Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 14,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 82-87


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[page 82:]

CHAPTER XIV.

THE POES IN RICHMOND.

When Poe went to Richmond as assistant editor to Mr. White, it had been with the expectation of resuming his old place among his former friends and associates — a prospect which, as he himself stated in a letter to that gentleman, had afforded him very great pleasure. He had no idea of the altered estimate in which he was held by some of these, and of the general prejudice existing against him in consequence of the exaggerated reports concerning his rupture with the Allans and the later story of his attempt to force himself into Mr. Allan’s presence. It is true that the Mackenzies, the Sullys, Dr. Robert G. Cabell and his wife, with some others of the best people, remained his firm friends; but he found himself without social standing and with but few associates among his former acquaintances. It was even said that when a leading society lady, enjoying a literary reputation — the mother of [page 83:] Mrs. Julia Mayo Cabell and Mrs. General Winfield Scott — gave an entertainment to which she invited the talented young editor of the Messenger, two of the most priggish of these gentlemen declined to attend rather than meet their former schoolmate, Edgar Poe.

This state of things must undoubtedly have served to irritate and embitter one of Poe’s proud and sensitive nature, and may have partly led to the dissipated habits in which he now for the first time began to indulge — besides, in some measure, influencing the extreme bitterness and severity, or, as it has been called, venom of the criticism for which the Messenger began to be noted. Never before had he been accused of unamiability of disposition, but his temper seems suddenly to have changed, and he was called “haughty, overbearing and quarrelsome.”

A great and, it is to be feared, irreparable obloquy has attached to Poe’s name through the utterance of a single individual — a Mr. Ferguson, who was employed as a printer’s assistant in the office of the Messenger at the time of Poe’s editorship of that magazine. Not many years ago, Mr. Ferguson, who is still living, said, in answer to some inquiry concerning the poet: “There never was a more [page 84:] perfect gentleman than Mr. Poe when he was sober,” but that at other times “he would just as soon lie down in the gutter as anywhere else.” And this assertion has been taken up by one and another writer until it appears now to be received as a fixed fact.

I have often heard this statement indignantly denied by persons who knew Poe at this time. Howsoever much under the influence of drink he might be, he was, they say, never at any time or by any person seen staggering through the streets or lying in a gutter. On the contrary, he was extremely sensitive about being seen by his friends, and especially ladies, under the influence of drink.

Poe himself, long after this time, while denying the charge of general dissipation, confessed that while in Richmond he at long intervals yielded to temptation, and after each excess was invariably for some days confined to his bed. And now, in addition to other charges against him, was that of neglecting his wife and being frequently seen in attendance on other women; a point on which his motherly friend, Mrs. Mackenzie, more than once felt herself called upon to remonstrate with him. He would be, for a week at a time, away from his home, putting up at various [page 85:] hotels and boarding-houses, and spending his money freely, instead of, as formerly, committing it to the keeping of his mother-in-law. Mrs. Clemm, descending from the dignity of a boarder, tried to open a boarding-house of her own, but failed; and she now rented a cheap tenement on Seventh street and went back to her dressmaking, letting out rooms, and probably taking one or two boarders. But it was seldom that her son-in-law was to be found here; though always, after one of his excesses, he would seek its seclusion until fit to again appear in public.

Mr. Hewitt, who was about this time in Richmond, says that he heard a great deal of gossip about Poe’s love affairs; and describes him as, at this time, of remarkable personal beauty — “graceful, and with dark, curling hair and magnificent eyes, wearing a Byron collar and looking every inch a poet.” An old gentleman, a distinguished lawyer, once undertook his defence, saying: “Poe is one of the kind whom men envy and calumniate and women adore. How many could resist the temptation?”

The Mackenzies spoke of Virginia at this time — now fourteen years of age — as being small for her age, but very plump; pretty, but [page 86:] not especially so, with sweet and gentle manners and the simplicity of a child. Rose Poe, now twenty-six years of age, would sometimes take her young sister-in-law to spend an afternoon at the Mackenzies, where she appeared as much of a child as any of the pupils, joining in their sports of swinging and skipping rope. On one occasion her husband — “Buddy” — came unexpectedly to bring her home, when she scandalized Miss Jane Mackenzie by rushing into the street and greeting him with the abandon of a child.

Nearly twenty years after this time there were persons living on Main street who remembered having almost daily seen about the Old Market, in business hours, a tall, dignified looking woman, with a market basket on one arm, while on the other hung a little girl with a round, ever-smiling face, who was addressed as “Mrs. Poe”! She, too, carried a basket.

Whatsoever was the cause of Poe’s discontent, he never appeared happy or satisfied while in Richmond. His dissipated habits grew upon him, with a consequent neglect of editorial duties, which sorely tried the patience of his good and kind friend, Mr. White, to whom, it must be admitted, Poe never appeared sufficiently grateful. Whether Mr. [page 87:] White was compelled at length to reluctantly discharge him, or whether, as Mr. Kennedy says, Poe himself gave up his place as editor of theMessenger, thinking that with his now established literary reputation he could do better in the North, is not clear; but in the summer of 1838 he left Richmond and, with his family, removed to New York.

Mrs. Clemm, at least, could not have been averse to the move; for it seems certain that there was a general prejudice against her on account of her having made or consented to the match between her little daughter and a man of Poe’s age and dissipated habits.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - HLFP, 1907] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Home Life of Poe (S. A. Weiss) (Chapter 14)