Sunday, February 13, 2011

Birthdays of Infamy

Rufus Wilmot Griswold (Born February 13, 1815)

Edgar Allan Poe lived a short and tortured life.

What he left behind was some of the finest fiction in American history.

After Poe's death, his literary legacy fell into the hands of his worst enemy -- the Reverend Doctor Rufus Wilmot Griswold -- who proceeded to methodically attempt to destroy Poe's writing and his reputation:

It almost worked: the world was almost robbed of one of its most important literary legacies, and the reputation of its creator -- helpless in his grave -- was nearly shredded forever.

From the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore:
Whatever the cause of Griswold’s animus, the long years of resentment finally revealed themselves in words of bitterness perhaps unique in the history of obituaries: “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it“ (New York Tribune, October 9, 1849, p. 2). Afraid of retaliation, Griswold signed this article “Ludwig,” but his dislike of Poe was well known and he was quickly exposed. Griswold admitted to Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, in a letter of December 17, 1849, “I wrote, as you suppose, the notice of Poe in The Tribune, but very hastily. I was not his friend, nor was he mine“ (Reprinted in Gill, The Life of Poe, 1877, pp. 228-229). The “Ludwig” obituary was widely reprinted.

Griswold, having now assumed the mantle of a true villain, then began his most ingenious plot. Through some less-than ethical arrangements with Maria Clemm, Poe’s mother-in-law, he secured the rights to publish a posthumous collection of Poe’s works. (Technically, the rights to Poe’s estate belonged to his sister Rosalie. Mrs. Clemm, unaware of his deep hostility towards Edgar, may have first approached Griswold.) The initial two volumes appeared towards the end of 1849, with a brief preface pronouncing the edition as a charitable act to benefit Mrs. Clemm. In actuality, instead of the promised money, Mrs. Clemm received six sets of the two volumes to sell at whatever she could get. Griswold even kept all of the manuscript material Mrs. Clemm had sent to him, all worth far more than one-hundred sets would have been. It was long claimed that Poe himself had appointed Griswold his literary executor, but no real evidence of this has ever been produced. Initially, the volumes contained only Poe’s writings, reprinting brief and somewhat modified notices by James Russell Lowell and N. P. Willis, but Griswold was not done yet.

In October of 1850, Griswold published an enlarged and even more vituperative account of Poe’s life in the International Monthly Magazine. Almost simultaneously, this article appeared as a “Memoir of the Author” in a third volume of Poe’s works. In this “Memoir” Griswold cleverly manipulated and invented details of Poe’s life for the least favorable account he could create. He even forged letters from Poe to exaggerate his own role as Poe’s benefactor and to alienate Poe’s friends.

Griswold thought he could purchase himself an immortal reputation by desecrating the bones of his betters.

Turns out he was right.


mahakal said...

Rufus Wilmot Griswold is dead. He died of consumption over a hundred and fifty years ago. This announcement will startle no one at all, and not a soul will be grieved by it.

The Ex-Wiz said...

How many Rethugs does this fit?

I can't count that high (and I got A's in math).

Thanks for a great essay, Dg.


thought he could purchase himself an immortal reputation by desecrating the bones of his betters.

someofparts said...

Poe's Iago

lj said...

Excellent way to start my day! The first book I ever checked out from the grown-up side of the library was a collection of Poe's stories. I was 8 and a bit Wednesday Addams-ish.

As for Griswold -- the past and the present seems to have no shortage of bitter, pompous asses.

tenacitus said...

I first heard about Griswold when I read a graphic novel on Poe's life. When I read your post I felt all angry again, and used the words fucking asshole to describe him on my facebook link to your very fine article.

Cletis L. Stump said...

"Edgar Allan Poe lived a short and tortured life." Renditioned I presume.

lj said...

They'd probably dig him up and rendition him now, if they could, Cletis.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Fascinating, holmes! I didn't know any of this history. But I sure am thankful that Griswold failed to sully Poe's rep.