Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 17,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 94-101


[page 94:]



Poe, disappointed in his hopes of success in New York, left that city and, in the summer of 1839, removed to Philadelphia, then the literary center of the United States.

Of his business experiences while here — his successes and disappointments — his quarrels with certain editors and literary men and his friendly relations with others, his biographers have informed us. But it is in his home and private life that we are interested.

Their financial circumstances at this time must have been deplorable, for they had to borrow money to enable them to remove to Philadelphia. Under the circumstances, to take board was impracticable; and it appears from the reminiscences of certain neighbors, that they for some time occupied very poor lodgings in an obscure street in the vicinity of a market. But Poe was much more successful here than in New York, and we find them in [page 95:] the following spring established in a home of their own in a locality known as Spring Garden, a quiet suburb far from the dust and noise of the city.

Some one has recently taken pains to hunt out with infinite patience and perseverance this house, which the Poes occupied for nearly five years. It was an ordinary framed Dutch-roofed building, with but three rooms on the ground floor, and under the eaves little horizontal strips of windows on a level with the floor, which could scarcely have admitted light and air. But there was, when they took possession, a bit of grassy side yard which had once been part of a garden, and a porch over which grew a straggling rose-bush. This latter Mrs. Clemm's skillful hands carefully pruned and trained, thus winning for the humble abode the title still applied to it of “The poet's rose-embowered cottage,” to which some enthusiast has added, “Where Poe and his idolized Virginia dreamed their divine dream of love.”

To a lady who was at this time a resident of Spring Garden we are indebted for a glimpse of the Poes in this their quiet and half-rural abode.

“Twice a day, on my way to and from [page 96:] school,” she said, “I had to pass their house, and in summer time often saw them. In the mornings Mrs. Clemm and her daughter would be generally watering the flowers, which they had in a bed under the windows. They seemed always cheerful and happy, and I could hear Mrs. Poe's laugh before I turned the corner. Mrs. Clemm was always busy. I have seen her of mornings clearing the front yard, washing the windows and the stoop, and even white-washing the palings. You would notice how clean and orderly everything looked. She rented out her front room to lodgers, and used the middle room, next to the kitchen, for their own living room or parlor. They must have slept under the roof. We never heard that they were poor, and they kept pretty much to themselves in the two years we lived near them. I don't think that in that time I saw Mr. Poe half a dozen times. We heard he was dissipated, but he always appeared like a gentleman, though thin and sickly looking. His wife was the picture of health. It was after we moved away that she became an invalid.”

Mrs. Clemm, she added, was a dress and cloak maker; and she thinks that Mrs. Poe assisted her, as she would sometimes see the latter [page 97:] seated on the stoop engaged in sewing. “She was pretty, but not noticeably so. She was too fleshy.”

This account refers to a time when Poe was assistant editor of The Gentleman's Magazine, and the family were enjoying a degree of peace and prosperity such as they never subsequently knew.

Poe lost this position, according to Mr. Burton, the editor-in-chief, by indulgence in dissipated habits. In replying to this charge, he wrote to a friend, Mr. Snodgrass, that “on the honor of a gentleman” he had not, since leaving Richmond, tasted anything stronger than cider, and that upon one occasion only. In this he was borne out by the testimony of Mrs. Clemm, who asserted, “I know that for years he never tasted even a glass of wine.” Mr. Burton, in making the charge, adds: “I believe that for eighteen months previous to this time he had not drank.” Still, the severity and, one might say, almost cruelty of his personal criticisms continued, and nothing could exceed the bitterness of his vituperation against those by whom, as he conceived, he had been wronged or unjustly treated. Mr. Burton, in replying, in a forbearing and even kindly manner, to a very abusive letter from [page 98:] him, advised him to “lay aside his ill-feeling against his fellow-writers, and to cultivate a more tolerant and kindly spirit.” He even proposed that Poe should resume his place upon the magazine, but this he proudly declined, and continued to contribute his brilliant stories to other periodicals. These attracted the attention of Mr. Graham, who had just established the magazine which bore his name, and who offered him the editorship, which Poe accepted, and gave to it his best work. Under his management it prospered wonderfully, and soon became the leading periodical of the country.

Still, with a good salary and a brilliant literary reputation, Poe was dissatisfied. The old restlessness and discontent returned. What he desired was a magazine of his own, for which he might be at liberty to write according to his own will. His independent and ambitious spirit revolted at being limited to certain bounds and controlled by what he considered the narrow views of editors. We find him as early as June 26, 1841, writing to Mr. Snodgrass: “Notwithstanding Graham's unceasing civility and real kindness, I am more and more disgusted with my situation.” It ended at length in his resigning the editorship of Graham's [page 99:] and devoting himself to writing for other publications, a step which was the beginning of a long period of financial and other troubles.

From Col. Du Solle, editor of “Noah's New York Sunday Times,” who as a resident of Philadelphia about that time knew Poe well, I gained some information concerning him. His dissipation, the Colonel said, was too notorious to be denied; and that for days, and even weeks at a time, he would be sharing the bachelor life and quarters of his associates, who were not aware that he was a married man. He would, on some evenings when sober, come to the rooms occupied by himself and some other writers for the press and, producing the manuscript of The Raven, read to them the last additions to it, asking their opinion and suggestions. He seemed to be having difficulty with it, said Col. Du Solle, and to be very doubtful as to its merits as a poem. The general opinion of these critics was against it.

The irregular habits of this summer resulted in the fall (1839) in a severe illness, the first of the peculiar attacks to which Poe during the rest of his life was at intervals subject. On recovering, he devoted himself to the realization [page 100:] of a plan for establishing a magazine of his own, to be called “The Penn Magazine,” and wrote to Mr. Snodgrass that his “prospects were glorious,” and that he intended to give it the reputation of using no article except from the best writers, and that in criticism it was to be sternly, absolutely just with both friends and foe, independent of the medium of a publisher's will.” In these last words we read the whole secret of his past dissatisfaction and of his future aspiration as an editor.

The Penn Magazine was advertised to appear on January 1, 1841, but this scheme was balked by a financial depression which at that time occurred throughout the country.

But who will not sympathize with Poe and admit that, considering the disappointments to which he was continually subject, and the constant humiliation and drawback of the poverty which met him on every hand, balking each movement and design — together with the ill-health from which he was now destined to be a constant sufferer — his faults and failures should not be treated with every possible allowance? If he were naturally weak, and lacking in the strength and firmness of will to determinately resist obstacles and discouragements, [page 101:] we see in it the effect of the heredity, apparent in his sister; and consequently so much greater is his claim to be leniently judged.






[S:0 - HLFP, 1907] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Home Life of Poe (S. A. Weiss) (Chapter 17)