Text: James A. Harrison, “Appendix H,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), pp. 399-410


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[page 399, continued:]

DEFENCE OF POE.

BY GEORGE R. GRAHAM.

[Graham’s Magazine, 1850.]

MY DEAR WILLIS, — In an article of yours which accompanies the two beautiful volumes of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, you have spoken with so much truth and delicacy of the deceased, and, with the magical touch of genius, have called so warmly up before me the memory of our lost friend as you and I both seem to have known him, that I feel warranted in addressing to you the few plain words I have to [page 400:] say in defence of his character as set down by Mr. Griswold.

Although the article, it seems, appeared originally in the “New York Tribune,”(1) it met my eye for the first time in the volumes before me. I now purpose to take exception to it in the most public manner. I knew Mr. Poe well, far better than Mr. Griswold; and by the memory of old times, when he was an editor of “Graham,” I pronounce this exceedingly ill-timed and unappreciative estimate of the character of our lost friend, unfair and untrue. It is Mr. Poe as seen by the writer while laboring under a fit of the nightmare, but so dark a picture has no resemblance to the living man. Accompanying these beautiful volumes, it is an immortal infamy, the death’s head over the entrance to the garden of beauty, a horror that clings to the brow of morning, whispering of murder. It haunts the memory through every page of his writings, leaving upon the heart a sensation of utter gloom, a feeling almost of terror. The only relief we feel is in knowing that it is not true, that it is a fancy sketch of a perverted, jaundiced vision. The man who could deliberately say of Edgar Allan Poe, in a notice of his life and writings prefacing the volumes which were to become a priceless souvenir to all who loved him, that his death might startle many, “but that few would be grieved by it,” and blast the whole fame of the man by such a paragraph as follows, is a judge dishonored. He is not Mr. Poe’s peer, and I challenge him before the country even as a juror in the case.

“His harsh experience had deprived him of all faith in man or woman. He had made up his mind upon the [page 401:] numberless complexities of the social world, and the whole system with him was an imposture. This conviction gave a direction to his shrewd and naturally unamiable character. Still, though he regarded society as composed altogether of villains, the sharpness of his intellect was not of that kind which enabled him to cope with villainy, while it continually caused him, by overshots, to fail of the success of honesty. He was in many respects like François Vivian in Bulwer’s novel of ‘The Caxtons.’ Passion, in him, comprehended many of the worst emotions which militate against human happiness. You could not contradict him, but you raised quick choler; you could not speak of wealth, but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing natural advantages of this poor boy, — his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere, had raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that turned his very claims to admiration into prejudices against him. Irascible, envious, bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold, repellant cynicism; his passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to hint no moral susceptibility; and, what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor. He had, too, a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species; only the hard wish to succeed, — not shine, nor serve, — succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.”

Now, this is dastardly, and, what is worse, it is false. It is very adroitly done, with phrases very well turned, and with gleams of truth shining out from a setting so dusky as to look devilish. Mr. Griswold does not feel the worth of the man he has undervalued; he had no sympathies in common with him, and has [page 402:] allowed old prejudices and old enmities to steal, insensibly perhaps, into the coloring of his picture. They were for years totally uncongenial, if not enemies, and during that period Mr. Poe, in a scathing lecture upon “The Poets of America,” gave Mr. Griswold some raps over the knuckles of force sufficient to be remembered. He had, too, in the exercise of his functions as critic, put to death summarily the literary reputation of some of Mr. Griswold’s best friends; and their ghosts cried in vain for him to avenge them during Poe’s lifetime; and it almost seems as if the present hacking at the cold remains of him who struck them down, is a sort of compensation for duty long delayed, for reprisal long desired, but deferred. But without this, the opportunities afforded Mr. Griswold to estimate the character of Poe occurred, in the main, after his stability had been wrecked, his whole nature in a degree changed, and with all his prejudices aroused and active. Nor do I consider Mr. Griswold competent, with all the opportunities he may have cultivated or acquired, to act as his judge, to dissect that subtle and singularly fine intellect, to probe the motives and weigh the actions of that proud heart. His whole nature, that distinctive presence of the departed, which now stands impalpable, yet in strong outline before me, as I knew him and felt him to be, eludes the rude grasp of a mind so warped and uncongenial as Mr. Griswold’s.

But it may be said, my dear Willis, that Mr. Poe himself deputed him to act as his literary executor, and that he must have felt some confidence, in his ability at least, if not in his integrity, to perform the functions imposed, with discretion and honor. I do not purpose, now, to enter into any examination of the appointment [page 403:] of Mr. Griswold, nor of the wisdom of his appointment, to the solemn trust of handing the fair fame of the deceased, unimpaired, to that posterity to which the dying poet bequeathed his legacy, but simply to question its faithful performance. Among the true friends of Poe in this city — and he had some such here — there are those, I am sure, that he did not class among villains; nor do they feel easy when they see their old friend dressed out, in his grave, in the habiliments of a scoundrel. There is something to them in this mode of procedure on the part of the literary executor that does not chime in with their notions of “the true point of honor.” They had all of them looked upon our departed friend as singularly indifferent to wealth for its own sake, but as very positive in his opinions that the scale of social merit was not of the highest; that mind, somehow, was apt to be left out of the estimate altogether; and, partaking somewhat of his free way of thinking, his friends are startled to find they have entertained very unamiable convictions. As to his “quick choler” when he was contradicted, it depended a good deal upon the party denying, as well as upon the subject discussed. He was quick, it is true, to perceive mere quacks in literature, and somewhat apt to be hasty when pestered with them; but upon most other questions his natural amiability was not easily disturbed. Upon a subject that he understood thoroughly, he felt some right to be positive, if not arrogant, when addressing pretenders. His “astonishing natural advantages ” had been very assiduously cultivated; his ” daring spirit” was the anointed of genius; his self-confidence the proud conviction of both; and it was with something of a lofty scorn that he attacked, as well as repelled, [page 404:] a crammed scholar of the hour, who attempted to palm upon him his ill-digested learning. Literature with him was religion; and he, its high priest, with a whip of scorpions, scourged the money-changers from the temple. In all else, he had the docility and kind-heartedness of a child. No man was more quickly touched by a kindness, none more prompt to return for an injury. For three or four years I knew him intimately, and for eighteen months saw him almost daily, much of the time writing or conversing at the same desk, knowing all his hopes, his fears, and little annoyances of life, as well as his high-hearted struggle with adverse fate; yet he was always the same polished . gentleman, the quiet, unobtrusive, thoughtful scholar, the devoted husband, frugal in his personal expenses, punctual and unwearied in his industry, and the soul of honor in all his transactions. This, of course, was in his better days, and by them we judge the man. But even after his habits had changed, there was no literary man to whom I would more readily advance money for labor to be done. He kept his accounts, small as they were, with the accuracy of a banker. I append an account sent to me in his own hand, long after he had left Philadelphia, and after all knowledge of the transactions it recited had escaped my memory. I had returned him the story of “The Gold Bug,” at his own request, as he found that he could dispose of it very advantageously elsewhere: —

We were square when I sold you the “Versification” article; for which you gave me first $25, and afterward $7 — in all    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    $32.00

Then you bought “The Gold Bug” for    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    52.00

———

I got both these back, so that I owed    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    $84.00

[page 405:]

  Brought over    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    $84.00

You lent Mrs. Clemm    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    12.50

———

Making in all    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    $96.50

The Review of “Flaccus” was 3¾ pp, which, at $4, is $15.00  

Lowell’s poem is 10.00  

The review of Channing, 4 pp is $16, of which I got $6, leaving 10.00  

The review of Halleck, 4 pp. is $16, of which I got $10, leaving 6.00  

The review of Reynolds, 2 pp. 8.00  

The review of Longfellow, 5 pp. is $20, of which I got 10, leaving 10.00  

  –——  

So that I have paid in all 59.00 

———

Which leaves still due by me $37.50 

This, I find, was his uniform habit with others as well as myself, carefully recalling to mind his indebtedness with the fresh article sent. And this is the man who had “no moral susceptibility,” and little or nothing of the “true point of honor.” It may be a very plain business view of the question, but it strikes his friends that it may pass as something, as times go.

I shall never forget how solicitous of the happiness of his wife and mother-in-law he was whilst one of the editors of Graham’s Magazine his whole efforts seemed to be to procure the comfort and welfare of his home. Except for their happiness, and the natural ambition of having a magazine of his own, I never heard him deplore the want of wealth. The truth is, he cared little for money, and knew less of its value, for he seemed to have no personal expenses. What he received from me, in regular monthly instalments, [page 406:] went directly into the hands of his mother-inlaw for family comforts, and twice only I remember his purchasing some rather expensive luxuries for his house, and then he was nervous to the degree of misery until he had, by extra articles, covered what he considered an imprudent indebtedness. His love for his wife was a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty which he felt was fading before his eyes. I have seen him hovering around her when she was ill, with all the fond fear and tender anxiety of a mother for her first-born, her slightest cough causing in him a shudder, a heart-chill that was visible. I rode out, one summer evening, with them, and the remembrance of his watchful eyes eagerly bent upon the slightest change of hue in that loved face haunts me yet as the memory of a sad strain. It was the hourly anticipation of her loss that made him a sad and thoughtful man, and lent a mournful melody to his undying song.

It is true, that later in life Poe had much of those morbid feelings which a life of poverty and disappointment is so apt to engender in the heart of man — the sense of having been ill-used, misunderstood, and put aside by men of far less ability, and of none, — which preys upon the heart and clouds the brain of many a child of song. A consciousness of the inequalities of life, and of the abundant power of mere wealth, allied even to vulgarity, to override all distinctions, and to thrust itself, bedaubed with dirt and glittering with tinsel, into the high places of society, and the chief seats of the synagogue; whilst he, a worshipper of the beautiful and true, who listened to the voices of angels and held delighted companionship with them as the cold throng swept disdainfully by him, was often [page 407:] in danger of being thrust out, homeless, homeless, beggared, upon the world, with all his fine feelings strung to a tension of agony when he thought of his beautiful and delicate wife, dying hourly before his eyes. What wonder that he then poured out the vials of a long-treasured bitterness upon the injustice and hollowness of all society around him, The very natural question “Why did he not work and thrive?” is easily answered. It will not be asked by the many who know the precarious tenure by which literary men hold a mere living in this country. The avenues through which they can profitably reach the country are few, and crowded with aspirants for bread, as well as fame. The unfortunate tendency to cheapen every literary work to the lowest point of beggarly timsiness in price and profit, prevents even the well-disposed from extending anything Tike an adequate support to even a part of the great throng which genius, talent, education, and even misfortune, force into the struggle. The character of Poe’s mind was of such an order as not to be very widely in demand. The class of educated mind which he could readily and profitably address was small — the channels through which he could do so at all were few — and publishers all, or nearly all, contented with such pens as were already engaged, hesitated to incur the expense of his to an extent which would sufficiently remunerate him; hence, when he was fairly at sea, connected permanently with no publication, he suffered all. the horrors of prospective destitution, with scarcely the ability of providing for immediate necessities; and at such moments, alas l the tempter often came, and as you have truly said, “one glass” of wine made him a madman. Let the moralist, who stands [page 408:] upon “tufted carpet,” and surveys his smoking board, the fruits of his individual toil or mercantile adventure, pause before he let the anathema, trembling upon his lips, fall upon a man like Poe, who, wandering from publisher to publisher, with his fine, print-like manuscript, scrupulously clean and neatly rolled, finds no market for his brain — with despair at heart, misery ahead, for himself and his loved ones, and gaunt famine dogging at his heels, thus sinks by the wayside, before the demon that watches his steps and whispers oblivion. Of all the miseries which God, or his own vices, inflict upon man, none are so terrible as that of having the strong and willing arm struck down to a childlike inefficiency, while the Heart and Will have the purpose of a giant’s outdoing. We must remember, too, that the very organization of such a mind as that of Poe — the very tension and tone of his exquisitely strung nerves — the passionate yearnings of his soul for the beautiful and true, utterly unfitted him for the rude jostlings and fierce competitorship of trade. The only drafts of his that could be honored were those upon his brain. The unpeopled air — the caverns of ocean — the decay and mystery that hang around old castles — the thunder of wind through the forest aisles — the spirits that rode the blast, by all but him unseen — and the deep, metaphysical creations which floated through the chambers of his soul — were his only wealth, the High Change where only his signature was valid for rubies.

Could he have stepped down and chronicled small beer, made himself the shifting toady of the hour, and, with bow and cringe, hung upon the steps of great ness, sounding the g!ory of third-rate ability with a [page 409:] penny trumpet, he would have been fisted alive, and perhaps been praised when dead. But, no! his views of the duty of the critic were stern, and he felt that in praising an unworthy writer he committed dis honor. His pen was regulated by the highest sense of duty. By a keen analysis he separated and studied each piece which the skilful mechanist had put together. No part, however insignificant or apparently unimportant, escaped the rigid and patient scrutiny of his sagacious mind. The unfitted joint proved the bungler — the slightest blemish was a palpable fraud. He was the scrutinizing lapidary, who detected and exposed the most minute flaw in diamonds. The gem of first water shone the brighter for the truthful setting of his calm praise. He had the finest touch of soul for beauty — a delicate and hearty appreciation of worth. If his praise appeared tardy, it was of priceless value when given. It was true as well as sincere. It was the stroke of honor that at once knighted the receiver. It was in the world of mind that he was king; and, with a fierce audacity, he felt and proclaimed himself autocrat. As a critic, he was despotic, supreme. Yet no man with more readiness would soften a harsh expression at the request of a friend, or if he himself felt that he had infused too great a degree of bitterness into his article, none would more readily soften it down after it was in type — though still maintaining the justness of his critical views. I do not believe that he wrote to give pain; but in combating what he conceived to be error, he used the strongest word that presented itself, even in conversation. He labored not so much to reform as to exterminate error, and thought the shortest process was to pull it up by the roots. [page 410:]

He was a worshipper of intellect — longing to grasp the power of mind that moves the stars — to bathe his soul in the dreams of seraphs. He was himself all ethereal, of a fine essence, that moved in an atmosphere of spirits-of spiritual beauty, overflowing and radiant-twin-brother with the angels, feeling their flashing wings upon his heart, and almost clasping them in his embrace. Of them, and as an expectant archangel of that high order of intellect, stepping out of himself, as it were, and interpreting the time he revelled in delicious luxury in a world beyond, with an audacity which we fear in madmen, but in genius worship as the inspiration of heaven.

But my object, in throwing together a few thoughts upon the character of Edgar Allan Poe, was not to attempt an elaborate criticism, but to say what might palliate grave faults that have been attributed to him, and to meet by facts unjust accusation; in a word, to give a mere outline of the man as he lived before me. I think I am warranted in saying to Mr. Griswold that he must review his decision. It will not stand the calm scrutiny of his own judgment, or of time, while it must be regarded by all the friends of Mr. Poe as an ill-judged and misplaced calumny upon that gifted son of genius.

Yours truly,  
GEO. R. GRAHAM.

PHILADELPHIA, February 2, 1850

TO N. P. WILLIS, Esq.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 400:]

1.  The “Ludwig Article” expanded afterwards into the “Memoir.” — ED.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - LLEAP, 1903] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Appendix H)