Coffin placed in the Poe Shrine, Richmond on the anniversary of Poe's funeral
Edgar Allan Poe is so famous he shows up almost everywhere. Whether it’s a Beatles album cover, an episode of South Park, or on the side of Raven Beer bottle; his face is so familiar, many people likely think they know him. Especially around this time of year, students across the country are learning about Poe’s life and work. So how is it that we still know so little about someone this famous? Maybe it began with his death.
This October 7 marked the 165th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. After all these years scholars are still debating what caused his untimely demise at the age of forty. In fact, there are dozens of published theories, and the number continues to grow. Why the mystery? In today’s age of modern medicine, it is difficult to understand how little doctors in Poe’s time knew about internal medicine. Many diseases that medicine has since controlled were still unidentified or misunderstood. Poe died in Washington College Hospital where his attending physician John Moran paid close attention to the author’s condition, but Poe still died after four days in his care. According to the below record of 1849 Baltimore deaths, Poe’s cause of death is listed as “Phrenitis.” On this list, the date, name, and age are correct, but Poe’s occupation is incorrectly listed as “Physician” by whoever transcribed the information. (We are grateful to Sabrina Ricketts for finding and providing the Poe Museum a scan of this document.)
Phrenitis is an archaic medical term that means inflammation of the brain. The term was later replaced with the word delirium, and the symptoms are now most commonly associated with meningitis or encephalitis. The cause of these conditions may be attributable to a variety of different viral and bacterial sources. This means scholars are still not much closer to unraveling the mystery of Poe’s death.
Knowing what happened to Poe in the days immediately preceding his admission to the hospital might help determine the cause of his condition, but that information is also missing. We know that Poe had survived a bout of cholera in the summer of 1849 and that he was ill during his time in Richmond between July and September. On September 26, he visited his fiancée Elmira Shelton who later recalled, “He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick; I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever, and did not think it probable that he would be able to start the next morning, (Thursday) as he anticipated.”
Poe left Richmond on the morning of September 27 on a trip to Philadelphia, but his whereabouts are unknown until he was found in a Baltimore polling place on October 3. He was already very ill and was asked if he knew anyone who could help him, so he called for magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass.
Poe was delirious and unable to tell what had happened to him or why he seemed to be dressed in someone else’s clothes. That’s right–he appeared to be dressed in ill-fitting clothes that looked nothing like his usual mode of dress, so some people speculated he may have been beaten and robbed of his clothing. When he entered the bar-room of the tavern in which the voting was taking place, Snodgrass recounted he “instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder…But perhaps I would not have so readily recognized him had I not been notified of his apparel. His hat — or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in exchange — was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled; his coat, of commonest alpaca, and evidently “second hand”; and his pants of gray-mixed cassimere, dingy and badly fitting. He wore neither vest nor neckcloth, if I remember aright, while his shirt was badly crumpled and soiled. He was so utterly stupefied with liquor that I thought it best not to seek recognition or conversation…So insensible was he, that we had to carry him to the carriage as if a corpse. The muscles of articulation seemed paralyzed to speechlessness, and mere incoherent mutterings were all that were heard.”
After Poe’s death, Snodgrass clipped the small lock of Poe’s hair now in the collection of the Poe Museum. Snodgrass also wrote lectures and articles about Poe’s death to promote his agenda to ban alcohol in America.
At the same time, Poe’s attending physician wrote articles and a book contradicting Snodgrass’s account. If Snodgrass’s retellings were distorted in order to portray Poe as a hopeless drunk, Moran’s were skewed in order to show the poet as a perfect saint.
Both versions grew more colorful with each retelling. As just one example, we can cite Moran’s recollection of Poe’s last words. In a November 1849 letter, Moran said they were “Lord, help my poor soul.” In an 1875 article, Moran said they were “Self-murderer, there is a gulf beyond the stream Where is the buoy, lifeboat, ship of fire, sea of brass. Test, shore no more!” In his 1885 book, A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, Moran recorded them as, “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being, and upon demons incarnate.”
If these accounts did not do enough to spread confusion about Poe’s death, Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold attempted to defame Poe’s character in a scathing obituary and memoir of the author. Griswold’s obituary begins, “…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” His memoir of Poe became the first widely distributed biography of Poe but was so riddled with distortions and fabrications that some of those who had known Poe felt the need to come to the poet’s defense. Among these were John Moran and Poe’s fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman.
We will probably never know the exact cause of Poe’s death, but scholars will continue to try to solve Poe’s last mystery. If you would like to propose your own theory, you can read more about Poe’s death and submit your ideas here.
Join author Clay McLeod Chapman on Wednesday, October 15 at 6P.M. at the Poe Museum for an evening of reading and performance from a variety of his works. After the reading, he will be signing copies of his books. This event is part of the Virginia Literary Festival. Click here to learn more about the festival and its schedule of events.
More about the Author:
“Like a demonic angel on a skateboard, like a resurrected Artaud on methadrine, like a tattletale psychiatrist turned rodeo clown, Clay McLeod Chapman races back and forth along the serrated edges of everyday American madness, objectively recording each whimper of anguish, each whisper of skewed desire. This is strong stuff, intense stuff, sometimes disturbing stuff, but I think the many who admire Chuck Palahniuk will admire Chapman as well.” —Tom Robbins, author, Still Life with Woodpecker
Clay McLeod Chapman is the author of rest area, a collection of short stories, and miss corpus, a novel. Miss corpus was recognized in part of The New Yorker’s “Reading Glasses” series. Currently, he is writing the middlegrade adventure series The Tribe (Disney/Hyperion)—book one, Homeroom Headhunters, is out now and book two, Camp Cannibal, hits the shelves in April 2014. He also writes for his geek-gods Marvel Comics (Amazing Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man Adventures, Spider-Man 2099 and The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) and Fangoria Magazine.
Chapman’s story the battle of belle isle was featured in Akashic Books’ regional-noir anthology Richmond Noir. He was a contributing author on “The Rolling Darkness Revue,” a roaming reading-series of horror writers created by Glen Hirshberg and Pete Atkins, culminating in the anthology At The Sign of the Snowman’s Skull. He was a contributing author to One Ring Zero’s As Smart As We Are album, featuring such writers as Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem.
Chapman’s story late bloomer was adapted into film by director Craig Macneill. An official selection at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the short won the audience award for Best Short at the Lake Placid Film Festival and the Brown Jenkins Award at the 12th Annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Their most recent collaboration, Henley, a short film based on the chapter “The Henley Road Motel” from his novel miss corpus, was an official selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It was awarded Best Short Film at the 2011 Gen Art Film Festival and the 2011 Carmel Arts and Film Festival.
Upcoming feature films include The Boy, a full length version of Henley, produced by The Woodshed (Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, and Josh C. Waller) and the sci-fried feature White Space.
Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. In its ten-plus years of existence, it has performed internationally at the Romanian Theatre Festival of Sibiu, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the New York International Fringe Festival, the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, the Edmonton Fringe Festival, the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the Dublin-based thisisnotashop art space, IGNITE Festival, the Women Center Stage Festival and the Impact Theatre Festival. The Pumpkin Pie Show continues to perform in New York City annually with long-time scene-stealer Hanna Cheek.
Chapman has written the book for the musical Hostage Song with music and lyrics by Obie-winning Kyle Jarrow. He also wrote the book for SCKBSTD, a new musical with Grammy-winner Bruce Hornsby. He is the author of such plays as commencement, teaser cow, Julian, bar flies, lee’s miserables, No Exitway, duct-tape to family-time, redbird, jewish mothers, junta high, nested doll, the interstate and on, the cardiac shadow and volume of smoke. Stage versions of his short stories birdfeeder and undertow were selected for publication in The Best American Short Plays: 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 anthologies.
Chapman was educated at the North Carolina School of the Arts for Drama, the Burren College of Art, and Sarah Lawrence College. He currently teaches writing at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University. Visit him at www.claymcleodchapman.com
Do you love a good book? Do you want to help a new generation of readers share your love of literature? Here’s something you can do about it:
For the next day and a half the Poe Museum will be competing in the Amazing Raise, a 36-hour challenge in which Central Virginia non-profits try to see how many donations they can collect between 6 A.M. on September 17 and 6 P.M. on September 18. And you can help. Your donation of $50 or more helps the Poe Museum compete for thousands of dollars in bonus prizes, so even a small gift can make a big difference.
Why support the Poe Museum? Your donation will help the Poe Museum foster a love or reading and writing in future generations. For over ninety years the Poe Museum has been an invaluable resource to teachers and students around the globe. Through our educational programs, website, and educator information packets, we support teachers in their efforts to both educate and inspire their students.
What will we do with your gift? Fifty dollars pays for enough tour guides to give a guided tour for one hundred students. One hundred dollars buys the latest books for our ever expanding reference library. Five hundred dollars pays for plaster repair for one of our exhibit galleries. One thousand dollars helps conserve a small painting. Five thousand dollars buys a new heat pump for one of our buildings. Eight thousand dollars pays the expenses associated with our annual Edgar Allan Poe Young Writers’ Conference.
If you believe in the work the Poe Museum is doing, please consider making a donation today using this form. If you are reaching this page after the competition has ended, you can still contribute to the Poe Museum here.
On the anniversary of Poe’s final departure from Richmond (just ten days before his death), September 27, 2014 at 7P.M., the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will honor this grim anniversary with unique dramatization of Poe’s works by historic interpreter Anne Louise Williams. An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe features dramatic recitations from memory of several writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Selections will include “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Morella,” “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “For Annie,” “A Dream within a Dream,” “Eldorado,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The recitations are framed in the context of the author’s life, interspersed with readings of excerpts from newspapers, letters, and observations of contemporaries. Admission is $5. Poe Museum members will be admitted free.
About the Presenter:
Anne Louise Williams is a historic interpreter certified with the National Association of Interpreters. Anne is a volunteer with the National Park Service at Whitehaven (Grant Home) and the Old Court House for special events (since 2009) and a volunteer with the historic Daniel Boone Home (since 1996) in St. Louis, Missouri. Anne integrates her passion for history, literature, and drama to perform literature in the context of the author’s life. She is experienced in first person interpretation as well. She has portrayed Virginia Minor, recreating her testimony on Suffrage before the US Senate Committee. In 2011, Anne researched and reconstructed the testimonies in the infamous Lemp Divorce which were re-enacted at the Old Court House where the trial occurred in 1909, with a Lemp descendant portraying William Lemp and the audiences taking the roles of witnesses. Anne performed at the Poe Visitor Center in Fordham (Bronx) in January 2014. Anne will be performing at several venues in September and October, including the Poe Museum in Richmond, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Poe Visitor Center in Fordham, and the Lyndhurst Castle in Tarrytown, the Daniel Boone Home in Defiance MO, and the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis MO.
Mathew Brady was perhaps the leading American photographer of the nineteenth century. Among the prominent figures who sat for his studio are eighteen United States Presidents including Abraham Lincoln. It has long been known that the Mathew Brady Studio sold copies of a “Brady Photo” of Poe in the early 1860s, but now a previously unpublished Brady photo of Poe’s mother-in-law Maria Clemm has been found and will soon be on public display for the first time.
From September 25 until November 30, 2014, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia will exhibit a newly discovered photograph of Edgar Allan Poe’s mother-in-law from the studio of famed nineteenth century photographer Mathew Brady (1822-1896), best known for his iconic photographs of Abraham Lincoln and his documentation of Civil War battlefields. This is only the third image of Poe’s aunt/mother-in-law Maria Poe Clemm to come to light. Although Edgar Allan Poe’s face is well-known through photographs and paintings made during his lifetime, there are very few surviving images of the two people closest to him—his wife and mother-in-law. Maria Clemm helped support Poe by helping sell his poems and by taking on sewing work for extra money. Poe paid tribute to her in his poem “To My Mother.” After Poe’s death, Clemm depended upon the charity of Poe’s many admirers. Charles Dickens is among those who contributed to her care.
Newly Discovered Image
Stephen Montgomery, the owner of the photograph, an albumen print carte de visite, found the previously unpublished image in an album of nineteenth century photographs and contacted the Poe Museum to help him verify the discovery. The logo of the Mathew Brady studio is printed on the back of the photo with the words “Maria Clemm/ Edgar Allen [sic] Poe Aunt” written in pencil above it. Although the image was previously unknown to scholars, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the two other known photographs of Maria Clemm, one of which is in the collection of the Poe Museum. The newly identified image will be displayed alongside the Poe Museum’s fully authenticated photograph for comparison.
Authentic Images of Maria Clemm and the Newly Discovered Image
Face of 1868 Photo Superimposed Over Face of Montgomery Photo
For this exhibition, Montgomery has also loaned the Poe Museum two other photographs—Matthew Brady’s photograph of Poe (a retouched version of an 1848 photograph taken by another photographer sold from Brady’s studio in the early 1860s) and an albumen print photograph of the daguerreotype taken of Poe in Richmond a few weeks before his death.
Brady Photo of Poe
Now one of the most valuable books in American literature, this humble volume could have easily ended up in a trash heap or floating down the Hudson River along with several other copies. Ben Hardin, Jr. (1784-1852), the first owner of this first edition of Poe’s third book Poems, scrawled abusive language on the end pages. Ben Hardin, Jr. was a Kentucky lawyer who had likely received the book from his son John Pendleton Hardin (1810-1842, Class of 1832, resigned 1832), one of Poe’s fellow cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Hardin would have been one of the 131 out of the 232 cadets who contributed $1.25 toward the work’s publication in April 1831. Fewer than 1,000 copies were printed, and, judging by the cadets’ response to the book, it is not surprising that only about twenty survive. (Some of those cadets are said to have thrown their copies into the river in disgust.)
Dedication Page of Poems
One of the cadets, Allan B. Magruder, later recalled, “[The book] was a miserable production mechanically, bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale. The subscription was not fully paid until the book was delivered, and I remember a general expression of indignation at the inferior quality and condition of the book.”
Another cadet, Thomas W. Gibson, added, “The book was received with a general expression of disgust. It was a puny volume, of about fifty pages, bound in boards and badly printed on coarse paper, and worse than all, it contained not one of the squibs and satires upon which his reputation at the Academy had been built up.”
Ben Hardin, Jr., the owner of the Poe Museum’s copy, wrote on the front page, “This book is a damn cheat. All that fills 124 pages could have been compiled in 36.” Beneath this, someone wrote “lie.” Below that is written, “Calliope [the Greek muse of epic poetry] is a cheat/ any how–.”
What little critical notice the book attracted was not overwhelmingly favorable, either. In the May 7, 1831 issue of the New-York Mirror, the reviewer (probably George P. Morris), complains that Poe’s poetry is incomprehensible:
The poetry of this little volume has a plausible air of imagination, inconsistent with the general indefinitiveness of the ideas. Every think in the language betokens poetic inspiration, but it rather resembles the leaves of the sybil when scattered by the wind. The annexed lines, which close a short poem, entitled the “Doomed City,” are less incomprehensible than most in the book, although the meaning is by no means perfectly clear…It sometimes happens that poetry, at first sight unintelligible, is discovered, upon a repeated and more careful examination, to be fraught with the treasure of thought and fancy. The “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” belongs to this class; but we cannot flatter Mr. Poe with any similar hopes respecting his own composition, although it occasionally sparkles with a true poetic expression, and sometimes a conflict of ¬beauty and nonsense takes place, in which the latter seems to have the best of it. It is indeed encumbered by numerous obscurities, which we should be pleased to see either very much brightened or entirely expunged. What is the meaning of this?
In anticipation that the meaning of his poetry would confound some critics, Poe wrote in the volume’s introduction,
Poetry, above all things, is a beautiful painting whose tints, to minute inspection, are confusion worse confounded, but start boldly out to the cursory glance of the connoisseur…A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.
By the time Poems was released in April 1831, Poe was living in New York after having been expelled from West Point in February. Even though Poe was no longer at the academy, he remained the subject of the cadets’ scorn and ridicule for some time after his departure. As Gibson recalled, “For months afterward quotations from Poe formed the standing material for jests in the corps, and his reputation for genius went down at once to zero. I doubt if even the ‘Raven’ of his after-years ever entirely effaced from the minds of his class the impression received from that volume.”
After the commercial failure of Poems, Poe still considered himself primarily a poet and continued to write poetry, but he would not publish another volume of his poetry for fourteen years when he issued The Raven and Other Poems in 1845.
Listing from Chamberlain Catalog
The Poe Museum’s copy of Poems eventually entered the collection of scientist Jacob Chester Chamberlain (1860-1905) who worked in Thomas Edison’s laboratory during the early 1880s and contributed to Edison’s pioneering work with electric lighting. The book was #706 in the auction of Chamberlain’s collection on February 16, 1909 at the Anderson Auction Company in New York when the formerly $1.25 book sold for $315. The piece next entered the library of book collector Walter Thomas Wallace of South Orange, New Jersey. He sold his collection at auction on March 22-24 at the American Art Galleries in New York. This time, the book sold for only $140. The next owner was the California psychologist John Wooster Robertson, whose special interest in Poe led him to compile a bibliography of Poe first printings and to write the book Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study. Robertson donated Poems, along with the rest of his large collection of Poe first editions, to the Poe Museum in 1927.
Listing from Wallace Catalog
Although some readers in Poe’s time could not appreciate it, Poems is now considered one of Poe’s most important collections. Among the soon-to-be classic poems first printed in this volume are early versions of Poe’s classics “To Helen,” “Lenore” (under its original title “A Paean”) and “Israfel.” Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn summed up the significance of the book as follows:
If the volume of 1829 [Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems] contained poetry unlike any that had as yet appeared in the United States, the volume of 1831 gave us in “To Helen,” “Israfel,” “The Doomed City,” “The Valley Nis” and “Irene,” poetry of a kind that had not yet been written in the English language.
The Poe Museum is fortunate Ben Hardin, Jr. decide not to discard his copy of Poems. Thanks to collectors like Robertson, Wallace, and Chamberlain, the book has been preserved for future generations to study and enjoy. That is why this first edition of Poems is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
Walter Wallace Bookplate in Poems
During “Vincent Price at the Poe Museum,” legendary horror actor Vincent Price and iconic author Edgar Allan Poe reunite this Halloween Weekend (October 31-November 1, 2014) at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia.
The weekend kicks off Halloween night, October 31, from 6-10 P.M. with Poe Goes to the Movies
, a costume contest and film screening hosted by Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria Price
. Ms. Price and a panel of special guests will help judge the costume contest and Poe Look-Alike Contest. Then Victoria Price will introduce the movie Tales of Terror starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. The evening will also include the opening of the Poe Museum’s newest gallery, The Raven Room, featuring James Carling’s original ca.1882 illustrations for Poe’s poem “The Raven.” Poe Goes to the Movies will be a fun, frightening evening with games, tricks, and treats for the whole family. Admission for the evening is $20, and proceeds benefit the Edgar Allan Poe Museum’s education programming.
The following evening, November 1 from 6-10 P.M., the Poe Museum will host The Author’s Appetite, featuring the new Vincent Price Signature Collection wines in addition to Vincent Price’s foods prepared from recipes in his own cookbook. Victoria Price will share some her memories of her famous father. The evening will also feature performances of Poe’s works by Anne Williams, a book signing by Victoria Price, curator talks in the new Raven Room. Admission for the evening is $50 and will benefit the Edgar Allan Poe Museum’s educational programming.
For more information, contact the Poe Museum at 804-648-5523.
Edgar Allan Poe lived at the perfect time in history to be able to observe and to write about many of the most dramatic technological changes that had taken place in world history. Scientist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace called the nineteenth century “The Wonderful Century” because of its “marvelous inventions and discoveries,” which he regarded as immensely superior to anything which had been developed up until that time by “our comparatively ignorant forefathers”(1). Suddenly, within the span of a few decades, the introduction of new Industrial Age technologies such as electricity, telegraphic communications, cross-country railroads, photography, astronomy, and high- speed printing presses dramatically altered the culture and lifestyle of the American public in ways in which few people who lived at the time could ever have expected. In 1903, Sir Norman Lockyer, the then President of the British Association echoed Wallace’s remarks, stating that, “The nineteenth century will ever be known as the one which the influence of science was first fully realized in western countries; the scientific progress was so gigantic that it seems rash to predict that any of its successors can be more important in the life of a nation” (Nature). By the time that Poe started writing professionally (in the early 1830s), the literacy rate was higher than it had previously ever been in America, and the average person could read and understand most articles written in the newspaper. A person could travel to distant parts of the country by rail, and communicate almost instantly via the telegraph to almost anyone in the United States. Through the development of the daguerreotype (an early prototype of photography), people could obtain realistic and long lasting images of their family members to remember for generations. Many of those taken at that time may still be clearly visible today. The introduction of a new class of highly powerful telescopes and microscopes also demonstrated that the Universe of space and the unseen space within objects are much more expansive than anyone had previously imagined.
Peter Swirski argues that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth century culture to explore popular writers like Edgar Allan Poe because his “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth century society. Poe’s science narratives are perhaps most important because he was the first American authors who was able to distill the important information and ideas that were developed by professional scientists and publish them to a national and international audience in the form imaginative poems, non-fiction essays and journalistic stories, fiction, and science fiction stories.
The next entry of the “Poe and Science” blog will discuss how a studying the stories of the non-professional science writer helps us to have a better understanding of nineteenth-century society. Please send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Lockyer, Sir Norman. “Inaugural Address as President of the British Association.” Nature. 10 September 1903: 439.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Wallace, Alfred Russell. The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Failures. Toronto: George N. Morang, 1898 (digital reproduction).
Last Sunday, the Poe Museum was proud to host a talk by award-winning authors Mary SanGiovanni and Brian Keene. Guests came from as far away as Pennsylvania and Illinois to meet the authors and hear their insights into the continuing relevance of Poe’s fiction.
Since the Poe Museum’s mission is to “interpret the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for the education and enjoyment” of the public, Keene and SanGiovanni helped support this mission by speaking about Poe’s influence on today’s writers. SanGiovanni began by discussing the impact of Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” on horror fiction. She provided a fascinating overview of the themes and imagery of the story and drew parallels between these and the recurrent themes found in modern psychological horror and cosmic horror.
After SanGiovanni’s talk, Keene spoke about Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, its inspiration for his own writing, and its influence on later writers. He traced the influence of this novel on Herman Melville, Jules Verne (who wrote a sequel to it), and H.P. Lovecraft (whose novel At the Mountains of Madness borrows from it). Keene continued by describing how At the Mountains of Madness helped inspire John W. Campbell’s novel Who Goes There which has been adapted into three films, the second of which is John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing, which Keene considers the most important horror film of the 1980s. The Thing topped Boston Globe’s list of the Fifty Scariest Movies of All Time and was ranked #2 on Moving Arts Film Journal’s list of the Twenty-Five Greatest Horror Films. The film, in turn, was a great inspiration to Keene himself.
The talks were followed by a question-and-answer period in which the authors discussed their own work as well as the international significance of Poe’s literary contributions. A sizeable crowd gathered afterwards to have the authors sign copies of their books. Keene and SanGiovanni also donated some copies of their books to the museum’s gift shop to help support the museum’s educational mission. The Poe Museum would like to thank SanGiovanni and Keene for sharing their insights with our audience.
Our next author talk will take place on October 15 at 6 P.M. when the Virginia Literary Festival Presents: An Evening with Clay McLeod Chapman. Click here for a complete list of upcoming events.
Clay McLeod Chapman, our October speaker
Edgar Allan Poe had many enemies during his life–there is no questioning this—but only one man held the significant title of being Poe’s “bitterest enemy.” Was it Rufus Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, you may ask? No. Maybe, John Allan, Edgar’s foster father who butted heads with the poet until Allan’s death? Not quite. Who, you may inquire, was named Edgar Poe’s bitterest enemy? His own cousin, Neilson Poe.
Born with his twin sister, Amelia, to Jacob and Bridget Poe, in Baltimore on August 11, 1809, Neilson (pronounced “Nelson”) was grandson of George Poe Sr.(Frank 278, 281; Silverman 82; Thomas xxxviii, 6). Although there are no significant accounts of Neilson’s childhood, we know that at age eighteen he joined the staff of William Gwynn’s Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, beginning a three year apprenticeship as a journalist (Thomas xxxviii). Two years later, in 1829, made acquaintances with his second cousin, Edgar.
Later Neilson became the owner and editor of the Frederick Examiner, a semiweekly newspaper in Frederick, Maryland, where Edgar applied for a job in 1831 after Neilson had left. In 1834, Neilson acquired the Baltimore Chronicle, an influential Whig daily. The next year marked the beginning of the Neilson and Edgar rivalry (Thomas xxxviii).
In 1835, Edgar received word that Virginia Clemm, his future wife, was to be taken in by her cousin, Neilson and his wife, her half-sister, Josephine. This struck a deep chord in Edgar’s heart and he frantically pleaded with his Aunt, Maria Clemm, to not send Virginia to his second cousin’s residence, regarded Neilson as a rival for Virginia’s affection. He allegedly thought the plan was “cruel” and a betrayal that “wound[ed him] to the soul” (Frank 280, 281; World of Poe). Edgar went on to explain to Maria in his letter,
Oh think for me for I am incapable of thinking. Al[l of my] thoughts are occupied with the supposition that both you & she will prefer to go with N. [Neilson] Poe. I do sincerely believe that your comforts will for the present be secured — I cannot speak as regards your peace — your happiness. You have both tender hearts — and you will always have the reflection that my agony is more than I can bear — that you have driven me to the grave — for love like mine can never be gotten over. It is useless to disguise the truth that when Virginia goes with N. P. that I shall never behold her again — that is absolutely sure. Pity me, my dear Aunty, pity me. I have no one now to fly to. I am among strangers, and my wretchedness is more than I can bear. It is useless to expect advice from me — what can I say? Can I, in honour & in truth say — Virginia! do not go! — do not go where you can be comfortable & perhaps happy — and on the other hand can I calmly resign my — life itself. If she had truly loved me would she not have rejected the offer with scorn? Oh God have mercy on me! If she goes with N. P. what are you to do, my own Aunty? (You can read the rest of the letter here.)
Edgar won the dispute and successfully “saved” Virginia from their cousin Neilson. It is said Neilson had not known why Virginia and Maria turned down his offer until years later when he was shown, by Maria, the letter Edgar had written (World of Poe). Also, according to Kenneth Silverman in Edgar A. Poe: A Biography, Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, “…Neilson meant to rescue Muddy from her poverty, but he also reportedly hoped to prevent Virginia from marrying at so young an age, keeping open the possibility of her marriage to Edgar a few years later, if they both still desired it.” For some reason, Edgar believed he would never see Virginia again had she gone to stay with Neilson and Josephine (104).
The cousins did not keep in close contact after this. In 1833, Neilson’s daughter, Amelia Fitzgerald, was born. This particular Poe child, out of seven siblings, was significant in relaying information to Poe scholars later on in her life, giving information about Edgar to biographers, John Ingram and George Woodberry (Frank 278).
In the summer of 1838, Edgar contacted his cousin, imploring for financial assistance, to which Neilson declined. He, too, was having monetary issues during this time. He sold his Chronicle on December 2 of that next year, due to financial debt. In 1840, he left the business he had been practicing since eighteen and commenced the practice of law, where he remained the rest of his life (Thomas xxxviii). It is said Neilson corresponded with Edgar in August 1845 in one surviving letter, which, according to “The World of Poe” online,
…is very civil, but decidedly cool. He [Edgar] responded to his cousin’s evident friendly overtures with a bland courtesy, assenting that it was indeed a pity that their two families were estranged, but he showed no sincere desire to amend that situation. The letter also indicated that Neilson and his family were unaware that for the past three years, Virginia had been battling a hopeless illness (which Poe always mysteriously called “the accident”)–a striking sign of just how alienated they were from her life. (You can read this letter here.)
Edgar’s death four years later would come as a shock and blow to Neilson who, despite not being on the best of terms with his cousin throughout their lives, still maintained concern for Edgar during his dying days. When word reached him that his cousin was in the hospital, Neilson visited Edgar and, despite being considered “the little dog” by his writer cousin, sent a change of linens and called again the next day to check on Edgar (Silverman 434). Despite the efforts to help Edgar, Poe died and Neilson began preparing for the funeral. He attended Edgar’s funeral on October 8, 1849, and provided the hack and hearse (Thomas 848).
After his cousin’s death, and despite their rivalry (which, may have been more on Edgar’s part than Neilson’s) Neilson spoke well of his cousin with supportive comments. Going back to just after the release of Edgar’s 1829 volume, Neilson predicted that “Our name will be a great one yet,” because of Edgar’s writings (World of Poe; Silverman 82). Despite their quarreling at times, Neilson never seemed to hold such hatred against his cousin as one may perceive. In fact, Neilson attended Poe’s November 17, 1875 memorial tribute and eulogized him. He also paid for an Italian marble headstone; however, this was destroyed in an accident transporting it to the cemetery (Frank 281; Thomas xxxviii; Find A Grave). He also intended to write a memoir of his cousin in 1860, but it is said,
…[he] made some collection of facts, but never wrote anything. He belongs, so his friends say, to the class of dilatory men, who plan and never do…He talks very freely about his cousin. I have not found him reticent; but I do not think the Poes [sic] fully appreciate the genius of Edgar (Miller 52).
Despite this “unappreciative” nature, it seems Neilson did genuinely hold some reverence for his cousin.
The rest of Neilson’s life seems straightforward regarding his family and career. In 1878, he was appointed Chief Judge of the Orphans’ Court of Baltimore, a position he held until two months before his death, January 3, 1884. He had seven children living at the time of his death; two daughters and five sons (Thomas xxxviii). He also was, notably, the grandfather of the six Poe brothers who played football at Princeton University between 1882 and 1903 (Find A Grave). Neilson’s other notable achievements include being director of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, as well as director of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for a short time (Find A Grave). He was associated with the Baltimore Chronicle, and had accomplished being a journalist, publisher, editor and lawyer (Frank 281).
Whether now you see Neilson as Poe’s “bitterest enemy”, or believe that he was a misunderstood journalist and lawyer, Neilson Poe goes down as being one of the most curious Poe relatives. What made Edgar despise his cousin? Was it jealousy, greed, or a great misunderstanding leaving a stubborn Eddy loathing his cousin until his death? You decide!