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.”
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.
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’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.