Text: Jerome Loving, “The Good Gray Poe: Poe’s Reburial and William Douglas O’Connor’s Forgotten Tribute,” Poe Studies, June 1977, Vol. X, No. 1, 10:18-21


[page 18, column 1, continued:]

The Good Gray Poe: Poe’s Reburial
and William Douglas O’Connor’s
Forgotten Tribute

Texas A & M University

William Douglas O’Connor (1832-1889), minor poet and author, is best remembered for his championship of Walt Whitman. When, in the words of H. L. Mencken, history “brought together the greatest poet America has ever produced and the damndest ass” (Prejudices: First Series), that is, Whitman and Secretary of the Interior Jam” Harlan, O’Connor spoke out for his friend in The Good Gray Poet (1866). He risked his government position to castigate Harlan for dismissing Whitman from the Bureau of Indian Affairs because he was the author of a “dirty book.” But O’Connor — who defended a number of literary underdogs — also turned his attention to Edgar Allan Poe on the occasion of his reburial in Baltimore on November 17, 1875 (1). At ceremonies held at the Western Female Academy and Westminster Churchyard, a monument was dedicated to mark the poet’s “neglected grave.” Most of the literati of the era were invited — Lowell, Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant, Holmes, Tennyson — but only Whitman attended. O’Connor was also present, and — though he now refused to speak to his old friend (2) — he was doubtless moved by the sight of Whitman as the [column 2:] only poet “loyal to the spirit of the old freemasonry of letters.”

In 1877, Miss Sara Sigourney Rice, a professor of elocution at the Academy and one of the fund raisers for the monument (which cost in excess of $1,500), compiled a volume consisting of John H. Ingram’s biographical sketch of Poe and the speeches delivered and autograph reproductions of the letters sent by those invited to the ceremony (3). But it was published without one of the more important and certainly more outspoken defenses of Poe. Unlike the others which alluded at most to the distortions of Rufus Griswold, O’Cannor’s denounced the literary establishment generally for having persecuted Poe in the fashion he believed it had harrassed Whitman.

That essay, reprinted below, suggests that O’Connor admired Poe almost as much as Whitman. His affinity for Poe commenced in 1851, when O’Connor, probably already enamored of the author’s works, came to Providence from Boston and befriended Sarah Helen Whitman, the poet’s fiancee for a time. At first he worked as a daguerreotypist, but under the sway of the “Poet of Providence” he turned his talents to writing verse. He published a number of pieces in the Providence Journal and elsewhere under the pen name of “Aramis,” taken from Dumas’ The Three Guardsmen (or Musketeers) . Through the recollections of Mrs. Whitman, O’Connor came to know Poe well and, naturally, to resent Griswold’s fabrications. He also took the author of “The Raven” as a model for some of his own poetical experiments. His “Resurgamus,” published in the Journal for September 23, 1853, bears an obvious resemblance to “Ulalume”: the title of the piece, like the inscription over Ulalume’s “legended tomb,” is carved over the “black door” of the chamber of a benevolent monarch who has been deposed. The editors saw the similarity and wrote in the preface to O’Connor’s poem: “We have, within the last two years, published many poems of great originality and beauty, from our correspondent Aramis. The following, we think, will be a greater favorite than any of its predecessors. It may suggest a comparison with Poe’s Ulalume, which, in some respects, it resembles.”

Mrs. Whitman viewed O’Connor as a young Poe. Shortly before her death in 1878, she testified that “after her separation from Poe, her friendship with O’Connor, notwithstanding his youth, was the greatest relief to her, & the poem ‘To the Morning Star’ . . . was written to him” (4.) In that poem, which appeared in her Hours of Life (1853), she addressed O’Connor as the “star of Love and Hope.” In the same volume she wrote the poems entitled “Arcturus” (“Evening Star”) for her beloved Poe. On another occasion, after he had published the story “What Cheer?” in Putnam’s (July 1855), she addressed O’Connor as her “Red-Cross Knight” who will yet ride “in the vanguard of the great army who do battle for the eternal Truth and Beauty” (5). The tale centers upon a morbid youth bent on suicide until he decides to dedicate his life to helping the poor.

O’Connor did indeed see himself as such a knight, and in the slashing style of a fencer (which he was) he used his pen to combat poverty, slavery, and ultimately the American literary establishment — the North American Reviews and the Littell’s Living Ages — that obdurately rejected [page 19:] anything that did not reflect the literary traditions and practices of the Old World. Whitman, of course, fit his idea of the literary maverick better than Poe; yet for O’Connor Poe had been a crusader in the area of criticism as well as the creator of a literature that was marked by originality if not by a native American character.

O’Connor’s essay on Poe (which like the other tributes took the form of a letter to Miss Rice) followed the pattern used in The Good Gray Poet, contrasting the magnanimity of his subject (in long Whitmanesque catalogs) with the pettiness of the literary establishment that had rejected him. This alone persuaded Miss Rice to ask O’Connor to tone down his remarks, for she had invited many of its members to the memorial and intended to publish their letters in her book. Furthermore, she objected to the reference to Whitman which chastised the literary lights who had failed to attend the ceremony. In a letter dated October 23, 1876, she told him: “while I was happy to see Mr. Whitman present the eventful afternoon & myself greeted him cordially, taking special care when I learned who he was that every respect should be paid, still as the Memorial is to be in no sense of the word polemic I desire to omit the few lines in which you reflect upon the absence of some we would have liked to have had with us” (8).

Always a foe of any sort of comstockery, O’Connor balked at the thought of her expurgation. And when Miss Rice failed to return his manuscript, he feared she would make the excisions on her own and publish the piece with the other, more cordial tributes. He expressed this fear to Mrs. Whitman, who advised him to “politely request the return of the MS.” again. She agreed with O’Connor that the volume by its timidity lost its force as a vindication of Poe and commented, rather bitterly: “The book is evidently intended for the hour & the place — a Baltimore annual — only this & nothing more” (7).

Although O’Connor’s essay adds no new information to the Poe biography, it is nevertheless significant as one of the early attempts to vindicate the maligned poet — taking its place beside Mrs. Whitman’s Edgar Poe and His Critics (1860) and Ingram’s endeavors to correct Griswold’s distortions. Unfortunately, more than its predecessors, it leans (as did The Good Gray Poet) toward hagiography. The essay is also valuable to literary historians because it links, however remotely, two very important American poets of the nineteenth century. O’Connor began his career as a writer under the aegis of Sarah Helen Whitman and learned to regard Poe as one of America’s greatest poets. He concluded that career in the vanguard of Wale Whitman — in whom he found a poetic talent at least equal to Poe’s. Ultimately, of course, he selected Whitman as the greater American poet because of the autochthonic character of Leaves of Grass. But it was Poe’s poetry and his fiery career that helped significantly to shape the mind that created the myth of “the good gray poet.”

Dear Miss Rice:

[December. 1875] (8)

Mrs W (9) has sent me your kind note, with the newspaper slips

The author of the petty paragraph in the N.Y. World, [column 2:] in alluding to the Poe monument as having been raised by the contributions of a few professors and half a dozen school-mistresses, failed to perceive that, even if literally true, the fact would only have given additional value and interest to the tribute (10). Certes, it would be no theme for mockery if it came out that Shakespeare’s bust in the old church, was the gift of the traditionary grammar school at Stratford! (11). But the editorial on Edgar Poe in the World of October 8th (12), honoring alike the poet and the memorial enterprise, is so ample, so generous and superb, that it more than offsets any small subsequent cynicasterism (13).Which, at all events, matters little. We who understood and loved him — we, at any rate, can never forget that we owe it to those stanch professors, those gracious ladies and sweet school-girls of Baltimore, that our poet has his funeral honors. And beyond all private feeling, Edgar Poe having, as Winter well said in his noble elegy (14), gained the universal affection, what you and your associates have done for his memory, is happily secure of the undying respect and remembrance all beautiful and pious deeds deserve. Against such, derision is harmless. Whatever be the power of the malign barbed word, actions like these, in their moral elevation and their quality are far removed from its injury. The hornet cannot sting the star.

The scene that November afternoon will long live in grateful tradition. As I muse, it all floats softly back into memory: the warm, square, handsome hall, lit from the sides; the vast parterre of blooming and animated faces in the pale sunshine and pleasant winter light; the multitude of bright eyes all looking toward the platform where we were grouped; the silken rustlings, the perfume, the soft electric life of the concourse; the eager silences, the frequent bursts of plaudits, attending the graceful and generous letter of Holmes, the tributes of Bryant, Whittier, Aldrich, Saxe and the others, and Winter’s glorious verses, all of which you read so admirably; the music of Mendelssohn and Rossini from the choir, lifting us, from time to time, like wings; Shepherd’s brilliant and delicate address, and the stout and genial speech of Latrobe, like fine old wine; and then, crowning all, after these shows and voices, after the ringing acclamations, the thronging memories and emotions of those glowing hours, when we had trooped down tumultuously into the cold open air of the churchyard, there, in that place rough with tombs, central amidst the pouring crowd, with the aerial singing of the choir floating above it in the requiem, the unveiled cenotaph, white and beautiful in the red dying light upon the no longer neglected grave! No fear that a memorial, of which these are among the memories and pictures, can fail of appreciation and respectful remembrance! Edgar Poe is one of the two or three American poets of our generation, whom the future, oblivious of many insolent current literary fames, will deeply remember, and it will not less remember, in its simple humility and glory, the occasion that hung garlands upon his memory and his tomb. I know what can be said because our prosperous and popular literary people stayed away or were not there, few of them even sending messages. But no judgment worth notice will deny sufficient noble celebrity to the platform up whose stairs we saw slowly limp our loftiest poet, broken with his hospital service to the wounded and dying of both sides in the war, and grand in his age and infirmity, like a [page 20:] crippled eagle (15) — he, at least, loyal to the spirit of the old freemasonry of letters, and paying with his presence his share in the honors the literary class in Europe never neglects to offer its illustrious dead. Whatever they may say here, the Old World, where his name lives in light from Copenhagen to London, will not find lacking in the proper literary dignity, an occasion graced by the great and venerable presence of Walt Whitman. Where Mac Gregor sits, is the head of the table!

Some day, when time permits, I hope to add my humble tribute to the character and genius of Edgar Poe. The genius, half latent, has probably been underestimated (18); the character has certainly been misread. In him the sou1 was eminent, and the heart all alive; well, therefore, may the memorials of his life convey the paramount impression of many sufferings! Mr James Russell Lowell, noticing these sufferings, styles them’self-caused’ (17). It is a shallow judgement. The philosopher sadly sees that society, by its form, evolves fatality, far less for rogues and satans than for those who by peculiar nobility of nature are not in accord with the evil conditions to which they are born; and this explains the dooms of messiahs and heroes, the fates of the martyrs and the anguished lives of the geniuses. A phrase you will hear among roughs, on the streets and wharves, spoken of some person, expresses the social destiny evolved for one like Edgar Poe: the one the others are down on. Why should they not be down upon one like him? He was proud, superior, solitary; he had the courage of his opinions; he disdained fools and despised knaves he felt and showed acerbity and scorn for things imperfect and base in art and life; he could not see a corrupt and impious author, like Michel Masson (18),without convulsive loathing; he could not hear hoarse Codrus bawl in song without something of the contempt of Juvenal; he would not join the coteries; he was impurchaseable, undissuadable; he was original; he endowed literature with fresh thought and glorious imaginings, cast in novel forms, always an offense to mediocrities and men of convention and routine; he had conscience, honor, moral purity, spirit, reverence, deep religious feelings — shown everywhere in his sombre and starry pages; he was disinterested, romantic, simple, chivalrous, guileless, truthful, sensitive, loving; it might have been little that he dwelt in the land without being one with the nation, but he lived on the globe without much belonging to the world. How could one unrelated by such a combination of traits to the secular men and things around him, escape the penalty of his irrelation? Necessarily, he had many bitter enemies. No doubt, also, he had friends, but this, alas! for one made like him, was perhaps only another reason for his misfortunes. We often suffer no less from the sad fatuity of friends than the enmity of foes. How few, even among those who mast valued him, could have been in rapport with that lofty and melancholy soul; so proudly reticent, yet so impassioned and sensitive; so loving and so craving love; beautiful with a nocturnal beauty; darkly sweet and tender; and suffused with a strange grace of quaintness, like night momentarily flushed with elfin lightning! In the mysteriousness of such natures, in their singular beauties and unusual virtues, are the conditions of every misunderstanding and every disaster.

It is nothing to me, this dwindled basis for the malignant [column 2:] verdict, this charge to which all the lavish calumniation has already pitiably shrunken, that sometimes in his life, at long intervals, in certain wild hours of maddening misery, there was the glass too much which tradition says caused the death of Shakespeare. When the excelling sin is judged by its spots, or our own fair and habitable earth by its quagmires, I will allow that such a defect in the conduct of life is either an indication or an epitome of his character’ whom every authentic recollection proclaims an exceptionally unworldly, noble and loving human being. For him, however, the worst is over, and mine is the sad pleasure I always feel when the blotting cloud disperses from the children of light, for I know that his vindication draws nigh. He has been long coffined in slander, but the miserable tangle of the lies and forgeries of Griswold and his allies, will soon be cleared away forever. Thanks for this to the movement begun by Mrs Whitman in her beautiful little book, ‘Edgar Poe and His Critics,’ and soon to be completed by the patient research and clear insight of Ingram. Thanks also to you and your associates for fresh glory upon his memory, and the flower of marble upon his grave.

I am, dear Miss Rice,

Yours faithfully,

W. D. O’Connor

Miss S. S. Rice



(1) Actually, Poe’s body and that of Mrs. Clemm had been transferred to the new grave site on November 6. For the riotous story of this reburial and another in 1885, see John C. Miller, “The Exhumations and Reburials of Edgar and Virginia Poe and Mrs. Clemm,” Poe Studies, 7 (1974), 46-47.

(2) Whitman and O’Connor quarreled in 1872, supposedly over the merits of the Fifteenth Amendment (giving blacks the right to vote in 1870); see Clara Barrus Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), p. 96. A fuller account of this quarrel and the ten-year rift between the two men is contained in my forthcoming Walt Whitman’s Champion: William Douglas O’Connor.

(3) Edgar Allan Poe: A Memorial Volume (Baltimore: Turnbull Brothers, 1877). Ingram’s sketch was expanded in his Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions, 2 vols. (London: John Hogg, Paternoster Row, 1880). See also John C. Miller, “Poe’s Biographers Brawl,” American History Illustrated, 11 (1976), 2029.

(4) William F. Channing (O’Connor’s brother-in-law) to C. Fiske Harris, August 23, 1876; printed with the permission of the Brown University Library.

(5) Letter dated July [12?] 1855, and quoted with the permission of Charles E. Feinberg. This letter (cited below as Feinberg) is now in the Library of Congress.

(6) Feinberg.

(7) Both quotations are taken from her letter of November 24, 1876 (Feinberg).

(8) This date is based upon the appearance of Richard Grant White’s Galaxy article; see n. 13, below. O’Connor’s essay is reprinted with the permission of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. The text, including punctuation and the use of italics, follows the holograph. I would like to thank my colleague, Carroll D. Laverty, for his assistance in preparing this article.

(9) Sarah Helen Whitman.

(10) In a short editorial in the issue of November 18, the World stated: “Some half dozen patient and admiring school-mistresses [page 21:] . . . yesterday erected a monument over [Poe’s] grave exactly ‘eight feet high.’ A number of eminent poets, none of them subscribers, wrote letters on the occasion. Some of diem suggested epitaphs. A professor of English literature professed profusely. Of all this due American people are pretty proud. For our own part we can only regret that Poe is not alive to write an account of his own funeral.”

(11) O’Connor was also a Shakespearian scholar; in Hamlet’s Notebook (1886) and Mr. Donnelley’s Reviewers (1889) , he defended the view that attributed the Shakespearian plays and poems to Francis Bacon.

(12) In “Poe” the editors acknowledged the universal appeal of the poet’s work but were ambivalent about his character. They concluded: “We have thought it well to take occasion from the erection of his tardy monument to forget his errors and remember his genius, and to fling a leaf upon his grave.”

(13) O’Connor doubtless borrowed this word from White’s “Cynicasterism: An Egotistical Dissertation Concerning Dogs’ Tails,” Galaxy, 20 (December 1875), 837-845. White was a wellknown anti-Baconian whom O’Connor attacked in Hamlet’s Notebook (see n. 11, above). White defined “cynicasterism” as “a sort of sneering and carping which does not attain due dignity of cynicism . . . the first little creature who would be a cynic, but is too ignorant, and too foolish, and who has no element of cynicism in him but the desire to be disagreeable, is a cynicaster” (p. 845).

(14) “At Poe’s Grave,” Rice, pp. 48-49. Further references by O’Connor to the program are easily found in this volume and are therefore not annotated. O’Connor disliked Winter because of his unfriendly criticism of Walt Whitman. Yet he was often willing to embrace such adversaries whenever the took his side on an issue — if only to name-drop for his cause.

(15) Here O’Connor cancelled the sobriquet “the Good Gray Poet.”

(16) In calling Poe’s genius “half latent,” O’Connor may have been reiterating Walt Whitman’s estimate of due poet. In an anonymous article in due Washington Star of November 18, 1875, headlined “Walt Whitman at the Poe Funeral — Conspicuous Absence of the Popular Poets “ (reprinted as “Walt Whitman on Poe” in the World, November 21), he quoted himself as having only recently overcome a distaste for Poe’s work. He now recognized a certain power in the writings, yet he still objected to his frequent “delirium.” Whitman incorporated due Star report in “Edgar Poe’s Significance” (Critic, June 3, 1882) and in Specimen Days (1882). There he remarked that “Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a daemonic undertone behind every page — and, by final judgment, probably belong among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant, dazzling, but with no heat.” See Walt Whitman: Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1936), 1, 230-233; and Rollo G. Silver, “A Note about Whitman’s Essay on Poe,” American Literature, 6 (1935), 435-436. See also Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer; A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1955, 1967), p. 71, for Whitman’s 1845 association with Poe.

(17) I have been unable to locate the source of O’Connor’s information. Lowell was adamantly opposed to Walt Whitman’s poetry, and O’Connor may simply be using the New England Brahmin as a symbol of the literary establishment he indicts for persecuting Poe. In fact, Lowell thought highly of Poe’s talent if not his character — see The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1966), pp. 5-17; and Letters of James Russell Lowell, ed. Charles Eliot Norton (New York: Harper, 1894), 1, 99 — and in his letter of regret to Miss Rice (which, curiously, she did not include in her volume) he wrote: “I regret very much that it will be quite impossible for me to be present at the very interesting ceremony of unveiling the monument to Poe. I need not assure you that I sympathize very heartily with the sentiment which led to its erection.” See “The Memory of Poe,” New York Times, and “Edgar Allan Poe,” New York World, November 18, 1875.

(18) Unidentified.


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