Revisiting the Nineteenth-Century Poe Controversies
Benjamin F. Fisher, ed. Poe in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of his Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates


Benjamin F. Fisher , ed . Poe in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of his Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates . Iowa City : Univ. of Iowa Press , 2010 . xi , 310 pp . $27.95 paper .

Benjamin Fisher's recent contribution to the University of Iowa Press series titled Writers in Their Own Time raises once again the specter of the Rufus Griswold legacy and its effects on the enduring “Legend of Poe” (Fisher's phrase) that has so often colored popular conceptions and biographical studies of Poe's life and work. While the volume strives for diversity of opinion and a range of subject matter that might reveal the conflicting aspects of Poe's personality, the perceptions of his contemporaries, and the reception of his work in the half century or so after his death, there is little doubt that the 1850 Griswold portrait, and the various responses to it, stands at the center of the collection. The “Ludwig” obituary and the much longer “Memoir” by Griswold occupy approximately 60 pages of the 300-page collection; and of the 66 or so total items, over a third of them are concerned with questions of Poe's character and personality, as perceived by friends and enemies alike, while the remainder deal with various aspects of his biography, writing, lecturing, and public performances, apart from the analysis of character (more on these items later). To his credit, Fisher avoids the biographer's impulse to interpret and manipulate his material into a single coherent narrative and instead offers the documentarian's method of collection, collation, and careful presentation of primary source material. And yet, the decision to emphasize the Griswold legacy and the general editorial stance (apparent in the introduction and some of the headnotes) on the side of Poe's defenders raises a larger question in Poe scholarship: Why do we still feel compelled either to defend or to attack Poe's character anew with each generation?

The fact that Griswold's caricature has been largely debunked (in scholarly circles, if not in the popular mind) and competing images offered by biographers, critics, historians, documentary filmmakers, and other assorted Poe devotees might suggest that the time for rehashing the Griswold legacy is long past. Indeed, there are newer and more serious charges leveled against Poe than that he was an intemperate, hostile, and immoral “madman”—qualities which, whether fairly applied or not, seem rather to have endeared him to the popular imagination than otherwise. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he has faced renewed attacks on the grounds of his presumed racism, sexism, classism, pedophilia, lack of artistic integrity, critical hypocrisies, nihilistic vision, or his imperfect scholarship or purposeful deceptions. These charges, more than Griswold's caricature, deserve to be explored. But, of course, within many of these critiques are manifestations of a tendency that we see even in the earlier century—the insistence that the author's character or personality can be directly related to artistic production, aesthetic quality, or the effects of that art on its readership. The examination of that argument, and its various permutations during the ongoing Griswold controversy, might prove instructive in addressing broader questions of biography, character, and literary assessment.

One of the benefits of having all these personal portraits available in a single volume is that we quickly find that no two observers—whether critics or admirers of Poe—seem to share precisely the same view of either the man or his work. More particularly, the question of whether there are clues to Poe's “true” character manifested in the work isn't always divided along partisan lines in the way one might expect, having read only Griswold's reflections. The latter asserts, with some certainty (in the “Ludwig” obituary), that “every genuine author in a greater or lesser degree leaves in his works, whatever their design, traces of his personal character”[78]. Moreover, he insists that this tendency in Poe was more pronounced in his last stretch of life: “Nearly all that he wrote in the last two or three years—including much of his best poetry—was in some sense biographical; in draperies of his imagination, those who had taken the trouble to trace his steps, could perceive, but slightly concealed, the figure of himself”[79]. On these premises, Griswold proceeds to construct a portrait that reveals what he himself sees as the principle features of Poe's writing: morbid gloom, peculiar intellectuality, “cold repellant cynicism,” sneering hostility, “gnawing envy,” lack of a moral center, arrogance and conceit, and overall a “shrewd and naturally unamiable character”[78–79]. This unflattering image of the man, and the justifications for it supposedly found in the work, infuse not only Griswold's obituary and memoir but many of the other negative biographies and critical assessments of Poe in the current volume, including those of C. F. Briggs, Bryan W. Proctor, and Francis Gerry Fairfield—the latter going so far as to suggest that both the personality of Poe and the character of his writings can be ascribed to a common origin in “cerebral epilepsy”[269].

Interestingly, a number of Poe's most ardent supporters, among them Sarah Helen Whitman and Elizabeth Oakes Smith, while rejecting Griswold's assessment of the man, still accept the notion that man and work are mutually reflective. In her 1867 autobiographic note, Smith tells of meeting Poe for the first time, after he had written some hard critiques of her work, and being prepared to dislike him. But after their first conversation, her view changed: “I saw that the ‘Raven’ was really Mr. Poe—that he did not go out of one state of mind to conceive another in which he placed his ‘Lenore,’‘Raven,’ or other poems—but that he was what he wrote, his own idiosyncrasy, ‘that and nothing more.’ Then I laid aside my personal pique and accepted the poet”[original emphasis, 225]. Smith's magnanimous acceptance of Poe's criticism, on the grounds that he both speaks and writes genuinely and without artifice, is echoed in the note from Sarah Whitman that Smith inserts into her article: “He seemed to me—in his private character—simple, direct and genuine, beyond all other persons that I have known . … I believe, too, that in the artistic utterance of poetic emotion he was profoundly, passionately genuine; genuine in the expression of his utter desolation of soul—his tender, remorseful regret for the departed; his love, his hate, his pride, his perversity, and his despair”[221].

While cognizant of many of Poe's personal faults and errors, both Smith and Whitman judge these failings sympathetically—as reflections, not of a demonic or immoral nature, but of a man they variously describe as “delicate,”“refined,”“sensitive,”“ethereal,”“passionate,” and “misunderstood”[219–21]. And they find ample evidence of this character in his writings. But lest she be accused of being among the many smitten female admirers that Poe was known to have inspired through his poetic wooing, Smith also offers a rousing defense of women's ability to discern the difference between flattery or disingenuousness (which she acknowledges that Poe sometimes practiced upon the weaker-minded of her sex) and genuine expression: “Women, however their vanity may be flattered by the attention of a poet, and however much their admiration of such may win a certain superficial response, are never deeply affected except by that which is wholly and entirely genuine. The true heart responds only to the true”[229–30]. Poe, while capable of great charm, and not always to be trusted in his flatteries, redeems himself, in Smith's eyes, through the unquestionable “truth” of his artistic expression.

Other Poe supporters, most notably Nathaniel P. Willis, offer similar sympathetic reflections on his character, supported not only by personal acquaintance and recollection but by reference to his writing. In Willis's obituary, which appeared in Griswold's edition of Poe's Works, it is Poe's cordial, humble, and often grateful letters to friends and professional acquaintances that testify to the real character of the man, while the “rumors” of his debauches and moral outrages, if not outright lies, are but sad aberrations in the life of a man more accurately judged by the evidences left behind in his own hand, and in the memories of his friends [94; also see vol. 1 of The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Griswold (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850)—Griswold's scathing memoir would be moved to this volume in the 1853 reprint]. In a later article for the Home Journal (1850), Willis more pointedly suggests that it is not Poe but his cruel critic (in this case, John M. Daniel, author of a recent sketch of Poe, largely echoing the hostilities of Griswold) who has “dipped his pen in gall”: “Has the critic unconsciously caught the spirit of that which he was describing? Or has he transferred to the subject of his sketch the feelings that corrode his own bosom?”[172]. Utilizing the logic of both Daniel and Griswold, Willis suggests that it is they who have revealed themselves to be morally reckless, ill-tempered, and unfeeling through their own literary productions.

Common to each of these authors is the basic assumption that the character of Poe (and other writers) can be deduced through a careful assessment of his work—that his poetic productions are, at their heart, expressive, rather than dramatic or artificial. All the writers mentioned above, of course, knew Poe personally, to a greater or lesser extent, and are apt to draw their judgments of both the man and his work from their own, admittedly limited and subjective, exposure to his personality and manners. It remains for more emotionally distant critics to suggest alternate understandings of his work, and it is here that Fisher's collection offers us some useful departures from the familiar debate between Poe's critics and admirers. James Russell Lowell, for example—who famously caricatures Poe in his Fable for Critics with the remark that “the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind”— while acquainted with Poe, cannot be counted among his close associates or friends. He was certainly capable of trading barbs with Poe on matters of art and criticism and might agree with Griswold's assessment of the “naturally unamiable character” of the man; and yet, he is one of the earliest critics to note the interesting disconnect between Poe the man and Poe the artist. In his reflection on Poe, which appears alongside Griswold's and Willis's in the Collected Works (1850), Lowell emphasizes not Poe's personal expressiveness but his “effort of reason,” his analytical ability, and his “wonderful fecundity of imagination”[original emphasis, 88–91]. These gifts allow Poe not only a mastery over his language and effects but also a subtle power over the perceptions and feelings of his readers. It is that manipulation of the reader that might, perhaps, be misunderstood as “genuine” expression, but Lowell imagines Poe as less the spontaneous confessor of deeply held sentiments and more the careful observer and purposeful artificer: “Mr. Poe … is a spectator ab extrà. He analyzes, he dissects, he watches”[91]. He credits Poe with the ability to balance poetic effects with rational judgment, enabling the artist “to throw a wonderful reality into his most unreal fancies”[92]. But Lowell does not mistake these fancies for realities or attempt to draw conclusions about the nature of their author from the material of his craft. Indeed, he gives relatively little attention to Poe's biography in his piece and offers no personal reflections at all upon the author or his character.

Speaking like Lowell from outside the writer's immediate circles, a yet more openly hostile critic of Poe's character is the Englishman George Gilfillan, author of the infamous “Apollodorus” review (1854)—which, if anything, tends to raise the common slanders of Griswold to the level of rampant hyperbole. For example, Gilfillan proclaims that “poets, as a tribe, have been rather a worthless, wicked set of people; and certainly Edgar Poe, instead of being an exception, was probably the most wicked of all the fraternity”[original emphasis, 175]. Gilfillan goes on to enshrine Poe in a rogues’ gallery of dissipated poet-monsters, ahead of even such common libertines, addicts, and vulgarians as Byron, De Quincey, and Burns. The closest equivalents to Poe that Gilfillan can find among British writers are the notorious wretches Richard Savage and Thomas Dermody (who shares with Poe an Irish ancestry). Having no personal knowledge of Poe the man, and relying on the more sensational accounts by Griswold and others, Gilfillan seems primarily interested in creating a dramatic anti-hero for his review.

Nearly halfway through the review, however, Gilfillan makes an interesting distinction between his demonic caricature of Poe the man and his assessment of Poe's work: “This, however, let us say in his favour—he has died ‘alone in his iniquity;’ he has never, save by his example (so far as we know his works), sought to shake faith, or sap morality. His writings may be morbid, but they are pure”[179]. Distinguishing his moral critique from his aesthetic one, Gilfillan then offers a rather insightful and intriguing assessment of Poe's unique gifts as a writer. He acknowledges Poe's “genius”—particularly his extraordinary capacity for original thought, imagination, and passion. Moreover, although he suggests that Poe's peculiar circumstances and habits may have influenced the writing, he offers a subtle and complex theory of how that influence may be perceived:

You say at once, cool and clear as most of them are, these are not the productions of a healthy or happy man. But surely never was there such a calm despair—such a fiery torment so cased in ice! When you compare the writings with the known facts of the author's history, they appear to be so like, and so unlike, his character . … There is a strict, almost logical, method in his wildest productions . … His frenzy is a conscious one—he feels his own pulse when it is at its wildest, and looks at his foaming lips in the looking-glass. [181]

Like Lowell, Gilfillan emphasizes Poe's analytical powers and his ability to look upon even the most debilitating horrors with the calm and calculating eye of the conscious artist. Later, he suggests that Poe's particular gift lies in his capacity both to add “an air of circumstantial verity to incredibilities” and, conversely, to throw “a weird lustre upon commonplace events”[182]. The result is an art of the fantastic and the supernatural that is somehow grounded in experiential reality, something that only a “true artist,” in Gilfillan's estimation, can achieve. When he remarks that Poe “separates the feeling of supernatural fear from the consciousness of supernatural agency”[183], Gilfillan is anticipating the brilliant reassessment of Poe by H. P. Lovecraft, in his seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), almost seventy-five years later. Lovecraft, too, sees Poe not as the frenzied, spontaneous madman of romantic legend but rather as a rational materialist and a careful architect of horrific effects.

Both Lowell and Gilfillan anticipate an era of modern criticism that would seek to separate the study of “personality” from the study of aesthetics and poetic craft. Though neither can reasonably be called completely “objective” in their judgments, they do suggest ways of appreciating and evaluating Poe's work apart from the consideration of character. Poe would not always fare well among the New Critics of the twentieth century—criticized most often for his sloppy form, his erratic uses of language, his “adolescent” sentiments, and his sensational tendencies. But he would also finally begin to emerge from the shadow of Griswold's sordid legend through the work of more disinterested biographers, consciously “objective” critics, and new theories of artistic production. Still, as with all powerful ideas, the lure of the personal has remained in effect, especially for figures as polarizing as Poe, and contemporary critics continue to struggle with the problem of Poe's character and its relationship to his art. Of course, many would deny that they are making character judgments or moral assessments, preferring to wrap their criticisms in layers of presumably “objective” analysis, informed by psychoanalysis, social and cultural theory, identity politics, feminist theory, or linguistic analysis. And yet, the tendency of many of these approaches is to take for granted that the “meaning” of art is contextual, and that the relevant context includes the personality, ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of the artist. Valid as that assumption might be, it still runs the risk of conflating life with art, and of proceeding from assumptions about an author's character to judge the value or the moral (some would prefer “social” or “political”) tendency of the art. Even we contemporary scholars would do well to note the dangers of such assumptions and to avoid the stigmatizing reductionism of many of Poe's earliest critics. Poe in His Own Time offers ample material for further analysis of this persistent question in Poe scholarship, and for that alone it is worth a place on the bookshelf.

But there is another compelling reason to peruse it, which I’ll touch on briefly. Fisher's assemblage of reflections on Poe as a craftsman, performer, critic, editor, and serious man of letters expands our resources for illuminating facets of his career that are clearly not evidenced in his gothic tales or ethereal poetic utterances, or in his more infamous moments of dissipation. One of the particular virtues of the collection is the editor's focus on harder-to-find items, or at least those that have not been previously gathered in one place, which open more fully to our view the breadth and variety of Poe's literary activity. Especially valuable are items related to Poe's lectures and poetry recitals, which, as the introduction suggests, have been sadly under-utilized. There are nearly a dozen such pieces, most of them quite short but tantalizing in their descriptions of Poe's voice, stature, lecture style, wit, and level of learned discourse, which impressed observers like George Lippard and the author of the “Academicus” review (p. 43 of the current volume). It is important to juxtapose these descriptions with some of the more negative portrayals of Poe's Boston Lyceum performance (also represented in this volume), in order to see that he impressed or disappointed his live audiences with much the same unpredictability that he did his personal friends and acquaintances.

Also of interest to biographers or literary historians are a number of revealing bits of information concerning such matters as Poe's brief career at West Point, his attempts to garner a political appointment through his friend Frederick W. Thomas, his editorial work for the Southern Literary Messenger and Graham's Magazine, and the mystery surrounding his death and final moments. That last includes notes from Joseph P. Wilson, requesting assistance for Poe in his final days, and John J. Moran, his attending physician at Baltimore's Washington Hospital, as well as a later essay, “The Facts of Poe's Death and Burial” (1867), by Joseph E. Snodgrass, who also tended to Poe at the last. While none of these pieces offers to “solve” the mystery of Poe's death, they do dispel some of the more fantastic rumors and misconceptions surrounding it (such as Elizabeth Oakes Smith's assertion that he was beaten to death).

Perhaps the most charming and interesting item in the collection for Poe devotees of both the scholarly and the popular persuasion is Mary Gove Nichols's “Reminiscences of Poe” (1863), which offers a rare insight into Poe's domestic life, impoverished suffering, and ambivalence toward literary fame and success. Recounting a visit to the poet's cottage in Fordham, New York, Nichols offers a vivid sketch of Poe's manners, voice, physical image, and emotional state near the time of his wife Virginia's death. Nichols's own nostalgic tone notwithstanding, the piece offers a picture of the harsh realities of Poe's home life and the stresses of professional authorship in the early nineteenth century. It also reveals a man largely unknown to many of his literary admirers or enemies: the devoted husband, the poor but hospitable host, the playful companion (who proposes a game of “leaping” during a casual walk), and the sincere, if equivocal, conversationalist. This remembrance goes a long way—perhaps further than any of the more adamant “defenses”—toward giving us a different image of Poe the man and the author.

On the question of the relationship between Poe's art and his character, Nichols is more nuanced than many of his formal reviewers and critics. While acknowledging his delight in “mak[ing] one shudder and freeze with horror”[212], she suggests that Poe's art reflects his personal character most clearly in his pursuit of poetic beauty.

The Poe that Nichols remembers is uncompromising in his belief that the purpose of art is to express beauty, not “truth,” and that taste demands a strict control and mastery of the passions and the imagination—a control that seems at odds with the popular perception of Poe as an inspired madman: “Poe has been called a bad man. He was his own enemy, it is true; but he was a gentleman and a scholar. His clear and vivid perception of the beautiful constituted his conscience, and unless bereft of his sense by some poison, it was hard to make him offend his taste”[216]. Linking Poe's “perception of the beautiful” to his “conscience” returns us to the notion that art may, in fact, reveal aspects of character. Rather than contradict the assumption of some of Poe's critics, Nichols seems to take their argument to its logical conclusion: that the man must be judged by the inherent quality and intentions of his art, not by its superficial character. In the end, she takes Poe's harsher critics to task for writing viciously about “a man of whom they really knew next to nothing”[216]. For this reason, memoirs like Nichols's may prove as valuable as any of the critical analysis offered by Poe's literary critics and peers.

In conclusion, I will note that the volume is fairly short on early material, with only one item dating before 1835 (an 1829 letter from John Allan concerning Poe's matriculation at West Point) and only about half the book containing material from Poe's own lifetime (if we include those materials concerning his death), most of it from the 1840s. Fisher's stated reason for expanding his scope forward is, I think, a legitimate one: that Poe's natural span could well have extended beyond his forty years, and that many of his contemporaries did, in fact, continue to write about their firsthand knowledge of Poe well into the 1870s, if not later. But this doesn't fully explain why Fisher chooses to begin his study of “Poe in his own time” rather late in the poet's life and career. My guess is that what Fisher finds most relevant to the later debates over Poe's character and reputation are those materials that reflect what the public knew, or thought it knew, about Poe the public figure. And while some of that knowledge might have derived obliquely from what individual acquaintances knew of his childhood and earlier relationships, most of what was said and written about Poe during his lifetime comes directly from what Poe himself offered, in letters, in print, or in person, witnessed directly during Poe's public appearances, or derives, either by assumption or by purposeful intent, from his later work.