Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe

Article excerpt

Editing Poe's Letters The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Third Edition. Edited by John Ward Ostrom, Burton R. Pollin, and Jeffrey A. Savoye. (New York: Gordian Press, 2008. Two volumes. 1,325 pp. Cloth: $100.00, ISBN: 978-0-87752-246-1.)

The letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) have always ranked among the most treasured of American literary relics. Given this circumstance, one might suspect that they would have been preserved and transcribed with the same meticulous care accorded the manuscripts of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. This is not what happened. Poe's death on October 7, 1849, marked the beginning of an orgy of epistolary destruction and fabrication. Maria Clemm (1790-1871), his mother-in-law and his mainstay, promptly burned the letters he had received from Sarah Helen Whitman, Annie Richmond, and other female correspondents. Poe's own letters escaped the flames only to fall prey to the scissors, as Mrs. Whitman and Annie Richmond snipped away at his missives to provide autographs for their friends and acquaintances. Mrs. Clemm was again the principal offender. With a view to currying financial support, she gave away so many samples of the poet's handwriting that by 1860 she had to write Mrs. Whitman to inquire if Poe's former fiancée had any to spare.1

The creation of spurious letters began in earnest with the deliciously malicious memoir that Rufus W. Griswold (1815-1857) included in his 1 850 edition of Poe's works.2 The best-known anthology editor of his day, Griswold admired Poe's writings but privately detested him. He wrote a long scandalous obituary of Poe for the New York Daily Tribune, which opened by stating that the deceased had "few or no friends" and that not many people would be grieved by his passing.3 Griswold was promptly attacked by Poe admirers like George R. Graham and John Neal, who depicted the dead poet as the soul of honor and decency. When Mrs. Clemm maneuvered Griswold into the unpaid task of editing Poe's works, he seized upon an opportunity to settle the score both with the departed genius and with his living admirers. Griswold's memoir of Poe, presented as an authorized biography by a sympathetic friend, was in fact a most outrageous hatchet job. Griswold had fabricated from whole cloth "letters" in which Poe seemed to reveal himself as a sycophant, an ingrate, and a cad. To those letters actually existing in manuscript form, the publication in Griswold's memoir added spurious passages in which Poe appeared to make disparaging remarks on literary allies like Evert A. Duyckinck and George W. Eveleth. No one was the wiser because Mrs. Clemm had trustingly placed the bulk of Poe 's correspondence in Griswold's hands. He was the only person with access to these documents. Who could prove that he had tampered with them?

John Henry Ingram ( 1 842- 1916), an eccentric English author, set out to expose Griswold's memoir as a fraud; he obtained transcripts of many letters which Poe had sent to Annie Richmond and other correspondents. But when Ingram published these documents in an 1 878 article and in his two-volume 1880 biography of the poet, he proved far more concerned with tidying a reputation than with establishing textual accuracy.4 He bowdlerized Poe's letters, omitting embarrassing passages and removing the names of any living persons who might be offended by an invasion of their privacy. Unfortunately, Poe's manuscript letters as well as the transcripts used by Ingram tended to be subsequently misplaced, leaving posterity with permanent lacunae in the epistolary record.

Both Griswold and Ingram gave their readers a distorted caricature of Poe rather than a plausible biography, the former editor being motivated by animosity and the latter by hero worship. But it should be remembered that while Griswold invented spurious texts and Ingram suppressed authentic ones, neither man was a forger in the proper sense, creating fraudulent manuscripts to be offered for sale as unique documents from the pen of Poe himself. …

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