“A TERRIBLE CONJUNCTION:” MARRIAGE AND AMERICAN POETRY


“A poet should not marry” –old saying.

The unhappy marriage, or the marriage that never happened, is the marriage of American poetry.

Emerson’s livelihood came from marrying a woman he knew was dying and suing his wife’s family for the fortune after her death.

Longfellow found his wealth in marriage, and sorrow when his wife and the mother of his children burned to death while melting wax to seal a letter.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman never married.

After the death of Edgar Poe’s wife, his life was marked by marriages that never quite happened.

Also, Poe’s immense reputation was ruined in 1846 by rumors involving love outside the marriage contract.

Whitman (Helen, not Walt) almost married Poe until others got in the way, including the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. at the time, editor and owner of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Imagine CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the New York Times and the New York Post combined: that was Horace Greeley.   Unfortunately for Poe, Greeley was friends with Rufus Griswold.

In a stunning letter Horace Greeley wrote to Griswold in January, 1849 :

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman ? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry

Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and— you know what Poe is.

Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction.

Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her ? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”

Poe scholars have been beating the bushes recently for the real story behind the scandalous relationship of Poe and Frances Osgood, and what’s coming out is that their relationship was no dime-store romance or starry-eyed love affair, but something far more complicated.   It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.

The middle-aged Poe was the kind of tied-to-his-desk, scornful genius who had no interest in the sort of tawdry relationship which his enemies (and the gullible with their dime-store imaginations) have drawn up for him.  True, Poe recited poems in his soft, charismatic voice at literary salons, and as steward of American Letters he did take an interest in a literary society which included women, but he was not a romantic in life; he was an editor looking for a magazine and an American who hated in his blood puffery and British “ill will” towards the United States.  Poe even wrote in a ‘throwing-off-the-gloves’ mood, that America would take its quarrel with Britain “into Africa,” which is quite an ambitious, multi-layered, and belicose thing to say.  That stern anglophile, Emerson, must have been appalled.

Britain and America’s divorce was still an ugly one in the middle of the 19th century. Poe’s famous quarrel with his own northern brethren—New England writers—is not nearly as important as has been claimed.

Poe, in fact, was always reaching out to Boston authors.

In 1842, Poe wrote to the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell: “Dear Sir,  Learning your design of commencing a Magazine, in Boston, upon the first of January next, I take the liberty of asking whether some arrangement might not be made, by which I should become a regular contributor.”  Lowell’s magazine was launched, and Poe was a regular contributor— while Lowell’s unprofitable venture lasted.   Poe and Lowell remained good friends.

As editor of Graham’s, on at least two separate occasions, Poe asked Longfellow to contribute to the magazine.

Poe wrote to Joseph Snodgrass in 1841, “You are mistaken about The Dial.  I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me.”

It wasn’t New England that was the problem; Poe did resent, but more in the name of democracy, Northern monopoly in American Letters—a reasonable  complaint.  The larger shadow was that Britain was in a cunning position to enjoy U.S. difficulty on the slavery issue—which, after Poe’s murder—did blow up into the holocaust of civil war: a divorce inside of a divorce.  The American civil war gave birth to a creature of Poe-like dimensions in politics: poet and Poe fan Abraham Lincoln.

The best known marriage in 19th century Letters occured in Europe, when Elizabeth Barrett, who had been corresponding with Poe, eloped with Robert Browning.   Later, we can see by reading the letters, that Elizabeth Browning, with many others in Europe, hoped for a divorce between south and north in America over the slavery issue; to those like Barrett Browning, this was a simple moral issue; to others, and this would include those like Poe and Lincoln, it was more complicated and meant loss of unity, and thus a destruction of, the United States.

Margaret Fuller eloped with an Italian count in Italy after dallying with the hearts of Hawthorne and Emerson (though Emerson was like Poe; women found it impossible to dally with a heart of high seriousness set against mere romance).

In a letter on Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning just after Poe’s death, Fuller, friends with Emerson and Horace Greeley—the publisher of Griswold’s “Ludwig” obituary—shows herself to be Griswold-like:  “…several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend.”

In another odd twist, Osgood published a poem in the Broadway Journal in 1845 when Poe was the editor there, called “To the Lady Geraldine,” in which a gossipy woman is attacked.  “Geraldine” is not identified, but “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” was the name of a famous poem published in 1844 by Barrett, before she met Robert, and in that poem she refers to Wordsworth,—the old poet wished to visit her, but could not, on account of her health—Tennyson, whom she adored, and Robert Browning.   Barrett had not eloped with Robert yet in 1845, and Poe was pictured as one of the many male poets hungering after Barrett’s affection during this time.

Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett.

A marriage of sane and profitable domesticity versus insane and passionate divorce (Osgood, for instance, was separated from her painter husband during the time of her Poe-scandal in the period around 1845) was the ruling trope in Letters during the tumultuous pre-Civil War, Poe and Barrett era during the 1840s.   Poe wished for domestic bliss, not wild affairs; he wished for a growing America, not one torn apart by the slavery issue.

As a Southerner acheiving great fame in the North in 1845 and then crashing and burning in scandal in 1846, Poe is a symbol of America’s failed marriage as a nation.

In the 20th century, what does marriage and romance between poets symbolize?

T.S. Eliot’s marriage to an Englishwoman was an impetuous “burning of boats” in Eliot’s own words, to leap from America to England.   Reading “Prufrock,” one is not surpised at the poet’s disastrous marriage.

W.H. Auden marrying—to help someone escape the Nazis.  That might be the most symbolic marriage of the 20th century.

The tragedy of  the English Ted Hughes and the American Sylvia Plath doesn’t transcend what it is; that tragedy and the tragedy of Hughe’s subsequent marriage is a mere festering of flesh: petty, personal, stupid, wrong.

The most famous marriage among the Beats ended in a stupid “William Tell” death.

Further on in American literary history, we have the marriage of American, Jorie Graham, and South African-born Peter Sacks, a relationship best known for something even more petty: an act of foetry with partner Bin Ramke.

How sad that in Letters, the landmark history of marriage is the landmark history of the broken.

Surely happy marriages in Letters exist; we just don’t know about them.

Unfortunately for the muse of love, the “NO” of Maud Gonne, the Irish patriot, refusing the William Butler Yeats of dubious politics, rings more profoundly, down the years, in the annals of literature, than any affirmation.

Had Whitman married Poe, perhaps it would have all been different.

THE LION AND THE LITTLE DOG: “I BELIEVE HIM TO BE THE BITTEREST ENEMY I HAVE IN THE WORLD”

One of Poe’s killers, a cousin and Baltimore journalist, Neilson Poe.  Note the arrogant sneer.  Neilson kept watch for days while Poe died, notifying no one.

We do not claim to have solved the murder of Edgar A. Poe.  The mystery has baffled everyone and lies under many layers.  We have reached a point in Poe history, however, where the drinking binge, the ‘cooping’ theory, the rabies death, and other absurdities have been disproven.  The field lies open before us at last; a real investigatin of the facts seems, for the first time, possible.

We assume murder in Poe’s case.  The manner of Poe’s end was violent and secretive.  Accidents tend to come to light but murders do not. Poe’s murderers not only covered their tracks, but a story grew over the victim replicating perfectly in death the slander which dogged his life.  Since slander is a kind of murder, libel a kind of killing, especially among those with literary reputations, the key to solving Poe’s murder is to follow the thead of those who told the story of his death.

The most helpful person in chasing away the fog of rumor is undoubtedly John Evangelist Walsh, whose book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Poe, St Martin’s, 2000, is the first treatment of Poe’s death which actually succeeds as a piece of detective work.

Walsh was not satisfied to itemize the rumors of Poe’s death and then add his own vague speculation.  Walsh chased down the origin of the rumors themselves.   For too long the stories have distracted us from the story-tellers.

Let us begin by quoting three prophetic letters written by Poe: 1) pertaining to the city of Baltimore—where Poe met his end, 2) the journalism scene in Baltimore and 3) Poe’s cousin Neilson Poe, who was in charge of Poe’s imprisonment and death.   Two of the letters are to Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, a Batlimore physician, poet, essayist and editor, who traded some literary favors with Poe and managed to elicit many private confessions from him.  Studying the correspondnce, which was hot and heavy between Poe and Snodgrass in  1839 and then trails off to end for good in 1842, just after Poe left his editorship at Graham’s—succeeded by Griswold—we can see that Snodgrass is playing Poe, attempting to elicit as much private opinion from the great poet as he can.  Poe pleads too much to the man;  clearly they are not friends,  though Snodgrass held out that possibility.  The two men had a common enemy in Burton, of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a kind of Ricky Gervais figure from England; Burton was pushing the ‘drunk’ slander hard against Poe and it was to Snodgrass that Poe made his famous defense on that count: “My sole drink is water.”   In that same letter Poe writes to  Snodgrass, who will eventually turn into a Griswold figure, “You are a physician, and I presume no physician can have difficulty in detecting the drunkard at a glance.”   A bit ironic that it is this very Snodgrass who becomes the one man to describe to the world Poe’s condition when Poe is found, helpless, by some odd coincidence, close to  Snodgrass’s residence.  If Snodgrass were a friend, our guess is that Poe would not have felt the need to argue his case as he does. In the final letter which exists between the two men, Poe gives vent to his negative feelings for Griswold.  The “friendship” between Snodgrass and Poe quickly fades away and Snodgrass suddenly appears, five years later, an assassin,  to libel and entomb.

These excerpts from three letters in 1839 require no preface; they speak much of the literary life in which Poe lived:

The reception of the paper convinced me that you, of whom I have long thought highly, had no share in the feelings of ill will toward me, which are somewhat prevalent (God only knows why) in Baltimore  –Poe to Snodgrass, Sept. 11, 1839

It is always desirable to know who are our enemies, and what are the nature of their attacks.  I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down (excuse the pun) and I am not aware that there is any one in Baltimore whom I have particular reason to fear in a regular set-to.  I would take it as a great favor if you would let me know who edits the “Sun”  –also who the editors of the other papers attacking me–and should be thankful for any other similar information.   –Poe to Beauchamp Jones  Aug. 8, 1839  [The “Sun” is the Baltimore Sun]

I felt that N. Poe, would not insert the article editorially.  In your private ear, I believe him to be the bitterest enemy I have in the world.  He is the more despicable in this, since he makes loud professions of friendship.  Was it “relationship etc” which prevented him saying any thing at all of the 2 or 3 last Nos. of the Gentleman’s Mag?  I cannot account for his hostility except in being vain enough to imagine him jealous of the little literary reputation I have, of late years, obtained.  But enought of the little dog.   –Poe to Snodgrass, Oct. 7, 1839  on his cousin, Neilson Poe

Dr. Joseph Snodgrass of Baltimore is perhaps even more important than Neilson Poe in the case of America’s greatest literary murder case.  Snodgrass is not only the recipient of Poe’s letter which calls N. Poe my “bitterest enemy,” Snodgrass, with Neilson and Henry Herring— uncle by marriage to Edgar and Neilson and also ill-disposed to the poet—stole away, essentially imprisoned, and after his death, buried in secret haste, the great poet before the world knew what had occured.  Snodgrass, a doctor, and Herring, a relation and a wealthy man, rather than taking Poe into their homes, put him unconsious into a carriage to be taken to a little bare room with iron bars.  What Poe’s actual condition was when found, what happened to him before he was found, and what happened to him after he was found, is unknown.  Dr. Snodgrass and Dr. Moran completely contradict each other on Poe’s condition, so it’s safe to say no one “helping” Poe during his last days can be said to be reliable in the least.

Poe urged two things on thinkers: be detectives and don’t overlook the obvious.  Herring, a man who disliked Poe and refused to allow the poet in his home, showed up at Ryan’s where Poe was found on Oct. 3 at the same time as Snodgrass.  Who summoned Herring? Snodgrass was summoned (supposedly…or was he?)

All Poe biography through the 19th century to the middle  of the 20th, relies on a crackpot ‘cooping’ theory employed initially by a few men, a theory Walsh explodes by reading newspaper accounts of the actual electn during which this supposed election ‘cooping’ took place and also by tracing the theory itself to an editor in Richmond, John Thompson, who originally bought into the ‘drunken debauch’ theory before he changed his mind, years later, after prominent author Elizabeth Oakes Smith published her theory that Poe was assaulted, and came up with—out of the blue, and well after the fact—his absurd ‘cooping’ idea.

The ‘cooping’ theory states that Poe was captured by ruffians, beaten and drugged in order to vote various times, a theory without witnesses that such a thing happened to Poe, or that such a thing occured—at allto anyone.

The testimony of Snodgrass gets into print, like the ‘cooping’ theory, years after Poe’s death.   According to Snodgrass, Poe was found in Baltimore by a Joseph Walker.

Poe scholar John Evangelist Walsh believes the ‘cooping’ idea was invented in reaction to the prominent author Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s assault charge, which she published on three separate occasions over 20 years.

Snodgrass went to press with his story twice, ten years apart, and only in the second article mentions the mysterious Walker, a type-setter acquaintance, who sent Snodgrass the note that Poe was asking for Snodgrass—who was conveniently located just around the corner from where Poe was discovered wholly by accident in Baltimore.   Walker had died in a drowning accident by the time Snodgrass felt the need to mention the note from Walker summoning him (Snodgrass) to Poe’s dying side, and Snodgrass embellishes the note to say “beastly intoxication” where it actually said “worse for wear.”  We know this because the note itself was found among Snodgrass’s papers in 1881, after Snodgrass died in 1880.   Snodgrass refutes Oakes Smith expliticly in his second article in Beadle’s Monthly.

John Walsh writes in his book, “Midnight Dreary,”

Surprisingly,—even, it can be said, incredibly—more than six years were to pass before a fuller picture of Poe’s last days and hours became available.  In May 1856, a New York City  periodical, Life Illustrated, carried an article by Joseph Snodgrass of Baltimore, an old friend and journalist colleague of the poet.  It revealed Snodgrass to be the one who transported the inebriated Poe from tavern to hospital, and much else of interest besides.   —Walsh, “Midnight Dreary”

We share, as should we all, Walsh’s incredulity at the six years passing, but Walsh manages to overlook what every Poe biographer has—the significant role of Snodgrass in Poe’s manufactured debauchery death, as Walsh blithely refers to Walsh as a “friend,” shutting the door on a world of interest.  Nor does Walsh stop to acknowledge that “inebriated” is a description based on one witness and one witness alone—Joseph Snodgrass—who altered a note in his possession he chose to share with the world—16 years after Poe’s death, and after the death of the note’s author, a misquotation from “worse for wear” (Walker) to “beastly intoxication” (Snodgrass).

Poe was  not “among friends” during his last days.

Here is the trail to solving Poe’s murder, and it lies wide open.

Joseph Snodgrass, Henry Herring and Neilson Poe saw to it that Poe was imprisoned with a lunatic named Dr. Moran, on record as the attending physician at the “hospital” where Poe rotted for four days, another unreliable witness who waited 25 years before going public with what he knew, to bask in the spotlight as Poe’s posthumous fame and curiosity about his death grew, supplying all sorts of  hyperbolic “literary” quotes from the dying poet which Poe obviously never uttered.  No autopsy, no death certificate, no communication with the outside world while Poe succumbed in slow agony, a hasty burial attended by Herring, N. Poe and Snodgrass, a minister to say a quick last rites and then 24 hours later, Rufus Griswold’s “Ludwig” article in Horace Greeley’s Tribune.

The manner of Poe’s death fits in perfectly with the actions of a cabal drawing a curtain quickly over his life, and killing him in such a way that even in death he found no martyrdom or honor, but was seen by the world to die as a drunkard, the slander of drink used as a trowel to bury him.

The length of time it took the one real witness to come forward, the odd relationship of the invisible  Joseph Walker and the altered content of his note to the one witness, the “bitterest enemy” keeping public watch over the victim in his last few days with the knowledge of fellow Baltimorean Snodgrass, Poe’s slow death occuring before any of Poe’s friends or loved ones were aware of his fate, his mother-in-law, his fiance, desperately worried and wondering where he was, kept, with the whole world,  in utter darkness even as Poe was being buried and Griswold was in New York penning his libelous notice—if this doesn’t stink to high heaven, nothing does.

WAS HAWTHORNE’S THE SCARLET LETTER A FICTIONAL TREATMENT OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, REV. GRISWOLD & FANNY OSGOOD?

Did Nathaniel Hawthorne (left) exploit a contemporary, real-life drama in his most famous work?

Two famous poets died in 1850.

One was Margaret Fuller, who died in a shipwreck returning from Italy.   The other female poet was even more famous and more beloved than Margaret Fuller.   She was married to a painter, who painted the oval portaits seen above.  She was widely known in literary circles and was especially close to two men who will be forever linked in history: the anthologist Rufus Griswold and the poet Edgar Poe. (depicted above)

Her name is Frances Sargent Osgood. (depicted above)

Poe (d. 1849) as a dashing poet and a critic sympathetic to women scribblers, Osgood (d.1850) as legendary femme fatale poet and Griswold (d. 1857) Poe’s rival and the best-selling anthologist of his day—these three—helped to create an era that lasted into the 20th century, an era  in which the poetess out-sold the poet.

The Rev. Rufus Griswold’s anthology “Female Poets of America” made him the most powerful man in Letters.

Modernist poetry, more than anything, was about male energy muscling out the Woman’s Muse.   Poe was  libeled and Osgood was forgotten as Ezra Pound’s pedantic, bombastic, Futurist clique took control.

The alleged affair (which may have  produced a child) between Poe and Fanny  hurt Mrs. Osgood’s reputation but Nathaniel Hawthorne was among many literati who came to her defense.

Let’s allow the author of this theory to lay out her fascinating thesis:

“Fanny Osgood was already the most widely written about woman in American literature during the 1840s. Hundreds of stories and numerous poems were written about the Poe-Fanny-Virginia triangle. After their child’s death Fanny’s friends rallied around her to protect her, and the number of stories and poems about her situation increased. Publicly, her reputation suffered; but privately, sympathy was strongly in her court.”

After Poe’s death, and Fanny’s own fatal illness, she came to be regarded as downright saintly by her peers– for having been victimized by society over her relationship with Poe. Fanny Osgood and her plight had become a cause celebre. ‘Fanny worship’ was at an all-time high by the time of her death. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny Osgood was, most certainly, the Scarlet Woman of her time, and therefore, the most deserving of sympathy.

‘Fanny Worship’ was rife in the literary/artistic crowds who adored her. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny’s ‘gypsy life-style’ made her very popular in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Richmond, Portland and even Saratoga Springs. Fanny also had many friends in her Transcendentalist and ‘Fourierist’ coteries in and around Boston, where both Poe and Fanny were born.

At one time, she and Sarah Helen Whitman were extremely close to Margaret Fuller, another highly controversial figure living and working primarily in the Boston area. Fanny Osgood knew all the people Fuller knew, and that was everyone: The Lowells, the Hawthornes, the Peabodys, the Fields, the Holmes, and surely, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; but unlike Fuller, who most people (certainly Poe, Lowell and Hawthorne) grew to despise, Fanny was adored as a loving free spirit by virtually everyone.

Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising to learn that Poe, Fanny and their great romantic tragedy were used as characters by some of the greatest writers of their time. One of these was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who indeed, had experimented with Fourierism at Brook Farm, and whose wife, Sophia Peabody, had herself been under the spell of Margaret Fuller, much to Hawthorne’s displeasure.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, within months of Poe’s and Fanny’s deaths. He felt compelled to write the tragedy of these two dear friends, to vent his own fury and sense of helplessness over the great loss he had suffered.

The characters of Hester Prynne and Rev. Dimmesdale are tributes to Poe and Fanny Osgood. The daughter, Pearl, represents Fanny Fay on some level, though Pearl’s personality seems clearly based on Hawthorne’s own daughter, Una, as well as on Fanny’s own childish and mercurial personality. The hideous, predatory Chillingsworth is Rufus Griswold, who was despised by Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, N.P. Willis and virtually every writer of the time.

It must be remembered that Poe supported and mentored Hawthorne, but there were also bonds between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, who indeed, moved in the same circles in the Boston area. The bond between Hawthorne and Poe, between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, and their mutual friends provides an answer to, “Why would Hawthorne write a thinly veiled account of the Poe-Osgood melodrama?” For one thing, ‘it made great copy,’ but a close study of the letters and business transactions of the ‘Hawthorne Circle,’ during this period helps us understand that yes, The Scarlet Letter was intended as both a tribute and a requiem, for both Poe and Fanny.”

Cynthia Cirile http://www.10thhousepress.com/fiction.html