Text: James Albert Harrison, “New Glimpses of Poe (I),” The Independent, September 6, 1900, vol. LII, No. 2701, pp. 2158-2161


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­[page 2158:]

New Glimpses of Poe.

By James A. Harrison,

PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND ROMANCE LANGUAGES IN THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.

I.

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EDGAR ALLAN POE’S twin connection with New York and the University of Virginia makes any new light or new incident of local color connected with the poet interesting to his admirers in both localities. Tennyson’s belief, lately expressed in his memoirs, that Poe was “the most original genius that America had produced,” sets a seal upon his fame not easily to be overestimated even by indiscreet eulogists, and justifies readers of his works in rescuing from oblivion before it is too late anecdotes and adventures or eccentricities that may hitherto have escaped notice.

While engaged in collecting material for filling the Poe Alcove in the new Rotunda Library of the University of Virginia, I had the good fortune to fall into correspondence with several gentlemen who had known Poe personally, one of them intimately. They wrote out their reminiscences [column 2:] of the author of the famous tales and poems, and kindly permit their use in this paper. The fading fires of the poet’s great gray eyes kindle anew in these sympathetic pages and throw out new and characteristic sparks of grotesquerie and pathos as his early escapades are recounted, and this human opal becomes charged and charged again with malignant or with beautiful fires, slyly retreating or unexpectedly shooting forth under the magnet of circumstance. These glimpses of personal acquaintances present Poe as a child, student and a lecturer. The Hamlet nature of the man, with its unsteady purpose, its wonderfully poetic flickerings, its strange logic and its boundless inconsequence, makes him a unique psychological study truly Shakespearean in the multiplicity of its facets and angles. To voyage through the shadow-land of a nature whose good ­[page 2159:] and evil, angel and demon, lie adumbrated rather than salient, where melodies of Heaven and cries of Hell float on the never-serene air, and where the radiance of the Mediterranean may in a moment lapse into the glimmer of the rolling tarns of Trinidad, mocks the geography of the psychologist and reduces his pretty charts of the soul to a genuine terra incognita. These “glimpses of the moon” reveal Poe, first, as he stands before us a child in the home of his adopted father, Mr. Allan, in the good city of Richmond in the year 1825. These first recollections were by the late Thomas H. Ellis, of Washington, D. C., and explain themselves as follows:

POE AS A PLAYMATE.*

“On the 8th of December, 1811, Mrs. Poe, of English birth, one of the actresses of the company then playing on the Richmond boards, died in Richmond, leaving three children. Her husband had died not long before, in Norfolk. She had made herself a favorite with those who [column 2:] were in the habit of attending the theater, which was then the fashionable entertainment with educated people, both in this country and England. There was general sympathy for the little orphans left by her. The eldest of the three, William Henry, was adopted by his grandfather, Mr. Poe, of Baltimore, a gentleman of social position there, and of family pride, who had been much offended by his son’s marriage with an actress. This child died young, but lived long enough to develop rare promise. The second child, born January 19, 1809, was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. John Allan, of Richmond; the youngest, a daughter, was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. William Mackenzie, also of Richmond; and the names Edgar Allan and Rose Mackenzie were given in baptism by the Rev. John Buchanan, D. D., at the residence of Mr. John Richard, who was a friend of all the parties concerned.

“The death of Mrs. Poe occurred eighteen days before the burning of the Richmond theater, and it is not improbable that Mr. and Mrs. Allan would have been present on that occasion but for the circumstance that they were spending the Christmas holidays at Mr. Boller Cocke’s, at Turkey Island, with Edgar. Mr. Allan and my father were partners in business. They had been raised together as clerks in the store of Mr. William Galt, who was the most successful merchant of his day in Virginia. The business of Ellis and Allan, beginning in 1800, so prospered that after the war of 1812-15 they determined to establish a branch house in London, for which purpose Mr. Allan went abroad and remained in England five years. He was accompanied by his wife (a cousin of my mother), by his sister-in-law, Miss Anne M. Valentine, and by his adopted son. On their return, his own house having been leased, so that he could not get possession of it, Mr. Allan and his family became members of my father’s family, and lived with us, I suppose, nearly a year. It was then and there that my recollections of Edgar A. Poe began.

“He was very beautiful, yet brave and manly for one so young. No boy ever had a greater influence over me than he had. He was, indeed, a leader among his playmates; but my admiration for him scarcely knew bounds. The consequence ­[page 2160:] was, he led me to do many a forbidden thing, for which I was duly punished. The only whipping I ever knew Mr. Allan to give him was for carrying me into the fields and woods beyond “Belvidere,” adjacent to what is now Hollywood Cemetery, one Saturday, and keeping me there all day and until after dark, without anybody at home knowing where we were; and for shooting a lot of domestic fowls, belonging to the proprietor of “Belvidere,” who was at that time, I think, Judge Bushrod Washington. He taught me to shoot, to swim, to skate, to play bandy; and I ought to mention that he once saved me from drowning — for having thrown me into the falls headlong, that I might “strike out” for myself, he presently found it necessary to come to my help or it would have been too late! Mr. and Mrs. Allan having no children of their own, lavished upon him their whole affection; he was sent to the best schools, he was taught every accomplishment that a boy could acquire, he was trained to all the habits of the most polished society. There was not a brighter, more graceful or more attractive boy in the city than Edgar Allan Poe. Talent for declamation was one of his gifts. I well remember a public exhibition at the close of a course of instruction in elocution which he had attended, and my delight when, in the presence of a large and distinguished company, he bore off the prize in competition with Channing Moore, Cary Wickham, Andrew Johnston, Nat Howard, and others who were regarded as among the most promising of the Richmond boys.

“Not content with an adopted son, Mr. and Mrs. Allan desired to adopt a daughter also, and were constantly begging for my sister, now Mrs. Beverly Tucker. The intimacy between the two families — my father’s and Mr. Allan’s — was naturally very close; on one side — I mean the side of the Ellis boys and girls — our largest Christmas gifts, birthday presents, etc., came from the Allans. Edgar was once guilty of a piece of meanness for which I have not forgiven him to this day. With our father and mother we had gone down to spend Christmas evening with the Allans. Among the toys provided for our entertainment was a snake — a long, slim, shiny thing made in sections, which were fastened to each other by [column 2:] wires, and a boy, by taking hold of the tail and holding it out from his body, could make it wriggle and dart about in the most lifelike manner. This hideous imitation of a serpent Edgar took in his hand, and kept poking it at my sister Jane until it almost ran her crazy.

“Of course I knew about his swim of seven miles in James River down to Warwick, accompanied by Robert G. Cabell, Robert C. Stanard, and perhaps two or three other schoolboys, with Mr. William Burke, their schoolmaster, who went along in a rowboat to rescue him in case his strength should fail. I knew also of his Thespian performances, when he and William F. Ritchie and James Greenhow and Creed Thomas and Richard Cary Ambler and other schoolmates appeared in dramatic character under a tent erected on a vacant lot one or two squares beyond what is now St. James’ Church on Fifth street — admittance fee, one cent! But never was I prouder of him than when, dressed in the uniform of the “Junior Morgan Riflemen” (a volunteer company composed of boys, and which General Lafayette, in his memorable visit to Richmond, selected as his bodyguard), he walked up and down in front of the marquee erected on the Capitol Square, under which the old general held a grand reception in October, 1824.

“One evening there was a meeting of the Gentlemen’s Whist Club at my father’s house. The members and a few invited guests had assembled and were seated at whist tables set out all over the large parlor, and things were as quiet as they were on a certain “night before Christmas,” of which we have read, when a ghost appeared! The ghost, no doubt, expected and intended to frighten the whole body of whist players, who were in truth stirred to a commotion. General Winfield Scott, one of the invited guests, with the resolution and promptness of an old soldier, sprang forward as if he was leading a charge in Lundy’s Lane. Dr. Philip Thornton, of Rappahannock, another guest, was, however, nearer to the door and quicker than he. Presently the ghost, finding himself closely pressed, began to retreat, backing around the room, yet keeping his face to the foe, and as the Doctor was reaching out and trying to seize the ghost’s nose with the view to twitch it off, the ghost was “larruping” ­[page 2161:] him over the shoulder with the long cane which he carried in one hand, while with the other hand he was struggling to keep from being tripped by the sheet which enveloped his body. When finally forced to surrender and the mask was taken from his face, Edgar laughed as heartily as ever a ghost did before. [column 2:]

“In February, 1826, Poe was entered as a student at the University of Virginia. There began that course of conduct which, step by step, led to the wretchedness of the after part of his life. Sad, inexpressibly sad, and pathetic it was, indeed.”

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 2159, column 1:]

*  A brief memorandum relating to Poe, prepared by Thomas H. Ellis, formerly of Richmond, now of Washington, D. C.; a gentleman well-known to the biographers of Poe.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:1 - IND, 1900] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - New Glimpses of Poe (I) (J. A. Harrison, 1900)