Golden through the garden trees—

Where the dreamy moonlight dozes,
Where the early violets dwell,
Listening to the silver closes
Of a lyric loved too well,
Suddenly, among the roses,
Like a cloud, thy shadow fell.

Once, where Ulalume lies sleeping,
Hard by Auber's haunted mere,
With the ghouls a vigil keeping,
On that night of all the year,
Came thy souding pinions, sweeping
Through the leafless woods of Weir!

Oft, with Proserpine I wander
On the Night's Plutonian shore,
Hoping, fearing, while I ponder
On thy loved and lost Lenore—
On the demon doubts that sunder
Soul from soul forevermore;

Trusting, though with sorrow laden,
That when life's dark dream is o'er,
By whatever name the maiden
Lives within thy mystic lore,
Eiros, in that distant Aidenn,
Shall his Charmion meet once more.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A day that will live in infamy

It was February 13, 1815, that one of the most despised figures in the story of Poe was born.

The man's name is Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and he was born humbly to a farming family in Vermont, thirty-five years before he destroyed the reputation of Edgar Poe (and stuck the name "Edgar Allan Poe" firmly in the mouths of his readers). Young Griswold was the twelfth of fourteen children but he didn't last long in this family and broke ties at age 15 to become a wanderer. He called himself a "solitary soul, wandering through the world, a homeless, joyless outcast." Throughout his life, he would live throughout Vermont, New York, Philadelphia, and even South Carolina intermittently.

At some point, Griswold decided he wanted to become the world's leading expert on the history of American literature. He claimed to have read every American book worth reading - amassing a library of hundreds and thousands of books over time. His anthology in 1842, The Poets and Poetry of America, was written intentionally as a chronicle of American poetry's development. His introduction alone was successful in this attempt (and worthwhile reading), as he traced the origins of poetry in the New World from colonization to Independence to his contemporary time. More than anything, he tried to show that we still needed to continue growing and improving.

But, far from being solely a scholarly work, Griswold directly appealed to the masses of mainstream poetry readers. Poetry was a huge entertainment in these days (we can't even begin to imagine the "family fun" of reading together by the fireplace), and Griswold took advantage even before his book's title page. Not leaving book sales to chance, he included an illustration that has been called "The Copperplate Five": images of the five top-selling poets of the day all in one image. The big five were: William Cullen Bryant, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Charles Sprague, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all topped by the idol-like image of Richard Henry Dana (did you guess wrong?).

The work instantly cemented Griswold as an important literary historian and an arbiter of taste in American poetry. The book sold immensely well and inspired many, many future editions (including posthumous ones) throughout the 19th century - I happen to own a third edition, in fact. Its success also spurned "sequels" of sorts, with titles like Gems from American Poets, The Prose Writers of America, and The Female Poets of America (which, he believed, required a separate book because men and women writers could not be judged equally).

The Poets and Poetry of America also connected Griswold to a man named Edgar Poe for the first time. Three of Poe's poems were included in the first edition, and Griswold asked Poe (being such an influential critic) to write a review... But, that is a story for another day.

Today, we remember Griswold, the man, whose birth this day 194 years ago today showed signs of promise. As he aged and his career progressed, he became an important figure in the story of American writing. What he would do with his fame and influence, of course, would be completely up to him, be it for good... or evil?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The first lost "Lenore"

Years before he lost his Lenore in "The Raven," Poe used the name in a poem aptly titled "Lenore."

It was first titled "A Pæan" (a poem of praise, but often directed toward the dead) and its lines were spoken by a bereaved husband — with no mention of Lenore — in 1831. Poe, always re-writing and revising, went back to "A Pæan" and substantially changed it a dozen years later. And so, Poe's first usage of the name "Lenore" came to be, in the February 1843 issue of The Pioneer, a journal edited by James Russell Lowell.

The name itself is relatively meaningless (though some biographers, notably Kenneth Silverman, enjoy trying to find a connection to someone in Poe's life, including his brother William Henry Leonard Poe — which, let's be honest, is a big stretch). However, the name was based on Poe's staunch poetic logic: in order to evoke emotion, words need to use appropriate sounds. As I explained in an earlier blog post, Poe loves the inherent melancholy in a long, protracted "O" sound, and he seems to enjoy the "L" sound too — it pops up in "Lenore," "Annabel Lee," "Eulalie," "Ulalume"...

Former equivalent of the poet laureate Daniel Hoffman made an important comment about this poem, which I completely agree with: for a poet that emphasizes the logical composition of poetry so much, Poe really made it easy on himself when he named his character "Guy De Vere" in this poem. You might also notice another word, "Nevermore," that makes a triumphant return in "The Raven". Take a look. This is the 1843 version from The Pioneer:

AH, broken is the golden bowl!
The spirit flown forever!
Let the bell toll! — A saintly soul
Glides down the Stygian river!
And let the burial rite be read —
The funeral song be sung —
A dirge for the most lovely dead
That ever died so young!
And, Guy De Vere,
Hast thou no tear?
Weep now or nevermore!
See, on yon drear
And rigid bier,
Low lies thy love Lenore!

"Yon heir, whose cheeks of pallid hue
With tears are streaming wet,
Sees only, through
Their crocodile dew,
A vacant coronet —
False friends! ye loved her for her wealth
And hated her for her pride,
And, when she fell in feeble health,
Ye blessed her — that she died.
How shall the ritual, then, be read?
The requiem how be sung
For her most wrong'd of all the dead
That ever died so young?"

But rave not thus!
And let the solemn song
Go up to God so mournfully that she may feel no wrong!
The sweet Lenore
Hath "gone before"
With young hope at her side,
And thou art wild
For the dear child
That should have been thy bride —
For her, the fair
And debonair,
That now so lowly lies —
The life still there
Upon her hair,
The death upon her eyes.

"Avaunt! — to-night
My heart is light —
No dirge will I upraise,
But waft the angel on her flight
With a Pæan of old days!
Let no bell toll!
Lest her sweet soul,
Amid its hallow'd mirth,
Should catch the note
As it doth float
Up from the damned earth —
To friends above, from fiends below, th' indignant ghost is riven —
From grief and moan
To a gold throne
Beside the King of Heaven?"

Monday, February 9, 2009

Poe's Philadelphia friend

It is more than a small annoyance that George Lippard has been thinly defined solely as "Poe's Philadelphia friend" in recent years. Though that fact can't be disputed, there's so much more to his story!

Lippard was inspired to become a writer specifically by the Panic of 1837. Witnessing the difficulties that befell average working-class Americans, he decided he wanted to write for them - not for the critics, nor for the upper class. It was this decision that made him one of the most successful writers of the first half of the nineteenth century.

He first worked for Philadelphia newspaper The Spirit of the Times. Though its readership was wealthy sporting men (not the group he wanted to write for), the experience was important in developing his story-telling style. He was a crime reporter at a time when Philadelphia was transforming from the picturesque seat of democracy and idealism to a seedy urban scene of murder and intrigue. Lippard's first major work of fiction, The Ladye Annabel (1842), reflected that new image. These "Legends" as he called them rewrote history, mixing in just enough of the lurid to whet readers' appettites, but also infused with a lot of Philadelphia patriotism and pride. It made Lippard popular, and this popularity hit its peak in 1847.

In 1847, Lippard released The Quaker City, or the Monks of Monk Hall (recently reprinted) - an unapologetically trashy novel exposing a secret underbelly of Philadelphia, a world of sin, sex, greed, and murder. It was fiction, of course, but had just enough elements of reality that local Philadelphians recognized the basis of many of Lippard's characters.

And, of course, the book sold immensely.

How well? 60,000 copies were sold in the first year alone. To qualify that, consider this: The Quaker City was the best-selling American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. Lippard wrote for the masses, remember, and he gave them what they wanted, overtly or not. A stage adaptation was planned, but was infamously canceled.

Lippard was popular, even if you haven't heard of him today, other than the minor few who know the connection to Poe. Popular enough that one of his stories created a legend that still permeates today. It was George Lippard who suggested in one of his "legends" in 1847 that after the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, enthusiastic Founding Fathers ran up the steeple to ring the bell. In their excitement, the bell cracked - and that's how the Liberty Bell got its famous crack.

Or, so says Lippard. The story is completely false. Have you heard that one before?

Poe, of course, loved Lippard's writing. The two likely met in 1842, and Poe encouraged the young man's writing, praising him and offering constructive criticism. Of The Ladye Annabel, Poe wrote: "You seem to have been in too desperate a hurry to give due attention to details and thus your style... is at times somewhat exuberant - indicative of genius in its author." Lippard admired Poe enough that when he started his own journal (named, quite logically, The Quaker City), he included a series called "Literary and Political Police" featuring a character named "Justice Poe," who punished literary criminals (including Rufus Griswold).

The most famous story of Lippard and Poe occurred in July 1849, just a few months before Poe's death. Lippard walked into his office in the morning and there found Poe, "sitting at the table in one corner, his head between his hands." His friend was in a terrible state, and missing a shoe. Lippard, understanding Poe's situation (because of his own empathy over victims of the Panic of 1837), asked several people to loan some money, including the publisher Louis Godey (of Godey's Lady's Book) and the portrait artist John Sartain.

After Poe's death, Lippard was one of his many defenders. But, he had more to his story than his connection to Poe, and more than his best-selling novel. In 1850, shortly after Poe's death, Lippard became a labor organizer (remember he was inspired by the Panic?) and founded a union called The Brotherhood of the Union. Inspired by secret societies and rituals, the organization flourished in some form or another until about 15 years ago. Lippard's title in the organization, by the way, showed his interest in the Founding Fathers. He was known as "Supreme Washington."

George Lippard died on this day, February 9, in 1854. He was 31 years old.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Charles Dickens with his raven

A special birthday tribute to a writer from across the pond, Charles Dickens (who still has a few years yet before he turns 200). I like to use Dickens as an example of what was happening in American literature because, though he wasn't American, he was the best-selling novelist in the United States for a time. American literature (and especially the American novel) had a slow start, and Americans were looking to mother England and its long-standing tradition of literature. Of course, there's also the whole international copyright issue, which meant that much of Dickens's work was published in the United States without legal permission. Ah well.

Our own Edgar Poe connects with Dickens in a couple of ways and I'm sure I'll mention the others throughout the year. Today, however, I'd like to connect one of Dickens's lesser-known novels with Poe's most famous poem.

Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty, like most of Dickens's works, originally was printed in serialized form, in this case between 1840 and 1841. Poe was working in Philadelphia for Graham's Magazine at the time and reviewed Dickens's work in the February 1842 issue (of which I happen to have a first printing). The long review — nearly 12 columns — applauds Dickens's efforts, with an occasional negative criticism peppered throughout ("Mr Dickens fails peculiarly in pure narration").

The majority of Poe's praise is directed towards Dickens's ability to present dramatis personae — dramatic characters. Such skill "sustain[s] the high fame of Mr. Dickens as a delineator of character... Their traits are founded in acute observation of nature, but are exaggerated to the utmost admissible extent." He does find a flaw or two, and one particular one which he emphasizes: Dickens included as a character a talking raven. He wrote:
The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made, more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.
And thus, the concept of a talking raven that serves as a prophet was first crafted by Poe — and, by the way, those are Poe's italics, not mine.

In this review, we see another connection that Poe will make between Barnaby Rudge and his own poem "The Raven" in just a couple years. Poe questions that "no work of fiction can fully suit, at the same time, the critical and the popular taste". He would challenge this assertion very specifically in "The Raven", as he explains in its companion essay "The Philosophy of Composition" using nearly those exact same words.

Poe didn't deny Dickens's inspiration, either. He mentioned Barnaby Rudge in "The Philosophy of Composition" and many other writers knew it too. James Russell Lowell, for example, famously referred to Poe in A Fable for Critics (1848) as coming "with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge."

Dickens, by the way, was inspired to include a raven character because he himself owned a pet raven named Grip. After Grip's death, Dickens had him stuffed and mounted in a glass case. The connection between Dickens's raven and Poe's was strong enough that Poe collector Richard Gimbel purchased the stuffed Grip and added it to his collection (now preserved at the Philadelphia Free Library). I had the good fortune of seeing Grip, in his current form, in January and was proud to think that it was from this little guy (actually, he's quite large!) that we eventually had "Once upon a midnight dreary..."

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sarah Helen Whitman responds to Poe's critics

On February 5, 1860, poetess Sarah Helen Whitman (1803-1878) published Edgar Poe and His Critics, a book which directly responded to various accusations hurled against Poe in the ten+ years since his death.

A Providence native, Whitman specifically responded to accusations from Rufus W. Griswold and others. One specific charge made by Griswold was responded fairly cheekily Griswold said Poe had no friends. Whitman introduced her book, "by a friend."

It's sort of a shame now that today Whitman is only recognized for her connection with Poe she was amongst the most famous women poets of her day and, to be honest, much of her work deserves reclaiming. At least one scholar, Brett Rutherford, agrees with me, though he still frames his book on Whitman around her relationship with Poe.

Let me sum up her relationship with Poe: She was almost his second wife. I'll give the details of their relationship closer to their wedding date in December.

After her book was published, Whitman maintained a heavy correspondence with John Henry Ingram, an independent biographer (and postal worker!) considered one of the first to punch a significant hole in Griswold's lies. And, really, it was Whitman that made Ingram's Poe biography so rich and so vital, even today.

Her relationship with Poe, her book response to Griswold, and her correspondence with Ingram make up all that she is remembered for today (quite unfortunately). A friend of mine performs as Sarah Helen Whitman on occasion, and nearly brings me to tears every time I see her.

In 1848, Whitman wrote this poem to Edgar Poe:
If thy sad heart, pining for human love,
In its earth solitude grew dark with fear,
Lest the high Sun of Heaven itself should prove
Powerless to save from that phantasmal sphere
Wherein thy spirit wandered,—if the flowers
That pressed around thy feet, seemed but to bloom
In lone Gethsemanes, through starless hours,
When all who loved had left thee to thy doom,—
Oh, yet believe that in that hollow vale
Where thy soul lingers, waiting to attain
So much of Heaven's sweet grace as shall avail
To lift its burden of remorseful pain,
My soul shall meet thee, and its Heaven forego
Till God's great love, on both, one hope, one Heaven bestow.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Poe on the Cosmogeny of the Universe

In New York, at 7:30 p.m., Edgar A. Poe stood before a group of some sixty audience members at the Society Library at the corner of Broadway and Leonard Street. It was a miserable night, but Poe persisted on his topic — "The Universe" — for two and a half hours. We can only imagine how Poe felt (exhilarated? nervous? self-assured?) but we can certainly speculate on how the audience felt. They had come to see Poe, the famous poet and the sharp critic, only to hear the man, who was already rumored to be insane, go on and on about, of all things, the mysteries of God and Nature.

Many left the lecture hall confused. One called it "hyperbolic nonsense." Friend and editor Evert A. Duyckinck found it boring and "full of dryness of scientific phrase — a mountainous piece of absurdity." Another attendee, Maunseell B. Field, wrote: "His lecture was a rhapsody of the most intense brilliancy... he kept us entranced." The New York Tribune praised Poe's analytical powers coupled with his intense imagination.

The lecture would eventually reshape into a pamphlet called Eureka: A Prose Poem. Published in March 1848, Poe prefaced the work with a poetic and poignant plea: "To the few who love me and whom I love – to those who feel rather than to those who think – to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities – I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem."

The essay, which Poe asked to be judged as a poem, is full of satire, religion, comparisons of God as a writer, and some amounts of blasphemy. Poe explained the nature of souls, humanity, and the birth of the universe based on no scientific experimentation, but entirely on his intuitive or "gut" feelings. He made scientific errors and he challenged contemporary definitions of God. He lost at least one friend because of this, and it goaded on quite a few of his awaiting critics and detractors. Poe, however, steadfastly believed it was his masterpiece and that 2000 years hence people would have learned it to be all true.

Today, Eureka remains one of the most hotly-debated aspects of Poe's oeuvre. How seriously are we meant to take it? Is it science? Is it poetry? Some modern critics have dismissed it entirely, others call it the description of a fictional universe which is the key to unlocking meaning in all of Poe's fiction, and many say that Poe predicted black holes, the Big Bang/Big Crunch theory, and other important scientific breakthroughs of the 19th century. Eureka ("I have found it!") remains one of the oddest pieces in Poe's collected works.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Virginia's funeral

Virginia Clemm Poe died on January 30. Her obituary in the New York Daily Tribune her death "of plumonary consumption, in the 25th year of her age, VIRGINIA ELIZA, wife of EDGAR A. Poe". A young Walt Whitman also made a notice of her death in the Brooklyn Eagle. On February 2, 1847, her funeral was held and she was buried (for the first time).

Not having a lot of money at this point, Poe turned to his landlord, John Valentine, in Fordham, New York. The Valentine family had taken an interest in the Poes and were willing to have Virginia buried in their family plot in a Dutch Reformed Church near the cottage they rented to the Poes (seen in the image at right, the Fordham Cottage is open to the public!). Funeral attendees included Nathaniel Parker Willis, Mary Valentine, Sarah Anna Lewis (presumably), Poe's cousin Elizabeth Rebecca Herring, and possibly Evert Augustus Duyckinck, Cornelius Mathews, and other (then) important literary figures. It was a cold afternoon and Poe wore the great grey coat he was issued at West Point — which had previously been used as a blanket by Virginia on her deathbed.

It is speculated that it was only a few hours after Virginia's that Poe, realizing he had no image of his wife, commissioned a water color portrait (possibly painted by Mary Louise Shew). For a time, it was believed this, a portrait of her corpse, was the only image of Virginia in existence. Some time ago, however, a more flattering oil portrait was found in the possession of the Herring family.

Mary Louise Shew, a friend who had served as an amateur nurse in Virginia's final days, helped arrange for the funeral. After Virginia's death, she tried to take care of Poe, who was suddenly ill. She also helped make the controversial diagnosis that Poe had a brain lesion or brain congestion — leading to more modern speculation about his death two years and eight months later.

Shortly after Virginia's funeral, possibly a day or two, Poe scribbled out a couplet — the beginning of a poem he never finished:

Deep in earth my love is lying
And I must weep alone