Text: George Washington Eveleth, “Poe and His Biographer, Griswold,” Old Guard, (New York), June 1866, pp. 353-358


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[page 353:]

POE AND HIS BIOGRAPHER, GRISWOLD

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BOTH have long since gone out from among us; and we would not, on this occasion, lift the veil of death which ought, perhaps, to cover their faults, if not their virtues, only that we are called upon, rather in the way of duty, to do so. Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, of Providence, Rhode Island, whose blessed little book, entitled, “Edgar Poe and his Critics,” we trust many of our readers have taken among their household treasures, writes to us, herself just ready, as she declares, to slip from “this bank and shoal of time, asking the publication of a piece of testimony about Poe’s College Career, which she had gathered from a reliable source. It came into her possession after her volume went to press. We gladly give it; for we, too, have the biographer entered upon our record as a falsifier of the departed poet, whether the untruths were told from malice aforethought, in the heart of the writer himself, or dealt at second hand. Mrs. Whitman introduces her evidence thus:

“I have abundance of proof that Dr. Griswold purposely falsified every anecdote, and altered every purported note or assumed manuscript of his much maligned author. You will perhaps remember a paragraph in the ‘Memoir,’ which Griswold says, ‘He (Poe) would have graduated with the highest honors, had not his gambling, intemperance, and other vices, induced his expulsion from the University.’ This passage, blindly [column 2:] accepted on the authority of Dr. Griswold, has passed through nearly all the leading European reviews, and has again and again been cited in proof of his hopeless and early depravity. I have been favored with the perusal of letters from Dr. Maupin, Mr. Westenbaker [[Wertenbaker]], and other gentlemen of the faculty of Charlottsville University, in which they affirm that he never at any time came under the censure of the University, and that he did not graduate there, simply because at that time the University gave no degrees. I have also in my possession a letter from one of his classmates, Mr. John Willis, of Orange County, Virginia, written on the 8th of April, 1861, confirmatory of their favorable statements.”

So much from Mrs. Whitman to remove the stain, sent down to the generations, upon the good name of her friend. For ourselves, individually, we needed not this to convince us of Griswold’s twisting from their rightful bearing of the facts furnished him as a foundation of his Memoir; for the article itself has “internal evidence” of its own want of truth. On the; strength of such evidence, alone, we wrote the following introductory to our Proving of the Nebular Hypothesis of Laplace:

The term Universe, as employed by Mr. Poe, signifies, in his own language, “the utmost conceivable expanse of space, with all things spiritual and material, that can be imagined [page 354:] to exist within the compass of that expanse.” It is not our design, of course, to go into an investigation of the whole of this broad ground. We shall bring under examination a portion only of it — that covered by the theory of Laplace. In doing this, however — in refuting the arguments offered by Laplace — we shall, in effect, remove the only tangible support of Poe’s beautiful Cabric. We say beautiful fabric, meaning what we say. It is a work all-pervaded with a beauty of the loftiest order. It is beautiful in its language. It is beautiful in its construction. It is beautiful, above all, in the innumerable glimpses which it gives of the mysteries and the majesty of that Beauty outspread forever in the soul of its author. Had Poe brought the speculations of Laplace and of Newton under that searching analysis of his, which has never failed him when he has given it proper freedom, instead of adopting them without examination, and had he, in two or three instances, put a little check upon his own soaring imagination, he would, in Eureka, have produced a work which would have been not only one of the sublimest of poems, but a treatise without fault upon the mechanism of the physical universe. As it is, we claim for Eureka a place among the noblest productions of modern times; and we enter now the name of its author, Edgar Allan Poe, upon our fame-roll as that of the greatest genius to whom America has given birth — as that of a critic, a philosopher, and a poet, in the true sense of those most shamefully misapplied terms; and, besides, as that of a real gentleman; the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold, his [column 2:] traducing biographer, and his cliques to the contrary notwithstanding.

Among the strangest of the many strange proceedings noticeable in the accompaniments to the Memoir, is the presentation of a certain paper as having been written by Russell Lowell, present editor of the North American Review. And still more passing comprehension is the fact that Lowell has permitted it to go as his, without a word of dissent, up to this time; right in the face, too, of an item, supplied him at our hand, calling his attention to the matter. The whole drift of that article is to hold forth its subject as having quite diminutive talent — a mind moulded much after the fashion of a piece of machinery in the shop of rather an ingenious artizan; while the one actually contributed by Lowell (with a portrait, in the number of Graham’s Magazine for February, 1845,) awards genius, of a high order, to his author. More especially with reference to Poe’s critical abilities does this give the lie to the other. We will copy a few paragraphs from it for such of our readers as have it not at their disposal, but who may take an interest in collating its matter with that of corresponding passages (we should say, contrasting passages) in the Divinity Doctor’s spurious offspring. Lowell continues:

“We were very naturally, led into some remarks on American criticism by the subject of the present sketch. Mr. Poe is at once the most discriminating, philosophical and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America. It may le that we should qualify our remarks a little, and [page 355:] say that he might be, rather that he always is; for he seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his ink-stand. If we do not always agree with him in his premises, we are, at least, satisfied that his deductions are logical, and that we are reading the thoughts of a man who thinks for himself, and says what he thinks, and knows well what he is talking about. His analytic power would furnish forth bravely some score of ordinary critics. Had he had the control of a magazine of his own, in which to display his critical abilities, he would have been as autocratic, ere this, in America, as Professor Wilson has been in England; and his criticisms, we are sure, would have been far more profound and philosophical than those of the Scotsman.

“Mr. Poe has that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius. He has two of the prime qualities of genius, a faculty of vigorous yet minute analysis, and a wonderful fecundity of imagination. The first of these faculties is as needful to the artist in words, as a knowledge of anatomy is to the artist in colors or in stone. This enables him to conceive truly, to maintain a proper relation of parts, and to draw a correct outline while the second groups, fills up, and colors. Both of these Mr. Poe has displayed with singular distinctness in his prose works, the last predominating in his earlier tales, and the first in his later ones.

“In his tales, Mr. Poe has chosen to exhibit his power chiefly in that dim region which stretches from the utmost limits of the probable into the weird confines of superstition and unreality he combines, in a very remarkable [column 2:] manner, two faculties which are seldom found united; a power of influencing the mind of the reader by the impalpable shadows of mystery, and a minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin or a button unnoticed. Both are, in truth, the natural results of the predominating quality of his mind, to which we have before alluded, analysis. It is this which distinguishes the artist. His mind at once reaches forward to the effect to be produced. Having resolved to bring about certain emotions in the reader, he makes all subordinate parts tend strictly to the common center. Even his mystery is mathematical to his own mind. To him X is a known quantity all along. In any picture that he paints, he understands the chemical properties of all his colors. However vague some of his figures may seem, however formless the shadows, to him the outline is as clear and distinct as that of a geometrical diagram. On the other hand, he is a spectator ab extra. He analyses, he dissects, he watches.

‘——— with an eye serene,

The very pulse of the machine;’

for such it practically is to him, with wheels and cogs and piston rods all working to produce a certain end. It is this that makes him so good a critic. Nothing balks him, or throws him off the scent — except now and then a prejudice. This analyzing tendency of his mind balances the poetical, and, by giving him the patience to be minute, enables him to throw a wonderful reality into his most unreal fancies.

“Besides the merits of conception, Mr. Poe’s writings have also that of form. His style is highly finished, [page 356:] graceful and truly classical. It would be hard to find a living author who had displayed such varied powers.”

Why does Lowell allow his really discriminating judgment of 1845 to be perverted into the Griswold damning-with-faint-praise of 1849? Has the fact of his conversion from a large-hearted poet, whose song could breathe upward to the southern sun as well as out to the boreal blast, into a narrow-minded disclaimer against every commodity outside of “Yankee Notions,” anything to do with the decision of the question? We re-invite him to express himself upon the matter in issue. Let him insert, side by side, the two sketches in the next number of his Review, indicating which comes nearest to give his present estimate of Poe’s powers as an author.

We will conclude our rambling bit by adding a portion of testimony touching another statement found in that very peculiar fancy-piece called a “Memoir.” It was procured in December, 1852, while we were sojourning for a short period in Baltimore. Mr. Latrobe we had the pleasure of an interview with. Mr. Kennedy was, at the time, at Washington, in President Fillmore’s Cabinet. We give only an extract from his note, which is this:

“I have no time, on account of pressure of duties, to answer you in detail on the subject of your inquiries relating to Poe. I concur in the statement Latrobe has already forwarded to me.

Yours truly,  
“J. P. KENNEDY.”

Latrobe’s communication in full follows: [column 2:]

“BALTIMORE, vol. IV, no. VI, Dec. 7, ’52.

“DEAR SIR: — I have your note of yesterday, referring to Mr. Griswold’s relation of the circumstances under which the late Edgar A. Poe received the prize offered by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor, at the hands of a committee, of which I was a member.

“The point to which you call my attention, particularly, is the assertion that ‘it was unanimously decided that the prizes should be paid to the first of geniuses who had written legibly. Not another manuscript was unfolded.

“Certainly, the fact is not as here asserted. I can not be mistaken; for I was the reader on the occasion. The manuscripts, as received from the Editor, were laid in a file on the table. Each one was opened as it came to hand. Sometimes, the first few sentences would condemn it as unworthy. Sometimes several pages were borne with. In some cases, the whole production was read. Two only of the prose pieces were laid aside for re-examination. I recollect them well. One was clever, but watery, evidently a woman’s work. The other was terse, and the denouement terribly original. The poems were treated in the same way. But two of these were put by for review — one the Coliseum, by Poe, and the other, to which the prize was awarded, by J. H. Meritt, though the authorship was not known until afterwards. The loose MSS. having been gone through with, I turned to the Book, which contained many tales, and read it from beginning to end. It was so far, so very far, superior to anything before us, that we had no difficulty in awarding the first prize to the author. Our only difficulty was in selecting from the rich contents of the [page 357:] volume. We took the ‘MS. found in a Bottle.’

“This was eighteen years ago, about; but the impression made on my mind by the wonderful power and originality of the writer is as vivid as an occurrence of yesterday. The caligraphy, to which Mr. Griswold refers, was certainly remarkable. It was not writing. It was printing with a pen. But it imparted no interest to the productions in the volume. It formed no part of the consideration on which the prize was awarded, so far, at least, as I understood at the time, and now believe. The prize was recognized, and given, as the right of Genius. I have taxed my memory more than once, since Mr. Griswold’s Memoir first appeared; but can recall nothing that corresponds with his statement of the grounds on which Poe received the prize — not one thing.

“The author of a new style, if it is a good one, or even an exciting one, gives to us a new truth, which craves nourishment of the same sort — originality creates its market, only to destroy it. The ‘MS. Found in a Bottle,’ ‘The Maelstrom,’ ‘The Murders of the Rue Marque,’ are now every-day affairs.”

[The idea involved in the two last sentences is to be taken, with an explanation, we think; for the sense, as expressed, is, that “originality” being attainable by imitation, therefore those tales of Poe, the creations of such conveyable quality — that is to say, tales equal in merit with them — have come to be “every-day affairs.” Our belief is that originality cannot be copied; and our reading has failed, thus far, to find us any productions of other writers [column 2:] which come to the standard of Poe’s — his, even now, stand alone in their individuality. — ED.]

“To the committee, they were novelties for which they were wholly unprepared. Hence the admiration which, I well remember, the reading of them produced.

“In this statement I hardly think I can be mistaken, so far as the action of the committee can be looked upon as a recognition of Mr. Poe’s merits. Mr. Kennedy sent for him at once, and became his most useful friend. At my instance he called on me several times, and entered at length into the discussion of subjects on which he proposed to employ his pen. When he warmed up, he was most eloquent. He spoke, at that time, with eager action; and although, to judge from his outward man, the world was then going hard with him, and his look was blaze, yet his appearance was forgotten, as he seemed to forget the world around him, as wild fancy, logical truth, mathematical analysis, and wonderful combinations of facts flowed, in strange commingling, from his lips, in words choice and appropriate as though the result of the closest study. I remember being particularly struck with the power that he seemed to possess of identifying himself with whatever he was describing. He related to me all the facts of a voyage to the moon, I think, which he proposed to put upon paper, with an accuracy of minute detail and a truthfulness as regarded philosophical phenomena, which impressed you with the idea, almost, that he had himself just returned from the journey which existed only in his imagination. [page 358:]

‘I have been led into this detail as a corroboration of my impression, that Mr. Poe’s merits as an author, on the occasion referred to, were certainly [column 2:] not overlooked by the committee’s regard for his penmanship.

“I remain, very respectfully,  
“JNO. H. B. LATROBE.”


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Notes:

In the original printing, this article is unsigned. It is also not assigned an author in the table of contents. The attribution of the article to George Washington Eveleth is based on a transcript of a letter sent by veleth to John Henry Ingram about 1874.

Mr. James Wood Davidson; first of Columbia, South Carolina; afterward, of Washington, DC, and of New York City.

28th May, 1866

I have just read the memoranda in The Old Guard for June, under the title of “Poe and his Biographer, Griswold.” I am grateful to you for putting in this form what I always felt to be true — that so much of Griswold’s Memoir is utterly untrue. The fires of truth are gathering round, closer and closer, hemming in to consume him — this serpent-biographer — this Reverent Mem-irist. I feel as if you had done me a personal favor; and you have, for somehow Poe-truth is personal to me.

The comment in the article that “we claim for Eureka a place among the noblest productions of modern times” further supports the idea of Eveleth as the author, Eveleth having corresponded with Poe about Eureka and writing his own long exposition on the theories expoused there.

What Eveleth calls “Charlottsville University” is actually the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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[S:0 - OG, 1866] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe and His Biographer, Griswold (G. W. Eveleth, 1866)