Text: John C. French, “[[Poe]] In His Own Country,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (1939)


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In His Own Country


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My first experience with the history of literature was the study, as a schoolboy, of a textbook rich in names, titles, and dates, and concerned almost exclusively with authors. So far as I can recall there was in it extremely little about readers. Since literature is an art of communication, a dualism of voice and ear, of giving and receiving, the readers of a poem may perhaps be reasonably enough taken for granted; but they cannot be safely ignored. It is one of the glories of literary art that there is hidden within it the secret of its own immortality — that it becomes in successive generations of readers “the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

Readers who thus perpetuate a work of art become in some sense sharers in its authorship, for it cannot be denied that their successive interpretations of its meaning and value may add to its content elements that the original author saw in it but dimly, if at all. There is too much truth in the satirical lines contributed to Punch after the appearance of Mr. A. C. Bradley’s scholarly work on Shakespearean Tragedy:

I dreamed last night that Shakespeare’s ghost

Sat for a civil service post.

The English paper of that year

Contained a question on King Lear

Which Shakespeare answered very badly

Because he hadn’t studied Bradley!

How the distressful shade of Edgar Poe would fare in a departmental oral in American literature, I do not venture to guess. Assuming, since there would be “no speculation in those eyes,” that the candidate would lack the advantage of knowledge of the library of Poe biography, criticism, and annotation which we possess, it is possible to fear that he, too, might do badly. For the greater part of a century his readers have been making their own Edgar Allan Poe, forming a new conception of the man and his work, a far truer conception, I like to believe, than that of his contemporaries, but in any event a new and different one — the result of an undoubted partnership, a continuing partnership, whose work is far from finished. And so I come to my subject, which is not the personality or character of Poe, the still obscure story of his life, the form and content of his works; but rather his reputation here in what I venture to call his own country. ­[page 2:]

The tale Professor Killis Campbell, long a life member of this Society and a few years ago our speaker on an occasion similar to this, has made an interesting study of Poe’s literary fame among his contemporaries at home and abroad. In a survey on so wide a scale Baltimore is a very small spot; but it is to us a spot so important that it deserves detailed examination. It is a matter of interest and concern whether our prophet was without honor among us, while Paris and London, and even reluctant Boston, discovered his significance.

Few Baltimoreans contemporary with Poe have left us any record of their opinion of his poetry; but it is clear that even those who approached “Al Aaraaf” and “Fairyland” with a disposition to like them were puzzled by this new kind of verse. William Wirt, author of The British Spy begged off in 1829 on the ground of being an old-fashioned person and no poet. He thought the verses likely to please modern readers and conceded that the notes contained “curious and useful information.” Another Baltimore lawyer, William Gwynn, dismissed the poems as “indicative of anything but the business of matter-of-fact life.”

Two Baltimore poets were more discriminating. John H. Hewitt, a literary rival, reviewed Al Aaraaf, [[Tamerlane]] and Other Poems, so he tells us, severely. His review has not come down to us, but in a book of rambling reminiscences written years after and published in Baltimore in 1877, he assails Poe in terms which seem to me to betray in spite of himself a reluctant admiration. While insisting that Poe had added nothing to American literature, and affecting to find Poe’s imagery in “Al Aaraaf” highly absurd and his meter impossible, he speaks of this early verse as “something quite original, of wild and wayward imagery, of burning thoughts which charmed the reader.” John Neal, a former Baltimorean and member of the Delphian group, and in 1829 editor of a periodical in New England, spoke a kindly if patronizing word for the young poet, describing “Fairyland” as “nonsense but rather exquisite nonsense,” a judgment with which it is quite possible to agree today.

Whether John P. Kennedy had read a line of Poe before the momentous short story contest of the Baltimore Saturday Visitor, it is impossible to say, and no record of his judgment of “Al Aaraaf” has come down to us. But his encouragement of Poe as critic and story writer gives abundant evidence that he recognized in him most unusual promise. To Philip Pendleton Cooke, Kennedy said of Poe “the man’s imagination is as truth-like and minutely accurate as Defoe’s”; and to Poe himself he wrote in 1845, “You have acquired a very honorable reputation in letters but nothing less than I predicted at the time of our first acquaintance.”

To these comments I wish to add a reminiscence by a scholar whom I knew personally. He came to Baltimore to live long after the death of Poe, but he chanced to be teaching in Richmond in 1849 when Poe paid his last visit to that city. I mean Dr. Basil L. Gildersleeve, the first professor of Greek at Johns Hopkins. In 1915 after the long delayed admission of Poe’s name to the Hall of Fame of New York University, a reporter asked Dr. Gildersleeve’s opinion about the matter. From the interview, printed in the Baltimore Sun, I quote a part: ­[page 3:]

“When I was teaching in Richmond, I often saw Poe on the streets and was deeply interested in him, for the appearance of ‘The Gold Bug’ had attracted attention from readers all over the county — chiefly through the masterly handling of the weird tale, partly because the publishers had paid him the unheard-of sum of $100 for this one short story. ‘The Gold Bug’ was particularly interesting to me, because the action took place on Sullivan’s Island, just off Charleston Harbor. I knew the spot well — well enough to be amused at Poe’s description of a great rock on this island, where, as a matter of fact, there is hardly a stone as large as one’s hand.

“Poe was a striking figure as I remember him. He always dressed in a rather seedy suit of black, and wore his black hair long, as was the fashion at that time — all of which accentuated the whiteness of his face. His features were noticeably small, delicately formed and sensitive; his expression, naturally enough, was a gloomy one.

“It was in the oval reception room of the old Exchange Hotel that he gave his reading — the only one he held, to my knowledge in Richmond. Like so many authors, he was anything but a faultless interpreter of his own work. The only selection he read was ‘The Raven,’ and he did this great poem scant justice, accentuating the rhythm beyond all reason, like a schoolboy scanning verse, and using a high singsong voice that was far from effective.”

While Poe lived in Baltimore he had no popular reputation as a writer here or elsewhere. The man in the street did not know him at all and the man in the study began gradually to know him as a successful editor and a trenchant literary critic. It was not until the appearance of “The Gold Bug” in 1843 and “The Raven” in 1845 that Poe became at all widely known and achieved such fame as caused the eighteen-year-old Gildersleeve, himself possessed by literary ambitions, to look after him on the street with awe and admiration. By this time he was no longer a resident of Baltimore and I have no reason to think that he found more prompt recognition here than in other cities.

Then, in 1849, came his sudden death and immediately thereafter the malignant and lying obituary of R. W. Griswold and in 1850 Griswold’s scarcely less infamous biographical sketch. The result was a controversy about Poe’s personal character that raged for years. It encouraged a considerable number of Americans including many Baltimoreans to believe that they could not possibly admire anything in Poe’s writings because they could not at all approve of Poe’s life.

Of course, Griswold’s cowardly attack overshot its mark. Many persons who had known Poe better than Griswold ever did were outraged by it and promptly denied his charges. One of the most telling of these denials came from a former Baltimorean who had known Poe intimately, Lambert A. Wilmer, for a time editor of the Vistor [[Visiter]] and Poe’s companion in the Baltimore years on long walks in the country. Wilmer wrote, “The late Edgar A. Poe has been represented by the American press in general as a ‘reckless libertine and confirmed inebriate.’ I do not recognize him by this description, though I was intimately acquainted with the man and had every opportunity to study his character.” ­[page 4:]

Another Baltimorean who defended Poe was Eugene L. Didier, the son of a Baltimore physician, and a lad of less than twelve when Poe died. Didier became keenly interested in the controversy and gathered first-hand information from residents of Baltimore who had known Poe personally, particularly from Mrs. Clemm, who had returned to Baltimore to live. In magazine articles and in two books, an edition of the poems with a biography in 1876, and a collection of essays entitled The Poe Cult, published in 1909, be sought to set forth the truth, remarking of Poe’s traducers, “The malignancy of these literary vermin is only exceeded by their ignorance.”

To acquit Mr. Didier of mere sectional bias in his defence of Poe, I should cite, perhaps, an unsigned review, published in Charleston, South Carolina, in August, 1859, in Russell’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly of the South. After describing the edition, the reviewer says:

“. . . we could desire no better indication of the advance in true poetic culture among our people than the scarcity of the editions of Poe’s works; in proportion as the demand for them falls off we may hope for the awakening of a purer taste.

“The Memoir affixed to the poems is appreciative and truthful and candidly admits what no friend of Poe could deny: the entire absence of anything like moral sense in Poe’s character. We believe that as a man he was unworthy of notice; as vicious as a man could well be. The excellence of his poetic genius, and its elements, are well analyzed in this brief and satisfactory introduction to his poems.”

The memoir which is described as so truthful and satisfactory is based on Griswold’s longer biography and is a tissue of errors of fact and malicious inventions. One who compares it with the results of later research will feel that Mr. Didier’s epithet is not entirely without justification.

When in 1871 Maria Clemm died and in accordance with her wish was buried beside her beloved Eddie, Didier attended her funeral and noted the fact that Poe’s was an unmarket grave. It was, indeed; but the fact had not gone all these years without comment. Soon after Poe’s death a headstone had been prepared at the order of his cousin Neilson Poe. While the finished marble stood ready for delivery to Westminster Cemetery (it was not a churchyard at that time for the church was not built until 1852), the derailment of a train adjoining the stone-cutter’s yard ruined it hopelessly and the loss was never repaired. Poe’s neglected grave became even then the subject of letters written to the newspapers. Nothing else was done in the decade following Poe’s death, and from 1860 to 1865 Baltimoreans had other things to think about than the unmarked graves of buried poets.

Once the War was over, however, it was determined that something should be done. On October 7, 1865, the sixteenth anniversary of Poe’s death, at a meeting of the Public School Teachers’ Association, Mr. John Basil, Jr., principal of Number Eight Grammar School, offered a resolution calling attention to the fact that there was at the burial place of Poe not “even so much as a stone to mark the spot,” and directing the appointment of a committee to devise means for remedying the neglect. The committee was named ­[page 5:] and set about raising money. The young ladies of the Western Female High School — to use the sonorous phrase of the time — gave literary entertainments, and contributions were gathered from various sources until five years later they had nearly six hundred dollars.

In 1872 the committee received new members and new enthusiasm; and it was determined to bring the fund up to a thousand dollars and erect a monument for that amount. A design was prepared by Mr. George A. Frederick, architect of the City Hall. The Committee liked the design, but like many another who has planned to build something, they found that it would cost more money than they had. The suggestion that a medallion portrait of Poe be included in the design was also approved and this added still more to the estimated cost. Various persons were appealed to and responded generously but still there was not enough. Then a former Baltimorean, Mr. George W. Childs, at that time a newspaper proprietor in Philadelphia, was invited to help and responded by a generous offer to make up the deficient, whatever it was. So the monument was erected in 1875 much as you can see it today, the bodies of Poe and Mrs. Clemm having been moved to the lot on which it stands. That of Virginia was brought from Fordham ten years later.

On November 17, 1875, the Poe Monument was dedicated with elaborate ceremonies. In the assembly hall of the Western High School, which stood, you will remember, on the site of the present armory a few hundred feet from this spot, there was a large audience with many unable to get inside; a Philharmonic Chorus of one hundred voices to sing selections from opera and oratorio; a group on the platform that included elderly men who had known Poe, such as Snodgrass, Hewitt, N. C. Brooks, and even his now venerable schoolmaster, Joseph Clarke; the provost of the Peabody, superintendents of state and city schools, judges, clergymen, and teachers. There were addresses, recitations, tributes in prose and verse, and finally before a huge crowd the unveiling of the structure, while the chorus sang to Barnby’s lovely setting of music to Tennyson’s “Sweet and Low,” a requiem entitled “Sleep and Rest” written for the occasion by Mrs. Eleanor Fullerton.

I have lingered over the details of this meeting because for our purpose it is highly significant. Here was Baltimore’s first civic recognition of Poe, the first public recognition, I believe, that he received anywhere. Here twenty-six years after he came by a route obscure and lonely to this small spot of earth, the city that had hardly known of his existence and the schools, public and private, that didn’t want him as a teacher united to pay solemn and dignified public tribute, and to repel once and for all the slurs of his enemies. It was, in effect, a deferred public funeral, the ceremonial that was justly his in October, 1849, but had not, for a variety of circumstances, been possible at that time.

This public ceremony of November, 1875, seems to me, as we recall it more than sixty-three years after the event, to demand something from us. To the committee that made both monument and meeting possible, and particularly to Miss Sara S. Rice, who seems to have been its vital spirit, we owe a tribute of reverence and praise. One of the men who sat on the platform that day ­[page 6:] wrote years after a letter to The Sun which I have among my Poe clippings. In this letter he spoke slightingly of the monument, saying quite incorrectly, “By far the greater part of the money had been contributed by Mr. Childs.” A clergyman in Baltimore, now dead, once asked me if I didn’t think Poe’s body should be moved again and placed in a splendid mausoleum, perhaps in Druid Hill Park; and others have told me that they think the monument ugly and inadequate.

To these and all such remarks, I wish to demur completely. By the account in Miss Rice’s book it is apparent that Mr. Childs added $650 to contributions that had previously amounted to nearly $900, a circumstance that by no means diminishes the credit due the public schools of the late sixties. When one considers the impoverishment of Baltimore by the War, the effects of two severe depressions in 1869 and in 1873, the value and the scarcity of money at that period, the achievement of the Committee seems to me rather remarkable, certainly as great an accomplishment as raising five thousand dollars would be today. The monument itself is consistent with the best taste of its period, dignified and sensible. Let anyone who is disposed to disparage it make a tour of the city and view with honest and critical eyes the bronze and marble creations with which in later years we have tried to commemorate the men and women who have seemed to us to deserve memorials.

When Poe’s grave had been appropriately marked and when he had received the public funeral to which his fame entitled him, all that was due from Baltimore might seem to have been done.

There were those, however, who felt that in addition to marking his grave, Baltimore should erect elsewhere a civic memorial to Poe as a distinguished poet. In 1896 at the same time that a group in New York City was organizing to save Poe’s Fordham home from destruction, there was a movement here, started, I believe, by Mrs. W. Frank Yost, for the creation of a Poe Memorial Association. The Association was incorporated in March, 1896, with Daniel C. Gilman as its president and Mr. William Marine as secretary and with a list of directors that seemed to include all the prominent men and women in the city. It did not, however, succeed in erecting a monument to Poe, and the civic memorial waited for a number of years and for the impulse of another movement.

As 1909, the centenary of the birth of Poe, drew near, it seems to have been universally agreed in Baltimore that public recognition of the anniversary was called for. Members of the Woman’s Literary Club, believing that a permanent memorial should also be erected, brought about the incorporation, April 18, 1907, of an Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Association whose object it was to erect “in Baltimore a monument to the poet worthy of his genius.” Plans for a commemoration by the Johns Hopkins University were being formed, and President Remsen, learning of the meeting proposed by the new Association, offered the use of McCoy Hall, the assembly room of the University, and suggested that the two programs be merged. The result was another dignified public meeting, different in many respects from that of 1875; but no less worthy of the city and the poet. As a young instructor in the Department of English, I was naturally present, and I am sure there are ­[page 7:] others here this afternoon who will remember it as vividly as I do. Like the earlier meeting, it has been recorded in a book Edgar Allan Poe, A Centenary Tribute, in which one can read the addresses of Professor Trent and Dr. Oliver Huckel, the poem by Miss Reese, and a brief life of Poe by Mrs. John C. Wrenshall.

Though the poet’s centenary was thus adequately celebrated, the “monument worthy of his genius” was long delayed, and was not finally ready for unveiling until the autumn of 1921. On October 21 of that year Mrs. Lawrence Turnbull, then president of the Association, turned over to the City of Baltimore the bronze statue of Poe by Sir Moses Ezekiel which one can see by going to Wyman Park near the intersection of Maryland Avenue and Twenty-ninth Street. The public address was delivered by Dr. C. Alphonso Smith, then professor of English at the Naval Academy.

The Ezekiel statue does not complete the record of our civic recognition of Poe. In our admirable new Enoch Pratt Free Library building the depository for fine books is known as the Edgar Allan Poe room, decorated by a composite likeness of the poet from the brush of one of our ablest portrait painters, and as a quiet and charming reading room an appropriate memorial to a man of letters.

In the nearly ninety years that have passed since the death of Poe, a change in our attitude toward him has taken place. He is no longer a person who walked our streets, grandson of one of our Revolutionary heroes, eccentric author of curious books; but rather a literary symbol, the personality projected in a body of literature which the world refuses to ignore. We are interested in Poe the man because we have been first interested in Poe the author, and we engage in research about his life because we want to know everything that went to the creation of the works. Old controversies drop into unimportance and old points of view no longer exist. All this is amusingly symbolized by the fact that the most distinguished man on the platform at the Poe memorial meeting on November 17, 1875, is not mentioned at all in Miss Rice’s book which describes the meeting. Walt Whitman paid his tribute of respect to Poe’s memory by coming in person to the ceremony, but the Baltimore of 1875 felt obliged to be discreet in recognizing the poet Whitman because it felt more than doubtful about the propriety of his poems.

I wish it were possible to estimate with accuracy the part Baltimore has played in the development of Poe’s literary fame; but the evidence is too intangible. Certainly the direct influence of the Johns Hopkins University has not been great. That institution still lacks, now through poverty rather than by design, a professor of American literature; and in the days when Dr. Becker and I were graduate students, English studies at Hopkins were practically synonymous with studies in English philology. In the nineties dissertations on American authors were among the things not done. Yet C. Alphonso Smith, Ph. D. in 1893, and Killis Campbell, Ph. D. in 1898, both became later special students of Poe, and Campbell was to my mind the ablest and most painstaking of his critics. A good school-text of Poe was prepared in 1907 by Mr. J. M. Gambrill of the staff of the Baltimore Polytechnic ­[page 8:] Institute. Various Baltimoreans became assiduous Poe collectors and the scholars from outside Baltimore who came here to do research have always found ready and competent helpers here. To attempt more than this brief allusion to Poe scholarship would lead us too far afield.

And now what of the future? We in his own county have, after the lapse of some apparently forgetful years, given our poet the public interment worthy of him and of us; we have fittingly celebrated the centenary of his birth; we have placed a bronze effigy of the living man where children on the way to play and students of art and letters may be moved to ask, “Who was that man?” and in our public library we have so inscribed his name as to suggest that here as well as in Athens and London literature has been made. What lack we yet? Do the demands of civic duty require from us some yet larger and more pretentious memorial to the man? I think not. As a visit to the national capitol can easily convince you, the business of creating bronze or marble memorials that are nothing but memorials is beset with difficulties and uniformly successful only in being costly. For a man of letters it is particularly unnecessary. The man lives in his works and in a few personal associations. If these do not commemorate him, nothing will.

For the memory of Poe in Baltimore, I have two earnest hopes. The first is that whatever may happen in the future to this section of the city — the future development of downtown sections of large cities is unpredictable — and whatever happens in a far future to the Westminster Presbyterian Church, this ancient cemetery should remain undisturbed and revered as an important memorial. I urge this not merely because Poe and his kindred lie buried in it, but because it is in other respects a spot that demands reverence from Baltimoreans. The cemetery was opened in 1786. In it is the grave of James Calhoun, the first mayor of Baltimore, of General Samuel Smith, who commanded in the defence of Baltimore in 1814, of Robert Purviance and Colonel Bentalou of the time of the American Revolution, of William Patterson, whose beautiful daughter Betsy married Jerome Bonaparte, of Captain John O’Donnell, whose cargo from Canton, China, fixed the name Canton in East Baltimore, and began an era of commercial greatness. Walk among the headstones and you will read many family names familiar to you in the streets and squares of Baltimore. I should like to see the walls enclosing the cemetery made firm and strong and their interior surfaces gradually covered with bronze records and memorials in low relief until visitors to Baltimore would come to it not only as they do now in great numbers to see Poe’s grave, but also to find here our Hall of Fame — an epitome of all that this old city holds most worthy of commemoration.

My second earnest hope is very simple — that this Edgar Allan Poe Society shall not be allowed to perish. The Committee of 1865 and the incorporated associations of 1896 and 1907 all aimed at specific accomplishments. When these were achieved they had no further reason for existence. If you will examine the aims of our Society as they are set forth on the program, you will see that our work is never finished.

Motives for membership in such a society as ours will doubtless vary but I can see no reason why they should fail. I have tried to analyze my own and ­[page 9:] I find in them a certain pity for a poet whose adult life was a tragic drama of frustrate[[d]] pride, of poverty, and of physical and moral weakness against which he struggled bravely, and whose death evolved a bitterness of hostility that was clearly undeserved. I find also a certain desire to further that posthumous fame which is the only reparation we can now make; a keen intellectual curiosity about the most puzzling personality in American letters; and, finally, a desire to uphold the honor of this old city which has been my home for fifty years.

I am sure that these motives and others can always exist among us. Yet societies like this do not survive automatically. They are kept alive by idealists, by unselfish persons who think that their city is something more than a certain area of taxable real estate and a certain aggregation of taxpayers, consumers, and bank credits. They see in it also a communal spirit, enriched by cultural and historical associations.

Such persons understand the mood of Shakespeare’s character Sebastian in Twelfth Night — one of the most wholly likeable of Shakespeare’s young men. You will recall the scene in which Sebastian has just escaped alive from shipwreck and landed on an unfamiliar shore in the company of a devoted ship’s captain. The captain is all for practical measures, but not Sebastian. He says:

‘Tis long to night

I pray you let us satisfy our eyes

With the memorials and things of fame

That do renown this city.

There, I have always felt, Shakespeare used the authentic voice of youth. But youth, though happily eager and curious, is not often antiquarian minded. It is the duty of its elders, your duty and mine, to see that among the memorials and things of fame that do renown this fine old city its associations with the greatest literary artist who has yet dwelt among us shall be preserved and marked for the eyes of Sebastians of future years.  



This lecture was delivered by Dr. John Calvin French (1875-1957) at the Seventeenth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society on January 19, 1939. The program was held in the Westminster Church.

© 1939 and 1998, by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc. At the time of the lecture, Dr. French was a librarian of The Johns Hopkins University.

In the original printing, the quoted sections are not indented. They have been indented here for the sake of improved reading.

In 1983, the statue was moved from Wyamn Part to the Law School Plaza of the University of Baltimore.


[S:1 - IHOC, 1939] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - In His Own Country (J. C. French, 1939)