Copyright 2010 by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849, and an obituary by his mortal enemy and biographer Rufus Griswold appeared three weeks later, on October 20, on page four of the New-York Weekly Tribune. It was another chance for Poe’s foe to lambaste the author, and he did so, claiming that Poe “had few or no friends” and suggesting that he was deserving of none. “Few,” Griswold felt sure, would “be grieved by” Poe’s demise.
Even the author’s reputation as a man of letters was questionable, Griswold implied: “Literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.” Griswold, assuming the name of “Ludwig,” characterizes Poe as a dissolute alcoholic who lived a penurious and friendless existence at the expense, as often as not, of his benefactors. He was, “Ludwig” all but insists, little more than a freeloader:
His wants were supplied by the liberality of a few individuals. We remember that Col. Webb collected in a few moments fifty or sixty dollars for him at the Union Club; Mr. Lewis, of Brooklyn, sent a similar sum from one of the Courts, in which he was engaged when he saw the statement of the poet’s poverty; and others illustrated in the same manner the effect of such an appeal to the popular heart.Poe came to the attention of the literati as a result of an accident, Griswold claims. He had entered a literary contest, and his story won not because it had any merit, but because it was the first among the many entries that showed any legibility, and the judges, in selecting it as the winner, might be done as quickly as possible with their responsibility:
Such matters are usually disposed of in a very off hand way: Committees to award literary prizes drink to the payer’s health, in good wines, over the unexamined MSS, which they submit to the discretion of publishers, with permission to use their names in such a way as to promote the publisher’s advantage[[.]] So it would have been in this case, but that one of the Committee, taking up a little book in such exquisite calligraphy as to seem like one of the finest issues of the press of Putnam, was tempted to read several pages, and being interested, he summoned the attention of the company to the half-dozen compositions in the volume. It was unanimously decided that the prizes should be paid to the first of geniuses who had written legibly. Not another MS. was unfolded. Immediately the ‘confidential envelop’ was opened, and the successful competitor was found to bear the scarcely known name of Poe.Had it not been for the intervention of another benefactor, “the accomplished author” John P. Kennedy, who’d written Horseshoe Robinson, it seems unlikely, Griswold would have his readers believe, that Poe would ever have been likely to have earned himself the position of editor of The Southern Literary Messenger at even the “small salary” that Poe was paid:
The next day the publisher called to see Mr. Kennedy, and gave him an account of the author that excited his curiosity and sympathy, and caused him to request that he should be brought to his office. Accordingly he was introduced: the prize money had not yet been paid, and he was in the costume in which he had answered the advertisement of his good fortune. Thin, and pale even to ghastliness, his whole appearance indicated sickness and the utmost destitution. A tattered frock-coat concealed the absence of a shirt, and the ruins of boots disclosed more than the want of stockings[[.]] But the eyes of the young man were luminous with intelligence and feeling, and his voice, and conversation, and manners, all won upon the lawyer’s regard. Poe told his history, and his ambition, and it was determined that he should not want means for a suitable appearance in society, nor opportunity for a just display of his abilities in literature. Mr. Kennedy accompanied him to a clothing store, and purchased for him a respectable suit, with changes of linen, and sent him to a bath, from which he returned with the suddenly regained bearing of a gentleman.In keeping with his image of Poe as a ne’er-do-well who lived off others, Griswold also characterizes Poe as something of a vagabond, mentioning his moves from Richmond to Philadelphia; from Philadelphia to New York; from New York back again to Richmond; and, finally, as it seemed, judging by his death in Baltimore, back again to New York.
The late Mr. Thomas W. White had then recently established The Southern Literary Messenger, at Richmond, and upon the warm recommendation of Mr. Kennedy, Poe was engaged, at a small salary — we believe of $500 a year — to be its editor.
In the years following the death of his “poor” wife, whom Poe had married “hurriedly” and “with characteristic recklessness of consequences,” at a time when he was as penniless as she, the author was able to make a meager living on the basis of “an income from his literary labors sufficient for his support.” However, Griswold suggests, Poe continued to keep an eye out for the chance to freeload, for, as “Ludwig,” or Griswold, points out, Poe “was understood by some of his correspondents” to be planning “to be married, most advantageously, to a lady of that city: a widow, to whom he had been previously engaged while a student in the University.”
As a man, Poe didn’t amount to much, either, Griswold’s death notice suggests: “He was at all times a dreamer,” who walked about not with his head so much in the clouds as “in heaven or hell,” communing with imaginary beings, the “creatures and the accidents of his brain”:
He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn close by whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which his constitution subjugated him — close by that Aidenn where were those he loved — the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses, as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.The true man is mirrored by his works, Griswold says, and Poe’s works are dark and dreary, indeed:
He seemed, except when some fitful pursuit subjected his will and engrossed his faculties, always to bear the memory of some controlling sorrow. The remarkable poem of The Raven was probably much more nearly than has been supposed, even by those who were very intimate with him, a reflexion and an echo of his own history.
Every genuine author in a greater or less degree leaves in his works, whatever their design, traces of his personal character: elements of his immortal being, in which the individual survives the person. While we read the pages of the Fall of the House of Usher, or of Mesmeric Revelations, we see in the solemn and stately gloom which invests one, and in the subtle metaphysical analysis of both, indications of the idiosyncrasies, — of what was most remarkable and peculiar — in the author’s intellectual nature. But we see here only the better phases of this nature, only the symbols of his juster action, for his harsh experience had deprived him of all faith in man or woman. He had made up his mind upon the numberless complexities of the social world, and the whole system with him was an imposture. This conviction gave a direction to his shrewd and naturally unamiable character. Still, though he regarded society as composed altogether of villains, the sharpness of his intellect was not of that kind which enabled him to cope with villainy, while it continually caused him by overshots to fail of the success of honesty.A friend of Poe’s, George R. Graham, answers Griswold’s character assassination-disguised-as-an-obituary with a eulogy in which he praises Poe (“The Late Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s Magazine, March 1850, 36: 224-226). Adopting the device of writing his eulogy to Willis, a mutual friend of Poe and himself, Graham begins by taking unto himself the task of writing a “defence [sic] of his character” as it was “set down by Dr. Rufus W. Griswold.”
“I knew Mr. Poe well — far better than Mr. Griswold,” Graham writes, and he immediately describes Griswold’s portrait of Poe an “exceedingly ill-timed and unappreciative estimate of the character of our lost friend,” which is both “unfair and untrue.” Graham believes that Griswold demonizes Poe out of spite, or “spleen.” Griswold’s obituary is, in fact, Graham argues, an attempt to avenge himself and his friends upon Poe for Poe’s honest criticisms of their literary works:
Mr. Griswold does not feel the worth of the man he has undervalued; — he had no sympathies in common with him, and has allowed old prejudices and old enmities to steal, insensibly perhaps, into the coloring of his picture. They were for years totally uncongenial, if not enemies, and during that period Mr. Poe, in a scathing lecture upon [[“]]The Poets of America,[[”]] gave Mr. Griswold some raps over the knuckles of force sufficient to be remembered. He had, too, in the exercise of his functions as critic, put to death, summarily, the literary reputation of some of Mr. Griswold’s best friends; and their ghosts cried in vain for him to avenge them during Poe’s life-time.What Griswold and his friends were incapable of achieving during Poe’s life, Griswold sought to gain after his death, by cowardly accusing Poe of charges against which Poe could not now defend himself. However, Graham suggests, even if Griswold had not had an axe to grind, Griswold would have not been “competent. . . to act as his judge — to dissect that subtle and singularly fine intellect — to probe the motives and weigh the actions of that proud heart” because not only did Griswold not “feel the worth of the man he has undervalued” but he also could not measure Poe’s worth, since Poe’s “whole nature — that distinctive presence of the departed which now stands impalpable, yet in strong outline before me, as I knew him and felt him to be — eludes the rude grasp of a mind so warped and uncongenial as Mr. Griswold’s.”
As a man, Griswold found Poe to have had close friends and to have been “always the same polished gentleman — the quiet, unobtrusive, thoughtful scholar — the devoted husband — frugal in his personal expenses — punctual and unwearied in his industry — and the soul of honor, in all his transactions. This, of course, was in his better days, and by them we judge the man. But even after his habits had changed, there was no literary man to whom I would more readily advance money for labor to be done.” As for his being a ne’er-do-well or a freeloader, Graham says, Poe was of such a rarified genius that his writings found only a small audience, (and literature is an enterprise that seldom pays well, in any case). He drank because he made little at doing what he loved so well:
The very natural question — “Why did he not work and thrive?” is easily answered. It will not be asked by the many who knew the precarious tenure by which literary men hold a mere living in this country. The avenues through which they can profitably reach the country are few, and crowded with aspirants for bread as well as fame. The unfortunate tendency to cheapen every literary work to the lowest point of beggarly flimsiness in price and profit, prevents even the well-disposed from extending any thing like an adequate support to even a part of the great throng which genius, talent, education, and even misfortune, force into the struggle. The character of Poe’s mind was of such an order, as not to be very widely in demand. The class of educated mind which he could readily and profitably address, was small — the channels through which he could do so at all, were few — and publishers all, or nearly all, contented with such pens as were already engaged, hesitated to incur the expense of his to an extent which would sufficiently remunerate him; hence, when he was fairly at sea, connected permanently with no publication, he suffered all the horrors of prospective destitution, with scarcely the ability of providing for immediate necessities; and at such moments, alas! the tempter often came, and, as you have truly said, “one glass” of wine made him a madman. Let the moralist who stands upon tufted carpet, and surveys his smoking board, the fruits of his individual toil or mercantile adventure, pause before he lets the anathema, trembling upon his lips, fall upon a man like Poe! who, wandering from publisher to publisher, with his fine, print-like manuscript, scrupulously clean and neatly rolled, finds no market for his brain — with despair at heart, misery ahead for himself and his loved ones, and gaunt famine dogging at his heels, thus sinks by the wayside, before the demon that watches his steps and whispers OBLIVION.The solution might have been to sell out and write the hack work that a general audience more interested in entertainment than art seemed to crave, but Poe was too much a man of honor to do so, Graham declares: “Could he have stepped down and chronicled small beer, made himself the shifting toady of the hour, and with bow and cringe, hung upon the steps of greatness, sounding the glory of third-rate ability with a penny trumpet, he would have been feted alive, and perhaps, been praised when dead. But no! his views of the duty of the critic were stern, and he felt that in praising an unworthy writer, he committed dishonor.”
Rather than the idle, half-mad dreamer that Griswold had made Poe out to be, Poe was a man of genius, Graham states, whose thoughts occupied higher regions than those of men of more mundane interests:
He was a worshipper of INTELLECT — longing to grasp the power of mind that moves the stars — to bathe his soul in the dreams of seraphs. He was himself all ethereal, of a fine essence, that moved in an atmosphere of spirits — of spiritual beauty, overflowing and radiant — twin brother with the angels, feeling their flashing wings upon his heart, and almost clasping them in his embrace. Of them, and as an expectant archangel of that high order of intellect, stepping out of himself, as it were, and interpreting the time, he reveled in delicious luxury in a world beyond, with an audacity which we fear in madmen, but in genius worship as the inspiration of heaven.It should be observed that contemporary critics hold a view of Poe that is much closer to Graham’s estimation of the author than to Griswold’s caricature of him.
Note: Both Griswold’s obituary and Graham’s eulogy may be read in their entireties at “A Poe Bookshelf: Books, Articles and Lectures on Edgar Allan Poe,” courtesy of The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.