Text: William Fearing Gill, “Edgar A. Poe and His Biographer, Rufus W. Griswold,” Laurel Leaves, 1875, pp. 279-306


[page 279:]



FROM the fact that “Lotos Leaves” contained no other paper of a similar character to the article which I have prepared with what care a somewhat brief notice would permit, I have thought it best to consult the exigency presented by this fact in offering my contribution to this volume. A banquet, too largely com posed of toothsome confections, however excellent their quality, would prove palling to the appetite. The gem must have its setting, which, if claiming naught of beauty or rarity, still holds a useful, necessary place. The brightest limnings in the painter’s choicest landscape are not the less effective in that they stand out relieved by the contrast of a most somber background.

So in this “leaf,” which may serve the humble purpose in lending, by its harder tone and deeper shadow, a useful contrast to the brilliant color of the brighter and more gladsome petals with which it is surrounded.

“Dr. Griswold’s biography of my Eddie is one atrocious lie,” writes Mrs. Clemm, the mother-in-law of Edgar Allan Poe, in a letter to an intimate friend; and after careful researches, extending over the space of three years, I have come, [page 280:] from the cumulation of corroborative documentary evidence, to give an unequivocal indorsement to Mrs. Clemm’s statement. Intense admiration of Poe’s writings and of his genius, mingled with deep sympathy for the exceptional misfortunes of his career, first prompted me to the arduous task of investigating the story of his life, and verifying or disproving the statements of the Griswold biography of Poe, which, for nearly twenty-five years, has been permitted to preface the authorized editions of his works; also forming the basis of several of the biographies that have been written to preface the English editions of the poet’s works. As a matter of fact, Poe’s poems are fivefold more popular in England than in America, and his prose writings, which have never secured the recognition of extended popular currency in America, are even more admired in England than are his poems. I cannot refrain from feeling and expressing the conviction that Griswold’s mendacious biography, preluding the American editions of Poe, and, as it were, forming a chilling wet-blanket, most repelling to the warmest admirer of the poet, is in a degree responsible for the comparatively limited circulation enjoyed by his works in America. I measure the effect of the Griswold biography upon the intelligent reader precisely as does an English reviewer the biography of Poe by James Hannay, based upon Griswold, to wit, — should any man of taste and sense, not acquainted with Poe, be so unfortunate as to look at Mr. Griswold’s preface before reading the poetry, it is extremely probable he will throw the book into the fire, in indignation at the self conceit and affected smartness by which the preface is characterized.

As a matter of. fact, the demand for the complete edition of [page 281:] Poe’s works containing the Griswold memoir is so limited, that within a few months, calling for this edition at two of the largest book-houses in Boston, I was unable to obtain a copy, and was informed that the calls for it were so few that they, the dealers, were not encouraged to keep this edition of Poe in stock.

Yet no one will deny that among the collections of poems by various authors published, Poe is among the, most popular and the most admired of the authors represented.

My purpose in this paper being to offer an impartial statement, or a series of statements, duly authenticated by documents, controverting the statements of Dr. Griswold, rather than to attempt any eulogium of the poet, I shall devote my allotted space, so far as it will allow, principally to meeting the misstatements of the reverend vilifier. Some of Dr. Griswold’s statements are properly attributable to malicious and vengeful mendacity, others to gross and inexcusable carelessness. Imprimis, the biographer states that Edgar A. Poe was born in Baltimore, January, 1811. Mr. Poe was not born in 1811, in Baltimore; this is on the authority of the records (still in existence) of the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville.

In 1816, writes the biographer, he accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Allan to Great Britain, and afterwards passed four or five years in a school kept at Stoke Newington, near London, by the Rev. Dr. Bransby. “Encompassed by the massy walls of this venerable academy” (writes the poet in “William Wilson”), “I passed, yet not in tedium or disgust, the years of the third lustrum of my life.”

Had he not been born until 1811, as Dr. Griswold states, he would not have attained his third lustrum during his [page 282:] sojourn at this place. Of this school and its play-ground Poe writes in the same sketch: “The extensive enclosure was irregular in form, having many capacious recesses. Of these, three or four of the largest constituted the play-ground. It was level and covered with hard gravel. . . . . But the house how quaint an old building was this! to me how veritably a palace of enchantment! There was really no end to its windings, to its incomprehensible subdivisions. It was difficult at any given time to say with certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in ascent or descent.

“Then the lateral branches were innumerable, inconceivable, and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon infinity. During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain with precision in what remote locality lay the little sleeping-apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty other scholars.”

“In 1822” (continues Dr. Griswold) “he entered the University at Charlottesville, Virginia, where he led a very dissipated life; the manners which then prevailed there were extremely dissolute, and he was known as the wildest and most reckless student of his class; but his unusual opportunities, and the remarkable ease with which he mastered the most difficult studies, kept him all the while in the first rank for scholarship, and he would have graduated with the highest honors, had not his gambling, intemperance, and other vices induced his expulsion from the University.” [page 283:]

This is all false from beginning to end, and is absurd, likewise, on the biographer’s own showing. If Poe was born in 1811, he would at this time (1822) have been eleven years of age, — rather a precocious age, is it not, for one to whom is ascribed the role of a rake and a gambler? As a matter of fact, Poe did not enter the University until 1826, being then just seventeen years of age. He was never, according to reliable evidence, intoxicated while there, nor was he expelled.

Following the death of his foster-father, there came to Poe a period of great, although probably not of his greatest, suffering: He had not at that time secured attention as a writer, and his condition and location up to the time of his appearance as a competitor for the Baltimore prizes are veiled from his biographers. It is not improbable, however, that he made his headquarters at the time with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, who afterwards became his mother-in-law. Dr. Griswold, not having a fact at hand to mortise into this gap, comes to the rescue of his impotent researches, and as usual placidly invents another bit of defamatory fiction. “His contributions,” says Dr. Griswold, .”attracted little attention, and, his hopes of gaining a living in this way being disappointed, he enlisted in the army as a private soldier. How long he remained in the army I have not been able to ascertain. He was recognized by officers who had known him at West Point, and efforts were made privately, but with prospects, to obtain for him a commission, when it was discovered by his friends that he had deserted.” The facts are, on the written testimony of Mrs. Clemm, that at this time his friends were seeking for him a commission, and it is folly to believe, when the prospects were favorable for his securing a higher position, that he would [page 284:] have enlisted as a private, and thus deliberately and unnecessarily have incurred the penalty and disgrace of desertion. That Mrs. Clemm, at least, was in full knowledge of his whereabouts at this time, is evident from her statement made in this regard, that Poe never slept one night away from home until after he was married. It is futile to say that such an audacious rumor should never have obtained admission into a memoir of Poe, and that it never would have done so had proper inquiries been made. Griswold never cared to make inquiries, and if he had, he was in his normal condition too unclean a man ever to have made proper inquiries.

Dr. Griswold’s next fabrication is in regard to the details of Poe’s appearance as a competitor for the prizes offered by the proprietor of the “Saturday Visitor” at Baltimore. The prizes were one for the best tale and one for the best poem. Dr. Griswold states that, attracted by the beauty of Poe’s penmanship, the committee, without opening any of the other manuscripts, voted unanimously that the prizes should be paid to “the first of geniuses who had written legibly.” On the contrary, there appeared in the Visitor, after the awards were made, complimentary comments over the committee’s own signatures. They said, among other things, that all the tales offered by Poe were far better than the best offered by others, adding “that they thought it a duty to call public attention to them in these columns in that marked manner, since they possessed a singular force and beauty, and were eminently distinguished by a rare vigorous and poetical imagination, a rich style, a fertile invention, and varied and curious learning.” It is not a matter of great importance, but Dr. Griswold’s famous pen-photograph of Poe’s personal appearance [page 285:] when summoned by Mr. Kennedy to receive his prize-money, is also untrue. I have not the copy of the letter at hand, and therefore cannot recall the precise words of Mr. Kennedy; but I have in my possession a copy of an original letter which most positively states that Poe’s appearance, although somewhat shabby, was not by any means absolutely poverty-stricken, and that the details of the absence of shirt and stockings, mentioned by Dr. Griswold, are false. This statement is interesting as, in a way, confirmatory of my impression that Poe was not so far reduced as he has been represented at this time. And when it is remembered that there is evidence that he had influential friends at that very time working to secure a commission for him, is it probable that they would have permitted him to go about in such a shocking condition as has been represented? The theory that he was at this time living with friends, is palpably more probable.

That his success in securing the prizes decided him upon enlisting in a literary career, there can be no doubt; hence it is a matter o£ no surprise that we hear no more of the army project at this time.

From other dates which have come to me from private sources, I learn that he met Virginia Clemm when she was but six years of age, that he undertook her tuition at ten, and married her when she was but fourteen. From this, it is, again, not only evident, but undoubted, that he was at least a frequent visitor at the Clemms’ at the period of his career about which so little is known to the world. An amusing instance of Griswold’s pettiness and want of common-sense to demean the position and judgment, even in his endeavor character of his subject as much as possible, is found in the [page 286:] following paragraph in the biography. Speaking of the poet’s connection with the Literary Messenger, he writes: “In the next number of the Messenger, Mr. White announced that Poe was its editor, or, in other words, that he had made arrangements with a gentleman of approved literary taste and attainments, to whose especial management the editorial department would be confided, and it was declared that this gentleman would ‘devote his exclusive attention to his work.’” Having put this down in black and white, following his statement that Mr. White was a man of much purity of character, the redoubtable biographer evidently feels that he has set Poe up a peg too high, and immediately planes him down to an endurable level in the next sentence: “Poe continued, however, to reside in Baltimore, and it is probable that he was engaged only as a general contributor and writer of critical notices of books.” Apropos of these book reviews, Dr. Griswold dismisses them as follows: “He continued in Baltimore till September. In this period he wrote several long reviews, which for the most part were abstracts of works rather than critical discussions.” As a matter of fact, the Messenger was in its seventh month, with about four hundred subscribers, when Poe assumed the editorship. Poe remained with this journal until the end of its second year, by which time its circulation had been increased fourfold. A contemporary of Poe writes that “the success of the Messenger has been justly attributable to Poe’s exertions on its behalf, but especially to the skill, honesty, and audacity of the criticism under the editorial head. The review of “Norman Leslie” may be said to have introduced a new era in our critical literature.” But Griswold could see nothing in Poe’s book reviews of which he cared to speak, for reasons which will be apparent later. [page 287:]

Dr. Griswold’s next mendacious allusion to Poe is in connection with his account of his secession from the Gentleman’s Magazine.

After mentioning a personal correspondence between Burton and Poe, in which the views of the latter, whatever they may have been, are carefully suppressed, Dr. Griswold romances as follows: “He [Burton] was absent nearly a fortnight, and on returning he found that his printers had not received a line of copy, but that Poe had prepared the prospectus of a new monthly, and obtained transcripts of his subscription and account books, to be used in a scheme for supplanting him. He encountered his associate late in the evening at one of his accustomed haunts, and said, ‘Mr. Poe, I am astonished. Give me my manuscripts, so that I can attend to the duties which you have so shamefully neglected, and when you are sober we will settle.’ Poe interrupted him with, ‘Who are you that presume to address me in this manner? Burton, I am the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, and you are — hiccup — a fool!’ Of course, this ended his relations with the Gentleman’s.” That this alleged conversation, so plausibly narrated as to pass current nem. con., were it not for the existence of more reliable documentary evidence, is an audacious invention, has been made apparent to me from the written testimony of gentlemen connected with the Gentleman’s Magazine at this time.

Dr. Griswold devotes considerable space to his next misstatement, which relates to Mr. Poe’s reading of an original poem before the Boston Lyceum. Our. lecture managers and lecture public were more exacting twenty-five years ago, on some points, than at the present time. Now, it suffices for a [page 288:] reputable celebrity to show himself upon the rostrum. Provided he does not occupy too much time (one hour or an hour and fifteen minutes is about the, fashionable limit), he may be sure of copious applause, of fervent congratulations from beaming managers, and a plethoric purse upon retiring. Then, O insatiable manager and exacting public! the best literary work expressly performed for the occasion was demanded, or woe betide the celebrities who failed to meet these requirements!

Poe was probably fully conscious of this, and, not unlike other geniuses in the history of the literary world, was driven wellnigh frantic in contemplation of his task of the “written-expressly-for-this-occasion poem.” It ended as most of these unequal contests between inspiration and necessity have ended time and time again. The day arrived, and no new creations had been evolved from the goaded and temporarily irresponsive brain. He went to Boston to fill his engagement, nerved to meet the ordeal by a spirit which brought him compensation for his anxiety, — a spirit which Mr. E. P. Whipple, the distinguished essayist, at that time immediately associated with Poe, most admirably describes as intellectual mischief.* He could not do what he had been invited to do; well, he would make them believe that he bad filled the demand, if he could, and then honestly own up, and let them laugh at him and with him.

Dr. Griswold makes a labored effort to show that Poe’s failure to meet his engagement to the letter was due to cares, anxieties, and “feebleness of will.” The charge of feebleness of will, applied to Poe in his strictly literary capacity, is perhaps one of the most sapient bits of analysis of which the reverend and profound doctor has delivered himself. As regards Dr. Griswold’s mention of the assistance of Mrs. Osgood, desired by Poe, it is so manifestly absurd, that the biographer’s ingenuity and invention fail to enlist any credence in this bit of fiction.

The literary world of Boston twenty-five years ago was marked by characteristics that rendered it anything but liberal and indulgent. Had Poe had the fortunate tact to disarm his audience by “owning up” at the outset, and in advance, deftly knuckling, as he might have done, to its boasted literary acumen and perceptiveness, all might have been well. But he chose rather to indulge his mischievous propensity, to his cost, as it afterwards proved. In his card in the Broadway Journal, the poet, in acknowledging his confession to a company of gentlemen at a supper which took place after the reading, truly says, in closing, “We should have waited a couple of days.” He should indeed have waited; for among the company was a pitcher that could not contain the water, and the premature leak being made public, naturally aroused a storm of indignant criticism upon the poet’s assumption. His long poem had been applauded to the echo, and the reading of “The Raven “ afterwards, had sent the audience home in the best of spirits. Poe was too frank and impulsive to keep the joke to himself, and, finding that he had not taken in all of the men with brains who received him, lie, without a word of suggestion, made a clean breast of it. [page 290:] How did the truth get to the papers, is the question. We were young indeed, then, it is true. But must not the full-fledged interviewer of the present day have been a grub at some time? and, if so, may not he then have lain snugly ensconced in the comfortable folds of Poe’s black frock?

It is difficult to meet with absolute documentary evidence such a statement as Griswold makes in regard to the poet borrowing money of a lady, and then, when asked to return it as promised, threatening to exhibit a correspondence that would make the woman infamous. Griswold manages, however, to admit that whatever his subject might have been with men, he was “different “ with women; and the numerous letters which I have seen in the poet’s hand to the select circle of his near lady friends, mark his relations with them as characterized by uniform delicacy, deference, and chaste feeling. That this glittering generality of Griswold’s, in this instance of the borrowing, is another glaring falsehood, every known attribute of the poet tends to show.

As regards Mr. Poe’s letters alluding to his dangerous illness, concerning which Mr. Griswold states that Poe was not dangerously ill at all at the time, I have the testimony of a most estimable lady now living, at whose house Mr. Poe was a frequent visitor, that Mr. Poe was almost at death’s door at the time from an attack of congestion of the brain, which was in reality the final cause of his death. I have also the testimony before me in Mr. Poe’s own hand, spite of Griswold’s statement that there was no literary or personal abuse of him in the journals of which Poe complained, that at this very time he (Poe) brought a suit for libel against one of his vilifiers and obtained “exemplary damages.” [page 291:]

Speaking of the severing of Poe’s connection with Graham’s Magazine, Dr, Griswold writes: “The infirmities which induced his separation from Mr. White and Mr. Burton at length compelled Mr. Graham to find another editor”; and also in the same connection, “It is known that the personal ill-will on both sides was such that for some four or five years not a line by Poe was purchased for Graham’s Magazine.” The italics are Dr. Griswold’s. He evidently believes with Chrysos, the art patron in W. S. Gilbert’s play of “ Pygmalion and Galatea,” that when a person tells a lie, he “should tell it well.”

It is a patent fact, that, among the indignant refutations of Griswold’s mendacious memoir of Poe, which was published both in newspaper and magazine form previous to its being included with Poe’s works, was a manly and spirited defence of the poet written by Mr. Graham in the New York Tribune. Mr. Graham, a few months later, wrote in his own magazine a more extended review of Griswold’s memoir, from which we append the following significant extracts: “I knew Mr. Poe well, — far better than Mr. Griswold; and, by the memory of old times when he was an editor of Graham’s, I pronounce this exceedingly ill-timed and unappreciative estimate 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. It must have been made in a moment of spleen, written out and laid aside, and handed to the printer, when his death was announced, with a sort of a chuckle. He is not Mr. Poe’s peer, and I challenge him before the country even as a juror in the case.” Of the parallel drawn between Poe and Bulwer’s Francis [page 292:] Vivian in “The Caxtons,” in which Dr. Griswold paints in lurid colors the alleged envy and vaulting ambition of the poet, Mr. Graham writes: “ 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 has no sympathies in common with him, and has 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 ‘Poets of America,’ gave Griswold some raps over the knuckles of force sufficient to be remembered.

“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.”

This statement of Mr. Graham’s was in the form of an open letter to Mr. N. P. Willis, and carefully avoided any specific personal charges, demonstrating more exactly the basis of Dr. Griswold’s unscrupulous and malignant animus. As Dr. Griswold never presumed to make any detailed public reply to this or similar articles derogatory to the fairness of his views, it is perhaps as well that the more specific charges that might have been made, have been reserved for the present time. [page 293:]

Mr. Graham is now living, and when I last saw him he excellent health. I was then, of course, intent upon data in regard to the life of Poe, and in a conversation with Mr. Graham, some peculiarly significant facts touching Griswold’s veracity in particular were elicited.

Mr. Graham states that Poe never quarrelled with him, never was discharged from Graham’s Magazine; and that during the “four or five years” italicized by Dr. Griswold as indicating the personal ill-will between Mr. Poe and Mr. Graham, over fifty articles by Poe were accepted by Mr. Graham.

The facts of Mr. Poe’s follows: —

Mr. Poe was, from illness or other causes, absent for a short time from his post on the magazine was in securing secession from Graham’s were as Mr. Graham had, meanwhile, made a temporary, arrangement with Dr. Griswold to act as Poe’s substitute until his return. Poe came back unexpectedly, and, seeing Griswold in his chair, turned on his heel without a word, and left the office, nor could he be persuaded to enter it again, although, as stated, he sent frequent contributions thereafter to the pages of the magazine.

The following anecdote well illustrates the character of Poe’s biographer. Dr. Griswold’s associate in his editorial duties on Graham’s was Mr. Charles J. Peterson, a gentleman long and favorably known in connection with prominent American magazines. Jealous of his abilities, and unable to visit his vindictiveness upon him in propria persona, Dr. Griswold conceived the noble design of stabbing him in the back, writing under a non de plume [[nom de plume]] in another journal, the New [page 294:] York Review. In the columns of the Review there appeared a most scurrilous attack upon Mr. Peterson, at the very time in the daily interchange of friendly courtesies with his treacherous associate. Unluckily for Dr. Griswold, Mr. Graham saw this article, and, immediately inferring, from its tone, that Griswold was the undoubted author, went to him with the article in his hand, saying, “Dr. Griswold, I am very sorry to say I have detected you in what I call a piece of rascality.” Griswold turned all colors upon seeing the article, but stoutly denied the imputation, saying, “I’ll go before an alderman and swear that I never wrote it.” It was fortunate that he was not compelled to add perjury to his meanness, for Mr. Graham said no more about the matter at that time, waiting his opportunity for authoritative confirmation of the truth of his surmises. He soon found his conjectures confirmed to the letter. Being well acquainted with the editor of the Review, he took occasion to call upon him shortly afterwards when in New York. Asking as a special favor to see the manuscript of the article in question, it was handed to him. The writing was in Griswold’s hand.

Returning to Philadelphia, he called Griswold to him, told him the facts, paid him a month’s salary in advance, and dismissed him from his post on the spot.

So it becomes evident that the memory of Poe’s biographer, confused upon the point of his discharge from Graham’s, has saddled Poe with the humiliation and disgrace that alone belonged to him. The probing of the personal history of Rufus W. Griswold is like stirring up a jar of sulphuretted hydrogen, — it exhales nothing but foul and loathsome odors. Most of the associations of this man in private life are too vile to [page 295:] place before refined readers. One anecdote I may be permitted to give, to illustrate his utter heartlessness and depravity.

At one time in his career he met and became well acquainted with two ladies (sisters) from South Carolina, who were reputed to be very wealthy. He paid them every attention, and finally became engaged to one of them, whom be shortly afterwards married. On the very day of the wedding, and almost immediately after the ceremony, he was informed that the estimable lady whom he made his wife was a portionless bride. There had been no attempt made by the lady to create the impression that she was wealthy, nor did she dream for a moment that a supposed fortune, and not herself, had secured the villain’s attachment. Dr. Griswold made short work of sentiment and conscience. On the day after the wedding, he coolly informed his bride at the breakfast-table that they must part forever, giving for the pretext a reason so foul, so monstrous, that its repetition in these pages is impossible, from the shocking indecency of the atrocious, subterfuge. Spite of tears and protestations, he deserted the bride of a day, never to return to her, nor communicate with her again. It is a matter of surprise that a man capable of such diabolical mendacity as Dr. Griswold has shown himself to be, should have found anything favorable to say in his memoir, nor would he have clone so, probably, had not the poet’s pre-eminent genius made the few truths to be found in the biography as familiar as household words to the literary world.

The next important statement made by Dr. Griswold, and, unquestionably, the most heinous falsehood to be found in the whole tissue of fabrication which has been so extensively [page 296:] copied as “the life of Edgar A. Poe,” is the statement in regard to Poe’s alleged breaking of his engagement with Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, of Providence, Rhode Island. I may be permitted, in introducing what I have to offer on this subject, to present a letter elicited by Mr. Griswold’s original statement, written by Mr. William J. Pabodie an esteemed and influential citizen of Providence: —


In an article on American Literature in the Westminster Review for April, and in one on Edgar A. Poe in Tait’s Magazine for the same month, we find a repetition of certain incorrect and injurious statements in regard to the deceased author, which should not longer be suffered to pass unnoticed. These statements have circulated through half a dozen foreign and domestic periodicals, and are presented with an ingenious variety of detail. As a specimen, we take a passage from Tait, who quotes as his authority Dr. Griswold’s memoir of the poet:

“Poe’s life, in fact, during the three years that yet remained to him, was simply a repetition of his previous existence, notwithstanding which his reputation still increased; and he made many friends. He was, indeed, at one time, engaged to marry a lady who is termed one of the most brilliant women in New England.’ He, however, suddenly changed his determination; and, after declaring his intention to break the match, he crossed the same day into the city where the lady dwelt, and, on the evening that should have been the evening before the bridal, ‘committed in drunkenness such outrages at her house as made necessary a summons of the police.’ ”

The subject is one which cannot well be approached without invading the sanctities of private life; and the improbabilities of the story may, to those acquainted with the parties, be deemed an all-sufficient refutation. But, in view of the rapidly increasing circulation [page 297:] with which the story has obtained, and the severity of comment which it has elicited, the friends of the late Edgar A. Poe deem it an imperative duty to free his memory from this unjust reproach, and oppose to it their unqualified denial. Such a denial is due, not only to the memory of the departed, but also to the lady whose home is supposed to have been desecrated by these disgraceful outrages.

Mr. Poe was frequently my guest during his stay in Providence. In his several visits to the city I was with him daily. I was acquainted with the circumstances of his engagement, and with the causes which led to its dissolution. I am authorized to say, not only from my personal knowledge, but also from the statements of all who were conversant with the affair, that there exists not a shadow of foundation for the stories above alluded to.

Mr. Poe’s friends have no desire to palliate his faults, nor to conceal the fact of his intemperance, — a vice which, though never habitual to him, seems, according to Dr. Griswold’s published statements, to have repeatedly assailed him at the most momentous epochs of his life. With the single exception of this fault, which he so fearfully expiated, his conduct, during the period of my acquaintance with him, was invariably that of a mall of honor and a gentleman; and I know that, in the hearts of all who knew him best among us, be is remembered with feelings of melancholy interest and generous sympathy.

We understand that Dr. Griswold has expressed his sincere regret that these unfounded reports should have been sanctioned by his authority; and we doubt not, if he possesses that fairness of character and uprightness of intention which we have ascribed him, that he will do what lies in his power to remove an undeserved stigma from the memory of the departed.


PROVIDENCE, June 2, 1852. [page 298:]

In answer to this, we find Dr. Griswold in the role of a bully, impudently attempting to put down Mr. Pabodie’s dignified statement, vi et armis. He writes to Mr. Pabodie a private letter as follows: —

NEW YORK, June 8, 1852.

DEAR SIR, — I think you have done wrong in publishing your communication in yesterday’s Tribune without ascertaining how it must be met. I have never expressed any such regrets as you write of, and I cannot permit any statement in my memoir of Poe to be contradicted by a reputable person, unless it is shown to be wrong. The statement in question I can easily prove on the most unquestionable authority to be true; and unless you explain your letter to the Tribune in another for publication there, you will compel me to place before the public such documents as will be infinitely painful to Mrs. Whitman and all others concerned. The person to whom he disclosed his intention to break off the match was Mrs. H —— t. He was already engaged to another party. I am sorry for the publication of your letter. Why you did not permit me to see it before it appeared, and disclose in advance these consequences, I cannot conceive. I would willingly drop the subject, but for the controversies hitherto in regard to it, with which you are acquainted. Before writing to the Tribune, I will await your opportunity to acknowledge this note, and to give such explanations of your letter as will render any public statement on my part unnecessary.

In haste, yours respectfully,  


To this insolent and impotent letter, which was tesselated with scandalous and irrelevant stories respecting Mr. Poe’ relations with some of his most esteemed and valued friends, [page 299:] Mr. Pabodie replied by calmly reiterating his published statement in the New York Tribune, and by adducing further proof of Griswold’s audacious fabrications. The tone of this letter is in striking contrast to that of Griswold’s virulent and threatening note. Its forbearing mildness indeed renders it open to criticism on this ground.

June 11, 1852.


DEAR SIR, — In reply to your note, I would say that I have simply testified to what I know to be true, namely, that no such incident as that so extensively circulated in regard to certain alleged outrages at, the house of Mrs. Whitman, and the calling of the police, ever took place. The assertion that Mr. Poe came to Providence the last time with the intention of breaking off the engagement you will find equally unfounded when I have stated to you the facts as I know them. In remarking that you had expressed regret at the fact of their admission into your memoir, I had reference to a passage in a letter written by Mrs. H. to Mrs. W., which was read to me by the latter some time since. I stated in all truthfulness the impression which that letter had left upon my mind. I enclose an extract from the letter, that you may judge for yourself: —

“Having heard that Mr. Poe was engaged to a lady of Providence, I said to him, on hearing that he was going to that city, ‘Mr. Poe, are you going to Providence to be married?’ ‘I am going to deliver a lecture on Poetry,’ he replied. Then, after a pause, and with a look of great reserve, he added, ‘That marriage may never take place.’ ”*

I know that from the commencement of Poe’s acquaintance with [page 300:] Mrs. W., he repeatedly urged her to an immediate marriage. At the time of his interview, with Mrs. H., circumstances existed which threatened to postpone the marriage indefinitely, if not altogether to prevent it. It was, undoubtedly, with reference to these circumstances that his remark to Mrs. H. was made, certainly not to breaking off the engagement, as his subsequent conduct will prove. He left New York for Providence on the afternoon of his interview with Mrs. H., not with any view to the proposed union, but at the solicitation of the Providence Lyceum; and on the evening of his arrival delivered his lecture on American Poetry, before an audience of some two thousand persons. During his stay he again succeeded in renewing his engagement, and in obtaining Mrs. W.’s consent to an immediate marriage.

He stopped at the Earl House, where he became acquainted with a set of somewhat dissolute young men, who often invited him to drink with them. We all know that he sometimes yielded to such temptations, and on the third or fourth evening after his lecture, he came up to Mrs. Whitman’s in a state of partial intoxication. I was myself present nearly the whole evening, and do most solemnly affirm that there was no noise, no disturbance, no “outrage,” neither was there any “call for the police.” Mr. Poe said but little. This was undoubtedly the evening referred to in your memoir, for it was the only evening in which he was intoxicated during his last visit to this city; but it was not “ the evening that should have: been before the bridal,” for they were not then published, and the law in our State required that they should be published at least three times, on as many different occasions, before they could be legally married.

The next morning, Mr. Poe manifested and expressed the most profound contrition and regret, and was profuse in his promises of amendment. He was still urgently anxious that the marriage should take place before he left the city. [page 301:]

That very morning he wrote a note to Dr. Crocker, requesting him to publish the intended marriage at the earliest opportunity, and intrusted this note to me, with the request that I should deliver it in person. You will perceive, therefore, that I did not write unadvisedly in the statement published in the Tribune.

For yourself, Mr. Griswold, I entertain none other than the kindest feelings. I was not surprised that you should have believed those rumors in regard to Poe and his engagement; and although, from a regard for the feelings of the lady, I do not think that a belief in their truth could possibly justify their publication, yet I was not disposed to impute to you any wrong motive in presenting them to the public. I supposed rather that, in the hurry of publication and in the multiplicity of your avocations, you had not given each statement that precise consideration which less haste and more leisure would have permitted. I was thus easily led to believe, from Mrs. H.’s letter, that upon being assured of their incorrectness, and upon- learning how exceedingly painful they were to the feelings of the surviving party, you sincerely regretted their publication. I would fain hope so still.

In my article in the Tribune, I endeavored to palliate their publication on your part, and to say everything in your extenuation that was consistent with the demands of truth and justice to the parties concerned. I would add, in regard to Poe’s intoxication on the evening above alluded to, that to all appearances it was as purely accidental and unpremeditated as any similar act of his life. By what species of logic any one should infer that in this particular instance it was the result of a malicious purpose and deliberate design, I have never been able to conceive. The facts of the case and his subsequent conduct prove beyond a doubt that he had no such design.

With great respect,  
Your obedient servant,  

REV. RUFUS W. GRISWOLD. [page 302:]

It will be seen by this correspondence that the attempt of Dr. Griswold to browbeat Mr. Pabodie was courteously but firmly and unanswerably met. Dr. Griswold never paid the slightest attention to this letter, contenting himself with leaving on record the outrageous scandal that has since obtained an almost unprecedented circulation in the numerous memoirs of Poe, based upon Dr. Griswold’s malicious invention, that have been published. The introduction of the story of the banns would seem to come under the head of what lawyers call “an accessory after the fact.” Dr. Griswold had probably heard that the banns were written, if not published, and took advantage of this information to adroitly garnish his story with them. To set, this question at rest forever, I have obtained permission to quote the following passages of a letter received from Mrs. Whitman in August, 1873:

“No such scene as that described by Dr. Griswold ever transpired in my presence. No one, certainly no woman, who had the slightest acquaintance with Edgar Poe, could have credited the story for an instant. He was essentially and instinctively a gentleman, utterly incapable, even in moments of excitement and delirium, of such an outrage as Dr. Griswold has ascribed to him. No authentic anecdote of coarse indulgence in vulgar orgies or bestial riot has ever been recorded of him. During the last years of his unhappy life, whenever he yielded to the temptation that was drawing him into its fathomless abyss, as with the resistless swirl of the maelstrom, he always lost himself in sublime rhapsodies on the evolution of the universe, speaking as from some imaginary plat form to vast audiences of rapt and attentive listeners. During one of his visits to this city, in the autumn of 1848, I once saw him, [page 303:] after one of those nights of wild excitement, before reason had fully recovered its throne. Yet even then, in those frenzied moments when the doors of the mind’s ‘Haunted Palace’ were left all unguarded, his words were the words of a princely intellect, overwrought, and of a heart, only too sensitive and too finely strung. I repeat that no one acquainted with Edgar Poe could have given Dr. Griswold’s scandalous anecdote a moment’s credence.

“Yours, etc.,  

In regard to Mr. Griswold’s professed friendship for Poe, which he endeavors to demonstrate in copies of a correspondence which I cannot refrain from thinking was extensively “doctored” by the doctor, to suit his purpose, I am able to present an extract from an autograph letter of Dr. Griswold written to Mrs. Whitman in 1849.

The object of this was evidently to cool Mrs. Whitman’s friendship for Mrs. Clemm, thus preventing their further intimacy. This was desirable to Dr. Griswold for evident reasons.

NEW YORK, December 17, 1849.

MY DEAR MRS. WHITMAN, — I have been two or three weeks in Philadelphia attending to the remains which a recent fire left of my library and furniture, and so did not receive your interesting letter in regard to our departed acquaintance until to-day; I wrote, as you suppose, the notice of Poe in the Tribune, but very hastily.

I was not his friend, nor was he mine, as I remember to have told you. I undertook to edit his writings, to oblige Mrs Clemm, and they will soon be published in two thick volumes, o£ Which a copy shall be sent to you. I saw very little of Poe in his last years. . . . . I cannot refrain from begging you to be very [page 304:] careful what you say or write to Mrs. Clemm, who is not your friend, nor anybody’s friend, and who has no element of goodness, or kindness in her nature, but whose whole heart and understanding are full of malice and wickedness. I confide in you these sentences for your own sake only, for Mrs. C. appears to be a very warm friend to me. Pray destroy this note, and, at least, act cautiously, till I may justify it in a conversation with you.

I am, yours very sincerely,  

This brief note affords a tolerably good specimen of the utter duplicity of the man. In his printed memoir of Poe„ he quotes a correspondence indicating professed friendship; in private, he squarely owns that no friendship ever existed between Poe and himself.

He writes that Mrs. Clemm is a friend to no one, and stigmatizes her character, and in the same breath speaks of her warm friendship for him.

Had Griswold lived in Othello’s time, no one could have disputed with him the position of “mine ancient,” honest Iago.

From a correspondence from Mrs. Clemm, who, there can be no reasonable doubt, is correctly described by Willis as “one of those angels upon earth that women in adversity can be,” we find the most positive testimony that Dr. Griswold’s association with collecting the works of Poe, and of writing a memoir of the author, was purely voluntary and speculative.

It presents simply the fact of a designing and unscrupulous man, prompted by hatred and greed of gain, taking advantage of a helpless woman, unaccustomed to business, to defraud her of her rights, and gratify his malice and his avarice at her expense. [page 305:]

A miserable pittance having been given to Mrs. Clemm in exchange for Poe’s private papers, Dr. Griswold draws up a paper for Mrs. Clemm to sign, announcing his appointment as Poe’s literary executor, not omitting of course. a touching allusion to himself. This is duly signed by Mrs. Clemm, and printed over her signature in the published editions of Poe’s works. But if the wording of this curious paper be carefully observed, it will be noted that nothing. whatever is said in it of any request by Poe that Dr. Griswold should write a memoir of his life. This duty was properly assigned to Mr. Willis, — of all men, familiar with the subject, the most competent to fulfil such a task, — and his tender and manly tribute to the stricken genius was all that could have been wished, all that the world called for.

Mrs. Clemm had no idea, at the time she signed the paper which she scarcely understood, that Dr. Griswold had any intention of supplementing Mr. Willis’s obituary with any memoir by his own pen. It was a piece of gratuitous malice, — the act of a fiend exulting over a dead and helpless victim. The tone of Poe’s critique of Griswold, in his review of the “Poets and Poetry of America,” which unquestionably inspired the reverend doctor’s malignant hatred, scathing as it is, will impress the reader with its outspoken manliness and integrity of purpose. What a contrast to the biography that, while undermining the very foundations of Poe’s moral and social character, yet hypocritically professes to be dictated by friendship, and written in a generous spirit! I fear that Dr. Griswold’s precious specimen of his generosity will go on record in the history of literature as an everlasting monument of his despicable meanness! [page 306:]

Dr. Griswold was, take him all in all, about as well fitted to be Poe’s biographer, as Mr. Preston Brooks would have been to have written an impartial life of Charles Sumner. And, indeed, whenever it becomes possible for a Rufus W. Griswold to write a true transcript of the life of an Edgar A. Poe, then will perpetual motion have become possible, the world will find it easy and comfortable to arrest its revolutions at pleasure, and balloon voyages to the planets will become as popular and as practicable, as is a trip to Saratoga at the present day.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 288:]

*  Poe’s connection with the Text-Book of Conchology, of which Dr. Griswold makes such a point, is undoubtedly attributable to this same spirit of intellectual mischief. No other cause can reasonably be assigned for the publication of the book under the circumstances. There was no money in such a venture, and the action partakes so much of the color of Poe’s purely mischievous pranks in other fields, that I cannot but assign it to the same species of impulse.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 299:]

*  In another letter Mrs. H. writes, referring to this conversation, indignant at the use which Dr. Griswold had made of these innocent words more than a year after she had reported them, “These were Mr. Poe’s words, and these were all.”



The “Mrs. H———t” mentioned in Pabodie’s letter was Mrs. Mary Hewitt.


[S:0 - LL, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe and His Biographer, Rufus W. Griswold (William Fearing Gill, 1875)