Text: William F. Gill, “Preface”, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1878, pp. iii-x


[page iii, unnumbered:]



For more than a quarter of a century, the American public, while crowning with laurels the genius of Edgar A. Poe, has lived on, indolently oblivious of the true story of his life.

Carping criticism has gloated over the doubtful record of follies and excesses ascribed to him by malignant enemies like Griswold, while the man, as he actually lived, is known only to the few.

But as truth gradually displaces falsehood, we shall come to understand more correctly the true proportions of that marred and broken individuality, that nature so sensitively organized and so rarely developed, under circumstances so exceptionally perilous and perverting.

Some years since, the attention of the writer of this memoir was called to numerous inconsistencies apparent in Dr. Rufus W. Griswold’s memoir of Edgar Allan Foe, and was induced to make inquiries that evidenced that this memoir, which for twenty-five [page iv:] years has been permitted to stand as the representative biography of the poet, was, to all intents and purposes, a tissue of the most glaring falsehoods ever combined in a similar work.

It appeared, upon investigation, that Griswold’s misrepresentations arose from the bitter enmity in which this mediocre writer held Poe, on account of the poet’s slashing critique of his (Griswold’s) “Poets and Poetry of America.”

It has been the aim of the writer to give an unpartisan transcript of the life and character of Edgar Allan Poe; to be “to his faults a little kind,” without shrinking from the duty of a biographer, to recount all facts that came within the scope of his province to record.

Place has not been given to idle rumors, nor to the unsubstantiated opinions of unreliable persons.

Dr. Griswold has been treated as ‘a disagreeable necessity. So long as the impression created by his “memoir “exists, he cannot, injustice to the memory of the poet, be ignored on the ground of his mediocrity as a writer. His shafts were none the less pitiless, although barbed with “poor fustian.” Until another quarter of a century has elapsed, it cannot be expected [page v:] that the baleful work done by Griswold can be uprooted, for it has stood and thriven during the past twenty-five years, and, upon many persons now living, has created an impression that will endure while life endures. To the new generation of readers, with whom the lamented poet is finding a favor denied him at the hands of his contemporaries, this memoir may best fulfil its purpose of pleading the cause of a man of genius, condemned unheard.

It may also serve to answer the complaint of an English writer, that “no trustworthy biography of of Poe has yet appeared in his own country.”

It has been the design of the writer to include in this work everything of importance that has been written or related of Poe, so far as accessible and reliable.

It has been our good fortune to be brought into relations of near friendship with several of the most intimate friends and companions of the poet; and in many cases, we speak, literally, “out of their own mouths,” more significantly, without doubt, than if we had had the temerity to assume more independent views. Our especial acknowledgments, for valuable assistance rendered, are due to Mrs. S. H. Whitman, [page vi:] Mr. Neilson Poe, Mrs. Annie L. Richmond, Mr. George R. Graham, and the late Mrs. Maria Clemm and Mr. T. C. Clarke.

The portrait given is from a daguerrotype [[daguerreotype]] taken from life. It represents the poet in his youthful prime, and by one, a near friend of Poe, who has seen all his pictures known to be in existence, is pronounced the best likeness extant.



[page vii:]




The reception accorded to this work has conclusively shown that the writer’s purpose in attempting a new and complete biography of Edgar Allan Poe has been accomplished to the satisfaction of those whose esteem is to be most highly prized. A few writers who see, not with the eyes, but with their prejudices, have vainly endeavored to break down by groundless theories, joined with the mouldered relics of long-buried and fictitious scandals, the evidence brought forward to sustain the author’s estimate of his subject.

It is significant that not so much as a single scrap of proof, has been produced in support of these adverse and ill-tempered speculations.*

The principal objections made by writers whose prejudices forbade their acceptance of an impartial estimate of the true character of my subject, has been, that I have allowed myself to be led into an unjustifiable condemnation of Rufus W. Griswold. It may be fairly urged in answer to such charges, that the prefacing of an author’s works by a mendacious memoir, written by a bitter and unscrupulous enemy, is a [page viii:] remarkable phenomenon, without a parallel in literary history. So exceptional an issue demanded to be exceptionally met. No complete and faithful biography of Poe could adequately fulfil its purpose, without carefully and fully probing a matter fraught with such vital importance to the public’s estimate of the true character of the poet.

I am convinced, therefore, that a fair judgment of the controversial element in my biography, will concede that the true story of Poe’s life could not well have been told without special and pointed references to the Griswold memoir. If sometimes I have “cut beyond the wound, to make the cure complete,” it must be remembered that the Griswold difficulty is of long standing, and has never, previously, been thoroughly dealt with.

I have endeavored to meet the misstatements of Dr. Griswold by a chain of incontrovertible evidence of facts that would be accepted as conclusive. But, as there possibly exists in the minds of some well-disposed persons a shadow of a doubt as to the deliberate malice which the original biographer of Poe brought to his preparation of his memoir of the poet, I have in the Notes following the Appendix included Poe’s scathing critique of Griswold’s “Poets and Poetry of America,” that the relation between cause and effect may be indubitably shown.

Mantled by the cloak of impersonality under which [page ix:] Poe wrote his editorials in Tlie Saturday Museum, it is free in utterance, and evidences the poet’s consciousness of his own critical attainments.

This criticism, which Griswold excluded from his collection of Poe’s works, has never been printed in any of the editions of them.

Aside from the light which it throws upon the source of the enmity of Griswold, it is peculiarly interesting from the estimate which it gives of poets and authors who have attained eminence, as well as of many writers who have passed into oblivion. Other notes have been added connected with the poet’s history, not included in the first edition. The scandal of the borrowing of money by the poet of a South Carolina lady, and his alleged conduct in regard to acknowledging it, and that of his selling the poem, “Annabel Lee,” to three different magazines, are, at last, met here, and effectually controverted.

These revisions and additions, with others made in the work, have, it is hoped, enhanced its interest, and rendered it more valuable to all who are attracted by the sad and romantic history of the author of “The Raven.”


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page ix, running to the bottom of page x:]

*  A writer in The Athenæum for October, 1877, has controverted certain statements, and accused me of copying from [page x:] the sketch prefacing A. & C. Black’s edition of Poe’s works, which was prepared by a young clerk in the London post-office, who is also an attaché of The Athenæum. It is proper to state in this connection, that nearly all the matter used in his vindication of Poe is from my lecture, “The Romance of Edgar A. Poe,” written in the summer of 1873. The first article by the young man alluded to, in The Athenæum criticism, appeared in February, 1874, in “The Mirror,” and his completed sketch not until the fall of 1874. He was permitted access to the material, previously used by me, by its owner, with my approval. His sketch did not appear until after my vindication of the poet had been printed in America, in a volume entitled “Lotos Leaves,” republished in England some months later.

The only important vindicatory matter contained in this sketch was not original, having been previously used by me; while numerous sources of information that have been availed of by me, notably Mrs. Maria Clemm, Mr. Thomas Cottrell Clarke, Mr. George R. Graham, Mr. Neilson Poe, Mrs. Annie L. Richmond, Mr. Washington A. Poe, Mrs. Susan Archer Weiss, and the poet’s own MSS., were not open to the writer of the Edinburgh memoir.

The claim has been erroneously made that this young man was the first to attempt a vindication of Poe. His own sketch shows that Mr. George R. Graham published a vindication of the poet in 1850, and Mrs. S. H. Whitman another in 1860; while my lecture and published essay, which covered the same ground, but more fully, were, as previously stated, completed in 1873.

The sketch in the Messrs. Black’s edition fills ninety-nine 12mo pages. This volume covers three hundred and forty pages. The statements, controverted in The Athenæum criticism, were, with one or two exceptions, made from the testimony of Poe himself, and are authenticated by the evidence of Mr. Neilson Poe, his cousin and heir-at-law.



In a number of copies examined, the page containing the “Preface to the Third Edition” has been removed. It is possible that some effort was made to suppress it. The “Preface to the Third Edition” is repeated in the fourth and fifth editions, although in the fifth edition the long footnote on pp. ix-x has been eliminated and a small footnote was appended to the end of the original preface, on p. vi, reading:

* Since 1876 the Griswold memoir has been superseded in the varius editions of Poe’s writings by other, and later ones, giving fairer an d truer estimates of the poet’s life and character.

To connect this foontote to the text, an asterisk was added after the sentence ending “a similar work” at the top of p. iv.


[S:0 - WFG, 1878] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Life of Edgar Allan Poe [Preface] (W. F. Gill, 1878)