Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 19,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 108-118


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[page 108:]

CHAPTER XIX.

BACK TO NEW YORK.

Poe, discouraged, and with the old restlessness upon him, suddenly resolved to leave Philadelphia. On the 6th of April, 1844, he started with Virginia for New York, leaving Mrs. Clemm to settle their affairs in general.

Most fortunately for Poe’s memory, there remains to us a letter written by him to Mrs. Clemm, in which he gives her an account of their journey. It is of so private and confidential a nature, and speaks so frankly and freely of such small domestic matters as most persons do not care to have exposed to strangers, that in reading it one feels almost as if violating the sacredness of domestic privacy. But I here refer to it as showing Poe’s domestic character in a most attractive light:

“NEW YORK, Sunday morning, April 7, just after breakfast.

“MY DEAR MUDDIE: We have just this moment done breakfast, and I now sit down to [page 109:] write you about everything. . . . In the first place, we arrived safe at Walnut street wharf. The driver wanted me to pay him a dollar, but I wouldn’t. Then I had to pay a boy a levy to put the trunks in the baggage car. In the meantime I took Sis into the Depot Hotel. It was only a quarter-past six, and we had to wait until seven. . . . We started in good spirits, but did not get here until nearly three o’clock. Sissy coughed none at all. When we got to the wharf it was raining hard. I left her on board the boat, after putting the trunks in the ladies’ cabin, and set off to buy an umbrella and look for a boarding-house. I met a man selling umbrellas, and bought one for twenty-five cents. Then I went up Greenwich street and soon found a boarding-house. . . . It has brown-stone steps and a porch with brown pillars. “Morrison” is the name on the door. I made a bargain in a few minutes and then got a hack and went for Sis. I was not gone more than half an hour, and she was quite astonished to see me back so soon. She didn’t expect me for an hour. There were two other ladies on board, so she wasn’t very lonely. When we got to the house we had to wait about half an hour till the room was ready. The cheapest board [page 110:] that I ever knew, taking into consideration the central situation and the living. I wish Kate (Virginia’s pet cat, ‘Catalina’) could see it. She would faint. Last night for supper we had the nicest tea you ever drank, strong and hot; wheat bread and rye bread, cheese, tea-cakes (elegant), a good dish (two dishes) of elegant ham and two of cold veal, piled up like a mountain and large slices; three dishes of the cakes, and everything in the greatest profusion. No fear of our starving here. The land-lady seemed as if she could not press us enough, and we were at home directly. Her husband is living with her, a fat, good-natured old soul. There are eight or ten boarders, two or three of them ladies — two servants. For breakfast we had excellent flavored coffee, hot and strong, not too clear and no great deal of cream; veal cutlets, elegant ham-and-eggs and nice bread and butter. I never sat down to a more plentiful or a nicer breakfast. I wish you could have seen the eggs, and the great dishes of meat. I ate the first hearty breakfast I have eaten since we left our little home. Sis is delighted, and we are both in excellent spirits. She has coughed hardly any and had no night-sweat. She is now mending my pants, which I tore against a nail. I went out last night [page 111:] and bought a skein of silk, a skein of thread, two buttons and a tin pan for the stove. The fire kept in all night. We have now got four dollars and a half left. To-morrow I am going to try and borrow three dollars, so that I may have a fortnight to go upon. I feel in excellent spirits and have not drank a drop, so that I hope soon to get out of trouble. The very instant that I scrape together enough money I will send it on. You can’t imagine how much we both miss you. Sissy had a hearty cry last night because you and Catalina weren’t here. We are resolved to get two rooms the first moment we can. In the meantime it is impossible that we can be more comfortable or more at home than we are. Be sure to go to the P. O. and have my letters forwarded. It looks as if it were going to clear up now. As soon as I can write the article for Lowell, I will send it to you and get you to get the money from Graham. Give our best love to Catalina.”

(Signature cut out here.)

In this letter, written as simply and as unreservedly as that of a child to its mother, we see Poe himself — Poe in his real nature. Not the poet, with his studied affectation of gloom and sadness; not the critic, severe in his judgment [page 112:] of all that did not agree with his standard of literary excellence, and not even the society man, wearing the mask of cold and proud reserve — but Poe himself; Poe the man, shut in from the eyes of the world in the privacy of his home life and the companionship of his own family. Who could recognize in this gentle, kindly and tender man, with his playful mood and his affectionate consideration for those whom he loved — even for Catalina — the “morbid and enigmatical” being that the world chooses to imagine him — the gloomy wanderer amid “the ghoul-haunted regions of Weir,” the despairing soul forever brooding over the memory of his lost Lenore? And how readily he yields himself to the enjoyment of the moment; how cheerful he is in a situation which would depress any other man — a stranger in a strange city, just making a new start in life, with “four dollars and a half” to begin with! Surely there is something most pathetic in all this as we see it from Poe’s own unconscious pen; with the purchase of the twenty-five-cent umbrella to shield “Sissy” from the rain, the two buttons and the skein of thread, and, ever mindful of Sissy’s comfort, the tin pan for the stove. The picture is invaluable as enabling us to understand the true characters of Poe [page 113:] and his wife and the peculiar relations existing between them — Virginia, trustful, loving and happy, and Poe, all kindness and protective tenderness for his little “Sissy.” We look upon it as a life-like photograph, clear and distinct in every line; Poe with the traces of care and anxiety for the time swept away from his face, and Virginia — as she is described at this time — a woman grown, but “looking not more than fourteen,” plump and smiling, with her bright, black eyes and full pouting lips. It is Poe himself who reveals her character as no other has done, when he says that, though “delighted” with her new experience and situation, she yet “had a hearty cry,” childlike, missing her mother and her cat.

It would have been well for them could they have remained at this model “cheap” boarding-house, where they were so well provided for. But it was beyond their means, with board for three persons; and so they look about for “two rooms,” and when ready send for Mrs. Clemm and Catalina. Two rooms for the three; in one of which Mrs. Clemm must perform all her domestic operations of cooking and laundering, for, as we afterwards learn, Poe was indebted to his mother-in-law for that “immaculate linen” in which, howsoever shabby the outer [page 114:] garments, he invariably appeared. And despite the threadbare suit, he was always, it was said, as well groomed and scrupulously neat as the most fastidious gentleman could be.

That in New York Poe did not at first succeed according to his expectations is rendered evident by the fact that in the following October, he being ill, Mrs. Clemm applied to N. P. Willis for some employment for him, who gave him a place in his office as assistant editor. Willis says that Mrs. Clemm’s countenance as she pleaded for her son-in-law was “beautiful and saintly by reason of an evident complete giving up of her life to privation and sorrowful tenderness” for those whom she loved. Of Poe, he says that he was “a quiet, patient, industrious and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling of every one.” He also says, in speaking of a lecture which he delivered about this time before the New York Lyceum, and which was attended by several hundred persons: “He becomes a desk; his beautiful head showing like a statuary embodiment of Discrimination — his accent like a knife through water.”

It was now — in January, 1845 — that The Raven was published in the Evening Mirror, [page 115:] taking the world by storm. Probably no one was more surprised at its immediate success than was Poe himself, who, as he afterwards stated to a friend, had never had much opinion of the poem. He now found himself elevated to the highest rank of American literary fame, and with this his worldly fortune should also have risen, yet we find him going on in the same rut as before, writing but little for the magazine and for that little being poorly paid — too poorly to enable the family to live in any degree of comfort. From one cheap lodging to another they removed, with such frequency as to suggest to us the suspicion that their rent was not always ready when due.

But after some time the old discontent returned upon Poe. Willis and the Mirror were too narrow for him; and he sought and was fortunate enough to obtain a place on the Broadway Journal, at that time the leading journal of the day, and of which he was soon appointed assistant editor.

With a good salary, the family were now enabled to live in more comfort. They rented a front and back room on the third story of an old house on East Broadway, which had once been the residence of a prosperous merchant, but had long ago been given over to the use of [page 116:] poor but respectable tenants. It was musty and mouldy, but here they were elevated somewhat above the noise and dust of the street, and had sunlight and a good view from the narrow windows.

It was here that, late one evening, Mr. R. H. Stoddard, whose sarcastic pen is so well known, called on Poe instead of at his office, to inquire the fate of a certain “Ode” which he had sent to the Broadway Journal for publication. Necessarily he was received in the front room, which was Virginia’s. The following is his account of the visit:

“Poe received me with the courtesy habitual with him when he was himself, and gave me to understand that my Ode would be published in the next number of his paper. . . . What did he look like?. . . He was dressed in black from head to foot, except, of course, that his linen was spotlessly white. . . . The most noticeable things about him were his high forehead, dark hair and sharp, black eye. His cousin-wife, always an invalid, was lying on a bed between himself and me. She never stirred, but her mother came out of the back parlor and was introduced to me by her courtly nephew.”

Stoddard is here mistaken in his description [page 117:] of Poe’s eyes. They were neither sharp nor black, but large, soft, dreamy eyes, of a fine steel-gray, clear as crystal, and with a jet-black pupil, which would in certain lights expand until the eyes appeared to be all black. Stoddard continues:

“I saw Poe once again, and for the last time. It was a rainy afternoon, such as we have in our November, and he was standing under an awning waiting for the shower to pass over. My conviction was that I ought to offer him my umbrella and go home with him, but I left him standing there, and there I see him still, and shall always, poor and penniless, but proud, reliant, dominant. May the gods forgive me! I never can forgive myself.”

In April, five months after this time, Poe’s old habits unfortunately returned upon him. Mr. Lowell one day, in passing through New York, called to see him, when Mrs. Clemm excused his “strange actions” by frankly stating that “Edgar was not himself that day.” She afterward made the same statement to Mr. Briggs, whose assistant editor Poe was, and who writes, June, 1845, to Lowell: “I believe he had not drank anything for more than eighteen months until the last three months, and concludes that he would have to dispense with [page 118:] his services. The matter was settled, however, by Poe’s proposing to buy the Broadway Journal, hoping to make of it in a measure what he had desired for the Stylus. The prospect seemed to promise fair enough for its success, and Mr. Greeley and Mr. Griswold each generously contributed a sum of fifty dollars; but the plan finally failed for want of sufficient funds, George Poe, to whom Edgar applied, remembering his former unpaid loan, making no response to his appeal. This was another great disappointment to Poe, just as on former occasions his hopes seemed on the point of realization. Thus, in whatsoever direction he turned, grim poverty faced and frowned him down. Surely, it was enough to discourage him; and yet to the end of his life he eagerly followed this illusive hope.

Mrs. Clemm, too, who had in this time been trying to support the family by keeping a boarding-house, also met with her disappointments. For some reason her boarders never remained long with her, and the family, who had removed to obscure lodgings on Amity street, now found themselves in one of their frequent seasons of poverty and distress.

 


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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 19)