Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 11,” Complete Works of E. A. Poe , Vol. 01: Biography (1902), 1:241-251


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[page 241:]

CHAPTER XI.

1846.

SOCIAL AND LITERARY LIFE IN NEW YORK THE LITERATI.

IT is time now to take a little peep at the social environment by which Poe and his family were surrounded in the winter of 1846, this time through the spectacles of the poet Richard Henry Stoddard, a keen admirer of Poe’s genius, but an unsparing foe to what he considers and calls, in season and out of season, Poe’s moral delinquencies and mendacity.(1) In a review of Mrs. Botta’s (Miss Anne Charlotte Lynch’s) Memoirs, he writes:

“The best preparation for reading these Memoirs of Mrs. Botta is a glance over the first forty or fifty names in the series of papers which Edgar Allan Poe contributed, in 1845, ‘The Lady’s Book’ of L. A. Godey. Familiar with the reputation of the ladies and gentlemen who figure in this list, my acquaintance with Mrs. Botta dates back only forty-four years, when, a timid young person of twenty-four, I was introduced into her salon, either by Dr. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, or by Mr. Bayard Taylor. I had scrawled some immature verse, which Mr. Seba Smith and Mrs. Caroline M. Kirkland thought not entirely unworthy of the places which they gave it, one in ‘The Rover,’ a [page 242:] little weekly, the other, in ‘The Union Magazine,’ a monthly of larger size, with illustrations on wood and steel, mezzotints, if my memory is not at fault, by Mr. John Sartain. Mrs. Botta, who was then Miss Anne Charlotte Lynch, was known to me before the date I have specified through her poems in — Graham’s Magazine’ and other periodicals, which were copied in ‘The Evening Mirror,’ of which Mr. Nathaniel Parker Willis was editor-in-chief, and in ‘The New York Tribune,’ the critical chair of which was filled by Mr. George Ripley. To meet this accomplished gentlewoman was a distinction, since in meeting her one met her friends, the least of whom was worth knowing. She lived, as nearly as I now recollect, on the south side of Ninth Street, not far from Fifth Avenue, and with her was her elderly mother and a young woman who is now Mrs. S. M. C. Ewer, and was a sister of Mr. Charles Congdon, a brilliant humorist, wham I did not know until ten years later.

“Who witnessed my awkward entrance into Miss Lynch’s well-lighted parlor? I have forgotten who they were. I only know that the night was a cold one; late in November, I fancy, and that, chilled through and through, in spite of a thick cloak which I wore, I stooped and chafed my hands before her glowing coal fire. Many a day passed before I heard the last story about my blundering gaucherie on that woful night, — a gaucherie which worsened itself in the sharp eyes of Phyllis, who declared that she wondered at her foolish Corydon. The Willises were there, the poet who wrote — Scripture Sketches’ in his youth, and had written much versatile poetry ana prose since — letters from all quarters of the world — his second wife and his daughter Imogen. But before these I see Miss [page 243:] Lynch, tall, gracious, kindly, the woman that she remained until the cold March morning two years ago when she wandered out into the worlds beyond this work-a-day world of ours. Present, also, were two of the swarming Sisterhood of American singers, one elderly spinster Miss Bogart] who was remembered through one of “her solemn lyrics, entitled, I think,’ He came too Late,’ and a more hopeful married woman, whose songs were of a more cheerful cast. . .

“On a later occasion, early in the following spring, I met another singer of tender melodies. She came of a poetic family, for, besides herself, I can recall a sister who wrote fairly well. Born in Boston, child of a merchant there named Locke, Frances Sargent spent a portion of her girlhood where I passed my boyhood, in Hingham, Mass., where, in my seventh year, Mr. William Gilmore Simms improvised his ‘Atalantis: A Tale of the Sea.’ Miss Locke married a painter named Osgood, with whom she sailed for London, where he drew many celebrities, and she warbled her way into their affections, remembering her native land in her first book, I A Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England.’ When I met this gentle lady, seven-and-thirty, or it may be, thirty-eight summers had touched her, lightly, as it seemed, but heavily, as it proved; for, always fragile, she was in a decline, reminding her friends, after her soul had taken its Right, of Young’s Narcissa, —

“ ‘She sparkled, exhaled and went to Heaven.’

Mrs. Osgood was a paragon. For, loved of all men who knew her, she was hated by no woman who ever felt the charm of her presence. Poe was enamored of her, felt or fancied that he was, which with him was the [page 244:] same thing. He dedicated a copy of verses to her, a trifle which had served the same purpose twice before. He concealed her name in an effusion of twenty lines, and he reviewed her in his glowing fashion, and no one disputed the accuracy of his verdict, in her case, But Poe had a rival in her affections in Dr. Griswold, whom she transformed for the moment into an impassioned poet. When Edgar Allan was drugged to death in Baltimore, about six months before the time of which I am writing, I scribbled some verse in his memory; and she was good enough to think some of it not unworthy of its theme. She died a few weeks later. . . .

“I return to the list of names in Poe’s ‘Literati of New York City,’ and recover others whom I saw at Miss Lynch’s evenings at home. Constantly there was Mr. W. M. Gillespie, a mathematician of eminence, who stammered in his speech; Dr. J. W. Francis, who knew and was known to everybody, a florid gentleman with flowing white locks; and Ralph Hoyt. Then came Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, poetess, water of stories, and, later, of three or four novels; and next Mrs. Kirkland, Mrs. Embury, Miss Sedgwick, Mrs. Hewitt, Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, and Dr. Thomas Ward, who, under the Horatian signature of ‘Flaccus’ celebrated ‘Passaic, a Group of Poems Touching that River, with other Poems.’

“Greater names were those of Bryant and Halleck, and one lesser, in the person of the bard who entreated the woodman to spare the tree [G. P. Morris].”

In her interesting — “Introductory Letter” prefixed to Mr. E. L. Didier’s “Life and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe ” (W. J. Widdleton: 1876), Mrs. Whitman writes: [page 245:]

“During the whole of the winter 1845-46, he was residing in the city of New York — I think in Amity Street. He was, at that time, a frequent visitor and ever-welcome guest at the houses of many persons with whom I have long been intimately acquainted — among others, the Hon. John R. Bartlett . . . and Miss Anne C. Lynch, now Mrs. Botta — who were accustomed to receive informally at their houses, on stated evenings, the best intellectual society of the city. To reinforce my memory on the subject, I have just referred to letters received from various correspondents in New York, during the winters of 1845 and 1845, in all of which the name of the poet frequently occurs.

“In one of these letters, dated January 20, 1846, the writer says:’Speaking of our receptions, I moat tell you what a pleasant one we had on Saturday evening, in Waverley Place; or rather I will tell you the names of some of the company, and you will know, among others, that of Cassius Clay, Mr. Hart, the sculptor, who is doing Henry Clay in marble; Halleck, Locate (the Man in the Moon), Hunt, of the “Merchant’s Magazine”; Hudson, Mr. Bellows, Poe, Headley, Miss Sedgwick, Mrs. Kirkland, Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Seba Smith, Mrs. Ellet, and many others more or less distinguished.’

“One of these letters, in which the date of the year is wanting, alludes to a controversy, which took place at one of the soirees between Margaret Fuller (Ossoli) and Poe, about some writer whom, in her lofty, autocratic way, the lady had been annihilating. Miss Fuller was then writing critical papers far the ‘New York Tribune.’ Poe, espousing the cause of the vanquished, with a few keen, incisive rejoinders, obtained [page 246:] such ascendancy over the eloquent and oracular woman, that somebody whispered, ‘The Raven has perched upon the casque of Pallas, and pulled all the feathers out of her cap.’

“In another letter, dated January 7, 1846, I find the following: — I meet Mr. Poe very often at the receptions. He is the observed of all observers. His stories are thought wonderful, and to hear him repeat “The Raven,” which he does very quietly, is an event in one’s life. People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, and, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences, at the mention of which he always smiles. His smile is captivating! . . . Everybody wants to know him; but only a few people seem to get well acquainted with him.’

“This was in the spring of 1846, when Poe was at the very acme of his literary and social success among the literati of New York.”

And how, one may ask, did Poe comport himself among the illuminati of this defunct and mutually admiring generation?

“As a conversationist,” remarks Mrs. Whitman, “we do not remember his equal. We have heard the veteran Landor (called by high authority the best talker in England) discuss with scathing sarcasm the popular writers of the day, convey his political animosities by fierce invectives on the ‘pretentious coxcomb Albert’ and ‘the cunning knave Napoleon,’ or describe, in words of strange depths and tenderness, the peerless charm of goodness, and the naīve social graces in the beautiful mistress of Gore House, ‘the most gorgeous Lady Blessington.’ We have heard the Howadji talk of the gardens of Damascus till the [page 247:] air seemed purpled and perfumed with its roses. We have listened to the trenchant and vivid talk of the Autocrat; to the brilliant and exhaustless colloquial resources of John Neal and Margaret Fuller. We have heard the racy talk of Orestes Brownson in the old days of his freedom and power, have listened to the serene wisdom of Alcott, and treasured up memorable sentences from the golden lips of Emerson. Unlike the conversational power evinced by any of them, was the earnest, opulent, unpremeditated speech of Edgar Poe.

“Like his writings, it presented a combination of qualities rarely met within the same person, — a cool, decisive judgment, a wholly unconventional courtesy and sincere grace of manner, and an imperious enthusiasm, which brought all hearers within the circle of its influence.

“J. M. Daniel, Esq., United States Minister at Turin, who knew Poe well during the last years of his life, says of him: ‘His conversation was the very best we have ever listened to. We have never heard any so suggestive of thought, or any from which one gained so much. On literary criticism it was the essence of correct and profound criticism divested of all formal pedantries and introductory ideas — the kernel clear of the shell. He was not a brilliant talker in the common, after-dinner sense of the word; he was not a maker of fine points, or a frequent sayer of funny things. What he said was prompted entirely by the moment, and seemed uttered for the pleasure of uttering it. In his animated moods he talked with an abstracted earnestness, as if he were dictating to an amanuensis; and, if he spoke of individuals, his ideas ran upon their moral and intellectual qualities, rather [page 248:] than upon the idiosyncrasies of their active, visible phenomena, or the peculiarities of their manner.’

”We have said that the charm of his conversation consisted in its genuineness, its wonderful directness, and sincerity. We believe, too, that, in the artistic utterance of poetic emotion, he was at all times passionately genuine. His proud reserve, his profound melancholy, his unworldliness — may we not say his unearthliness — of nature made his character one very difficult of comprehension to the casual observer. The complexity of his intellect, its incalculable resources, and his masterly control of those resources when brought into requisition for the illustration of some favorite theme or cherished creation, led to the current belief that its action was purely arbitrary, that he could write without emotion or earnestness at the deliberate dictation of the will.”(1)

The year 1846 was the beginning of Poe’s “descent” into the moral and physical — Maelström,” in which he ways finally swallowed up. All his brilliant literary and social successes had been in vain, had proved incapable of lifting him to a prosperous plane, had made him indeed only a shining mark for malice and malignity.

“In his white ideal

All statue-blind.”

Even while he was frequenting these delightful salons, with his gentle Virginia by his side, he was personally and anatomically studying its frequenters with a view to presenting them in full-length life-like [page 249:] portraits for the fashionable journal of a neighboring city.

“In the series of papers which I now propose,” he writes, in his Introduction, “my design is, in giving my own unbiassed opinion of the literati (male and female) of New York, to give at the sane time very closely, if not with absolute accuracy, that of conversational society in literary circles. It must be expected, of course, that, in innumerable particulars, I shall differ from the voice, that is to say, what appears to be the voice, of the public; but this is a matter of no consequence whatever.

“New York literature may be taken as a fair representation of that of the country at large. The city is itself the focus of American letters. Its authors include, perhaps, one-fourth of all in America, and the influence they exert on their brethren, if seemingly silent, is not the less extensive and decisive. As I shall have to speak of many individuals, my limits will not permit me to speak of them otherwise than in brief; but this brevity will be merely consistent with the design, which is that of simple opinion, with little of either argument or detail. With one or two exceptions, I am well acquainted with every author to be introduced. . . . Each individual is introduced absolutely at random.”

Thirty-eight of these accomplished gentlemen and gentlewomen of a past generation pass panoramically before us, make their brief curtsy, and, as briefly, pass into the oblivion devoted to the Dilettanti. Poe’s manner is sharp, French, epigrammatic; the crisp distinction of his style, the absolutely lucid form of his statement in these papers, has never been surpassed and seldom equalled; and yet he contrives to bring within [page 250:] it just enough of the vanishing personality of his subject to pique attention and avoid offence.

Only a few reputations were assailed by the critic coarse personalities were altogether absent; the women were treated with chivalrous respect and discrimination — even the dreaded Margaret Fuller was discussed with Castilian courtesy; and the fellow journalists — Briggs, Willis, Colton, Hoffman, Locke-were almost universally appreciated and praised. Notes of discord sounded in the case of Aldrich and “Thomas Dunn Brown” and Lewis Gaylord Clark. “Mr. Clark, as a literary man, has about him no determinateness, no distinctiveness, no saliency of point; an apple, in fact, or a pumpkin ha: more angles. He is as smooth as oil, or a sermon from Dr. Hawkes; he is noticeable for nothing in the world except for the markedness by which he is noticeable for nothing.”

Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Child, Miss Sedgwick, Miss Bogart, Miss Lynch, Mrs. Embury, Mrs. Kirkland, Mrs: Stephens, Mrs. Gore, Mrs. Hewitt, Mrs. Mowatt, and Margaret Fuller are the “immortelles” beaded on Poe’s eternal scroll; Halleck, Willis, and Fenno Hoffman (founder of “The Knickerbocker“) are the only poets still distinguishable from the throng of minor contemporaries.

It is a curious fact that the two great historic foes of this period of American literature should also have been the Supreme Court of the time for the adjudication of literary reputations. Griswold revelled in anthologies, in volumes of prose and poetical selections, in old-fashioned florilegiums and “elegant extracts” sealed with the seven seals of Solomon’s wisdom. Poe was the taster — and tester — in these cellars of Amontillado, often delicately and derisively sceptical of its [page 251:] being Amontillado at all. Both men were phenomenally industrious, and both have left monuments of erudition. Rivals even in their surreptitious loves, they worked shoulder to shoulder in the bustling forties amid the noise of presidential campaigns and the far-off mutterings of the Mexican War; and the one bequeathed his reputation to the other — to be ravenously devoured! Griswold’s cohort of friends — Horace Greeley, Raymond, Hoffman, Donald G. Mitchell, Bayard Taylor, C. G. Leland, the Carys, James T. Fields, etc., was offset by Poet’s cohort of foes made in his self-imposed task as a censor morum of more than Catonian severity. Vermont and Virginia were certainly reflected in their temperaments: the one keen, cold, incisive, indefatigable, resourceful, devoting an entire lifetime to the altruistic presentation of others’ claims to literary recognition, a Dryasdust of a superior kind whose labors in collecting and in commentary were informed by an intelligent spirit, if not by a flaming zeal; the other, warm, imaginative, high-strung, impelled by an irresistible genius that never let him rest, imperiously creative, haughtily egotistic, forced rather to the presentation of his own claims than to the recognition of others.

 

[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 241:]

1.  The Independent, Feb. 1, 1894.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 248:]

1.  Mrs. Whitman, “Edgar Poe,” &c., pp. 36-38.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - CWEAP, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Complete Works of E. A. Poe (Vol. 01 - Biography) (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 11)