Many may be familiar with the recent Drunk History episode featuring Edgar Allan Poe and a “Mr. Griswold.” But how many actually know who Griswold is? Yes, Drunk History, the popular Comedy Central show, portrayed him, but was he accurately portrayed?
It is true that many of the popular misconceptions about Poe derive directly from Griswold, the “defamer” of the poet. This editor and enemy of Poe was the source of many fallacies about Edgar’s alcohol and drug addictions, among other things. But why did Griswold go to such great lengths to destroy Edgar’s reputation? Who was this man and what did he have against Poe?
Born February 13, 1815, in Benson, Vermont, Rufus Wilmot Griswold was one of the youngest siblings of fourteen children, son of Deborah Griswold and Rufus Griswold. After briefly moving out at the age of fifteen, and then at seventeen once more, he left for Syracuse, where he started The Porcupine, a newspaper. Under the pseudonym Toby Trinculo, he attacked the local citizenry. He then left for New York City in 1836, where he met, and later married in 1837, his first wife Caroline. Later that year, Griswold became a reverend.
Griswold and Caroline had three children, but he lost Caroline just three days after the death of their third child, a son, in the fall of 1842. Widowed at twenty-seven, the heartbroken Griswold occupied his time by creating numerous anthologies. He eventually married Charlotte Meyers but divorced her and remarried a woman named Harriet McCrillis.
It was in 1839, before the death of his beloved Caroline, that he first crossed paths with Edgar Poe. One of the first—if not the first—time Griswold mentioned Poe was when he ridiculed him in his July 19 issue of The Tattler, which stated,
Edgar A. Poe, Esq., Editor of the Baltimore Chronicle, and Brantz Mayer, Esq., of the same city, have been for several days exhibiting premonitory symptoms of blood-letting. The friends of the parties have brought about a settlement, however, and both gentlemen have concluded to live as long as the Lord will let them (Bayless 30).
It is said, however, that Griswold and Park Benjamin, who was coeditor of the paper with Griswold, should have aimed their attack at Neilson Poe, and the statement was corrected (30). Not too long after, Poe, who was working as an editor for Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in Philadelphia, heard of Griswold when an announcement was made that Griswold was working on publishing an anthology of poetry by American writers. The budding poet, Poe, was interested and requested to see Griswold. The two men met and spoke for several hours discussing literature. It is said the “interview was mutually agreeable,” and Poe, shortly after, sent several poems and a memoir for Rufus’ book (35-36).
On April 18, 1842, the anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America, was published—Edgar was not pleased. Rufus had only included three of Poe’s poems, with comments that were described as “lukewarm praise of his poetry,” and an inaccurate memorandum (45). This was the first strike between Griswold and Poe.
Earlier that month, on the first, Poe had resigned from his position as Graham’s Magazine’s editor, and was replaced by the twenty-seven year old Rufus Griswold by the middle of May. This was the second strike (49-50). Not only was Griswold now being paid more than Edgar was paid, with his $800 yearly salary, but according to Joy Bayless,
There was a softness, a suavity, in the manner of the new editor which would ingratiate him with the writers whom Graham wanted to enlist. There was a pronounced contrast between this helper [Griswold] and the proud, scornful Edgar Poe, who had contributed the products of his creative mind to the magazine but who had been unable and unwilling to bend the knee to popular contributors. Griswold would be a better henchman. He was not obsessed with literary ideals; he was able to make friends easily; and he was eager to widen his acquaintance with writers (55).
Despite the warm regards first given to the exciting new editor, Griswold eventually burned important bridges, which would bite him in the end. By 1843, his mistakes included talking about Graham’s assistant, Ann Stephens, who already held great disdain for Rufus. It is said, “Years later when she had an opportunity to avenge herself of the real or fancied injury she took full advantage of it” (69).
Having been hurt by Griswold, Poe resented the editor and in June circulated the following after asking Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass, “Have you seen Griswold’s Book of Poetry? It is a most outrageous humbug, and I sincerely wish you would ‘use it up’” (69). It is said Poe hid his resentment for Griswold behind a friendly façade (70)
During the summer of 1842, Poe was paid to write a review of Griswold’s anthology. Despite his anger against Griswold, he wrote a rather complimentary review, regarding the book as, “…the most important addition which our literature has for many years received” (71). However, he objected to about two-dozen authors included in the anthology. Both men were at a standstill.
By the end of June, the two men were on friendly terms again, and Poe wrote to Griswold,
Dear Griswold: –Can you not send me $5. I am sick, and Virginia is almost gone. Come and see me. Peterson says you suspect me of a curious anonymous letter. I did not write it, but bring it along with you when you make the visit you promised to Mrs. Clemm. I will try to fix that matter soon. Could you do anything with my note? (74).*
Griswold’s “natural generosity” allowed him to accept Poe’s invitation to visit his house, and Griswold called on him. Mrs. Clemm brought the two enemies together as friends in summer of 1843, and Griswold wrote about Poe later,
It was while he resided in Philadelphia that I became acquainted with him. His manner, except during his fits of intoxication, was very quiet and gentlemanly; he was usually dressed with simplicity and elegance; and when once he sent for me to visit him, during a period of illness caused by protracted and anxious watching at the side of his sick wife, I was impressed by the singular neatness and the air of refinement of his home. It was in a small house, in one of the pleasant and silent neighborhoods far from the centre [sic] of the town, and though slightly and cheaply furnished, everything in it was so tasteful and so fitly disposed that it seemed altogether suitable for a man of genius. For this and for most of the comforts he enjoyed in his brightest as in his darkest years, he was chiefly indebted to his mother-in-law, who loved him with more than maternal devotion and constancy (75).
That fall, however, Edgar would scorn Griswold once more during a lecture tour of America in which he openly attacked the renewed enemy. Griswold retaliated and resigned from Graham’s Magazine in October 1843. He continued to assist Graham, however, and contributed to the magazine as late as 1848 (76).
In the fall of 1845, Poe had written a complimentary piece about Griswold in the Broadway Journal, which prompted Griswold to reconcile with the older poet. The following January marked a renewal of friendship, which would last for several months (96-97). In fact, Griswold even loaned Poe twenty-five dollars, in answer to Poe’s request for fifty dollars to support the Broadway Journal that he had taken over temporarily (99). Things seemed to be going well for the two. In the Prose Writers of America, Griswold exhibited his well-mannered feelings and had only positive things to say about Poe (120).
October 7, 1849 marked a shocking day for Griswold, when word reached him in New York that Edgar Poe was dead. Almost immediately, he started to write Poe’s obituary for the next morning’s Tribune, and signed it with his pen name, “Ludwig.” Horace Greeley, a fellow editor, admittedly would not have let the obituary run in the Tribune if he had known the trouble it would bring Edgar in the end (161).
By this time, Griswold, it is said, respected Poe’s literary genius, but the poet had scorned the editor, and Griswold would not forgive him—it was time to take revenge. Griswold’s memoir, which you can read here, is full of fabricated lies, and was largely pieced together using his previously written memoirs and a passage taken from Bulwer’s, The Caxtons, which he used because, “Francis Vivian [the character]…[seemed] to resemble Poe so closely that instead of spending time himself to characterize Poe he took Bulwer’s descriptions of his fictional character and used them in the sketch” (162-163).
Not too long after, Edgar’s mother-in-law and aunt, Maria Clemm, approached Griswold asking him to produce an edition of Poe’s works. It is unclear whether Clemm knew Griswold had written the infamous “Ludwig” obituary, but regardless, six days after Poe’s death, she had chosen him for the job. The works, which included memoirs written by N.P. Willis and James Russell Lowell, was, according to an announcement for the book printed in The New York Tribune on October 17, “among the last requests of Mr. Poe that Dr. Griswold should be his Editor…” (166). There is no evidence that proves whether or not this is the case, and the editor even went back and forth between stating he was indeed chosen by Poe for the job and that he took the opportunity only because of his revengeful plans.
In Griswold’s production of the books, N.P. Willis’ memoir opposes Griswold’s view, including Willis ultimately drawing the conclusion that Edgar actually had goodness in him. Henry Hirst, a friend of Poe, refuted Griswold in the Saturday Courier on October 20, saying that Poe did have many friends, in response to Griswold’s statement that Poe did not.
Griswold even confessed in a letter written to Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe’s ex-fiancée and a Rhode Island poetess, “I wrote—as you suppose—the notice of P. [Poe] in the Tribune—but very hastily. I was not his friend, nor was he mine, as I remember to have told you; but I endeavored always to do him justice; and though the sketch has deemed harsh, I did not mean that it should be so” (173). Whether this was truly the case, we do not know. Interestingly enough, Griswold also admitted he had seen little of Poe during the last years of Poe’s life; therefore it is debatable whether Griswold should have let the matter go and spare Poe’s reputation (173).
The first volumes of Poe’s writings were published about January 10, 1850, according to Joy Bayless, and contained many memoirs, articles about Poe, and a majority of Poe’s short stories and poems (175-176) You can view the editions here. Griswold soon published a third volume in September, 1850 (180).
After the third volume was published, Griswold made plans for a fourth volume, which was published in 1856. During the process of collecting information for this fourth book, however, Charles Godfrey Leland, a close friend of Griswold’s, threw out all of Griswold’s original material “to Poe’s discredit,” and then scolded the Reverend. According to Joy Bayless, Griswold then lost interest in Poe until his fourth book release. By 1858, the book had become the standard anthology of Poe’s works and had undergone seventeen editions (196-197). Griswold admitted, according to Bayless, that he “…attempted to prepare several volumes which would attract buyers and do justice to Poe’s reputation” (197).
The last criticism Griswold gave regarding Poe was in the sixteenth edition of The Poets and Poetry of America, which states,
Unquestionably he was a man of genius, and those who are familiar with his melancholy history will not doubt that his genius was in a singular degree wasted or misapplied. His rank as a poet is with the first class of his times. “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “The Bells,” and several of his other pieces, will be remembered as among the finest monuments of the capacities of the English language (200).
With Poe deceased and after successfully defaming the poet (or so he thought), Griswold continued to work on anthologies until his death by tuberculosis on August 27, 1857.
During his life, Griswold published numerous poems and anthologies, as well as provided sermons and editorial pieces. Some of his most notable works include The Poets and Poetry of America, The Poets and Poetry of England, and an important poem, “Five Days,” which can be viewed here, written for his first wife, Caroline, after her death.
It is ironic that Griswold made such great attempts to defame Poe, because his attacking memoirs and obituary only brought Edgar more fame and recognition, making him a notable literary figure for all time; whereas Griswold now is often forgotten or unknown. Perhaps if Griswold had not defamed the poet after his death, Griswold would now have a greater legacy in the literary world.
Today the Poe Museum owns several of Poe’s letters and manuscripts once owned by Griswold and given to the Museum by his grandchildren. The Museum also owns two letters written by Griswold, which you can see here and here.
*There is speculation as to whether this was actually written by Poe. Griswold was notorious for forging letters after Poe’s death, and this particular piece was challenged by John Ward Ostrom in his book, The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe – Vol. II: 1846-1849, which you can view here.