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!
Every object in the Poe Museum tells a story. Each artifact or piece of ephemera helps us interpret the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and influence. The July Object of the Month is no exception. The Cornwell Daguerreotype is a distinctly arresting image of Poe taken at a low point in the author’s life, four days after a suicide attempt. His fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, who owned the original, which she named the “Ultima Thule” Daguerreotype, pronounced it “wonderful” and told Poe’s biographer John H. Ingram that it had been taken “after a wild distracted night . . . and all the stormy grandeur of that via Dolorosa had left its sullen shadow on his brow.” One of four copies made directly from the original plate, this tiny daguerreotype (an early type of photograph made on a light-sensitive silver-plated piece of copper) has long been one of the most important artifacts in the museum’s collection. The image serves as an especially poignant document of Poe’s brief and troubled life. (Click here to learn more about the circumstances under which it was taken.) But this is only the beginning of the daguerreotype’s story. If it had not been for one woman’s determination, the piece might never have entered the collection.
Our account begins in 1933, when the world was still mired in the Great Depression. Early that year, the United States unemployment rate peaked at 25%, a drought plagued the heartland, over 5,000 banks had failed, and hundreds of thousands of Americans were homeless, struggling for survival in makeshift shanty towns. The Poe Museum (then known as the Poe Shrine) was not immune to this global crisis. To conserve energy, the Museum closed all but one of its four buildings and turned off its oil burner. Instead it heated one room in the Old Stone House with a wood stove. Before a December board meeting, the Poe Shrine’s secretary Mary Gavin Traylor wrote the museum’s president, Richmond News Leader Editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman, for permission to at least use the oil burner during the meeting. If not, she added, “we will rock along with the fourth of a cord of oak and pine blocks and the small load of kindling donated to us…”
To save money, Dr. Freeman instructed the museum’s hostesses to take off one month for every three months of work. His note ended “If things are not better in spring, we will have to reduce the force by one.”
A notation in the financial records reads, “Personnel has been reduced to one lady for five hours in the morning and one lady for five hours in the afternoon at very small wage but positively all that could be paid…There was a loss in the ‘nest egg’ for the endowment at the time of the bank failures. Have not had heat or a phone since the depression…”
In early 1933, just when the museum’s situation was at its bleakest, Christine Smith Rawson of Bradford, New Hampshire contacted Ms. Traylor at the Poe Museum. Rawson was in need of money and owned a rare daguerreotype she knew would be of interest to the museum. Though she admitted she had no idea how much the piece was worth, she offered it to the museum for $500. This is the equivalent of $8,895 in today’s dollars. At a time of bank failures and staggering unemployment, this seemed like an impossible sum, but Traylor believed the Poe Museum needed this artifact. Before she attempted to acquire it, however, she would need to learn more about the piece. In order to learn something about the provenance (or history) of the piece, she quizzed Rawson about what she knew of the plate’s origin. Rawson had received it from her uncle John Clarke Turner, who had been given it by a Dr. Cornwell of New London, Connecticut. More research revealed that Dr. Cornwell had been a poet who had published a number of poems in the Poet’s Corner of the New London Telegram, and that Turner was editor of the Poet’s Corner. Through this connection, the two writers became friends, so, shortly before his death, Cornwell gave his cherished daguerreotype to his friend.
That the daguerreotype had once been owned by Cornwell was also recorded by Edmund C. Stedman, who had borrowed it from him in 1880 to have it reproduced as a wood engraving by Timothy Cole. The engraving appeared as an illustration for an article about Poe in the May 20, 1880 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. A footnote in the article notes,
The frontispiece-portrait in the present number of SCRIBNER is reproduced, on an enlarged scale, from what is thought to be the last daguerreotype obtained of the poet. The editor is indebted to the kindness of Dr. H. S. Cornwell, of New London, for the use of this picture, and for the facts establishing its authenticity. It was taken by the late Mr. Masury, of Providence, R. I., and Mr. Cornwell makes it probable that Poe sat for it within a year or two of his death in 1849. The lines of the neck and chin are not so heavy as in the Bendann daguerreotype, but my comments on the latter otherwise apply to this picture. The unusual development of Poe’s forehead in the regions where the analytic and imaginative faculties are thought to hold their seat, is here shown as in no other likeness of the poet. Mr. Cornwell writes of it:
“The aspect is one of mental misery, bordering on wildness, disdain of human sympathy, and scornful intellectual superiority. There is also in it, I think, dread of imminent calamity, coupled with despair and defiance, as of a hunted soul at bay.”
Timothy Cole’s woodcut reproduction of the daguerreotype can be seen below.
During Traylor’s investigation, she learned that a biography of Cornwell, John Sylvester Cornwell, A Memoir by Ellen Morgan Frisbie, had been published in 1906. She was able to find a copy in the Library of Congress and took notes on any information relevant to her search. She found that Cornwell was born in 1831 and died on 1886. A passage on page two reads, “Our poet numbered among his friends, Sarah Helen Whitman, the brilliant woman who at one time was the fiancée of Poe and they frequently exchanged poems in the course of their correspondence.”
Sarah Helen Whitman
On page sixteen, she learned, “From 1873 to 1880, The New London Telegram enjoyed a reputation for printing very good poetry. The Poet’s Corner was under the supervision of John C. Turner and was frequently graced by Dr. Cornwell’s compositions.”
On the same page, she found another passage: “One of the Doctor’s most cherished possessions was an old daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe whom he so much admired. It is now the property of Mr. Turner, to whom it was presented by the poet some little time previous to his death.”
Once she had traced the ownership of the plate to Dr. Cornwell, she could only speculate on how he had acquired it. The fact that he had corresponded with Sarah Helen Whitman was an important clue because she had been the owner of the original plate from which this copy had been made. From Stedman’s footnote, she knew that Cornwell had acquired his daguerreotype in Providence, the city in which Whitman lived. It had even been made in the same studio that had taken the original. Because daguerreotypes were made directly on a light-sensitive plate without the use of a negative, copies were made by carefully photographing the original. Since Mrs. Whitman owned the original, she probably authorized the making of this copy. She is thought to have made the copy in the Pierpont Morgan library for her friend Caleb Fiske Harris and that she had the copy now in the Fales Library for one of her correspondents Sarah E. Robbins.
Given the exceptional quality and clarity of the image in Lawson’s daguerreotype, it was believed the plate was the original, but this was easily dismissed by comparing it with the other copies. Aside from the Robbins daguerreotype, they all have Poe’s part on the same side. At the time of production of the plate, the images in daguerreotypes were reversed. If Lawson’s plate had been the original, it would be a mirror image of the other copies.
Later investigations revealed that the pattern on the daguerreotype case was produced in limited quantities around 1853. If the case is original to the plate, this would support the plate being dated to before 1860, the year Sarah Helen Whitman’s daguerreotype, from which it was copied, disappeared from her home.
Having established the provenance of the piece as well as she could, Traylor decided to find out if $500 was a reasonable price to pay for it. She wrote to Brown University, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and other owners of Poe daguerreotypes to ask what they had paid for their pieces. When these institutions were unable to provide any useful information, she wrote University of Virginia professor and Poe authority Dr. James Southall Wilson for his opinion. He answered, “I would not pay more than three hundred dollars for the picture offered you and…I believe…such an offer would be accepted.”
Armed with this information, Traylor brought the matter to the Poe Museum’s board but was told that the museum simply did not have any money for the purchase. Seeing how passionate she was about not letting the institution miss the chance to acquire what she believed to be the most important of the very few daguerreotypes made of Poe, the board eventually authorized her to try to raise the $500 on her own.
Traylor started contacting her wealthy friends for donations. One of her typical fundraising letters expresses her passion about acquiring the plate:
Some time ago, a rare find was brought to the Shrine in the hope that we would buy it, the Board met and regretfully had to say “no fund,” much as they felt it was a splendid thing for us to acquire. I was so filled with the realization of its importance and determined that it should not escape the Shrine that I asked permission to try to get a number of subscribers to a fund, so that they as a group might present it to the Shrine…”
Within a few months, Traylor was able to get commitments totaling $290. Among the twenty donors were Granville Valentine with $25, John Stewart Bryan with $25, Ambassador Alexander Weddell with $50, Dr. Douglas Freeman with $15, and James Rindfleisch with $50. Among the many who found themselves unable to contribute was novelist Ellen Glasgow, who wrote, “It would be splendid if the Poe Shrine could buy this daguerreotype, and I regret that I am unable to contribute toward the purchase.”
When she wrote back to Lawson that she could not possibly pay more than $300 for the daguerreotype. Lawson responded by suggesting Traylor pay $300 up front and the final $200 in one year.
On May 15, 1933, Traylor answered,
The Shrine cannot, for the board on such things, distinctly said, as much as they would like to have it, they could not with financial circumstances such as they are, purchase it. The financial circumstances are worse than they were, for as I told you we lost heavily in the American Bank not opening its doors. The Shrine cannot take on any obligation. Then there is no one left to make you a note but me, and the Heavens in their high sky are not further away than such a possibility is far from me. Who could make a note, the group of people I have approached, have contributed $5 and $10 dollars each, each doing in doing that, all that he or she could feel able to do, there would be no chance of asking them to make a note. No one of them, at a time, when to eat and live is of so much more importance than a Poe Daguerreotype, would dream of being responsible for any $200 that might be collected, no individual is taking on responsibilities at this date either. To have a note made out to you is utterly out of the question. To carry on here at the Shrine with what we have is much more important, vital necessity and not in any manner to endanger that, is more important than to endanger that, is more important than to enhance the collection at this moment with no matter how interesting a Poe item, be it a manuscript, daguerreotype or piece of furniture. This is the situation as it exists today. Everybody has marveled that I have been able to get the promise of $300 to be given me…
After pointing out that the daguerreotype is a copy and, therefore, not as valuable as an original, Traylor continues,
I am anxious to have it, you should be able to readily see that. But $300 cash is the extent of my ability…You will not be able to get more elsewhere…Do please just let the group have it for the $300 I have the promise of and let it be presented to the Shrine. I feel you will never regret it, dear Mrs. Rawson…
On May 26, Rawson replied,
I have succumbed to your pleadings and enthusiasm and your unbounded interest in the Poe Shrine. I am going to let you have the picture for $300…Feeling happy that the picture is going to the Poe Shrine and thanking you for your great interest and help…
Now Traylor found herself faced with the task of collecting all the money that had been pledged. She rushed to collect the donation from Ambassador Weddell, who was about the leave the country. His donation alone amounted to one sixth of the total, so missing him before he left would have been the end of her effort. With Weddell and most of the other donors still able to fulfill their pledges, Traylor was able to purchase the plate in time it to go on display at the Poe Museum on October 7, the anniversary of Poe’s death. Thanks to Traylor’s vision and determination, the museum’s guests still able to see this important artifact at the Poe Museum.
The next time you visit the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden you might come upon this small plaque placed in memory of Mary Gavin Traylor.
The 2014 World Horror Grand Master is coming to Richmond. On Sunday, July 27 from 2-5 P.M., the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia is pleased to announce it will be hosting a talk by authors Brian Keene and Mary SanGiovanni. The authors will discuss how Poe has influenced the modern horror genre. Don’t miss this opportunities to learn how Poe inspired two of today’s best horror writers. Admission is included with Poe Museum general admission.
About the authors:
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, mostly in the horror, crime, and dark fantasy genres. His 2003 novel, The Rising, is often credited (along with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later film) with inspiring pop culture’s current interest in zombies. Keene’s novels have been translated into German, Spanish, Polish, Italian, French, Taiwanese, and many more. In addition to his own original work, Keene has written for media properties such as Doctor Who, Hellboy, Masters of the Universe, and Superman.
Several of Keene’s novels have been developed for film, including Ghoul, The Ties That Bind, and Fast Zombies Suck. Several more are in-development or under option. Keene also serves as Executive Producer for the independent film studio Drunken Tentacle Productions.
Keene also oversees Maelstrom, his own small press publishing imprint specializing in collectible limited editions, via Thunderstorm Books.
Keene’s work has been praised in such diverse places as The New York Times, The History Channel, The Howard Stern Show, CNN.com, Publisher’s Weekly, Media Bistro, Fangoria Magazine, and Rue Morgue Magazine. He has won numerous awards and honors, including the 2014 World Horror Grand Master Award, two Bram Stoker Awards, and a recognition from Whiteman A.F.B. (home of the B-2 Stealth Bomber) for his outreach to U.S. troops serving both overseas and abroad. A prolific public speaker, Keene has delivered talks at conventions, college campuses, theaters, and inside Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, VA. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.
Mary SanGiovanni is the author of the novels THE HOLLOWER (nominated for the Bram Stoker Award), FOUND YOU, THE TRIUMVIRATE, THRALL, and CHAOS, and the novellas FOR EMMY, POSSESSING AMY, and THE FADING PLACE, as well as numerous short stories. Her fiction has appeared in periodicals and anthologies for the last decade. She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh, where she studied under Gary Braunbeck, Tom Monteleone, Mike Arnzen, and others. She is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers, and was previously an Active member in the Horror Writers Association.
Like many businesses, the Poe Museum was closed on July 4th for Independence Day. As we observe the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we might not realize that Poe would have celebrated the holiday, too.
At the time of Poe’s birth in 1809, only thirty-three years had passed since America had declared its independence from England. Such Founding Fathers as the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson and the nation’s second president John Adams were still alive. In fact, Poe would enter Jefferson’s University of Virginia while its founder was still residing at nearby Monticello. (Jefferson’s death occurred while Poe was at the University–on July 4.)
David Poe's Grave
The spirit of the American Revolution was ever present during Poe’s childhood. His grandfather, David Poe, Sr. had been honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the Revolution and a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. In Richmond, Poe would have attended Sunday services at Monumental Church with John Marshall, who had served in the Continental Army long before becoming Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Poe would have also seen the “Virginia Giant” Peter Francisco, who fought the British with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine, the Battle of Germantown, the Battle of Stony Point, and other battles before witnessing Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Both Marshall and Francisco are buried at Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery along with Poe’s foster parents and a number of his friends. Another Revolutionary War hero living in Richmond during Poe’s time was the “Hero of Stony Point” Major James Gibbon.
When Poe was fifteen, he was honored to serve on the honor guard selected to escort the Marquis de Lafayette on the latter’s 1824 tour of Richmond. Poe must have known about the friendship between his grandfather (who had died in 1816) and the Frenchman. While in Baltimore during the same United States tour, Lafayette visited Poe’s grandfather’s grave. According to J. Thomas Scharf’s Chronicles of Baltimore (1874):
“The next day he [Lafayette] received visitors at the Exchange and dined with the corporation, &c., &c., and in the evening visited the Grand Lodge; after which he attended the splendid ball given in Holliday Street Theatre, which had been fitted up for the occasion. After the introduction of the surviving officers and soldiers of the Revolution who resided in and near Baltimore, to General Lafayette on Friday [October 8, 1824], he observed to one of the gentlemen near, ‘I have not seen among these my friendly and patriotic commissary, Mr. David Poe, who resided in Baltimore when I was here, and of his own very limited means supplied me with five hundred dollars to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife, with her own hands, cut out five hundred pairs of pantaloons, and superintended the making of them for the use of my men.’ The General was informed that Mr. Poe was dead but that his widow [Elizabeth Cairnes Poe] was still living. He expressed an anxious wish to see her.
“The good old lady heard the intelligence with tears of joy, and the next day [October 9, 1824] visited the General, by whom she was received most affectionately; he spoke in grateful terms of the friendly assistance he had received from her and her husband: ‘Your husband,’ said he, pressing his hand on his breast, ‘was my friend, and the aid I received from you both was greatly beneficial to me and my troops.’ The effect of such an interview as this may be imagined but cannot be described. On the 11th General LaFayette left the city with an escort for Washington.”
Being surrounded by reminders of the American Revolution during his childhood might have influenced his decision to enlist in the United States Army when he was eighteen, but he hired a substitute to serve the remainder of enlistment after just two years.
Poe would have observed the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence during his lifetime. Celebrations of one kind or another had been taking place since 1776 when, on July 8, Philadelphians hearing a public reading of the Declaration of Independence started shooting into the air, lighting bonfires, and exploding fireworks (although the name Independence Day was not used until 1791). Before long, similar celebrations were being held throughout the young nation, and they increased in popularity after the War of 1812. By Poe’s time, Independence Day celebrations could include parades, cannon fire, bonfires, the ringing of bells, drinking, and fireworks, but the day did not become a national holiday until 1870. Unlike the Poe Museum’s employees, Poe worked on Independence Day. We know this because there are business letters written by him dated July 4.
The Poe Museum will reopen at 10 A.M. on July 5 and will be open its regular hours the rest of the weekend.
One night a theater critic answered his door to find an actor so angry over a review that he threatened the critic. The actor was a twenty-three year old David Poe, Jr. (1784-?), future father of Edgar Allan Poe. That review is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for June.
Although little is known of David Poe’s life, most of what is documented concerns his acting career. Several museums and libraries, including the Poe Museum, hold important collections of newspapers containing notices of his performances in major East Coast cities. These documents provide information about his whereabouts and his uneven acting ability. (In September 1809, the reviewer for The Ramblers’ Magazine and New-York Theatrical Register wrote that David Poe “was never destined for the high walks of the drama; — a footman is the extent of what he ought to attempt: and if by accident like that of this evening he is compelled to walk without his sphere, it would bespeak more of sense in him to read the part than attempt to act it; — his person, voice, and non-expression of countenance, all combine to stamp him — poh! et praeterea nihil.”)
Concerning David Poe’s personal life, we know he was born in 1784 in Baltimore, to David Poe, Sr., who had been an honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the American Revolution as well as a personal friend of the Revolutionary War General Lafayette. David Poe, Sr. had gone deep into debt during the Revolution, but his son intended to rise out of that poverty by becoming a lawyer. Then David Poe, Jr. saw the English-born actress Eliza Hopkins (1787-1811) (pictured below) perform on the Baltimore stage and, according to legend, was so smitten with the young married young woman that he gave up the study of law take up the precarious existence of an actor. After her husband died, David married Eliza in Richmond in 1806, and the couple had three children, William Henry Leonard (1807-1831), Edgar (1809-1849), and Rosalie (1810-1874).
The couple moved to Boston in 1806. Judging by the variety of roles David and Eliza performed, they were both popular with the public, but Eliza, in particular, was a crowd favorite. She specialized in comedic roles, especially tomboys and other children. One of these characters was a young boy named Little Pickle in the farce The Spoiled Child. She had been playing the part since 1796, when she was nine years old, but, as she entered her twenties, she was beginning to get a little old for the part.
The Poe Museum’s Object of the Month, The Polyanthos, was a Boston magazine edited by Joseph T. Buckingham (1779-1861) (pictured above), who also wrote the theater reviews. One of his pithy notices (pictured below) of David Poe reads, “From Mr. Poe’s Barnwell we expected little satisfaction, and of course we were not disappointed.”
Buckingham gives Eliza Poe a more favorable notice (pictured below) for her performance as Jenny in John Vanbrugh’s play The Provoked Husband. He writes, “Miss Jenny by Mrs. Poe was well. The hoyden is Mrs. Poe’s forte.”
Although she had built her reputation playing comedies, Mrs. Poe worked to prove herself in more serious roles. When she he played Cordelia in William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Buckingham did not think she was up for the part. His notice in The Polyanthos reads, “We know not which is more laughable, the absurd, preposterous conduct of the managers in giving the character of Cordelia to a lady who is so totally inadequate to its representation: or to the ridiculous vanity which prompted her to accept it…Mrs. Poe as Cordelia, has once received our approbation, and has again deserved it. But we notwithstanding prefer her comedy.”
The reviewer for Columbian Centinel also thought Mrs. Poe better suited for comedies when he wrote, “Of Mrs. Poe in Cordelia we would speak with the strictest delicacy and tenderness. Her amiable timidity evidently betrayed her own apprehension, that she had wandered from the sphere of her appropriate talent; while her lovely gentleness pleaded strongly for protection against the rigid justice of criticism. She was so obviously exiled from her own element by the mere humor of authority that we cannot in charity attempt any analysis of her performance.” He at least added, “Mrs. Poe had one credit and that of no mean value—she did not mutilate the language of Shakespeare.”
The Emerald’s theater critic wrote, “Cordelia by Mrs. Poe, was interesting but the part was not suited to her voice.” Despite the critics’ opinions, the play was a hit. She was soon cast as Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The same season, Buckingham wrote the review that would prompt an angry visit from David Poe. Eliza Poe had been working hard to outgrow the juvenile roles that had made her famous, but she was asked to play on March 4, 1807 Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child, a part she had outgrown years earlier. Not only was the twenty-year-old Eliza playing a child, but the child just happened to be a boy. In the pages of The Polyanthos, Buckingham indelicately pointed out the inappropriateness of the casting by writing, “Mrs. Poe was a very green Little Pickle. We never knew before that the Spoiled Child belonged to that class of being termed hermaphroditical, as the uncouthness of his costume seemed to indicate.”
This joke at his wife’s expense drove David Poe to action. According to Buckingham’s much later account in his 1852 book Personal Memoirs and Recollections of Editorial Life, “The theatrical criticisms are all my own. Some of them are severe, but I am not aware that any were unjust. The players, however, at least some of them, were of a different opinion. One of them, during a representation of Sheridan’s farce, — The Critic — paid off the score, by invoking the mercy of the editor of the Polyanthos! Mr. Poe — the father of the late Edgar A. Poe, — took offence at a remark on his wife’s acting, and called at my house to chastise my impertinence, but went away without effecting his purpose. Both he and his wife were performers of considerable merit, but somewhat vain of their personal accomplishments.”
Whether David Poe had wanted to challenge the critic or merely to argue with him, he left without achieving his goal. David and Eliza Poe would continue to perform on the Boston stage for a couple more years, and their second son Edgar was born there on January 19, 1809. A few months later, David made another one of his nocturnal visits, this time to his cousin George Poe, Jr., who would write about it in a letter dated March 6, 1809:
[David Poe] did not behave so well. One evening he came out to our house — having seen one of our servants…he had me called out to the door where he told me the most awful moment of his life was arrived, begged me to come and see him the next day at 11 o’clock at the Mansion house, [s]aid he came not to beg, & with a tragedy stride walked off after I had without reflection promised I would call — in obedience to my promise I went there the next day but found him not nor did I hear of him until yesterday, when a dirty little boy came to the door & said a man down at the tavern desired him to bring that paper and fetch back the answer — it is only necessary for me to copy the note here that you may see the impertinence it contains
Sir, You promised me on your honor to meet me at the Mansion house on the 23d — I promise you on my word of honor that if you will lend me 30, 20, 15 or even 10$ I will remit it to you immediately on my arrival in Baltimore. Be assured I will keep my promise at least as well as you did yours and that nothing but extreem [sic] distress would have forc’d me to make this application — Your answer by the bearer will prove whether I yet have “favour in your eyes” or whether I am to be despised by (as I understand) a rich relation because when a wild boy I join’d a profession which I then thought and now think an honorable one. But which I would most willingly quit tomorrow if it gave satisfaction to your family provided I could do any thing else that would give bread to mine — Yr. politeness will no doubt enduce you to answer this note from Yrs &c
D. POE JR.
To this impertinent note it is hardly necessary to tell you my answer — it merely went to assure him that he [need] not look to me for any countenance or support more especially after having written me such a letter as that and thus for the f[uture] I desired to hear not from or of him — so adieu to Davy —
In spite of the desperate tone of his letter, David Poe, Jr. did not give up the acting profession at the time. He continued to keep up a busy schedule of performances, and his reviews were gradually improving. Eliza Poe was winning over audiences with her mature dramatic performances by the time the growing family moved to New York in 1809. The then twenty-two year old actress even played Little Pickle again.
David Poe’s last notice, in the October 20, 1809 issue of The Ramblers’ Magazine, reads, “It was not until the curtain was ready to rise that the audience was informed that, owing to the sudden indisposition of Mr. Robertson and Mr. Poe, the Castle Spectre was necessarily substituted for Grieving’s a Folly.” His whereabouts after his “sudden indisposition” are unknown. He seems to have abandoned his wife and children sometime between then and July 26, 1811 when a letter in the Norfolk Herald reported that Eliza Poe had been “left alone, the only support of herself and several small children — Friendless and unprotected…” The place and time of David’s death are unknown, but a number of different dates and locations appear in Poe family records and elsewhere.
Poe’s mother continued to win over audiences until her death in Richmond at the age of twenty-four in 1811. Though Poe could barely remember his mother, he grew up bearing the stigma of having been the son of an actress, a disreputable profession at the time. Even his foster father John Allan referred to Poe in a letter as “that devil actress’s son.” Poe, however, was proud of his mother’s accomplishments and wrote in the July 19, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, “The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress — has invariably made it his boast– and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty.”
The Polyanthos ceased publication in 1814, but J.T. Buckingham continued to edit other literary magazines including The New-England Magazine. In 1833, he received a letter from a young writer named Edgar Allan Poe which reads,
I send you an original tale in hope of your accepting it for the N. E. Magazine. It is one of a number of similar pieces which I have contemplated publishing under the title of ‘Eleven Tales of the Arabesque‘. They are supposed to be read at table by the eleven members of a literary club, and are followed by the remarks of the company upon each. These remarks are intended as a burlesque upon criticism. In the whole, originality more than any thing else has been attempted. I have said this much with a view of offering you the entire M.S. If you like the specimen which I have sent I will forward the rest at your suggestion — but if you decide upon publishing all the tales, it would not be proper to print the one I now send until it can be printed in its place with the others. It is however optional with you either to accept them all, or publish ‘Epimanes’ and reject the rest — if indeed you do not reject them altogether.
Buckingham must not have thought much more of Edgar Poe’s story than he did of Edgar’s father’s acting. He declined to publish “Epimanes,” which would not appear in print until the Southern Literary Messenger published it three years later. Edgar Poe probably never knew how Buckingham had insulted his mother and incurred the wrath of his father. Today the Poe Museum’s issues of The Polyanthos serve as evidence of the acting talent of Poe’s mother and of the fiery temper of his father.
Like many businesses, the Poe Museum will be closed Monday in observance of Memorial Day to give our employees a chance to honor those brave men and women who died serving in the US Armed Forces. Monday will also be the 187th anniversary of Poe’s enlistment in the US Army, so this weekend is a great time to visit the Poe Museum to learn more about Poe’s military career. Active duty military will receive $1 off their admission to the Museum.
Poe enlisted in Boston on May 26, 1827, when he was eighteen. Seven months earlier, mounting debt had forced the young author to drop out of the University of Virginia and return to his boyhood home with his foster father John Allan in Richmond. On March 19, Mr. Allan quarreled with Poe and threw him out of the house, so Poe decided to sail for Boston to seek his fortune. It was there he published his first book, a small volume entitled Tamerlane, in June. Only about fifty copies were printed, and they were not distributed.
The above engraving shows Boston Harbor as it would have appeared when Poe was there.
Opinions differ as to why Poe decided to enlist. He may have been inspired by his service, three years earlier, on the Junior Morgan Riflemen entrusted with escorting the Marquis de Lafayette around Richmond during the Revolutionary War hero’s 1824 tour of America. Poe could have been inspired by his childhood hero, the British poet Lord Byron, who joined the Greeks in their battle for independence.
What is certain is that Poe enlisted for five years under the alias Edgar A. Perry. Maybe Poe used this name because he was still hiding from debt collectors. Maybe he was ashamed because the class-conscious young gentleman considered himself to be of the class of people who be officers rather than enlisted men (who, in Poe’s time tended to be immigrants and the poor). We may never know because Poe did not publicly admit to enlisting. In his autobiographical memo, he fabricates a story about trying to join the Greek Wars of Independence.
The poet was assigned to Battery H of the First Artillery at Fort Independence, Boston Harbor. In July, Poe became a clerk and would spend much of his time filing paperwork. His desk job probably relieved him of many of the tasks required of other enlisted men, including guard duty and fort maintenance. Poe’s battery went to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, in November. It was there that Poe advanced to the position of artificer, the most technically demanding job in the army of his day. It was also one of the most dangerous because he would be responsible for mixing explosives. Poe excelled and soon attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, an accomplishment which usually took about seventeen years.
By the time his battery was assigned to Fortress Monroe in Virginia (pictured above), Poe had already decided to end his enlistment early in order to study at the United States Military Academy at West Point. This would be a highly unusual move because no enlisted man in the previous decade had become a West Point Cadet. Fortunately, Poe had the support of his officers. He wrote John Allan that an officer had agreed to discharge him on the condition that he reconcile with Allan.
Back in Richmond, Poe’s devoted foster mother Mrs. Allan was dying. Poe was unable to reach the city until the night after her burial. During this visit, he was able to reconcile briefly with Allan, who would seek recommendations on Poe’s behalf in order to gain him admittance to West Point. Poe returned to Fortress Monroe and promptly hired a substitute to serve the remainder of his enlistment for him.
Poe’s officers provided Poe recommendations that attest to his exceptional service. J. Howard, Lieut. 1st Artillery wrote, “…he at once performed the duties of company clerk and assistant in the Subsistent Department, both of which duties were promptly and faithfully done. his habits are good, and intirely free from drinking…”
Bt. Capt. H. W. Griswold described Poe as “exemplary in his deportment, prompt & faithful in the discharge of his duties…” and “highly worthy of confidence…”
Lt. Col. W. J. Worth added Poe’s “deportment has been highly praise worthy & deserving of confidence. His education is of a very high order and he appears to be free from bad habits in fact the testimony of Lt. Howard & Adjt. Griswold is full to that point — Understanding he is thro’ his friends an applicant for cadets warrant, I unhesitatingly recommend him as promising to acquit himself of the obligations of that station studiously & faithfully.”
Among those writing recommendations for Poe was Andrew Stevenson, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Eventually they secured Poe an appointment to West Point (pictured below), and arrived there on June 20, 1830. Poe soon wrote Allan, “Upon arriving here I delivered my letters of recommn & was very politely received by Capn Hitchcock & Mr Ross — The examination for admission is just over — a great many cadets of good family &c have been rejected as deficient…James D Brown, son of Jas Brown Jr has also been dismissed for deficiency after staying here 3 years…Of 130 Cadets appointed every year only 30 or 35 ever graduate — the rest being dismissed for bad conduct or deficiency the Regulations are rigid in the extreme…”
Poe performed well in his classes, attaining the seventeenth highest score in Mathematics and third in French among the eighty-seven fourth-classmen; but he soon decided he did not belong there. Once again, he was deep in debt. Mr. Allan had never paid the substitute, who had written Allan on the subject, unfortunately enclosing a letter in which Poe blames Allan’s delay in paying on his drunkenness. Poe would later explain in his autobiographical memo, “The army does not suit a poor man—so I left West Point abruptly.”
In a January 3, 1831 letter to John Allan, Poe writes, “You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville — and I must resign… I have no energy left, nor health. If it was possible, to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I mentioned before it is my intention to resign. For this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request — for I can leave the place without any permission — your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage…From the time of writing this I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution — if I do not receive your answer in 10 days — I will leave the point without — for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission.” Poe had made up his mind to get himself expelled.
Poe’s roommates, Thomas Pickering Jones of Tennessee and Thomas W. Gibson of Indiana, would both be court martialed and expelled. Jones was charged with drunkenness while Gibson’s offenses included not only drunkenness but also setting fire to a building. Although Poe would also be expelled after only nine months, the list of charges does not include anything as dramatic as pyromania or drunkenness. He was charged with “gross neglect of duty” and “disobeyance of orders. The record recounts that Poe “did absent himself from all his Academical duties between the 15th & 27 Jan’y 1831, viz. absent from Mathematical recitation on the 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25 & 26th Jan’y 1831” and that “after having been directed by the officer of the day to attend church on the 23d January 1831, [Poe] did fail to obey such order…” He was found “Guilty.”
Poe left West Point on February 19, but his aspirations for a military career continued. Less than a month later, he wrote Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy, West Point, “I intend by the first opportunity to proceed to Paris with the view of obtaining, thro’ the interest of the Marquis de La Fayette, an appointment (if possible) in the Polish Army . . . . The object of this letter is . . . to request that you will give me such assistance as may lie in your power in furtherance of my views. A certificate of ‘standing’ in my class is all that I have any right to expect. Any thing farther — a letter to a friend in Paris — or to the Marquis — would be a kindness which I should never forget.”
Of course, Poe was unable to join the Polish Army, but, as mentioned earlier, he would tell his biographers he went to join the Greeks instead.
A month after writing Thayer, Poe published his third book of poetry. Poems of Edgar A. Poe is dedicated to the U.S. Corps of Cadets, and 139 of the 232 those Cadets paid $1.25 each to finance the book’s publication. Learn more about the Poe Museum’s copy of this book here.
Though his military career was over by the time he was twenty-two, Poe would proudly wear his West Point great coat for the rest of his life. He is wearing it in the below daguerreotype taken the year before his death.
Some scholars believe the highly technical training Poe received as an artificer may have inspired his disciplined and technical poetry. His knowledge of projectiles and the calculations required to make them hit their intended target may also have played a part in his science fiction tale “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” and his cosmological essay Eureka.
For further reading about Poe’s time in the Army, we recommend the book Private Perry and Mister Poe by William F. Hecker. You can also visit the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe near Hampton, Virginia.
Just this morning I was asked how Poe would feel about the exaggerated image of himself in today’s popular culture. After all, the Poe Myth most people “know” bears only a passing resemblance to the hard-working, innovative author who changed the face of literature almost two centuries ago. Would he be offended that some of the less reputable text books and biographies portray him as a madman or that his ghost was a character on the cartoon Southpark?
The Poe Museum’s Object of the Month might help shed some light on Poe’s own relationship with the mythmaking that continues to grow up around him. This month’s Object of the Month is Poe’s Autobiographical Memo.
The memo is only the lower half of a letter. The upper portion, now housed in the Boston Public Library, is addressed to the editor and anthologist Rufus W. Griswold (1815-1857) and dates to May 29, 1841. The half of the address on the back of the Boston letter matches perfectly with the half on the back of the Poe Museum’s fragment (below), confirming that they were once a single sheet. In the Boston half of the letter, Poe writes that he is sending a selection of his best poems, among which is “The Haunted Palace.” Griswold, the recipient, is preparing an important new anthology to highlight the best American poetry, so Poe has included not only some examples of his poetry for the collection but also this memo. Poe writes, “As I understood you to say chat you meant to preface each set of poems by some biographical notice, I have ventured to send you the above memo — the particulars of which (in a case where an author is so little known as myself) might not be easily obtained elsewhere.”
Verso of Memo
The Poe Museum’s half of the letter reads:
Memo. Born January 1811. Family one of the oldest and most respectable in Baltimore. Gen. David Poe, my paternal grandfather, was a quarter-master general, in the Maryland line, during the revolution, and the intimate friend of Lafayette, who, during his visit to the U.S., called personally upon the Gen’s widow, and tendered her in warmest acknowledgements for the services rendered him by her husband. His father, John Poe married, in England, Jane, a daughter of Admiral James McBride, noted in British naval history, and claiming kindred with many of the most illustrious houses of Great Britain. My father and mother died within a few weeks of each other of consumption, leaving me an orphan at 2 years of age. Mr. John Allan, a very wealthy gentleman of Richmond Va, took a fancy to me, and persuaded my grandfather Gen Poe to suffer him to adopt me. Was brought up in Mr. A’s family, and regarded always as his son and heir—he having no other children. In 1816 went with Mr. A’s family to G. Britain—visited every portion of it—went to school for 5 years to the Rev. Doctor Bransby, at Stoke Newington, then 4 miles from London. Returned to America in 1822. In 1825 went to Jefferson University at Charlottesville, Va, where for 3 years I led a very dissipated life—the college in that period being shamefully dissolute—D’Dunglison of Philadelphia; President. Took the first honors, however, and came home greatly in debt. Mr. A refused to pay some of the debts of honor, and I ran away from home without a dollar on a Quixotic expedition to join the Greeks, then struggling for liberty. Failed in reaching Greece, but made my way to St Petersburg, in Russia. Got into many difficulties, but was extricated by the kindness of Mr. H. Middleton, the American consul at St P. Came home safe in 1829, found Mrs. A. dead, and immediately went to West Point as a Cadet. In about 18 months afterwards Mr A. married a second time (a Miss Patterson, a near relative of Gen. Winfield Scott) – he being then 65 years of age. Mrs A and myself quarreled, and he, siding with her, wrote me an angry letter, to which I replied in the same spirit. Soon afterwards he died, having had a son by Mrs A. and, although leaving a vast property, bequeathed me nothing. The army does not suit a poor man—so I left West Point abruptly, and threw myself upon literature as a resource. I became first known to the literary world thus. A Baltimore weekly paper (The Visiter) offered two premiums—one for best prose story, one for best poem. The Committee awarded both to me, and took occasion to insert into the journal a card, signed by themselves, in which I was very highly flattered. The Committee were John P. Kennedy (author of Horse-Shoe Robinson) J.H.B. Latrobe, and Dr. J.H. Miller. Soon after this I was invited by Mr T.W. White proprietor of the South. Lit. Messenger, to edit it. Afterwards wrote for New York Review at the invitation of Dr Hawks and Professor Henry, its proprietors. Lately have written articles continuously for two British journals whose names I am not permitted to mention. In my engagement with Burton, it was not my design to let my name appear—but he tricked me into it.
This memo is evidence of Poe’s own process of mythmaking. He begins the account by saying he was born two years later than he really was. Then he emphasizes that his family was one of the “oldest and most respectable in Baltimore” when his grandfather was an Irish immigrant who had lost most of his money supporting the Patriots during the American Revolution. His boast of staying at the University of Virginia for three years and graduating with “first honors” is also a bit of a stretch. Although he was one of the top French students, he only stayed at the University one term before leaving because he could not afford to pay either his tuition and board or the gambling debts he incurred while trying to pay those expenses.
Poe continues with a fanciful account of a journey to Europe to join the Greek Wars of Independence that ends with Poe being imprisoned in St. Petersburg, Russia. By his account, Poe returned to the United States in 1829. In reality, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1827 in Boston and was stationed at Fort Independence, Fort Moultrie, and Fort Monroe before hiring a substitute in 1829.
Despite those fabrications, there are some facts in Poe’s account. He really did win a prize for Best Short Story from the Baltimore Visiter, but he was not awarded the prize for poetry. The judges decided that the same person should not be allowed to win both prizes in the contest, so they gave the poetry prize to someone else.
Rufus W. Griswold
The year after Poe sent Griswold this memo, Griswold published the anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, which was a hit and went through numerous editions during the nineteenth century. Over eighty poets were featured in the collection. Griswold included three of Poe’s poems, “Coliseum,” “The Sleeper,” and “The Haunted Palace.” (This was still three years before Poe would publish “The Raven.”) Griswold’s introduction included much of the information Poe had provided him:
THE family of Mr. POE is one of the oldest and most respectable in Baltimore. DAVID POE, his paternal grandfather, was a quartermaster-general in the Maryland line during the Revolution, and the intimate friend of LAFAYETTE, who, during his last visit to the United States, called personally upon the general’s widow, and tendered her his acknowledgments for the services rendered to him by her husband. His great-grandfather, JOHN POE, married, in England, JANE, a daughter of Admiral JAMES McBRIDE, noted in British naval history, and claiming kindred with some of the most illustrious English families. His father and mother died within a few weeks of each other, of consumption, leaving him an orphan, at two years of age. Mr. JOHN ALLAN, a wealthy gentleman of Richmond, Virginia, took a fancy to him, and persuaded General POE, his grandfather, to suffer him to adopt him. He was brought up in Mr. ALLAN’s family; and as that gentleman had no other children, he was regarded as his son and heir. In 1816 he accompanied Mr. and Mrs. ALLAN to Great Britain, visited every portion of it, and afterward passed four or five years in a school kept at Stoke Newington, near London, by the Reverend Doctor BRANSBY. He returned to America in 1822, and in 1825 went to the Jefferson University, at Charlottesville, in Virginia, where he led a very dissipated life, the manners of the college being at that time extremely dissolute. He took the first honours, however, and went home greatly in debt. Mr. ALLAN refused to pay some of his debts of honour, and he hastily quitted the country on a Quixotic expedition to join the Greeks, then struggling for liberty. He did not reach his original destination, however, but made his way to St. Petersburg, in Russia, where he became involved in difficulties, from which he was extricated by Mr. MIDDLETON, the American consul at that place. He returned home in 1829, and immediately afterward entered the military academy at West Point. In about eighteen months from that time, Mr. ALLAN, who had lost his first wife while POE was in Russia, married again. He was sixty-five years of age, and the lady was young; POE quarrelled with her, and the veteran husband, taking the part of his wife, addressed him an angry letter, which was answered in the same spirit. He died soon after, leaving an infant son the heir to his vast property, and bequeathed POE nothing. The army, in the opinion of the young cadet, was not a place for a poor man, so he left West Point abruptly, and determined to maintain himself by authorship. The proprietor of a weekly literary gazette in Baltimore offered two premiums, one for the best prose story, and the other for the best poem. In due time POE sent in two articles, and the examining committee, of whom Mr. KENNEDAY, the author of “Horse-Shoe Robinson,” was one, awarded to him both the premiums, and took occasion to insert in the gazette a card under their signatures, in which he was very highly praised. Soon after this, he became associated with Mr. THOMAS W. WHITE in the conduct of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” and he subsequently wrote for the “New York Review,” and for several foreign periodicals. He is married, and now resides in Philadelphia, where he is connected with a popular monthly magazine.
The book launched Griswold’s career, and he would edit a number of anthologies including the first posthumous collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works.
Poe, however, was not a fan of Griswold’s anthology. He thought too much space had been allotted to minor poets like Griswold’s friend Charles Fenno Hoffman, who had 45 of his poems included. In a November 1842 review in the Boston Miscellany, Poe complained that Griswold was biased in his selections in favor of New England authors, had left out a few important poets, and had included a few poets Poe would “ have treated with contempt.” This was fairly tame for one of Poe’s reviews. After all, he had attained national fame and earned himself the nickname “The Tomahawk Man” for his scathing literary criticisms.
Poe reserved his harshest condemnation of The Poets and Poetry of America for his lectures, beginning with a November 21, 1843 lecture in Philadelphia that would be repeated in other cities. The November 29 issue of the Citizen Soldier recalled of Poe’s lecture, “The subject, ‘American Poetry,’ was handled in a manner, that placed all the pseudo-critics, the Rev. Mr. Rufus Griswold, Esq. among others, to the blush, and showed the audience, how a man born a poet, could describe the true nature and object, [a]s well as the principles of poetry. The sentences of the Lecturer were vigorous, energetic and impassioned, his criticisms scathingly severe in some cases, and des[e]rvedly eulogistic in others.”
After a repeat of this lecture in Wilmington, Delaware, the Delaware State Journal reported that “the book and its author were handled by the critical Lecturer in not the most gentle manner” and that Poe had complained that “an extravagant proportion of space allotted to personal friends — altho’ inferior poets — (as in the case of Mr. Hoffman) — while superior merit has been put off with a single page.”
Poe in 1842
Poe’s lecture was a popular success, but this did not endear him to Griswold, who harbored resentment towards Poe that lasted long after the poet’s death. In fact, Griswold would write an obituary of Poe that was so harsh that he felt the need to publish it anonymously. It begins, “EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.”
Without knowing Griswold had written the obituary, Poe’s mother-in-law appointed him Poe’s literary executor and tasked him with compiling Poe’s complete works. In a final act of vengeance, Griswold included in this anthology a memoir of Poe designed to portray Poe as a madman and drug addict, a false portrayal which has since formed the basis of Poe’s popular image. Among the falsehoods promoted in Griswold’s account was Poe’s own account of going to Europe to fight the Turks. Griswold assumed this memoir would destroy Poe’s reputation, but it made Poe even more popular than he had been during his lifetime. The legend of Poe, which the author played a part in shaping, has grown into a caricature that even he would scarcely recognize.
When asked this morning what Poe would think about his distorted posthumous reputation, I was reminded of Poe’s fictitious autobiography, of how proud he sounded in his letters home from West Point when he wrote that a rumor had spread that he was the grandson of Benedict Arnold, and of how many successful hoaxes he had perpetrated during his lifetime. Was Poe’s autobiographical memo just another of his literary hoaxes, like “The Balloon Hoax” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar?” Would Poe have been offended by Griswold’s smear campaign against him, or would he be just a little pleased to see how it helped him become an enduring literary legend? With or without the Poe legend, we would not remember him at all if it were not for the power of his stories and poems to captivate and inspire generations of readers to this day.
The Poe Museum’s manuscript was given to the Poe Museum by Griswold’s grandson, Roger Griswold, in 1949. It is on display this month in the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
Ever wonder what the Master of the Macabre was like when he was three years old? Edgar Allan Poe is one of the world’s most recognizable writers, but his early years are shrouded in mystery and legend. In recent years renowned Poe scholar Richard Kopley has uncovered new discoveries about Poe’s early years including interesting and entertaining stories about Poe has a teenager and as a three-year-old. The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia is pleased to host Dr. Kopley’s talk, “Two New Stories about Poe in Richmond” on Sunday, May 18 at 2 P.M. Don’t miss this opportunity to know Edgar Allan Poe in a whole new way. The talk is included in the price of Poe Museum admission and is free to Poe Museum members. For more information, please contact the Poe Museum at 804-648-5523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Kopley, Distinguished Professor of English at Penn State DuBois and former President of the Poe Studies Association, has spent decades scrutinizing the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe. His recent studies of collections of rare, unpublished documents has led to the discovery of new facts about Poe’s early years in Richmond.
About Richard Kopley:
Richard Kopley is Distinguished Professor of English at Penn State DuBois, where he teaches both literature and writing. An expert on American Romanticism, he has published extensively on Edgar Allan Poe (including Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries [Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 2011]) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (including The Threads of The Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne’s Transformative Art [University of Delaware Press, 2003]). He has spoken on Poe and Hawthorne at scholarly conferences throughout the United States and around the world—in Spain, Holland, Italy, Poland, Russia, and (by DVD) Japan. He has also served as president of the Poe Studies Association and of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society. And he has published, as well, on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville. His scholarly work has been characterized by a blend of close reading and archival study.
Dr. Kopley has edited much—Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations (Duke University Press, 1992), Prospects for the Study of American Literature (NYU Press, 1997), Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Penguin, 1999)—and co-edited much, as well—Prospects for the Study of American Literature (II) (AMS Press, 2010), Poe Writing / Writing Poe (AMS Press, 2013), and the journal Resources for American Literary Study (Penn State Press, 1992-2001; AMS Press, 2002-present).
He has written fiction as well as scholarship—his short story “A Dream” appeared in the Poe Review (2003) and “The Hideous and Intolerable Bookshop” in Lighthouse Anthology 2 (Alma Press, 2012). His children’s picture-book, The Remarkable David Wordsworth, which tied for runner-up for the Barbara Karlin Award (given by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrated), has been published by Eifrig Publishing (2013). It has been nominated for three additional awards. A second children’s book, “Kenny and the Blue Sky,” is being considered for publication.
Dr. Kopley has served in an administrative capacity at Penn State—he has been the disciplinary coordinator for English beginning in 1994 and continuing, on and off, through the present. And he was the Interim Director of Academic Affairs at Penn State Worthington Scranton in 2006-07. He has also organized, or helped to organize, many scholarly conferences, from the 1988 conference on Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, on Nantucket Island, to the 2010 conference on Hawthorne, in Concord, Massachusetts. He is now co-organizing the 2015 Fourth International Conference on Edgar Allan Poe, in Manhattan.
His new book manuscript if “The Enduring Center in Literature.” It takes him beyond American Romanticism to later literature in both the United States and England. The book shows what may be considered a beautiful formal patterning among selected works of American and British literature.
His subsequent book will be a biography of Poe in Richmond, based on an extensive series of letters than he has collected offering stories about Poe told by his best friend from childhood.
Dr. Kopley is a book collector, specializing in Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Lewis Carroll. He has been a member of the Grolier Club since 2005.
He is married and lives in State College, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Amy Golahny, have two grown children, Emily and Gabe.
One of the most cherished possessions of the Providence Athenaeum is a volume of the American Review with Edgar Allan Poe’s faint signature written in pencil under the anonymous poem “Ulalume.” That poem is the Poe Museum’s Poem of the Week, which was recommended to us by one of the Museum’s Facebook followers.
Poe visited the Providence Athenaeum in 1848 while courting the poet Sarah Helen Whitman. The two poets spent time among the stacks discussing literature and love (and apparently also vandalizing library books).
“Ulalume” had been written the previous year, in the fall of 1847. Poe’s wife had died that January, and Poe’s own health had suffered. In June, the minister and teacher of public speaking, Reverend Cotesworth P. Bronson, and his daughter Mary Elizabeth Bronson visited Poe and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm at their cottage in Fordham, New York. Poe’s poem “The Raven” was an international hit, and Poe even had to apologize to Mary for not having a pet raven.
It was Rev. Bronson who would eventually commission Poe to write to read at lectures on elocution. According to his daughter, Bronson asked Poe “to write something suitable for recitation embodying thoughts that would admit of vocal variety and expression.” About a month later, in October, Poe wrote to Bronson that the poem was ready, and Mary encountered Poe’s mother-in-law, who informed her Poe “had written a beautiful poem — better than anything before.” Poe visited Bronson and showed the poem to Mary, who read it out loud to him.
Poe next tried to sell the poem to the editor of the Union Magazine. The editor rejected the poem after showing it to the young poet Richard Henry Stoddard, who told her he could not understand it.
Around this time, Poe received a visit from more of his literary friends, including the author and health reformer Mary Gove, who later recalled for the Sixpenny Magazine that the group “strolled away into the woods, and had a very cheerful time, till some one proposed a game at leaping. I think it must have been Poe, as he was expert in the exercise. Two or three gentlemen agreed to leap with him, and though one of them was tall, and had been a hunter in times past, Poe still distanced them all. But alas! his gaiters, long worn and carefully kept, were both burst in the grand leap that made him victor. . . . I pitied Poe more now. I was certain he had no other shoes, boots, or gaiters. Who amongst us could offer him money to buy a new pair? . . . When we reached the cottage, I think all felt that we must not go in, to see the shoeless unfortunate sitting or standing in our midst. . . . The poor old mother looked at his feet, with a dismay that I shall never forget.”
Maria Clemm told her that Poe could afford a new pair of shoes if Gove would only convince George Colton, editor of the American Review, to buy “Ulalume.” Clemm implored her, “If he will only take the poem, Eddie can have a pair of shoes. [Colton] has it — I carried it [to him] last week, and Eddie says it is his best. You will speak to him about it, won’t you?”
It was Colton who had first bought “The Raven” in 1845 after it had been rejected by other magazines. Poe had published other work in the American Review, but, a few months before he wrote “Ulalume,” the magazine had declined to publish his essay “The Rationale of Verse.” This time, however, Colton agreed to buy the poem and paid Poe enough for “a pair of gaiters, and twelve shillings over,” according to Gove’s account.
The poem appeared in the December issue under the title “Ulalume: A Ballad” and dedicated “To ____ ____ ______.” The dedication could apply to his friend and nurse Marie Louise Shew or one of the other women associated with him at the time. As the American Review had done with Poe’s poem “The Raven,” “Ulalume” was printed unsigned. When Poe sent the poem to N.P. Willis to request that he publish it in the Home Journal, Poe asked him to keep the author’s name a secret because he did not want “to be known as its author just now.” Poe even requested that Willis introduce the poem “with a word of inquiry as to who wrote it.”
Willis granted Poe’s request and printed the poem with this introduction: “We do not know how many readers we have who will enjoy as we do, the following exquisitely piquant and skilful exercise of rarity and niceness of language. It is a poem which we find in the American Review, full of beauty and oddity in sentiment and versification, but a curiosity, (and a delicious one, we think,) in its philologic flavor. Who is the author?”
Some readers, like Poe’s friend George W. Eveleth immediately recognized the poem as the work of Poe. The Saturday Courier reprinted “Ulalume” on January 22 under the heading “Poe’s Last Poem” with an explanation that “We copy the following poem, partly, because Willis has called attention to it, but principally, because we have a word or two to say in relation to Edgar A. Poe, who is undoubtedly its author. No other American poet, in the first place, has the same command of language and power of versification: it is in no one else’s vein — it is too charnel in its nature; while Mr. Poe is especially at home in pieces of a sepulchral character.”
Eight months later, Poe was visiting the Providence Athenaeum with Sarah Helen Whitman. In some copies of the Broadway Journal, he initialed some of the unsigned articles he had written for the magazine. Whitman then asked him if he had ever read the poem “Ulalume.” She later recounted, “To my infinite surprise, he told me that he himself was the author. Turning to a bound volume of the Review which was in the alcove where we were sitting, he wrote his name at the bottom.”
The confusion over who wrote the poem continued. In November, the Daily Journal reprinted “Ulalume” under Poe’s name with a comment that another paper had recently misattributed the poem to N.P. Willis.
There was also some confusion over the meaning of the poem. When she told him she could not understand it, Poe told Jane Scott Mackenzie that he had written it so that not everyone would understand it.
In the summer of 1849, Poe was giving a reading of some of his poetry on the veranda of the Hygeia Hotel at Old Point Comfort, Virginia when the subject of “Ulalume” came up. One of those present, Susan V.C. Ingram, later recalled in the February 19, 1905 issue of the New York Herald that Poe “remarked that he feared that it might not be intelligible to us.” She continued, “I was not old enough or experienced enough to understand what the words [of “Ulalume”] really meant . . . I did, however, feel their beauty, and I said to him when he had finished, ‘It is quite clear to me, and I admire the poem very much.’”
That evening, Poe transcribed a copy of the poem for her, leaving it under her door with a note that read, “I fear that you will find the verses scarcely more intelligible to day in my manuscript than last night in my recitation. I would endeavor to explain to you what I really meant — or what I really fancied I meant by the poem, if it were not that I remember Dr Johnson’s bitter and rather just remarks about the folly of explaining what, if worth explanation, should explain itself.”
Sarah Helen Whitman believed she understood the poem, and she explained in a letter published in the October 13, 1875 issue of the New York Tribune, “The geist of the poem . . . is . . . “Astarte” — the crescent star of hope and love, that after a night of horror was seen . . .
The forlorn heart [was] hailing it as a harbinger of happiness yet to be, hoping against hope . . . when the planet was seen to be rising over the tomb of a lost love, hope itself was rejected as a cruel mockery . . .”
Here is the Poem of the Week, which we believe, sufficiently explains itself.
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispéd and sere —
The leaves they were withering and sere:
It was night, in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir: —
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek,
In the ultimate climes of the Pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the Boreal Pole.
Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere —
Our memories were treacherous and sere;
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year —
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber,
(Though once we had journeyed down here)
We remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
And now, as the night was senescent,
And star-dials pointed to morn —
As the star-dials hinted of morn —
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent,
Distinct with its duplicate horn.
And I said — “She is warmer than Dian;
She rolls through an ether of sighs —
She revels in a region of sighs.
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion,
To point us the path to the skies —
To the Lethean peace of the skies —
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes —
Come up, through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes.”
But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said — “Sadly this star I mistrust —
Her pallor I strangely mistrust —
Ah, hasten! — ah, let us not linger!
Ah, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”
In terror she spoke; letting sink her
Wings till they trailed in the dust —
In agony sobbed; letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust —
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.
I replied — “This is nothing but dreaming.
Let us on, by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybillic splendor is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty to-night —
See! — it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright —
We safely may trust to a gleaming
That cannot but guide us aright
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”
Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom —
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista —
But were stopped by the door of a tomb —
By the door of a legended tomb: —
And I said — “What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied — “Ulalume — Ulalume! —
’T is the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”
Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crispéd and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere —
And I cried — “It was surely October,
On this very night of last year,
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here! —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night, of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir: —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber —
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”
Said we, then, — the two, then, — “Ah, can it
Have been that the woodlandish ghouls —
The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,
To bar up our way and to ban it
From the secret that lies in these wolds —
From the thing that lies hidden in these wolds —
Have drawn up the spectre of a planet
From the limbo of lunary souls —
This sinfully scintillant planet
From the Hell of planetary souls?”
In observance of National Poetry Month, the Poe Museum will profile a different poem each week in April. The first is one of Poe’s last poems and a favorite of the Poe Museum staff. Poe scholar called “Eldorado” the “noblest of Poe’s poems, the most universal in implication, and the most intensely personal. It is utterly simple, yet rich in suggestion and allusion.” Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn, however, thought the poem “is mainly interesting because it reveals once more Poe’s inspiration for a poem through current American events.”
El Dorado is a mythical city of gold hidden somewhere in South America. In the sixteenth century, the Conquistadors searched for it in vain, and the name eventually became synonymous with unattainable goals and treasures. “Eldorado” is not the first time a reference to the city had appeared in Poe’s poetry. In his 1844 poem “Dream-Land,” one stanza reads:
For the heart whose woes are legion
‘Tis a peaceful, soothing region —
For the spirit that walks in shadow
O! it is an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,
May not — dare not openly view it;
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fringed lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.
By the time Poe wrote “Eldorado” in 1849, Eldorado (shortened to one word) was a nickname for California, where fortunes were made and lives, lost during the California Gold Rush. Whether or not Poe ever considered joining the Gold Rush, he wrote his friend F.W. Thomas in February 1849, “I shall be a littérateur, at least, all my life; nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California.” The poem was first published a couple months later in the April 21, 1849 issue of Boston’s The Flag of Our Union. Here is the text:
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew old —
This knight so bold —
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell, as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow —
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be —
This land of Eldorado?’
‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied, —
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’
We will be profiling a different poem each week during National Poetry Month, so, if you have a favorite Poe poem you would like us to feature, let us know.