Friday, May 10, 2013

The Premature Burial – the Death and Resurrection of Edgar Allan Poe

As I was researching the life of Edgar Allan Poe, I discovered a tantalizing little tidbit, not about his life, but about what occurred after his death. Though I’ve read a couple of the many available biographies on Poe, I had never run across this pivotal sequence of events that at first destroyed Poe’s reputation and then resurrected him from the ashes. It is a play of passions, one fueled by anger and malice and the other by a dogged determination to make the truth prevail. Truly a tale worthy of the master of the macabre’s literary legacy, it all begins with  a man named Griswold. 


Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857), after attempting a career as a Baptist minister and failing, turned his sights to becoming a literary editor. As a man of means, and with the backing of the literati of New York City and Philadelphia, he ensconced himself as an anthologist of contemporary works, most notably those produced by American poets and prose writers (The Poets and Poetry of America (1842), Gems from American Female Poets (1842), and Prose Writers of America (1847) to name a few).  To Poe, Griswold’s abilities at literary criticism were middling at best and tended towards the promotion of the editor’s friends over those authors with actual talent worth revealing.  And though he was not averse to stating these opinions in letters to his friends, Poe found himself obliged on a number of occasion, due to Griswold’s influence in the publishing world, to temper his acerbic opinions during lecture tours and in his reviews. However, Poe’s acid wit could not be fully contained, and on occasion he struck out at the editor. This tentative up and down relationship between the two men lasted throughout their careers, with neither one seemingly the worse the wear for it. However, unbeknownst to Poe, Griswold was harboring a grudge greater than the author could ever imagine – a grudge that Griswold nurtured and maliciously let loose two days after Poe died.

His hatred first manifested itself in an obituary attributed to someone called “Ludwig” (later revealed to be Griswold) that was published in the New York Tribune on October 9, 1849. It read as follows: “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.”  And whereas, this insensitive, though by no means long lasting barb, may have satisfied your average disgruntled  adversary, it was just the tip of the iceberg for Griswold. What occurred next is unclear – either Griswold approached Maria Clemm, or not knowing Poe’s history with the man, Mrs. Clemm approached Griswold herself. In either case, Griswold somehow convinced her to give him some of Poe’s original works with the promise that he would secure an income for her by publishing them.  From these resources he produced a two volume set with a dedication to Mrs. Clemm  included as the preface.  It was published towards the end of 1849 and started selling, however, instead of paying Mrs. Clemm any money, Griswold sent her six copies and told her to get as much as she could for them.  He didn’t even send her back the original manuscripts so that she could try to publish them elsewhere.  

His evil still not complete, he set to writing a biography entitled “Memoir of the Author”. Supposedly backed by Poe’s own correspondence (it was later determined that the letters that Griswold used as the basis for his “facts” were forged), it painted Poe as an unscrupulous cad ruined by drug and alcohol addictions (though he was certainly not averse to drinking, there is apparently no hard evidence that Poe abused drugs). Initially published in the International Monthly Magazine in October of 1850, Griswold also included it in a third volume of Poe’s works that he published later that year. This maligning of Poe’s character did nothing but fuel sales of the collected works, and whether intended or not, ended up padding Griswold’s pockets even further. Poe’s friends spent years fighting Griswold’s claims, publishing retorts to each of his accusations and claiming that Griswold was trying to enact an all out character assassination.   But for each plea to clear Poe’s name, two or three articles, mainly supplied by Griswold’s friends, would surface supporting Griswold’s depiction of Poe as a wicked and debauched man.  As the years passed, Griswold republished his Poe collection three more times, ultimately supplanting the dedication to Maria Clemm with his “Memoir of the Author” as the preface.  In 1857 when Griswold died, it was still the sole biography on Poe. However, the story doesn’t end there. 


An ocean away in England there lived a young man named John Ingram who was destined to turn Griswold’s smear-scheme of Poe on its ear. Born on November 16, 1842, Ingram grew up in Stoke Newington, a suburb of London in which Poe himself had briefly lived as a child while attending the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School. Ingram, who was mainly home schooled, spent hours reading his father’s books, one of which was a volume of Poe’s poetry. He later recollected that it mesmerized him and sparked a love for the author ‘s writing that in later years turned into his passion.

Ingram, whose plan to attend college was cut short by the death of his father, entered the work force in 1868, taking a position as a clerk with the Savings Bank Department of the London General Post Office, a job he would hold until he retired in 1903. With steady, if boring, employment secured, he set to bettering himself by spending his evenings and weekends studying, writing and lecturing. His Saturday afternoons were spent in the Reading Room of the British Museum Library where he taught himself to read and write several languages and honed his skills at research. His first foray into the world of writing occurred with the publication in 1869 of a book entitled Flora Symbolica; or the Language and Sentiment of Flowers, a work dealing with the history of floriography (the symbolic meaning of flowers). It is an exhaustive resource (over 300 pages long) and demonstrated his skills at compiling information and presenting it in a clear and readable format.  

Having experienced success in this adventure, he sought another avenue to research and found himself drawn once again to Edgar Allan Poe. Having great admiration for the writer, he was horrified by his treatment at the hands of Griswold and determined that he would rectify what he saw as a collection of lies. His journey down this path began in 1870 and ended up occupying the rest of his life.

To begin his work, he published a few short articles in 1873 and 1874, announcing his purpose. He then set to reading everything available to him in London.  However, knowing that these sources were limited and oftentimes simply rehashed Griswold’s lies, he soon sought to make contact with any living friends and family of the author to see if they were willing to share their recollections with him. The reaction he received was more than he could have ever hoped for.  Exhausted from their own battles to portray Poe as they had known him, his friends found an errant knight in Ingram and immediately started sending him as much material as they could find. He received original letters, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, remembrances of personal meetings, etc. from Sarah Helen Whitman, Annie Richmond, Marie Louise Shew Houghton, Stella Lewis (who sent him the daguerreotype of Poe which now seems to grace every modern edition of the author’s works), Edward V. Valentine, William Hand Browne, John Neal, various members of the Poe family (Rosalie (his sister), Neilson and Amelia) and many others. So strong were the feelings these people had for Ingram that they refused to work with any other biographers, going so far as to refuse them any information and publicly supporting Ingram to do the same.  With all of this material at hand, Ingram published sixteen different books on Poe between 1870 and 1880, ending with his coup de grâce against Griswold’s memoir, a two volume edition entitled Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letter, and Opinions (1880).

To Ingram, he had accomplished his goal and was determined to move on to other endeavors, however, fate would have it another way.  The popularity of his biography opened the gate for new editions of Poe’s stories to be published and with it a renewed interest by others to further the research into Poe’s life.  Many of these people questioned Ingram’s reliance upon materials that were mainly correspondence and remembrances rather than hard facts. Ingram, who had become quite possessive of his collected knowledge of Poe, found it impossible not to react, and he spent the rest of his life refuting comments about his work, often overstepping bounds with purposefully negative reviews of other biographers' works.

Determined to be the last word on Poe, Ingram expanded his biography into a deluxe four volume version, which was under consideration with an editor in 1916 when he suddenly died on February 12 at his home in Brighton.  Due to his sister’s lack of interest in following through with the editor, and the constraints imposed by the times (World War I), it was never published, which in retrospect was probably a good thing, because rather than enhance his former work, this expanded version only served to inject bile towards anyone (i.e. all other biographers) he viewed as trying to sully his prowess on the subject of Poe.  Having died intestate and having left no directions on how he wanted his Poe collection to be handled, his sister, Laura Ingram, who was strapped for money, decided to sell it to the highest bidder. Through a gut-churning series of events that could have easily seen all those papers scattered to the wind, it was the University of Virginia who finally bought the collection on March 24, 1922, for approximately $800 (181 pounds, 14 shillings).

So there you have it, the legacy of the father of the macabre, the creator of the modern mystery and short story format, at first destroyed by petty jealousy and then resurrected by a self-determination that spanned a life time. No matter what his personality traits, anyone who has a modicum of respect for Poe as a writer and a man owes John Ingram a huge debt of gratitude.   


This summation is based on two wonderful articles, links to which are as follows:

Article on Griswold’s smear campaign from the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore: 

Article on  John Ingram’s resurrection of Poe’s name, written by John Carl Miller : 

Obit on John Ingram from The Dial 1916, written by J.H. Whitty:

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