Text: Various, “Marginalia,” Poe Studies, December 1976, Vol. IX, No. 2, 9:52-54


[page 52, column 2:]


This column is devoted to brief notes, comments, queries. We wish to provide here an outlet for such items as source notes which do not require the extended argument and proof that customarily attends them, and for items of very special or peculiar interest which otherwise might not appear. Contributions to this column should generally be one paragraph in form and less than a page and a half of typescript, though notes of three pages with as many paragraphs are acceptable.

Did Edgar Allan Poe Really Sell a Slave?

The Baltimore Evening Sun on April 6, 1940, printed an article by May Garrettson Evans entitled “When Edgar Allan Poe Sold A Slave.” Preceded by the heading “Item For Biographers,” the story reports the chance discovery a few days before in an underground room at the Baltimore Court House of an “old document,” a bill of sale dated December 10, 1829, indicating that Edgar Allan Poe acted as agent in the sale of a slave named Edwin to Henry Ridgway. Arthur H. Quinn promptly picked up this item in 1941 in his Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography [New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, p. 151n.], and it was recently listed by J. Lasley Dameron and Irby B. Cauthen, Jr., in their Edgar Allan Poe: A Bibliography of Criticism, 1827-1967 [Chatlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1974, p. 90].

The bill of sale reprinted in the article reads as follows:

KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS that I Edgar A. Poe agent for Maria Clemm of Baltimore City and County and State of Maryland, for and in consideration of the sum of forty dollars in hand paid by Henry Ridgway of Baltimore City at or before the sealing and delivery of these presents the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, have granted, bargained and sold and by these presents do grant bargain and sell unto the said Henry Ridgway his executors administrators and assigns a negro man named Edwin aged twenty one years on the first day of March next to serve until he shall arrive to the age of thirty years no longer. To HAVE AND TO HOLD all and singular the said negro man above bargained and sold or mentioned or untended so to be to the said Henry Ridgway his executors, administrators and assigns, and I the said Edgar A. Poe agent for M. Clemm for myself, my heirs, executors and administrators all and singular the said negro man unto the said Henry Ridgway his executors administrators and assigns against me the said Edward [sic] A Poe my executors and administrators and against all and every other person or persons whatsoever shall and will warrant and forever defend by these presents. IN WITNESS WHEREOP We have hereunto set our hands and seals this 10th day of December eighteen hundred and twenty nine.

Signed Sealed and delivered in the presence of Henry W Gray

Edgar A Poe (SEAL)

for Maria Clemm


Henry X Ridgway (SEAL)


May Evans says that an old Baltimore City Directory listed Henry Ridgway as a A huckster” in 1827, and as a “labourer” in 1829, living near Charles Street. She speculates further that Ridgway was also a person of color and that his being a laboring man would account for the small purchase sum of 41;40. She admits ignorance of when and how Mrs. Clemm had acquired Edwin and concludes her article by calling the yellowing page of the bill of sale an “old chattel record [that] is a veritable human document, a poignant commentary on a bygone day.”

If this document could be verified, it would prove not only that Poe supported the institution of slavery, if any further proof be needed, but also that in 1829 he was more closely associated with his aunt and future mother-in-law, Maria Poe Clemm, than has heretofore been known. But applications to the Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore City Archives for a notarized copy of this old bill of sale brought forth the reply, dated April 7, 1976, from Ronald Schaefer, Senior Administrative Assistant in the Archives, that such a document was not now nor, to his knowledge, ever had been in the City Archives. He added that he had gone personally to the Baltimore Court House and had spoken with Mr. Stricker, Superior Court, Room 610, who told him that old chattel [page 53:] records dating back into the 1700’s had been kept there until several years ago when all documents over twenty-five years old were destroyed: whether the bill of sale in question was among those is impossible to determine. This would seem to conclude the matter, leaving the question forever in doubt. But perhaps not. One hopes this query will elicit further evidence, even at this late date, from someone who was interested enough in May Evans’ article to have consulted the old chattel records before their destruction and who can now verify that the bill of sale did exist.

John C. Miller, Old Dominion University


Poe’s Use of Jacob Bryant in

David K. Jackson showed that twenty-eight unsigned “fillers” — short articles to fill odd spaces — found in the Southern Literary Messenger during the time of Poe’s editorship come from the same sources as do the items in Poe’s “Pinakidia.” [“Poe Notes: ‘Pinakidia’ and ‘Some Antient Greek Authors,’” American Literature, S (1933) , 258-2G7.] Since they are similar to the “Pinakidia” items, he plausibly concludes that Poe wrote them, too. One of these unsigned articles, entitled “Bai,” reads as follows:

Bai was the Egyptian term for branch of the Palm-tree. Homer says that one of Diomede’s [sic] horses, Phoenix, was of a palm-color, which is a bright red. k is therefore nor impossible that our word bay as applied to the color of horses, may boast as remote an origin as the Egyptian Bail [“Bai,” Soruthers Literary Messenger, 2 (March 1836), 220]

Jackson is correct in saying that the source of this filler is Jacob Bryant’s Analysis of Antient Mythology, A New System [3rd ed, (London, 1807) 6 vols.], which Poe knew well. But Poe misinterpreted the information he found in Bryant and did not fully explore Bryant’s analysis of the mythological implications of the word “Bai,” an analysis which Poe must have seen when he read the section of the Mythology. Poe’s wording makes it sound as though “Phoenix” is the name of Diomedes’ horse. In Bryant it is dear that “Phoenix was a colour among horses.” [Bryant, II, 11.] What Bryant actually says is:

Homer, describing the horses of Diomedes, says, that one was Phoenix, or of a bright Palm colour with a white spot in his forehead like a moon. . . . The horse was a Palm colour, which is a bright red. We call such horses bays, which probably is a term of the same original. The branch of the Palm tree was called Bai in Egypt. [11, 12]

Bryant says that the word “Bai” had powerful spiritual connotations, first because it referred to the palm tree, which the ancient Egyptians held to be immortal, and second because they used the same word to mean “soul” [11, 12].

In a section of the Mythology entitled “Addenda, of the Palm Tree” which follows Bryant’s etymological explanation of the terms “Phoenix and Phoenices,” Bryant argues that the words “Phoenix” and “Palm” are related ideologically as well as etymologically:

. . . the Palm tree was supposed to rise under a weight, and to thrive in proportion to its being depressed. . . . The antients had an opinion, that the Palm was immortal: at least, if it did die, it recovered again, and obtained a second life by renewal. Hence the story of the bird the Phoenix, is thought to have been borrowed from this tree. [11, 5]

Although the Southern Literary Messenger article “Bai” did not appear until 1836, there is evidence that Poe knew the “bai” material earlier and employed it in “Metzengerstein” in 1832 [Poe’s familiarity with Bryant has long been known. Our “History, Myth, Fable, and Satire: Poe’s Use of Jacob Bryant,” IISQ, 2 1 (1975) 197-214, gives examples of passages dependent on Bryant from all stages of Poe’s career, including a related burleqsue of Bryant in 1833]. For our present purposes, all the reader need know of Poe’s attitude toward Bryant is that Poe was aware that in Bryant’s Mythology, all ancient gods, names, and myths turn out to be variants on the same primordial story.

Interesting strings of association tie Poe’s color choice to Bryant and to the ancient myths he studied. First, like the bright [column 2:] red palm from which red hors” get the name bay, Poe’s fiery-colored horse represents immortality and renewal as the reincarnation of old Berlifitzing. The horse gains power, paradoxically, as it is tamed by its rider, just as the palm tree gains power as it is “depressed.” Both horses have symbols of renewal on their foreheads, Diomedes’ with a white spot like a moon, a traditional symbol of rebirth, and Poe’s with the initials which identify it with Berlifitzing. Finally, like the Phoenix, the immortal soul of Berlifiming first appears in the form of the horse issuing forth from the flames, then destroys itself in the flames when it carries Metzengerstein to his death, and rises at the end of the tale as the legendary Phoenix rises from its own ashes: “A white flame still enveloped the building like a shroud, and, streaming far away into the quiet atmosphere, shot forth a glare of preternatural light; while a cloud of smoke settled heavily over the battlements in the distinct colossal figure of — a horse” [Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS, 1965), 11, 191. Harrison follows the Griswold text. An annotated text appears in our edition The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), pp. 294-295, 303-308, 320-321]. Thus Poe’s fiery-colored horse, the Phoenix-colored horse in Bryant, the horse apparently named Phoenix in Poe’s ambiguous paraphrase of Bryant, and the mythological bird Phoenix are variations on the same underlying mythic material. We are certain that Poe intended the connections.

Susan and Stuart Levine, University of Kansas


Poe’s “The Spectacles” and James’ “Glasses”

The variety of ways in which Poe, his legend, and his work fed the imagination of Henry James, ranging from his earliest impressions recorded in A Small Boy and Others to his late reference to the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in The Golden Bowl, has been amply documented [Burton R. Pollin, “Poe and Henry James: A Changing Relationship,” Yearbook of English Studies, 3 (1973), 232-242]. It has been overlooked, however, that Poe’s “The Spectacles” (1844) probably served as a source for James’ story “Glasses” (1896). In his Notebooks [June 26, 1895], James wrote, “A little idea occurred to me the other day for a little tale that Maupassant would have called Les Lunettes, though I’m afraid that The Spectacles won’t do” [The Notebooks of Henry lames, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), p. 205]. Maupassant had not written such a story; the title probably would not do because Poe had used it.

The plot situations and themes of both stories are similar. James’ “Glasses” is about a beautiful young woman, Flora Saunt, so vain that she refuses to wear glasses. Failing to conceal her deteriorating eyesight from her aristocratic suitor, she is forced to marry a rejected lover who, himself blinded by love, has fallen for her “at first sight.” By marrying her he allows her, now totally blind, to continue to pose without the disfigurement of glasses. Poe’s story is about a young man who finds himself in the ridiculous position of falling in love “at first sight” with his own great-great-grandmother, Madame Lalande, because he is too vain to wear glasses. In both stories, excessive vanity literally and figuratively destroys vision. In James’ “Glasses,” physical blindness takes place. In Poe’s “The Spectacles,” the blindness of vanity reduces a young man to a joke.

The similar plot situations, the synonymous titles, James’ interest in composing a story which would have a “singleness” of effect [Notebooks, p. 212], and his recent rereading and rethinking about Poe in connection with The Golden Bowl (first called “Mystification”) combine to suggest that James was redoing this particular Poe tale. Specific similarities confirm this hypothesis. In Poe’s story the great-great-grandmother gives the narrator a [page 54:] miniature of her as a young woman. James converts the miniature to the portrait the narrator paints of Flora. The story’s hero, attracted by this portrait, is likened to a “prince” who loses “his heart to the miniature of the outland princess” [The Complete Tales of Henry lames, ed. Leon Edel (Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1964), IX, 330]. Both stories include scenes set at the opera in which Madame Lelande and Flora, located in boxes, dazzle their admirers in the stalls. Both passages begin the same way. Poe’s hero tells us, “I amused myself by observing the audience, which consisted, in chief part, of the very elite of the city. . . . I was about turning my eyes to the prima donna, when they were arrested and riveted by a figure in one of the private boxes which had escaped my observation. . . . The figure . . . was somewhat above the medium height, and nearly approached . . . the majestic. . . . The admirable roundness of the wrist . . . was ornamented . . . by a magnificent aigrette of jewels — telling . . . at once of the wealth and fastidious taste of the wearer” [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), V, 179180]. About this face “there was something [that] . . . disappointed me without my being able to tell exactly what it was. . . . There was something else — some mystery which I could not develop — some expression about the countenance which slightly disturbed me while it greatly heightened my interest” [pp. 181-182]. James repeats this structure when his narrator attends Lohengrin: “I treated myself . . . to a general survey of the boxes . . . I suddenly became aware that one of [their occupants] was far prettier than the others . . . with diamonds in her hair and pearls on her neck, . . . with the air that easily attaches to lonely loveliness in public places, an agreeable mystery” [p. 363]. James makes his heroine “take up the little double-barrelled ivory glass that rested on the edge of the box and, to all appearance, fix me with it” [p. 364]. This recalls Poe’s heroine taking “from her girdle a double eye-glass”: she “elevated it — adjusted it — and then regarded me through it intently and deliberately, for the space of several minutes” [p. 184]. Just as Poe’s heroine “allowed her bright eyes to set fully and steadily upon my own, and then, with a faint smile, disclosing a bright line of her pearly teeth, made two distinct . . . affirmative inclinations of the head” [p. 186], so James’ heroine “smiled as straight back at me. Oh, her smile: it was her old smile, her young smile, her peculiar smile made perfect!” [pp. 364-365]. Similarly, Madame Lalande blesses her admirer “by the most seraphic of all imaginable smiles” [p. 189]. The climactic opera scene in “Glasses” serves the reverse function of the opera scene in “Spectacles,” which introduces the heroine to the hero. In the Poe story, the heroine sees only too well; it is the hero who barely sees without his glasses. In “Glasses,” the heroine in the box pretends to see while she uses her opera glass. The narrator is fooled by the part she plays at being perfectly able to see and by her presumed smile of recognition. The blindness shifts, but the scene as one of recognition and mystery is basically the same. There can be little doubt that James owes both specific and general debts to Poe’s “The Spectacles.”

Adeline R. Tintner, New York, N.Y.


Bawdy Punning in “Three Sundays in a Week”

Stuart and Susan Levine’s annotated edition of Poe’s tales [The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill’, 1976) p. 545], cites for the word “plum” in “Three Sundays in a Week” only the most literal meaning, “Kare’s money.” Poe’s contemporaries would, of course, have recognized “plum” as a word indicating a huge fortune but Poe’s insistence on the word, repeated throughout the story, suggests that he may have been punning, using the word as sexual double-entendre.

Evidence of the tale’s potential for sexual humor occurs early [column 2:] in the story, when Robert asks his uncle, “when will it be most convenient for yourself, that the wedding shall — shall — come off, you know?” Rumgudgeon responds: “Come off, you scoundrel! — what do you mean by that? Better wait till it goes on.” [Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 7th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 1, 171, cites the sexual meaning of “come” implied here as current in the nineteenth century.] Robert laughs at this “capital” joke, and the uncle immediately thereafter introduces the bawdy pun which recurs throughout the tale. Agreeing that Roberu may have Kare, he adds “and her plum, we musn’t forget the plum. . . . you shall have Kate and her plum when the three Sundays come together in a week” [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), IV, 228-229]. Poe probably uses the word “plum” in the same sense in which modern readers understand the word “cherry” (I might add that the plum and cherry are related members of the rosaceous family of plants) . We know that “plum” at one time meant “attractive young woman” [Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Der Bank, The American Thesaurus of Slang, 2nd ed. (New York: Crowell, 1953), p. 371], and Eric Partridge indicates that “plum-tree” designated, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “the female pudend” [sic] and that “have at the plum-tree” was a catch phrase in the same period [Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, I, 642]. Evidently Rumgudgeon’s offer, in the story’s final paragraph, of Kate “plum and all” refers to much more than a financial arrangement.

Elmer R. Pry, Jr., De Paul University


Poe’s “Letter to B——— ”: A Query

In his frequently anthologized “Letter to B “ (first printed as the preface to Poems, 1831, entitled “Letter to Mr. u”), Poe may have confused the Goths and the ancient Persians. Poe writes:

He [Wordsworth] was to blame in wearing away his youth in contemplation with the end of poetizing in his manhood. With the increase of his judgment the light which should make it apparent has faded away. His judgment consequently is too correct. This may not be understood, — but the old Goths of Germany would have understood it, who used to debate matters of importance to their State twice. once when drunk, and once when sober — sober that they might not be deficient in formality — drunk lest they should be destitute of vigor. [Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902: rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), VII, xl]

What Poe may have had in mind is a passage from Herodorus:

It is also their [the Persians’] general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made: and if it is then approved of they act on it, if not, they set it aside. Sometimes however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine. [The History of Herodotus, tr. George Rawlinson, ed. Manuel Komroff (New York: Tudor Pub., 1947), p. 52]

Poe does not cite Herodotus in his “Letter to B u,” and his direct references to the historian [as indexed in Burton R. Pollin’s Dictionary of Titles and Names in Poe’s Collected Works (New York: Da Capo Press, 1968)] cast no light on the questions raised by this passage. Was Herodorus Poe’s immediate source for this passage, or did he encounter the anecdote in some other text? And is the use of Goths for Persians here an accidental or intentional emendation? If Poe seeks to demonstrate in “Letter to B “ that Wordsworth is not a Romantic of “the true dye,” not Gothic enough, then the substitution of Goths for Persians considerably advances his point.

Thomas Thornburg, Ball State University


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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