Wednesday, April 5, 2017

To Kill A Dead Man: The Afterdeath of Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe - army deserter, drug fiend, erratic genius - or not.

Edgar Allan Poe had the misfortune of having his enemy take charge of his literary estate and reputation. Upon Poe's death, the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold penned an obituary which began:

"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 continued with:

"Irascible, envious — bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold repellent cynicism, his passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to him no moral susceptibility; and, what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor."

Griswold went on to claim that Poe had named him literary executor. To support Griswold's claim of his close association with Poe, he offered correspondence—which he had forged. In exchange for six sets of the books forwarded to Poe's aunt (who was not Poe's heir), Griswold published and pocketed the money from the first posthumous Poe collection.

As part of the introduction to one of the volumes, Griswold wrote a highly-imagined biography of Poe. Of Poe's time at the University of Virginia:

"[Poe] would have graduated with the highest honors, had not his gambling, intemperance, and other vices, induced his expulsion from the university"

Reality: Poe was not expelled. Other than gambling, he didn't appear to have vices, nor could he afford them. According to Griswold, Poe, to escape gambling debts:

". . .soon after left the country with the Quixotic intention of joining the Greeks, then in the midst of their struggle with the Turks. He never reached his destination, and we know but little of his adventures in Europe for nearly a year. By the end of this time he had made his way to St. Petersburgh."

Poe never made such a trip to Europe or Russia, nor had he ever been out of the United States since age 11.

After many more errors in Poe's biography, Griswold summed up the man whose estate he was currently robbing: "Poe exhibits scarcely any virtue in either his life or his writings."

What Had Poe Done to Earn Griswold's Wrath?

Reverend Griswold's greatest crime was his mediocrity. Beginning in the 1840s, Griswold compiled a series called The Poets and Poetry of America. Other than including one or two who were deserving, such as Poe, the work was filled by forgettable poets. As the critic Henry B. Wirth said in a review, ". . . if ever such a thing as literary ruin existed, or exists, nine-tenths of the Poets (!) of America are ruined forever by the praise of Mr. Griswold!"

An anonymous critic used poetry to lampoon Griswold's choice of poets.

  So cold your strain, so dead your accents fall,
  Great thanks to Griswold that ye live at all!

One contemporary, John Sartain, declared Griswold a blackmailer, saying that he had to pay Griswold to avoid a negative review.

Poe joined in the criticism. "Have you seen Griswold's Book of Poetry? It is a most outrageous humbug. . ." (Poe to J. E. Snodgrass, June 4, 1842)

"It is a pity that so many of these biographies were entrusted to Mr. Griswold. He certainly lacks independence, or judgment, or both" (Poe to James Russell Lowell, October 19, 1843)

Griswold's characterization of Poe has haunted Poe since. This was due to those who took Griswold's biography at face value, those who incorporated it into future biographies and those who insisted on seeing evil inside a man who often wrote about evil.

Poe had personality flaws. Many great writers have been forgiven for their alcoholism. His melancholy bouts seem to be no more than what had been pressed upon him during his brief and tragic life.

Some of his work now seems contrived. The Gold-Bug, his first huge success is racist both in its language and in its depiction of a slow-witted slave.

His choice of subjects, horror, mystery and the fantastic, are often considered a lower art. Poe was acutely aware that he often wrote "pulp." Poe took these forms seriously and codified the rules for new genres: the detective story and science fiction.

Nevertheless, Poe was a professional. He was brilliant, dedicated to his craft, a formidable stylist and critic.

The citations in this article are all from the Poe Society [links below]. The general story was filled in using the biography, "Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living." Paul Collins, New Harvest, 2014. 

Poe's place on the list of the Top 100 Mysteries.

Among the titles referred to on the Top 100 Mysteries (Mystery Writers of America) and the Top 100 Crime Novels (Crime Writers Association), Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the most enigmatic. There have been several Poe compilations, some with this exact title, some with a slight variant.

Author: Edgar Allan Poe
Book: Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
Publication: 1852? As noted by CWA and MWA.
There was a Poe book titled: Tales of Mystery, Imagination and Humour and Poems published in 1852. The first Poe collective titled, Tales of Mystery and Imagination was published in 1902. These had different contents.
Rank: #23 on the CWA list, #3 on the MWA list.
Age of author at time of publication: posthumous
Previous novels published by this author: one novel, several collections of short stories.
Opening line: Many years ago I contracted an intimacy with a Mr. William LeGrand. (from The Gold-Bug, the opening story in the 1902 edition.)
Significance: Helped invent the detective story and science fiction. Has given melancholy teens something to brood about for going on two centuries, well before Goth. Many stories have defined our cultural heritage, including, The Tell Tale Heart, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Mask of Red Death.

Links to the Edgar Allan Poe Society.

Poe Versus Griswold
Griswold's Memoir of Poe.


 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 


  1. It's also widely believed that Poe's enemies got him drunk and threw him in that gutter--that his death was not at all a natural result of being an alcoholic. Even if his work isn't very "modern," it still has a distinct voice and a life to it.

  2. I've read other biographies that try to account for how Griswold took over Poe's estate, but none is satisfactory. This one makes more sense.

  3. Thanks. I definitely see it as a straightforward motive. Greed, desire for fame and a feeling of superiority in spite of being mediocre.

  4. Let me extend my above comment. From what I've read some biographies of Poe state that Poe may have actually appointed Griswold as his literary executor. I approach this from a more forensic background than academic. With Griswold forging letters, manipulating Poe' aunt who was not the heir, and pocketing the money, I believe we have a straightforward crime. The preponderance of evidence finds Griswold guilty. In light of this, his words on the matter are suspect.