Text: John E. Reilly, “Laying the Foundation,” Poe Studies, December 1977, Vol. X, No. 2, 10:51-52


[page 51:]

Laying the Foundation

John Carl Miller. Building Poe Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. 269 pp. $20.00.

No one, according to Miller, has done more for Poe than Ingram, a clerk in the London General Post Office who “almost single-handedly” built Poe biography “as it has been known.” On the other hand, no one has done more for John Henry Ingram than Professor Miller. He has written Ingram’s biography (Miller’s doctoral dissertation under the direction of the late James Southall Wilson), has played a key role in cataloguing Ingram’s extensive collection of Poe materials at the University of Virginia, has compiled and published a “Calendar” of the contents of the Collection, and has earned the gratitude of Poe scholars by serving as the intelligence to this invaluable repository of information.

The present book, or at least the plan of the present book, is entirely in keeping with Miller’s interest in Ingram’s work. Its purpose “is to present with editorial commentary these letters which are among the more important primary source materials Ingram used to build his biographies of Poe.” The book opens with a brief sketch of Ingram and of the status of Poe’s reputation when Ingram began to take an active interest in it. The book then prints and comments upon eighty-six letters which Miller has selected from the Ingram Collection and grouped into six chapters according to correspondents: Maria Clemm Rosalie Poe, William Hand Browne of Baltimore, Marie Louise Shew (Houghton), Annie Richmond, and George W. Eveleth. The closing chapter is a brief (rep-page) survey of Ingram’s work on Poe biography up to the publication in 1880 of his two-volume Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions. Miller has furnished a useful appendix identifying “names, topics, newsclippings, and letters frequently mentioned in the text” and also two annotated bibliographies, one of Ingram’s works concerning Poe and the ocher of works Ingram published about subjects other than Poe. Lest anyone wonder why the book has no chapter devoted to Sarah Helen Whitman, Ingram’s best known and most helpful correspondent, Miller assures us that the present volume is but the first in a projected series of four. The second and third volumes will carry the Whitman letters “as well as important articles about Poe and his works that Ingram wrote and published during the 1870s,” and the fourth volume “will pick up with Ingram’s struggles, achievements, and defeats, from 1880 through 1916, when he attempted to claim and hold an indefensible position as the sole arbiter of all things concerning Poe.”

Though Miller’s project as a whole is commendable, this first volume is not without shortcomings, among them an often laborious style and occasional errors of fact: the William H. Koester Collection is no longer in Baltimore (page 232) but has been at the University of Texas for over a decade; Jane Ermina Locke’s maiden name was not Jane Ermina Starkweather (page 146) but simply Ermina Starkweather (she adopted the name “Jane” when [column 2:] she married John G. Locke in 1829); and the title of Mrs. Locke’s manuscript poem in the Ingram Collection (Item 44) is not “Ermine’s Gale” (page 167) but “Ermine’s Tale.” In addition, one might also question Miller’s decision to include items clearly marginal to the building of Ingram’s biographies. “Ingram neither reproduced this letter, nor quoted from it,” Miller admits in annotating Mrs. Clemm’s frantic note to Annie Richmond shortly before Poe’s death; “consequently it has not made its way into Poe biography.” Similarly, he confesses at the close of a chapter which contains two pathetic letters from Rosalie Poe to Ingram that “There was little in this correspondence with and about Rosalie Poe to help Ingram in his biography of Edgar Poe.” Appealing though these letters may be, they have no proper place in the plan of Miller’s book.

A more serious shortcoming is Miller’s failure to provide an analysis of the character of the man who built Poe biography. What was Ingram like? What drew him to people like Poe, Burns, Chatterton, and Oliver Madox-Brown? Above all, what was the cast of Ingram’s mind and how did it govern the shaping of his biographies of Poe? Though Miller attempted some interesting if tentative speculations about such questions in the biographical sketch included in his 1960 “Calendar” of the Ingram collection, here he offers little. Only once, after quoting the whole of Ingram’s first letter to George Eveleth, does Miller essay even a glimpse into the interior of this strange man who obsessively, if not fanatically, devoted almost the whole of his adult life to redeeming the name of Edgar Poe:

This letter contains, in brief, a summary of Ingram’s personality and his approach to Poe biography: it is abruptly to the point, perfunctorily and somewhat brusquely courteous, slightly pompous, but obviously sincere and forceful.

Miller undoubtedly knows more than anyone else about Ingram, but he gives too sparingly of that knowledge in this volume.

The most serious shortcoming of Building Poe Biography is that it does not adequately explain how Ingram used these letters, how he fashioned this material into his biographies of Poe. Perhaps because of the number of correspondents involved, the bulk of the commentary concerns not the recipient but the authors of these letters — their relationship with Poe, the mechanics of their communication with Ingram, and their situations and movements during the period of this correspondence. More often than not, Miller uses the inadequate space allotted the biographer to isolate only the “facts” (the italics are his) Ingram garnered from this material. The chapter on Mrs. Clemm, for example, contains eighteen letters, but in his discussion of their significance for Ingram, Miller simply lists those things [he] had not known before receiving the letters”:

That Mrs. Clemm was always deeply concerned, deeply fearful, about Poe’s drinking.

That Annie Richmond’s feelings about Mrs. Clemm had changed from love and pity to distrust and suspicion.

That Stella Lewis’ word, oral or written, was not to be trusted.

That Poe’s boyhood sweetheart in Richmond had been Sarah Elmira Royster, later Mrs. Shelton. [page 51:]

That the first headstone prepared for Poe’s grave had been destroyed by an unfortunate railroad accident.

When Miller does comment on how the biographer shaped his information, such as at the close of his chapter on Mrs. Houghton, we are offered few particulars and little elaboration:

Here was a puzzle for Ingram. These letters from Mrs. Houghton were exciting, sincere, vivacious, and shot through with inaccuracies myths, half-remembered facts mixed with hearsay and caution. What to do with them?

Ingram picked and chose throughout the lot, printing such incidents as made Poe appear fine and tender, and in doing so Ingram muddied the waters of Poe biography perhaps forever. There is just enough truth in some of these stories to make them acceptable, but not enough to allow proof to back them up.

In light of the title to Miller’s book, of the publisher’s claim that it “presents these letters with commentary on how Ingram employed the information given him,” and of Miller’s own confidence that his readers will “watch Poe biography slowly taking shape in these pages,” Building Poe Biography is a distinct disappointment. One suspects that space Miller needed to flesh out Ingram’s presence in the commentary has been sacrificed on the altar of printing costs, at least in this initial volume of his project. Perhaps the succeeding volumes with the crucial Whitman letters will provide a sufficiently ample format, if only from their focus on one correspondent, to enable Miller to devote significantly more attention to an inside narrative of “how Ingram employed the information given him,” significantly less to the external story of its gathering and transmission across the Atlantic. The eighty-six letters printed in Miller’s book are, of course, but a small portion, albeit an important one, of the whole Ingram collection. Because the collection is conveniently available on microfilm, the serious student will still want to consult the full range of its contents for research purposes. Seventeen years ago Miller facilitated access to these documents with his “Calendar” and its index; one hopes future volumes of Building Poe Biography will make Ingram’s shaping of these materials equally accessible.

John E. Reilly, College of the Holy Cross


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