Text: Eugene L. Didier, “The Poe Cult,” Bookman: A Magazine of Literature and Life, (New York, NY), December 1902, pp. 336-339


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[page 336:]

THE POE CULT*

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One of the most astonishing facts in the literary annals of America, if not of the world, is the amazing rise of what may be called the Poe cult. The unhappy master of “The Raven” was the victim of a fate more strange, more romantic, more tragical than poet ever imagined or novelist ever penned. His life was one of suffering, sorrow and song; he died a wretched death in the charity ward of a public hospital,

Unwept, unhonoured, unsung.

His funeral was pathetic in its meagre attendance, its scant ceremony and absence of mourning. Only eight persons were present at the funeral of one of the immortals of earth.

At the time of this humble funeral, on October 8, 1849, no one could have dreamed that within twenty-five years Edgar Poe would be regarded by the cultured people of all lands as the most unique and remarkable genius in American literature. Equally astonishing is the fact that many persons who were old enough to remember Poe are still alive, when his letter possess a market value five times as great as that of Byron’s, twice as great as Shelley’s, a hundred times as great as Bryant’s, Longfellow’s, Lowell’s and other contemporaneous American authors. Still more remarkable is the fact that the manuscripts of those poems, for which he received trifling sums, have become as precious as the Sibylline leaves, and are worth their weight in gold. If the original manuscript of “The Raven” were still in existence, American millionaires would contend for its possession, and $10,000 would gladly be paid for the inestimable treasure. Yet for this poem, [column 2:] which has brought more honour upon American literature than any other single American poem and established Poe’s fame as the most original of American poets — a poem which stands alone in poetry as the “Venus” in sculpture and “The Transfiguration” in painting — for this wonderful poem whose weird and mysterious fascination has thrilled the world, Poe was paid only ten dollars, a sum which is now paid for an ordinary love story in a weekly newspaper.

Upon the rare occasions when the first editions of Poe’s poems have been offered for sale at auction the excitement has run high, the bidding has been spirited and the prices have broken the record. The first edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems (Boston, 1827) was never offered at public auction until the spring of 1892. In fact, for sixty years one copy only, and that an imperfect one, was known to exist, and that was in the locked room of the British Museum, there to stay “for evermore.” So when it was announced that a second copy of the precious volume was to be sold at auction the excitement among wealthy collectors was great. As no copy had ever been sold, there was no record price. The bidding was high and rapid — $500, $750, $1,000, $1,500, $1,750; finally the tiny paper volume of about forty pages, whose intrinsic value was about ten cents, was knocked down for the enormous sum of $1,875. The purchaser, proud of his prize, sent it to Paris and had it bound in mosaic at a cost of $300. In the spring of 1894 another copy of the first edition of Tamerlane was discovered by an obscure young lawyer in an obscure town in Vermont. The finding of a third copy naturally lessened the value of the work as a unique or rare book, and when it was offered to several persons who are interested in literary curios no offer above $1,200 could be secured for it. What became of that copy [page 337:] of Tamerlane I have no means of knowing. In the autumn of 1900, a copy was sold at auction, bringing the record price of $2,050.

The immense price paid for an examplar of the first edition of Tamerlane shows the remarkable advance that has taken place in the value of Poeana during the last ten years. But all records were broken in this respect at the sale of Mr. Frederick William French’s library on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th of April, 1901. The second edition of Tamerlane, Baltimore, 1829, a beautiful copy in the original boards, uncut, was sold to a dealer for $1,300, and advance of $200 on the price of the McKee copy sold in November, 1900. No. I of the Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe, containing “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Man that Was Used Up” in the original brown paper wrappers, brought an even $1,000; an enormous price, but only two copies are known to be in existence. Two autograph letters of Poe’s at the same sale fetched, respectively, $250 and $210.

In mentioning these fabulous prices paid for Poe rarities I cannot help thinking that the pity of it is that the unhappy master of “The Raven” should have lived in poverty, often in absolute want, when the price of one of his rare editions would have made him comfortable for years; when the price of one of his autograph letters would have provided heat to warm the benumbed limbs of his dying wife, wine to stimulate her physical weakness and delicate food to nourish her body, exhausted by consumption.

Mr. William Nelson of Paterson, New Jersey, a few years ago was fortunate enough to secure the original manuscript of “The Bells” for $275. He is an enthusiastic Poe man, and his collection contains several first editions; also, The Southern Literary Messenger and Graham’s Magazine, of both of which Poe was the editor. He has also a large and interesting collection of newspaper clippings relating to Poe, running from a single paragraph to long editorials. Mr. Nelson has spent much time and money in forming his collection, but when the Poe mania takes possession of a man time counts for nothing, and money is thrown away with reckless prodigality.

The Poe cult is progressive; beginning [column 2:] with admiration of his melodious poems and extraordinary prose tales, the admiration of the poetry leads to an enthusiasm for the poet and an interest in everything relating to him. The shabby little homes in which he lived and loved and worked become pilgrims’ shrines. The few books which he owned become precious relics. When the old Allan mansion in Richmond, Virginia, was pulled down a few years ago there was a pretty scramble for Poe relics, for in that house Poe’s happy childhood and youth were passed. Thirty dollars was asked for the mantlepiece of the poet’s room, thirty-five for the bureau, five for the lock, etc. The cane with which old Mr. Allan, Poe’s adopted father, threatened to strike the wayward poet if he did not leave the house after their irreconcilable quarrel should have brought a fabulous price could it have been found among the curios collected there. Had any of Poe’s juvenile verses been discovered they would have brought hundreds, yes, thousands of dollars. What became of those precious manuscripts containing poems to his boyish sweethearts will never be known.

It is strange there are so few of Poe’s letters in existence, for he was a voluminous letter-writer and had many correspondents among the literary men and women of his time. The late Judge Neilson Poe of Baltimore, who was a cousin of the poet, had several very interesting letters from Edgar Poe, which I have seen. These disappeared soon after the Judge’s death, and have never been traced. Their publication would throw much light on certain periods of Poe’s life. Mrs. Clemm was in possession of some valuable Poe letters and other things at the time of her death in Baltimore on February 16, 1871. These also disappeared, no one knows whither.

The present Poe cult commenced at the time of the unveiling of the monument to the poet in Baltimore on the 17th of November, 1875. It was a memorable occasion, not only for American literature but for the literature of the world. It was the first public recognition of the extraordinary genius of the author of “The Raven.” It drew together a notable assemblage, including several who had been associated with Poe in his youth and early manhood. Among these were [page 338:] Professor Joseph H. Clarke, Poe’s first teacher in Richmond, who died in Baltimore in 1886, in the ninety-second year of his age; John H. B. Latrobe, the distinguished Southern lawyer, the last survivor of the three gentlemen who, by awarding to Poe the prize for the best prose tale, gave him the first lift up the literary ladder; John H. Hewitt, the editor of the Saturday Visitor, in which the prize story, “The Manuscript Found in a Bottle, was published; Dr. John E. Snodgrass, the last editor of the Saturday Visitor and associate editor of the American Museum, in which several of Poe’s early poems and tales were published; Dr. Nathan Covington Brooks, editor of the American Museum; Doctor John G. Morris, president of the Maryland Historical Society; Nathaniel H. Morison, provost of the Peabody Institute, Baltimore; Judge Neilson Poe, the nearest surviving relative of the poet; and Walt Whitman, the last in name, but first in fame.

Many of the then living poets of America were invited to the unveiling of the Baltimore monument, but all with the exception of Walt Whitman sent their “regrets,” most of which expressed the highest admiration of Poe’s genius. Longfellow, who was asked to suggest an appropriate inscription for the monument, wrote that “the only lines of Mr. Poe that I recall as in any way appropriate to the purpose are from a poem entitled “For Annie.” They are:

The fever called living

Is conquered at last.

From across the sea came tributes from Tennyson, Swinburne, Richard H. Horne, and Mallarmé, the French poet. Swinburne, full of the glowing enthusiasm of youth, paid a noble tribute to Poe:

The genius of Edgar Poe has won, on this side of the Atlantic, such wide and warm recognition that the sympathy, which I cannot hope fitly or fully to express in adequate words, is undoubtedly shared at this moment, not in England only, but in France, as well. . . . It is not for me to offer any tribute here to the fame of your great countryman, or dilate with superfluous and intrusive admiration, on the special quality of his strong and delicate genius, so sure of aim, and faultless of touch in all the finer and better part of the [column 2:] work he has left us. Widely as the fame of Poe has already spread and deeply as it is already rooted in Europe, it is even now growing wider and striking deeper as time advances, the surest presage that time, the eternal enemy of small and shallow reputations, will prove, in this case, also, the constant and truest friend and keeper of a true poet’s full-grown fame.

Of all the tributes to Poe inspired by the unveiling of the monument the poem “At Poe’s Grave,” by William Winter, was by far the most beautiful. I have room for only two or three verses:

Through many a year his fame has grown,

Like midnight, vast; like starlight sweet,

Till now his genius fills a throne,

And nations marvel at his feet.

One meed of justice long delayed,

One crowning grace his virtues crave:

Ah, take thou great and injured shade,

The love that sanctifies the grave!

God’s mercy guard in peaceful sleep,

The sacred dust that slumbers here:

And, while round this tomb we weep,

God bless, for us, the mourner’s tear!

Dr. Johnson said that Oliver Goldsmith touched nothing which he did not ornament. It can be truly said of Poe that he touched nothing which he did not immortalise. The room at the University of Virginia where he spent a few months of his early manhood is more frequently visited than are the dormitories of the long line of orators, statesmen and scholars who were educated at that celebrated seat of learning. Every magazine with which he was associated, either as editor or contributor — Graham’s, Godey’s, the Southern Literary Messenger and other periodicals — has been remembered simply because Poe’s name was connected with it. The little cottage at Fordham, where the saddest years of his life were spent — those lonesome latter years after the death of his wife — is visited by strangers from distant lands because it was the home of the poet, where, wifeless, moneyless, hopeless, he made his last desperate, despairing struggle with pitiless fortune. His tomb in Westminster churchyard, Baltimore, where the poet’s “tantalised spirit blandly reposes,” has made the spot the “Poet’s Corner” of the Westminster [page 339:] of the Monumental City. Men and women’s names have been saved from oblivion because they were in some way or other associated with Poe, either as friends or enemies. The gentle Mrs. Osgood, the malignant Griswold, the devoted Mrs. Whitman, the ferocious Briggs, the genial General Wetmore, the accomplished John R. Thompson and many others will occur to all students of the life and works of the author of “The Raven.”

Carlyle regarded it as a remarkable fact the six lives of Burns had been published within a generation after his death. Within the same space of time, nine lives of Poe were published, while several others have been issued during the last decade. These numerous biographies show that the Poe cult is ever on the increase, and that the reading public welcomes every addition to its knowledge of the most interesting and picturesque figure in American literature.

The Poe cult is not confined to any one, two or three countries. It has spread throughout the civilised world. It includes the cultured people of Europe, America, and in the lands beyond the sea. It has made Edgar A. Poe a classic. Numerous editions of his works have been published in London and Edinburgh. In France he is as much admired as many French authors. A dozen editions of his poems and tales have appeared in Germany; his tales have been published in Spain and Italy; his poetical works in Australia; and one of his stories, “The Oval Portrait,” has been translated into modern Greek and published at Athens. The end of the Poe cult cannot be foretold. It has not reached its height. Even while I write, a new edition of his works in seventeen volumes has been published.

It should always be remembered that the Poe cult owes its origin and stimulus to the gifted and fearless Sarah Helen Whitman. When malice had exhausted itself in heaping insult upon the name of the dead poet, it was the delicate affection of Mrs. Whitman — who loved him and whom he loved — that dared to penetrate the “mournful corridors” of that sad, desolate heart, with its “halls of tragedy and chambers of retribution,” and tell the true, but melancholy, story of the author of “The Raven.” It was she who generously came forward as “One of the [column 2:] Friends” of him who was said to have no friends. She was his steady champion from first to last. Whether it was some crack-brain scribbler who tried to prove Poe “mad,” or some accomplished scholar who endeavoured to disparage him in order to magnify some other writer, or some silly woman who attempted to foist herself into a little brief notice by relating “imaginary facts” about the poet’s hidden life, Mrs. Whitman was always ready to defend her dead friend. It was beautifully said of this accomplished lady: “She was ever sensitive to the slightest criticism of Poe’s faults, walking softly backward and throwing over them the shielding mantle of her love. Heedless of the world’s cold sneer, she seized her pen whenever she thought him treated with injustice and defended his memory with the warmth of a woman and a poet.” Some of her most beautiful poems were inspired by her tender recollection of her poet-lover. One of these, “Poe’s Portrait,” is not so well known as it should be. I quote the first and last of the ten verses:

Slowly I raised the purple folds concealing

That face, magnetic as the morning’s beam;

While slumbering memory thrilled at its revealing

Like Memnon waking from his marble dream.

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Though cloud and shadow rest upon thy story,

And rude hands lift the drapery of thy pall,

Time, as a birthright, shall restore thy glory

And Heaven rekindle all the stars that fall.

After a long and exhaustive study of the life of Edgar A. Poe during a quarter of a century, I have come to the conclusion that he was neither the demon painted by some of his early, nor the angel described by some of his later, biographers. He mingled among men neither as a “prying fiend” nor as a “bewildered angel.” He was a man of rare and remarkable genius, with the infirmities that often accompany it. While endowed with extraordinary intellectual gifts, he was a most unfortunate victim of circumstances. Left an orphan in his infancy, he was adopted by a man who reared him in luxury as the heir to a splendid fortune, when suddenly, in his twentieth year, he was thrown upon the [page 340:] world without a dollar. Then began that long, desperate, never-ending struggle for bread. The pen was his weapon, literature [column 2:] his pursuit, poverty his fate, fame his reward.

Eugene L. Didier.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 336, column 1:]

*  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. In Seventeen Volumes. Virginia Edition, Edited by James A. Harrison. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - BKNM, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Poe Cult (E. L. Didier, 1902)