Text: Robert D. Jacobs, “Ingram’s American Connection: The Sarah Helen Whitman Correspondence,” Poe Studies, June 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 14:p-p


[page 11, column 2:]

Ingram’s American Connection:
The Sarah Helen Whitman Correspondence

John Carl Miller. Poe’s Helen Remebers. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1979 xxviii + 528 pp. $24.95.

Some twenty years ago when John Carl Miller was cataloguing the Ingram Collection at the University of Virginia Library, he realized that the collection was more than a valuable resource for Poe biographers. It also told the story of John Ingram himself, an irascible, sentimental, sometimes unscrupulous Englishman who had discovered Poe’s writings in his boyhood and in his manhood dedicated himself to the formidable task of redeeming Poe’s posthumous reputation from what he called “Griswold’s filthy lies.” Motivated by an uncritical devotion to Poe and believing that it was his destiny to publish the “truth” about his idol, Ingram began collecting Poe materials in the 1860’s but made scant progress until in December of 1873 he wrote to Sarah Helen Whitman and asked for her help in his efforts “to clear the memory of my favorite author, Edgar Poe, from the cruel slanders of the late Dr. Griswold.” She eagerly responded, and between January 1S74 and her death in June 1S7g she sent him ninety-four letters as well as originals or copies of all the Poe materials in her possession. The holographs of her letters are in the University of Virginia Library, where, together with Ingram’s seventy-one letters and three postcards to her (holographs in the Brown University Library), they comprise most of the contents of Poe’s Helen Remembers.

It would be inappropriate to discuss this book without disclosing its place in the extended project that the late John Miller planned twenty years ago. He intended to publish, as far as possible, all materials Ingram had access to in producing his two-volume biography of Poe (1880), not merely the Ingram-Whiyman correspondence, but also reprints of Ingram’s first published essays on Poe now buried in inaccessible journals. All of these materials, properly arranged with interpretive and informative notes by Professor Miller, would, it was hoped, tell the story of Ingram’s passionate pursuit of the truth about Poe and, as a subsidiary benefit, reveal the characters of those persons then alive who remembered Poe, which in turn would provide further insights into the personality of Poe himself.

It was to be a mammoth project, for there were more than a thousand items in the Ingram Collection alone, exclusive of the seventy-one letters among the Sarah Whitman papers in the Brown University Library. Miller [page 12:] planned four volumes, the first containing letters from Maria Clemm, Rosalie Poe, Mrs. Houghton, and others, the second and third containing the Ingram-Whitman correspondence. The fourth volume was to treat Ingram’s career from 1880, when his biography of Poe appeared, until his death in 1916. What was planned as Volume I was published in 1977 under the title, Building Poe Biography, by the Louisiana State University Press. That press balked at the publication of the next two volumes, a decision which, unfortunately, prevented a common format, and Professor Miller had to seek another publisher. It was very appropriate that the University of Virginia undertook this publication. The two volumes that had been planned became one large book, Poe’s Helen Remembers.

John Miller was dying from a heart ailment when he saw his book through the press, which makes his prefatory quotation from Dryden, “Stand off; I have not leisure yet to die,” perfectly and poignantly understandable to all who knew his condition in 1979, when he was laboring furiously and recklessly not only to read the proofs for this publication but also to complete a revision of his descriptive catalogue, Ingram’s Poe Collection (University of Virginia Press, 1960). He did nor live to write the originally planned fourth volume, and we can only rearer that death had no leisure to wait for John Miller to complete his task.

There are minor flaws in Poe’s Helen Remembers, but these are forgivable to those who know the conditions under which Miller labored to ready his immense manuscript for the press. The informative end-notes of Building Poe Biography have given way in this book to the more conventional footnote form, but the misnumbering of footnotes to letter 7 will confuse many readers. A few such errors, however, do not really impair the usefulness of the book.

One learns much about John Ingram from his letters ro Mrs. Whitman. He was sentimental in a way that a twentieth-century mind finds hard to comprehend; but he was also jealous, vindictive, and quite capable of playing one of his correspondents against another. Henry James’ publishing scoundrel of The Aspern Papers is an almost inevitable comparison, for Ingram did not scruple at paying epistolary court to the aged Mrs. Whitman, praising her poems, flattering her outrageously, and calling her his “Providence” (her home was in Providence, Rhode Island ); yet when he suspected her of giving material to another Poe biographer, William F. Gill, he wrote her letters so rude and accusatory that she was highly offended, and he had to pacify her with abject apologies and pleas of his own illness.

This book does more than provide an epistolary record of the relationship between Ingram and Mrs. Whitman, however. Ingram knew most of the prominent authors in England and abroad during this period. He had an active correspondence with Swinburne, partly in connection with a fund he was promoting for the aid of Poe’s aged and feeble-minded sister Rosalie, who was destitute in a church [column 2:] home in Baltimore ( she died without receiving the money). He also wrote to Lord Lytton, William Rossetti and Mallarme, among others. He was friendly enough with Mallarme to ask the French poet to send Mrs. Whitman a copy of Le Coriocau, Mallarme’s translation of “The Raven,” an impressive edition illustrated by Manet. Ingram described the book to Mrs. Whitman as a “very grand edition . . . a large square, as large as a table.” When he was unable to comply immediately, Mallarme wrote Mrs. Whitman “a beautiful letter” explaining why Le Corloean had not arrived and telling her that he wished to dedicate to her his translation of Poe’s poems, Les Poemes d‘Edgar Poe, which was eventually published in 1888. A subsequent letter from Mallarme to Mrs. Whitman “says beautiful things” (Mrs. Whitman’s phrase) about Ingram, whom Mallarme regarded as having done a “noble work” in defending Poe.

Apart from the personal history revealed, these letters provide an interesting glimpse of the literary taste of the 1870’s. Ingram mentions Walt Whitman several times as a poet he simply must read, when he can get around to it, while Mrs. Whitman, no relation to Walt but a good friend of Whitman’s defender, William D. O‘Connor, overcame her “great repugnance” toward Whitman’s verse by becoming personally acquainted with the good grey

Of more interest to students of Poe is Mrs. Whitman’s memory of Poe himself during those half-mad days when, after the death of his wife, Virginia, he was paying simultaneous court to both Sarah Helen Whitman and Annie Richmond. Poe’s friends seemed to understand his schizoid nature well enough to forgive his behavior when, in their opinion, he was “not himself,” and Mrs. Whitman was one of those who forgave. She seemed to understand that Poe needed a woman who would save him from himself, but that responsibility she finally declined, experiencing what she called in an 1850 letter ( printed in A. H. Quinn’s biography) “a sense of relief at being freed from the intolerable burden of responsibility which he had sought to impose upon me, by persuading me that his fate, for good or evil, depended on me.” This sense of relief had been forgotten by the time that Mrs. Whitman described her last scene with Poe in her letter to Ingram in 1874. Now, a quarter of a cenrury later, she remembers melodrama. After trying to escape from Poe’s importunities by breathing through a handkerchief soaked in ether, she sank into a “death-like torpor.” Poe lifted her in his arms and carried her to a lounge, then fell to his knees beside her, chafing her hands and imploring her love. Her mother, sister, and friends begged him to leave. Finally Poe stalked out, “haughtily and angrily” saying, “Mr. Pabodie [Mrs. Whitman’s friend and neighbor], you hear how I am insulted!” “These were his last words,” Mrs. Whitman wrote to Ingram, “and the door closed behind him forever.”

The difference between this passage and the 1850 description of the affair indicates that Poe students should use caution in interpreting Mrs. Whitman’s words. Her [page 13:] letters are fascinating, but in evaluating them, we should remember that she was in her seventies when she began writing to Ingram, that she believed in mystic correspondences that tied her to Poe, and that she gave credence not only to visions and dreams but also to the prophetic value of names. She and Poe were related, she said, tracing the name Poe to the de la Poers who were the ancestors of her own family, the Powers. It was her destiny to be Poe’s angel, she felt, and she even sent Ingram an anagram of her maiden name, Sarah Helen Power, which she turned into “Ah, Seraph Lenore.” Ingram rebuked her mildly for such nonsense.

In spite of the eccentricities and uncritical devotion to Poe of both Mrs. Whitman and Ingram, this record of their correspondence and Ingram’s consequent discoveries and publications is well worth reading by anyone interested in Poe. It may not be quite the treasure trove for future biographers that John Miller thought that it was, but it is still a fascinating book.

Robert D. Jacobs, Georgia State University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1981]