Text: George E. Woodberry, “Appendix A-06,” The Life of Edgar Allan Poe: Personal and Literary (1909), vol. II, pp. 390-397


[page 390, continued:]


The one distinguishing tribute paid to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, one that establishes his characteristic excellence, was his selection by Poe to be his literary executor just before his death. Poe was a good judge of editorial capacity; and, notwithstanding a history of personal relations that would seem to exclude the possibility of such a choice, Poe showed great sense in regard to his own interests when he engaged the best-known and best-equipped American editor to collect and publish his works. He thus secured, under favorable conditions, a form of publication which he had always failed in accomplishing himself. Griswold was in his day an important person in American literary life. His connection with Poe was incidental. To himself and others he was first of all the one man who had attempted to show the poetic accomplishment of our country in its first half-century, for the honor and encouragement of our literature, and had succeeded in the task, difficult and in many ways ungrateful, of a proper selection and just arrangement of the material. This work constitutes [page 391:] his real claim to thankful remembrance; it is, and for students of American literature it must remain, a land mark volume, which for their purposes cannot be dis placed. Whatever its demerits of substance may be, they faithfully reflect the time’s qualities, and the editorial part is unexceptionable. Griswold was a born compiler, as Greeley saw from the start when he was employing him in the scissors work of journalism: “He [Raymond] has no judgment with regard to selections. There you are unrivaled”; and again, “In literary cooperism you were boss, decidedly.” And in his book-work Griswold was putting to use the same ability that he had exercised in newspaper offices. The sort of labor involved and the kind of success he achieved are fairly stated in his own words: —

“There had been published in this country about five hundred volumes of rhythmical compositions of various kinds and degrees of merit, nearly all of which I read with more or less attention. From the mass I chose about one-fifth, as containing writings not unworthy of notice in such an examination of this part of our literature as I proposed to make. I have been censured, perhaps justly, for the wide range of my selections. But I did not consider all the contents of the volume poetry. I aimed merely to show w r hat had been accomplished toward a poetical literature by our writers in verse before the close of the first half century of our national existence. With much of the first order of excellence, more was accepted that was comparatively poor. But I believe nothing was admitted inferior to passages in the most celebrated foreign works of like character. I have also been condemned for omissions. But on this score I have no regrets. I can think of no name not included in the first edition which I would now [page 392:] admit without better credentials than were before me when that edition was printed.”

Apart from the merit of his work, his position as the Rhadamanthus of contemporary poetic ambitions, then perhaps more numerous even than now, made him the centre of much correspondence, and resulted in his papers becoming the repository of an unusual amount of literary information about books and their authors, biographical data at first hand, and other matters of transitory nature.

It is true that the world of letters depicted seems to have little to do with Longfellow, Lowell, and Hawthorne; it is the more populous world of the “Literati,” the little New Englanders, the little Knickerbockers, and others of the gnomes and elves of Parnassus, if such small people have any abiding-place in the crevices and on the swards of that mystic place. It is the world of the magazines and journals and their brief and flimsy reputations, of coteries and circles in the city and visitants from the Southwest and the Illinois prairies — the world which seems now more malicious and now more humorous, but which was the environment, in taste, feeling, and culture, of the pur suit of letters here for a generation. The talk is “small-talk”; and the names of the speakers come like faint echoes of a “ruined Paradise.” A Paradise, in some sort, it seemed to themselves. Here is a peep into it, on July 10, 1842, just after Griswold joined “Graham’s”: —

“I have been to New York for a few days, and saw all the people — breakfasted with Willis, smoked with Halleek, took tea with Keese, dined with Maria del Occidente, chatted with Hoffman, Balmanno, Mrs. Embury, Seba Smith, Miss Thayer (an old Boston friend of yours, who is one of the greatest of living characters), etc. Touching [page 393:] Maria Brooks — she is a wonderful woman — I have never seen her compeer. She talked as volubly as any woman, but not as women talk; but what I have to say of her must be addressed to Whipple, concerning whom, and Macaulay, we held appreciative converse. You have seen, I doubt not, the new arrangements for the magazine. I had little to do with the July No., as it was nearly all printed before I came hither; but the August is better, and the September will be better still. Cooper, Bryant, Longfellow, all the while! besides Fields and Tuckerman! — of course you will send me something in time for it. Speaking of Longfellow — the MS. of his Spanish Student I shall have bound in green and gold would you not like to have it? Such autographs are not to be picked up every day.”

Thus Griswold to Fields. More remote still — more redolent of the Elysian poppy in the burying-meadows of time — is this advice of Hoffman, December 28, 1844: —

“I certainly would balance the florid style of Bancroft with the directness of Sparks — nor would your book be complete without quotations from Gouverneur Morris, whom the men of his day thought a master of elegant writing. In making my selections, I would choose the passages which are most characteristic of the writer (which in some instances are not the best that might be culled). Timothy Flint’s description of Red River, for instance, in his ‘Francis Berrien,’ is happily the most Flintish as well as the finest passage you could quote from him. Irving’s ‘Bracebridge Hall’ has a passage which is the very tip-toppery of his elegance. In Frisbie’s review of Byron there is a passage of rare musical cadence. In Gouverneur Morris you will find a blending of the epigrammatic style of Junius with much of the polished facility of the old [page 394:] French memoirs — and in John Randolph you have more than the biting sarcasm of Wilkes.”

On the next page there is a grave-to-grave poll of the candidates, from the pen of a Cambridge divine. We rub our eyes as if we had reversed the legend of Sleepy Holllow and waked in a world of “lang syne” as unfamiliar, and as disproportioned to our recollection, as Rip Van Winkle’s.

But, after all, though humorous surprise will intrude upon the reader, there is a great deal of reality in this literary past. The sight of Longfellow reading the works of John Neal “straight through” is almost educative in the actuality it gives to boredom. Whipple’s remark is brief but full as to certain aspects of the matter: “I have no patience with the New York literati. They are all the time quarrelling with each other. Why not kiss and be friends? You have a precious lot of feuds on your own hands. A plague on both your houses, say I. “Boston is sketched out a bit by Fields, who contributes to the volume two familiar epistles in verse to “Rufe,” as the great editor is companionably called (or “Gris”) throughout by his friends; but no quotation could do sufficient injustice to them — they must be read in order to be properly damned.

The most interesting person who appears is Horace Greeley, whose letters are numerous and such as no other could indite. They are rapid notes, business notes, familiar in the extreme, and all strongly marked with the hard good sense, the activity, the homely directness, the excellent intellectual interests and friendly serviceableness of the restless and various writer. His desire to issue an edition of Praed, and his comments on the poet (“I will get it published somewhere if I have to run in debt for [page 395:] it”), and still more his interest in Shelley’s poems (“ There is not a copy of them to be had here [New York: 1845], and I presume not in the country. You know they ought to be published”), are curious memoranda of his tastes. In the business of public notices he was sadly unscrupulous: “Get a right notice in the Ledger, if you can. Swain would like to do me a kindness. But pay for it rather than not get a good one.” The advice was proof of the mercenary custom of criticism then, as is plain from many a line elsewhere, as where Epes Sargent sends his “little book “with this request: “Please keep the author ship a secret, and if you can get the accompanying notices published, one in the North American and the other in the Evening Journal without betraying it, do so. I shall be much obliged, and will cheerfully reciprocate the favor at any time.” Greeley’s characterizations are the shrewd est in the volume, often only hints, but effective, and to Griswold himself he sometimes uses a tell-tale frankness: “Now write me a few racy, spicy — not personal, far less malignant [letters] depicting society and life in Philadelphia. Soon, mind. . . . About half a column in length, spirited and lively, but not spiteful. Satirize Society and customs if you must, but don’t touch individuals.” Again, “The only principle I ever found you tenacious of is that of having your pay at least as fast as you earn it.” There are several other unfavorable obiter dicta from different persons with regard to Griswold, who certainly had unamiable traits and grave defects, concerning which the best statement is Leland’s: “He was to his death so uniformly a friend to me and so untiring in his efforts to aid me, that I cannot find words to express his kindness nor the gratitude I feel. . . . To the end of his life I was always with him a privileged character, and could take, if [page 396:] I chose, the most extraordinary liberties, though he was one of the most irritable and vindictive men I ever met if he fancied he was in any way too familiarly treated.” Griswold’s personality is thus fully suggested.

It would be an interminable task were one to try to survey all in detail. Strange and wonderful persons abound in the crowd, intellects manqué and morals very much in the same deplorable state. Chivers is easily the first — no doubt an excellent man, but in verse the idiot form of Poe. No wonder that Poe abandoned him. Here, too, are the unlaid ghosts of H. W. Herbert and G. G. Foster, to the latter of whom Greeley and Griswold were truly friends at need: and among the female literati, Mrs. E. Oakes Smith, whose life was a remarkable one, and of course the Ellets and Osgoods, the Carys, and many more. George William Curtis’s account of himself, ending “VoilĂ  tout! and Shelley died when he was no older than I am,” is interesting; so is John Neal’s. In the way of curious literature, those who remember Poe’s “Valentine “to Mrs. Osgood in which he wove her name into the verse, will read the similar effusion she addressed to Griswold with a touch of surprise. It is an illustrative document in regard to the literary group. The italics show the inserted names.

F or one, whose being is to mine a star,

Tr embling I weave in lines of love and fu n

What Fame before has echoed near and f ar.

A son net if you like, — I’ll give you one

To be cross-questioned ere it’s truth is solv’d.

Here veiled and hidden in a rhyming w reath

A name is turned with mine in cunning sheath,

And unless by some marvel rar e evolved,

Forever fo lded from all i dler eyes

Silent and s ecret still it treas ured lies,

Whilst mine g oes winding onw ard, as a rill [page 397:]

Thro a deep woo d in unseen jo yance dances,

Calling in melo dy’s bewil dering thrill

Whilst thro d im leaves its partner d reams and glances.”

Two things stand out. The first is the mean literary poverty of the time, its atmosphere of impecuniosity, of little pay for the best work, of a log-rolling and subsidized criticism and feeble product; its environment of gossip and scandal, its deficient integrity, its undeniable vulgarity, its Grub-Street and Dunciad populace with the disadvantages of a large female immigration into these purlieus; and the second is the character and position of Griswold as a prince among his peers; but what a prince dom and what a peerage! If oblivion could have been the lot of such literary mortality as is here disclosed, it would have been nothing to be sorry for; but we must accept a literary ancestry exposed to the full light that now beats upon the mob as hotly as once upon the throne.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 390:]

1 Passages from the Correspondence and other Papers of Rufus W. Griswold. Cambridge, Mass. W. M. Griswold. 1898.





[S:0 - LEAPPL, 1909] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Life of EAP (G. E. Woodberry) (Appendix A-06)