In October 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found near death on the streets of Baltimore. The famed author was incoherent, dressed in someone else’s clothes, and seemingly insane. Days after he was found and taken to the hospital, he died without ever saying what had happened to put him in his weary state.
Poe’s death seems fitting based on how we view the author in pop culture today. Poe was an eccentric, drug-addled madman. He wrote horrific stories because he was out of his mind, making his untimely death in Baltimore seem logical.
But it isn’t.
While Poe’s death is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day, we do know one thing for certain: everything we thought we knew about Poe was wrong. He wasn’t some crazed lunatic who managed to publish some of the most successful stories of his day by chance. He wasn’t living on the fringes of society. He wasn’t the type of person to wind up on the streets in different clothes, babbling nonsense words and calling out to someone named ‘Reynolds.’
This version of Poe is completely false. And it all stems from this guy:
That’s Rufus Griswold. He hated Poe with a passion. This hatred came after years of rivalry between the two authors, which started after Griswold released an anthology of poems that was reviewed poorly by Poe.
The story goes that Poe submitted a few poems to the anthology and Griswold graciously accepted them. Griswold then asked Poe, who was a literary critic and magazinist at the time, to review the anthology, thinking — logically — that Poe would give it a good review because his own work was published within it. He didn’t. That’s not how Poe rolled.
Instead, Poe published a scathing review of the work and Griswold himself, sparking a literary rivalry that lasted until Poe’s death and ultimately one of the longest standing smear campaigns of literary history.
So how did Griswold pull this off? How did he take a pretty public figure — Poe was known for his lectures, reviews, and was basically a celebrity back in the day — and change his entire image? Well, it all started moments after Poe’s death.
As soon as word of Poe’s death reached Griswold, he went to work penning an obituary for the New York Tribune under the name ‘Ludwig’.
According to The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, he wrote:
“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.”
Now, it’s important to note that many, many people knew that Griswold hated Poe with a furious passion. So, many of Poe’s friends were quick to come out and say that this had to be the work of Griswold and that Poe does — despite what The Tribune reported — have many friends that will miss him.
In a letter to poet Sarah Helen Whitman — who was briefly engaged to Poe, though they never married — Griswold admitted to being ‘Ludwig.’ He wrote:
“I wrote, as you suppose, the notice of Poe in The Tribune, but very hastily. I was not his friend, nor was he mine.”
Despite the fact that many in the literary circle at the time knew that Griswold penned the obituary, the damage was already done. It was widely reprinted across the country, kicking off only the first stage of Griswold’s revenge.
Now, it’s safe to say that writing a bad obituary is definitely a dick move. But it gets so, so much worse from here.
You see, an obituary just comes off as something forgetful, especially when it’s obviously written by someone holding a grudge. What Griswold really needed was to write Poe’s memoirs.
This part of the story gets a bit muddled. Some historians claim that Poe — earlier in his career when he and Griswold were still sorta friends — knowingly made his rival his literary executor, the person who would be tasked with handling his works after his death.
Other historians say there is more evidence to suggest that Griswold actually conned Maria Clemm — Poe’s mother-in-law — into turning over the rights to Poe’s work by promising her some of the profits of the memoir. He, of course, didn’t pay her in the end.
“ In actuality, instead of the promised money, Mrs. Clemm received six sets of the two volumes to sell at whatever she could get,” reports The Edgar Allan Poe Society.
“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.”
Either way, the result was the same: Griswold somehow came to be Poe’s literary executor. He now had the power to do some real damage to the poet’s character.
In 1850, Griswold wrote an article called Memoir of the Author, which was a “biographical” retelling of Poe’s life. He published this a few places and included it in an a collection of Poe’s works.
What this meant was that anyone buying Poe’s work in 1850 would also read the hit piece, slowly creating the image of Poe that many still believe.
According to the National Parks Service (NPS), who investigated Griswold’s biography, he painted Poe as a poor, drunken, opium-addicted madman whose lack of character did him in in the end.
“ Griswold claimed that this problem and gambling caused Poe to be expelled from the University of Virginia,” they write in the report.
“He also claimed that Poe deserted the army and that Poe’s character flaws were responsible for his departure from West Point.”
That’s not what happened at all, though. Poe did join the military — for financial reasons — stayed in for two years and was discharged early after speaking with his commanding officer who told him he would let him go if he promised to reconcile with his foster father, John Allan, and had someone replace him for the rest of his enlistment.
He then went to study at West Point but had to leave because he couldn’t afford it. So, he willfully neglected his duties to get discharged.
“Poe enlisted in the army in 1827 as a private and was released in 1829 as a sergeant major, a rank hardly achievable so fast without a good service record,” the NPS reports.
“In fact, recommendations from his officers helped him enter West Point, which he left for financial reasons.”
Griswold even went so far as to forge ‘evidence’ of his claims, though much of it was debunked.
Griswold basically took every event of Poe’s life and made all of his shortcomings stem from Poe being a lunatic with a substance abuse problem. This led to the creation of the mad-genius version of Poe.
The sad thing is that Griswold’s depiction sorta went viral — or as viral as content could go back in the mid-1800s — because people started to buy the collection just to read work by the evil, madman poet.
The good thing is that Poe’s friends — specifically Sarah Helen Whitman, who wrote her own, more accurate biography of Poe — tried to undo all of Griswold’s nonsense back then, too.
However, it wasn’t enough. In fact, many still believe in this weird version of Poe and are surprised to learn the truth: that he was a skilled writer who labored over his craft and also was able to read America’s tastes to produce some of the most widely read fiction of the time.
So, in that spirit, here are a few things about Edgar Allan Poe that you may not know. And if you do know them, that’s great because it means that Griswold hasn’t won totally.
A few quick Poe facts:
- He invented the Sherlock Holmes-type detective before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He also is credited with inventing the modern short story.
- He wrote a prose poem entitled Eureka, which goes over Poe’s view of the cosmos. It contains ideas that some claim predict the discovery of an expanding universe and the Big Bang. Though the actual science has been debunked, it’s cool to look at Poe as a sort of sci-fi writer who imagined something very close to the modern thought.
- He is suspected to be the first American to live solely off his writing.
- He started writing when he was about 13.
- Allan is not his middle name. It is the last name of his foster father, John Allan. For most of his life, Poe went by ‘Edgar A. Poe.’
So, the next time you hear someone talking about Poe, depicting him as some estranged weirdo, set them straight.
As for Griswold, karma sorta caught up with him. He died of tuberculosis in 1857 in New York City. There were three portraits found on his wall: one of himself, Frances Osgood, and Poe.
His friend reportedly found documents attacking other writers on his desk, which he burned so they wouldn’t be published. Griswold wasn’t buried until 1865 when he was placed in a grave with no headstone in Green-Wood Cemetery.