Text: William F. Gill, “Chapter 04”, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1877, pp. 71-87


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­[page 71:]

CHAPTER IV.

BEGINNING A LITERARY CAREER.

1834-1838.

First Contributions to Periodicals — Engagement with the “Southern Literary Messenger” — Griswold’s Pettiness — Critical Reviews — J. K. Paulding’s Encomiums — Marriage with his cousin, Virginia Clemm — Melancholy in Solitude — Susceptibility to Drink — Innocence of Motive — Withdrawal from the “Messenger” — Engagement on the “New York Quarterly Review” — Mr. William Gowans’ Reviews — A Notable Review — First Prose Book, “Arthur Gordon Pym” — Its success in England.

WHILE in Baltimore at this time, Poe wrote and published several reviews and stories, among which was the “Hans Pfaal,” mentioned by Mr. Latrobe, which Griswold leaves us to infer is an imitation of Locke’s celebrated moon hoax; whereas Poe’s story appeared three weeks before Locke’s story saw the light.

During this year (1834), Thomas W. White, of Richmond, launched a new literary enterprise, “The Southern Literary Messenger.” [page 72:]

Mr. Kennedy was among the number invited to contribute to the pages of the new magazine.

Mr. Kennedy’s time did not, however, admit of his acceptance of Mr. White’s offer; but he did not lose the opportunity to recommend his protégé to apply as his substitute.

That Poe was successful in his application to Mr. White, is well known.

The poet sent several specimens of his literary work, and in March, 1835, of them, “Berenice,” was published.

Mr. White was so well pleased with Poe’s contributions, that he made Poe an offer to come to Richmond, to undertake a department on the magazine.

In response to this proposition the poet wrote :

“You ask me if I would be willing to come on to Richmond if you should have occasion for my services during the coming winter. I reply that nothing would give me greater pleasure. I have been desirous for some time past of paying a visit to Richmond, and would be glad of any reasonable excuse for so doing. Indeed, I am anxious to settle myself in that city, and if, by any chance, you hear of a situation likely to suit me, I would gladly accept it, were the salary even the merest trifle. I should, indeed, feel myself greatly indebted to you if, through your means, I could accomplish this object. What you say in the conclusion of your letter, in relation to [page 73:] the supervision of proof-sheets, gives me reason to hope that possibly you might find something for me to do in your office. If so, I should be very glad, for at present only a very small portion of my time is employed.”

Mr. Kennedy, in response to a letter of inquiry from Mr. White, had previously written, —

“Dear Sir, — Poe did right in referring to me. He is very clever with his pen — classical and scholarlike. He wants experience and direction, but I have no doubt he can be made very useful to you; and, poor fellow ! he is very poor. I told him to write something, for every number of your magazine, and that you might find it to your advantage to give him some permanent employ. He has a volume of very bizarre tales in the hands of —— in Philadelphia, who for a year past has been promising to publish them. This young fellow is highly imaginative, and a little given to the terrific. He is at work upon a tragedy, but I have turned him to drudging upon whatever may make money, and I have no doubt you and he will find your account in each other.”

An amusing instance of Griswold’s pettiness, and want of common-sense judgment even, in his endeavor to demean the position and character of his subject as much as possible, is found in the following paragraph in the biography. Speaking of the poet’s connection with the “Literary Messenger,” he writes, “In the next number of the ‘Messenger,’ Mr. White announced [page 74:] that Poe was its editor, or, in other words, that he had made arrangements with a gentleman of approved literary taste and attainments, to whose especial management the editorial department would be confided, and it was declared that this gentleman would ’ devote his exclusive attention to his work.‘” Having put this down in black and white, following his statement that Mr. White was a man of much purity of character, the redoubtable biographer evidently feels that he has set Poe up a peg too high, and immediately planes him down to an endurable level in the next sentence : “Poe continued, however, to reside in Baltimore, and it is probable that he was engaged only as a general contributor and writer of critical notices of books.” Apropos of these book reviews. Dr. Griswold dismisses them as follows : “He continued in Baltimore till September. In this period he wrote several long reviews, which for the most part were abstracts of works, rather than critical discussions.” As a matter of fact, the “Messenger” was in its seventh month, with about four hundred subscribers, when Poe assumed the editorship. Poe remained with this journal until the end of its second year, by [page 75:] which time its circulation had been increased fourfold. A contemporary of Poe writes that ‘‘the success of the ’ Messenger ’ has been justly attributable to Poe’s exertions on its behalf, but especially to the skill, honesty and audacity of the criticism under the editorial head. The review of ’ Norman Leslie ’ may be said to have introduced a new era in our critical literature.”

This review was followed up continuously by others of equal force and character. Of the review of Drake and Halleck, Mr. J. K. Paulding says, in a private letter, “I think it one of the finest specimens of criticism ever published in this country.”

But Griswold could see nothing in Poe’s book reviews of which he cared to speak, for reasons which will be apparent later.

On the eve of setting out for Richmond, the poet, who felt that his prospects in life had now become permanently settled, married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, in whom he had manifested a tender interest since his first meeting with her.

He had interested himself in educating her when she was but ten years of age, and now at [page 76:] fourteen, she was intellectually, maturely developed.

Poe’s relatives, both on his side and that of the wife, opposed this match, for the lady was very delicate and already marked as a victkn to consumption, which prevailed in the family. But this modern Paul and his Virginia were not to be separated without taking upon themselves firmer ties than those of mere friendship, and they were duly married in Baltimore, although they did not live together until a year later, when, in deference to the wishes of the family, they were remarried in Richmond, by the late Rev. John Johns, Bishop of Virginia.

In his solitary moments, while separated from his beloved child-wife, Poe seems to have been deeply afflicted with the despairing melancholy which, in his later years, wrought upon him the direst effects. At this time he wrote to his friend, Mr. Kennedy, as follows : —

Richmond, September 11, 1835.

Dear Sir, — I received a letter from Dr. Miller, in which he tells me you are in town.

I hasten, therefore, to write you and express by letter what I have always found it impossible to express orally, — my deep [page 77:] sense of gratitude for jour frequent and ineffectual assistance and kindness.

Through your influence, Mr. White has been induced to employ me in assisting him in with the editorial duties of his magazine, at a salary of five hundred and twenty dollars per annum.

The situation is agreeable to me for many reasons, but, alas I it appears to me that nothing can give me pleasure or the slightest gratification.

Excuse me, my dear sir, if in this letter you find much incoherency; my feelings, at this moment, are pitiable indeed.

I am suffering under a depression of spirits such as I have never felt before. I have struggled in vain against the influence of this melancholy; you will believe me when I say that I am still miserable, in spite of the great improvement in my circumstances. I say you will believe me, and for this simple reason, that a man who is writing for effect does not write thus. My heart is open before you; if it be worth reading, read it. I am wretched, and know not why. Console me I for you can. But let it be quickly, or it will be too late. Write me immediately; convince me that it is worth one’s while — that it is at all necessary — to live, and you will prove yourself indeed my friend. Persuade me to do what is right. I do mean this. I do not mean that you should consider what I now write you’ a jest. Oh, pity me ! for I feel that my words are incoherent; but I will recover myself. You will not fail to see that I am suffering under a depression of spirits which will ruin me should it be long continued. Write me, then, and quickly; urge me to do what is right. Your words will have more weight with me than the words of others, for you were my friend when no one else was. Fail not, as you value your peace of mind hereafter. E. A. Poe. [page 78:]

How little the peculiar temperament of Poe was understood by those with whom he was associated, and how little of that precious sympathy for which his sensitive soul pined was vouchsafed him, is evident from the following matter-of-fact, but kindly intended, letter from his best friend, in answer to his despairing plaint: —

“I am sorry to see you in such plight as your letter shows you in. It is strange that just at this time, when everybody is praising you, and when fortune is beginning to smile upon your hitherto wretched circumstances, you should be invaded by these blue-devils. It belongs, however, to your age and temper to be thus buffeted — but be assured, it only wants a little resolution to master the adversary forever. You will doubtless do well henceforth in literature, and add to your comforts as well as to your reputation, which, it gives me great pleasure to assure you, is everywhere rising in popular esteem.”

During this period of isolation, Poe’s susceptibility to the influence of drink became manifest.

The subject of Poe’s alleged intemperance is one that has given rise to an amount of righteous condemnation that would have overwhelmed and obliterated the reputation of an ordinary writer.

Mr. N. P. Willis writes, “We heard from one who knew him well (what should be stated in all [page 79:] mention of his lamentable irregularities), that with a single glass of wine his whole nature was reversed; the demon became uppermost, and, although none of the usual signs of intoxication were visible, his will was palpably insane.”

On this point Mr. Thomas C. Latto writes, “Whatever his lapses might have been, whatever he might say of himself (Burns was equally incautious, and equally garrulous in his aberrations), the American poet was never a sot; yet the charge has been made against him again and again.”

One of the most respected clergymen in Massachusetts, who knew Poe well during the later years of the poet’s life, most emphatically assured me, in a recent conversation, that Poe was not a drunkard. “Why (he said), I, the most innocent of divinity students at the time (1847), while walking with Poe, and feeling thirsty, pressed him to take a glass of wine with me. He declined, but finally compromised by taking a glass of ale with me. Almost instantly a great change came over him. Previously engaged in an indescribably eloquent conversation, he became as if paralyzed, and with compressed lips and [page 80:] fixed, glaring eyes, returned, without uttering a word, to the house which we were visiting. For hours, the strange spell hung over him. He seemed a changed being, as if stricken by some peculiar phase of insanity.”

We mention this as an act of simple justice to the poet, and to make apparent the falsity of the accounts of Poe’s orgies and protracted indulgences, as recorded by Griswold and others of the poet’s villifiers.

He never drank, never could have drunk, to excess. His fault then was not in his excessive indulgence in intoxicating drinks, but in his exceptional susceptibility to the influence of liquor.

There is no evidence that his weakness was in the insatiable craving for stimulants, common to drunkards. When he drank, at times, it was more frequently with the innocent intent, common to the large majority of mankind who are able to take a single glass with impunity, of exchanging a social pledge with a friend or companion. Nature had made him an unfortunate exception; and will it not be generally admitted that any inherited or constitutional weakness is less amenable to reason, than one which is merely the result of an artificial or acquired taste? [page 81:]

Poe, it would seem, never resorted to liquor, even for the pardonable necessity, of stimulating his literary inspirations. Such a sequence was impossible to his indulgence in what is to many a fortunate and desirable support.

When engaged in writing, his sensitive organization rendered any stimulant stronger than coffee fatal to his work, and even that pleasant and comparatively innocent beverage could be taken but sparingly by him. One of the causes of his isolation from society in the later years of his life, was his sensitiveness to his exceptional weakness, which placed him in an awkward position, from his native courtesy, when obliged, for self-protection, to decline even touching a single glass of wine.

Referring to Poe’s retirement from the “Messenger,” which took place in 1837, Griswold writes, “Poe’s irregularities frequently interrupted the kindness, and finally exhausted the patience, of his generous though methodical employer, and in the number of the “Messenger “for January 1837, he thus took leave of its readers : —

Mr. Poe’s attention being called in another direction, he will decline, with the present number, [page 82:] the editorial duties of the ‘Messenger.* His Critical Notices for this month end with Professor Anthon’s “Cicero” — what follows is from another hand. With the best wishes to the magazine, and to its few foes, as well as many friends, he is now desirous of bidding all parties a peaceful farewell.”

So far from dismissing the poet on account of drunkenness, Mr. White parted from him with reluctance; and Griswold’s contemptible meanness is again exhibited in the suppression, in his memoir, of Mr. White’s letter to his subscribers, which appeared in the identical number of the “Messenger” which contained Poe’s note of resignation.

In this note, the proprietor paid a handsome compliment to the marked ability of his editor, acknowledged the success of the magazine under his direction, and added, “Mr. Poe, however, will continue to furnish its columns, from time to time, with the effusions of his vigorous and popular pen.”

Griswold knew well that Poe resigned, owing to a flattering invitation which he received from Professors Anthon, Henry and Hawks to come [page 83:] to New York and join them in their dew literary enterprise, “The New York Quarterly Review.”

In the letter of Dr. Hawks is sounded the key-note to which Poe responed [[responded]] in his after-work with an implacable devotion that struck terror to the hearts of all those who crossed the path of his merciless pen. Dr. Hawks writes, “I wish you to fall in with your broad-axe [the italics are the doctor’s] amidst this miserable literary trash that surrounds us. I believe you have the will, and I know you will have the ability.”

In acceptance of Dr. Hawks’ invitation, Poe removed to New York, and took up his residence at No, 113 Carmine Street in that city.

A valuable contribution to the ana of Poe has been left by Mr. William Gowans, the Scotch bibliopolist, of New York, widely known and respected by the book-selling and book-reading community. Mr. Gowans, as it happened, resided in the same house with Poe at this time, and writing of the criticisms of Poe by his contemporaries, as well as his domestic ménage which he had a rare opportunity of observing, he says, —

‘The characters drawn of Poe by his various [page 84:] biographers and critics may, with safety, be pronounced an excess of exaggeration; but this is not to be much wondered at, when it is taken into consideration that these men were rivals, either as poets or prose writers, and it is well known that such are generally as jealous of each other as are the ladies who are handsome, or those who desire to be considered possessed of the coveted quality. It is an old truism, and as true as it old, ‘that in the midst of counsels there is safety.’ I, therefore, will also show you my opinion of this gifted but unfortunate man. It may be estimated as worth little, but it has this merit: it comes from an eye and ear witness, and this, it must be remembered, is the very highest of legal evidence.

“For eight months or more, one house contained us, one table fed us. During that time I saw much of him, and had an opportunity of conversing with him often, and I must say, I never saw him in the least affected by liquor, nor knew him to descend to any kind of vice; while he was one of the most courteous, gentlemanly and intelligent companions I have ever met during my journeyings and baitings through [page 85:] divers divisions of the globe. Besides, he had an extra inducement to be a good man, as well as a good husband, for he had a wife of matchless beauty and loveliness.

“Her eyes could match those of any houri, and her face defy the genius of Canova to imitate; a temper and disposition of surpassing sweetness. She seemed, withal, as much devoted to him and his every interest as a young mother is to her first-born.” .

Among other critical articles written by Poe for the “Review” at this time, was a lengthy criticism on Stephens’ “Incidents of Travels in Egypt, Arabia, Petrea and the Holy Land.” The poet made an elaborate showing-up of the traveller’s misconceptions of the biblical prophecies, as well as of some important mistranslations in Ezekiel and Isaiah.

This article created a sensation, although it aroused the antagonism of such men as Griswold, and others of his ilk, some of whom yet live to void their venom upon the fair fame of the fearless adversary, with whom in life they dared not to measure swords.

During his residence in New York, at this [page 86:] time, Poe published, in book form, a story which he had begun several months before in the “Literary Messenger,” — “Arthur Gordon Pym.” The work was issued by Harper & Brothers. The title-page reads as follows : —

“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket : comprising the Details of a Mutiny and Atrocious Butchery on board the American Brig ‘Grampus,’ on her way to the South Seas; with an Account of the Recapture of the Vessel by the Survivors; their Shipwreck, and subsequent Horrible Sufferings from Famine; their Deliverance by means of the British Schooner Jane Gray; the brief Cruise of this latter Vessel in the Antarctic Ocean; her Capture, and the Massacre of the Crew among a Group of Islands in the 84th parallel of southern latitude; together with the incredible Adventures and Discoveries still further South, to which that distressing calamity gave rise.”

The work was not appreciated by the American public, and less than a thousand copies were disposed of by the publishers. In England, however, it was highly successful, running through several editions within a short time. [page 87:]

Griswold says, “that the publishers sent one hundred copies to England, and being mistaken, at first, for a narrative of real experiences, it was advertised to be reprinted; but a discovery of its character, I believe, prevented such a result.” It will be noted that the facts again tip the scale, against the balance of Griswold’s fiction, in this instance.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - WFG, 1877] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Life of Edgar Allan Poe [Chapter 04] (W. F. Gill, 1877)