Text: Sarah Helen Whitman, “Life of Edgar A. Poe [Introductory Letter],” New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1877, pp. 11-18


­[page 11, unnumbered:]



Dear Sir: — I am gratified to know that one who so sincerely admires the genius of Edgar Poe, and who must have access to many hitherto unexplored sources of information as to his early history and associates, is preparing to publish the result of his investigations in relation to a period concerning which we still know so little. I doubt not that whatever you may have to say on the subject will be of permanent value in the elucidation of a story whose facts are so singularly evasive and uncertain.

To translate that mysterious, shadowy, poetic life of his, with its elusive details and mythical traditions, into the fixed facts and clear outlines of authentic narrative, must, I fear, prove a difficult task to the most conscientious annalist.

In your letter of June 26, you say: “N. P. Willis speaks of Poe as living at Fordham while he was employed upon the Mirror, which was in the autumn of 1844 and early winter of 1845.” I have no certain knowledge of the time when Poe was employed on the Mirror; but I have a very definite and decided knowledge as to the fact that during the whole of the winter 1845-6, he was residing in the city of New York — I think in Amity Street. He was, at that time, a frequent visitor and ever-welcome guest at the houses ­[page 12:] of many persons with whom I have long been intimately acquainted — among others, the Hon. John R. Bartlett, then of the firm of Bartlett & Welford, and Miss Anne C. Lynch, now Mrs. Botta — who were accustomed to receive informally at their houses, on stated evenings, the best intellectual society of the city. To reinforce my memory on the subject, I have just referred to letters received from various correspondents in New York, during the winters 1845 and 1846, in all of which the name of the poet frequently occurs.

In one of these letters, dated January 20, 1846, the writer says: “Speaking of our receptions, I must tell you what a pleasant one we had on Saturday evening, in Waverley Place; or rather I will tell you the names of some of the company, and you will know, among others, that of Cassius Clay; Mr. Hart, the sculptor, who is doing Henry Clay in marble; Halleck; Locke (the Man in the Moon); Hunt, of the Merchant’s Magazine; Hudson; Mr. Bellows; Poe; Headley; Miss Sedgwick; Mrs. Kirkland; Mrs. Osgood; Mrs. Seba Smith; Mrs. Ellet; and many others, more or less distinguished.”

One of these letters, in which the date of the year is wanting, alludes to a controversy, which took place at one of the soirees, between Margaret Fuller (Ossoli) and Poe, about some writer whom, in her lofty, autocratic way, the lady had been annihilating. Miss Fuller was then writing critical papers for the New York Tribune. Poe, espousing the cause of the vanquished, with a few keen, incisive rejoinders, obtained such ascendency over the eloquent and oracular contessa, that somebody whispered, “The Raven has perched upon the casque of Pallas, and pulled all the feathers out of her cap.” ­[page 13:]

In another letter, dated January 7, 1846, I find the following: “I meet Mr. Poe very often at the receptions. He is the observed of all observers. His stories are thought wonderful, and to hear him repeat the Raven, which he does very quietly, is an event in one’s life. People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, and, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences, at the mention of which he always smiles. His smile is captivating! . . . Everybody wants to know him; but only a very few people seem to get well acquainted with him.”

This was in the spring of 1846, when Poe was at the very acme of his literary and social success among the literati of New York.

His wife’s health, which had always been delicate, was now rapidly failing, and, hoping that she might be benefited by change of air, the family removed to Fordham. Mr. Poe first took his wife there on a house-hunting tour of inspection, when the fruit trees were in blossom, and the aspect of the little cottage temptingly beautiful to the invalid. Whether they engaged it and removed there at once, I do not know; but it is my impression that they did, and that Poe withdrew himself entirely from the literary circles where his presence had proved so attractive.

There had, moreover, arisen at this time, among Poe’s friends and admirers, social as well as literary feuds and rivalries of an incredible bitterness, and an intense vitality — feuds and rivalries whose unappeased ghosts still “peep and mutter.”

The malign paragraph, falsely attributed to Mrs. Elizabeth ­[page 14:] Oakes Smith, which recently went the rounds of the newspapers, was doubtless of this class. It was, apparently, an intentional perversion of a report stated by her in an able article, written for the Home Journal, which appeared early in March or April of the present year.

I do not hesitate to say, without appealing to her on the subject, that the scandal so industriously circulated was neither written nor authorized by her.* It is not only at variance with the whole tenor of the article in question, but with that of a private letter, written within the year, in which she says: “Mr. Poe was the last person to whom I should ever have attributed any grossness. . . . I saw women jealous in their admiration of him. I think he often found himself entangled by their plots and rivalries. I do not for a moment think he was false in his relations to them.”

Moncure Conway, too, who had reason to know something of Poe’s habits, in this particular, from gentlemen of Richmond who had been intimately associated with him, says, in a cordial notice of Mr. Ingram’s Memoir, prefixed to the Standard edition of Poe’s works: “Edgar Poe was exceptionally chivalrous in his relations with women,” and he ­[page 15:] illustrates the remark by an anecdote corroborative of its truth. “The innumerable legends which accumulated round his life and name,” says Mr. Conway, “were, in one sense, a tribute to his extraordinary powers. He is one of the few men who are represented by a mythology.”

The persistent enmity, which follows his fame like a shadow, is without a parallel in the literary history of our country. While many of the old slanders have lost their pungency, Poe’s memory continues to be assailed on the most baseless and preposterous pretexts. Apparently society needs a typical Don Giovanni, a representative Mephistopheles, to frighten reprobates and refractory children, and to point a pious moral.

The Rev. Dr. Bartol, of Boston, a most exemplary and benignant gentleman, of progressive views and liberal tendencies, lately illustrated an eloquent specimen of pulpit oratory, by denouncing Poe as “the unhappy master, who recklessly carried the torch of his genius into the haunts of the drunkard and the debauches, until he utterly extinguished it in his profligate poems!” Evidently the good Doctor had not read these “profligate poems” — poems to which the severest moralist accords “a matchless purity.” At what shrine, then, was the torch of his clerical criticism lighted? Probably he had been reading Mr. Francis Gerry Fairfield’s “Mad Man of Letters,” and vaguely associated with “the haunt of the drunkard,” Sandy Welsh’s cellar, the noonday glass of ale, the cotemporaries, and the joint-stock company who got up the Raven! Out of such materials is the scroll of history replenished!

Mr. George Parsons Lathrop, in a note to his article on “Poe, Irving, and Hawthorne,” as published in Scribner’s ­[page 16:] Monthly for April, shows the heedless manner in which Mr. Fairfield cites his authorities.

“In his ‘Mad Man of Letters,’ ” says Mr. Lathrop, “he quotes the testimony of Moreau de Tours as coincident with that of Maudsley in the assertion that the more original orders of genius are akin to madness.” Mr. Lathrop says that Dr. Maudsley says nothing of the kind; that he admits that Poe’s genius was akin to madness, but denies that it was genius of the highest kind.

However this may be — and we think Dr. Maudsley is not always luminous and consistent with himself on this obscure question — it may not be uninteresting to cite here what the learned alienist said in a somewhat rhetorical article on Edgar Allan Poe, written for the Journal of Mental Science, April, 1860. The purport of the article was to show that, with a nature so rarely and sensitively organized, developed under circumstances so exceptionally perilous, Poe’s strange and sorrowful career was not only natural, but inevitable.

“Strange,” says Dr. Maudsley, “how far back lies the origin of any event in this world! Remembering the young law student, the father of the poet, sitting, with rapt countenance, in the pit of the Baltimore Theater, and absorbed in the enchanting actress upon whom every eye was turned in admiration, one cannot help reflecting that in this supreme moment lay the germ of things which were to occupy the world’s attention, so long, it may be, as it existed: Edgar Poe, his poetry, and the amazement of mankind at his strange, lurid, and irregular existence.”

After this it matters little in what precise order or rank of the poetical hierarchy the Doctor accords him a place; his words are an involuntary tribute to a genius, “whose mere ­[page 17:] potency, dissociated from other elements,” Mr. Lathrop admits to be “unrivaled and pre-eminent.”

In connection with Dr. Maudsley’s theory of antenatal influences, one of those strange coincidences which startled Macbeth as an intimation of “fate and metaphysical aid,” happened to me yesterday.

Among a large collection of old plays and pamphlets, which, after lying perdu for half a century, I was just about to surrender to an importunate chiffonier, my eye fell upon one as worn and yellow as the priceless laces of a centennial belle. The title arrested me; it was “ ‘The Wood Dæmon; or, the Clock has Struck!’ a Grand, Romantic, Cabalistic Melodrama, in Three Acts, interspersed with Processions, Pageants, and Pantomimes [as performed at the Boston Theater with unbounded applause]. Boston: 1808.” I turned the page with a premonitory chill, and lo! among the list of performers, I found the name of “Mr. Poe.”

In a curious preface, dated March 30, 1808, the soi-disant “author,” admitting that he had taken the plot, etc., etc., from M. G. Lewis, “commits his ‘Wood Dæmon,’ with all its defects, to the fostering bosom of an indulgent public, in the trembling hope that, as the production of a native American, it may be found worthy of their cheering patronage.”

Apparently the “gentle public” did not disappoint the trust reposed in it.

A note prefixed to Byron’s unfinished drama, “The Deformed Transformed,” states that the plot was taken in part from the same romance which furnished M. G. Lewis with the plot of his “Wood Dæmon,” and in part from the “Faust” of Goethe. ­[page 18:]

Tales of the wild and wonderful were winging their way from Germany and from the Orient, to possess the minds of Scott and Coleridge, Shelley and Godwin, Moore and Southey, and Savage Landor, whose “Geber” surpassed them all. A taste for melodrama, with its gorgeous pageants and grand spectacles, was beginning to take possession of the stage, until, as Mrs. Kemble has told us, in a recent chapter of her “Old Woman’s Gossip,” the splendid opera of “Der Freyschutz” swept everything before it.

Sorcery and Necromancy, Wild Yagers and Wild Huntsmen, Wood Dæmons and Specters and “Ghoul-haunted Woodlands” ruled the hour. The clock had struck; and, to judge from present appearances, the end is not yet.

When “The Dæmon” made his first appearance in Boston, Dr. Maudsley’s impressible young law student, then a husband and father, was seeking a precarious subsistence by playing, sorrowfully enough, we may well believe, his subsidiary part in the great pageant. To him, doubtless,

“The play was the tragedy ‘Man,’

And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.”

What effect these dramatic antecedents and the influences of the hour may have had on the young poet, who made his first appearance on the stage of life within a year from that date, Dr. Maudsley may perhaps be able to determine.

Remembering these things, what a weird significance must ever henceforth attach to that wonderful poem,

“Lo! ’tis a gala night.”


PROVIDENCE, R I., July, 1876.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 14:]

*  Since the above was written, the following note from Mrs. Smith has been received:

July 16, 1876.


I should be loth to think that any one who had ever known me could believe that I wrote the coarse, slanderous paragraph which you quote from the newspapers in your letter of the 12th instant. I never saw nor heard of it till now. Mr. Poe was no such person as that would imply. Is it not strange that so much misrepresentation should still follow one so long in the grave? It is a tribute, but a cruel tribute, to the power of his marvelous genius.

E. O. S.





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