Text: John Southall Wilson, “Introduction,” The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: 1824-1845 (1966), pp. xvii-xxi (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page xvii:]

INTRODUCTION

In this new collection of the letters of Edgar Allan Poe, Dr. Ostrom, after years of painstaking labor, has sought to supply an exact and full edition. The task of the editor of such an edition is peculiarly difficult, and perhaps can never result in a definitive work. Poe manuscripts have held an almost unique appeal to wealthy collectors. The prices of Poe letters have advanced to rates prohibitive to most scholars and university libraries. The owner of rare manuscripts often prefers that his possession shall not be publicly known. Sometimes a letter is printed in a newspaper or an auction catalogue and then disappears, occasionally to reappear years later at another auction sale; sometimes no trace of its later ownership can be found.

Time has none the less cleared up many difficulties of publication since 1902, when Professor James A. Harrison of the University of Virginia edited as full an edition of the letters as he could collect and published them in the seventeenth volume of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, known as the “Virginia Poe.” That edition, the only inclusive collection hitherto attempted, has until now remained the only available source for most of the correspondence. Dr. Harrison, a scholarly and indefatigable worker, of whom as his former student I speak with deep respect, completed his work under great physical handicaps, especially that of poor eyesight. He had the faults of taste and method common to many nineteenth-century editors. He did not rigidly reproduce the text of the letters, and he omitted or qualified phrases, apparently out of consideration for personalities. Sometimes the omissions had been made in the sources from which he printed; many of the letters had been printed only in part, and he had no access to the originals. Some of the letters had been printed in copyright articles or books, and he did not feel free to reproduce them. In the case of the letters to James Russell Lowell, for example, published by George Edward Woodberry, he gave abstracts of the letters but did not print them in full. Accordingly, the Harrison edition, until now of primary value to students of Poe’s life, has long been out of date. Every biographer of Poe has been limited in his judgments by the lack of an adequate and accurate collection [page xviii:] of Poe’s letters, and every serious student of Poe’s life and writings has felt the need of such a collection.

Dr. Ostrom, therefore, has produced a volume of first importance to students of American literature. His editing is painstaking and sympathetic. He has had the generous aid of many people in locating letters or in supplying the text when the location of the letter could not be traced. This edition is, I believe, as complete and as accurate an edition of Poe’s letters as can now be made. An occasional uncollected item will, no doubt, from time to time come to light, but it is hardly to be expected that at this late date, practically a hundred years after Poe’s death, any large group of his letter remains unknown.

This first important group of Poe’s letters consists of those addressed to his foster father, John Allan, which are now in the Valentine Museum at Richmond. They were ably edited by Mrs. Mary Newton Stanard in 1925 under the title of Edgar Allan Poe Letters Till Now Unpublished. These early letters reveal a highstrung youth who at eighteen considered himself driven from the home of his childhood by the man who had stood in the place of a father. In later years Poe told Mrs. Whitman (as she wrote to the English biographer J. H. Ingram) that Mr. Allan had been as overindulgent at some times as he was severe and withholding at others. Edgar Poe was probably an irritating lad, and in any case he and rough John Allan were bound to grow more and more incompatible. This series of letters runs through Poe’s stay at West Point and his earlier hardships in Baltimore, when he worked on the first drafts of his early stories. There is an unexplained hiatus: not a single letter survives for the year 1832, and from December 29, 1831, to November, 1834, there are only two known letters.

The periods in which Poe was actively engaged upon the editing of a magazine are the periods of his most vigorous correspondence. The first of these began in 1835, when after exchanging letters with the proprietor, T. W. White, he became the editor of The Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. From the time he left the Messenger in January 1837, to May 1839, when arrangements were discussed with W. E. Burton which led to his editorial connection with Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, there are not more than half-a-dozen surviving letters. His correspondence flourished again while he was editor of Burton’s and later of Graham’s Magazine. It is probable that the [page xix:] many connections that he formed through his editorship and his efforts to form a subscription list for two dream magazines of his own, the Penn and the Stylus, were responsible for a large increase in his letter-writing. It is also likely that his celebrity as a figure in the literary world caused a greater proportion of his letters to be preserved.

Among his letters to me, several series are interesting as groups, reflecting, as they do, different phases of the writer. The frankest and most familiar are those to his early friend, F. W. Thomas. With Dr. Snodgrass there is the suggestion of Poe’s desire to curry favor and advance his professional interests. In the letters to Lowell, before a personal meeting under unhappy circumstances changed the relations, Poe is revealed as in his earlier, briefer correspondence with P. P. Cooke, as the artist and man of letters addressing himself to a highly idealized fellow poet. especially remarkable is the series written to George W. Eveleth. The young many was unknown to Poe except as a voluntary correspondent who insisted upon replies. Poe answered his queries almost as he might have done to an intimate friend. He wrote as if he found relief in explaining himself to a sympathetic inquisitor.

The most baffling group among his letters is composed of those written in 1848 and 1849 to Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence, Rhode Island, and to Mrs. Charles Richmond (“Annie”) of Lowell, Massachusetts. After the death in 1847 of his young wife, Virginia, Edgar Poe seemed to depend upon feminine sympathy for emotional support. It is evident that he attempted to convince himself that a marriage with Mrs. Whitman was desirable, but there can be no doubt that, as far as his unstable emotional condition at this time permitted, he became deeply in love with Mrs. Richmond. The carefully styled letters to Mrs. Whitman are unlike any others that Poe wrote: those to Mrs. Richmond are the passionate outcries of a bewildered man. From the voluminous manuscript collection bought by the University of Virginia from Miss Laura Ingram, the sister of Poe’s English biographer, J. H. Ingram, it is apparent that Mrs. Richmond entrusted Ingram with copies of Poe’s letters to her, intending that he should read them for his own guidance in the writing of Poe’s life, but with no intention that they should be published. One of the few of her copies that Ingram did not destroy, that of the letter dated November 16, 1848, has his note upon it: “This must be destroyed. J. H. I.” It remains one of the most revealing of all documents [page xx:] having to do with Poe. If we compare Mrs. Richmond’s copy — here printed by Dr. Ostrom — with the version that Ingram published, and note the changes Ingram made, we are warned that those letters to Annie that exist only in the form which Ingram printed may have been equally changed in the editing.

In no other letters is Poe seen so humanly as in those to his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm, from whom he seemed to have no secret reserve. From the first pathetic pleas not to separate him from Virginia to almost the last letter he ever wrote, with its despairing cry: “Do not tell me anything about Annie — I cannot bear to hear it now,” he lays bare to her his tortured soul. The poverty and want he had endured are reflected in the letter of April 7, 1844: “I wish you could have seen the eggs-and the great dishes of meat.” The instability of his life is shown in his precautions in furnishing Mrs. Clemm with a fictitious name which she was to use in addressing his letters to “General Delivery.”

Altogether, this correspondence of one of America’s first men of genius suggests the life of a literary hack. His letters, like his personal life, are subject to the vicissitudes of his fortunes. They give no impression of the continuity of a peaceful and secure personal living, rather they suggest spasmodic unrest. Many of them are the necessary drudge-work of a hired pen, and others are written under circumstances painful or humiliating. There are famous names among Poe’s correspondents: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, and among the magazine celebrities of the day, N. P. Willis, Sarah J. Hale, R. W. Griswold, and many others. But it is evident that the relationships represented by these letters are formal and not intimate. Nowhere in all this collection of the correspondence of a lifetime is there a background of stable, friendly relationship suggesting a circle of real acquaintances who were Poe’s intellectual equals. He wrote to John Neal, N. P. Willis, and J. P. Kennedy as to patrons, and to many of the others as an editor carrying out the routine of his office.

We do not come very close to Poe through his letters, but we do come to understand him better. We see more poignantly than in any story of his life yet written the petty traffic of the literary market, the uncertainties and the disappointments of his struggle, and the [page xxi:] combination of instability and perseverance within his own personality. The figure that emerges is the same lonely figure of Poe that has long been known to the imagination of men. It is a humanly pathetic figure but it is also tragic in the price that the man paid for his genius.

JAMES SOUTHALL WILSON

University of Virginia

 


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Notes:

The Introduction was written for the original edition of 1948.


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[S:0 - OLT66, 1966] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (J. W. Ostrom) (Introduction)