How would you like to have your worst enemy’s portrait hanging in your living room? Although a few people half-jokingly advised us that Edgar Allan Poe would not approve of having a portrait of Rufus Griswold in the Poe Museum, we decided there was no better place for such an artifact than here in the center of the Poe-verse. Griswold, after all, is the one responsible for defaming Poe and creating the dark myth which far too many people have mistaken for fact. If it hadn’t been for Griswold, people wouldn’t still believe Poe was a drug addicted madman whose horror stories were merely based on his disturbed life.
Here is just a sample from Griswold’s obituary of Poe:
He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn close by whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which his constitution subjugated him — close by that Aidenn where were those he loved — the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses, as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.
If that description sounds about right to you, it’s because of Griswold. This is the caricature of Poe he created, and, although it has long since been reputed, it is still the myth some of us learn in English class and from popular culture. It’s also the hopelessly drunk and depressed Poe portrayed by John Cusack in the 2012 film The Raven. When reading such a description it’s easy to see why most people think Poe only wrote horror stories when he actually wrote more comedies and science fiction tales.
This distorted view of Poe is so popular that a few people think we are either mistaken or lying when we at the Poe Museum tell them the true story of Poe’s life. That is when we have to inform them about Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the rival editor, anthologist, and failed poet who, to avenge some wrong Poe had done him, wrote such a libelous obituary of the author that, at first, he chose to sign it with a pseudonym. Published two days after Poe’s death, it begins, “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.”
As if that were not enough, Griswold continued his smear campaign with a biography of Poe that portrayed the dead man as a vile, despicable human being, a liar, a blackmailer, a madman and a womanizer. Griswold even implied Poe had made a pass at his foster father’s mother and forged some of Poe’s letters to quote in the memoir. While some of Poe’s friends came forward with articles defending Poe’s good name, many were afraid to speak out until after the influential anthologist Griswold was dead. Three years after Griswold’s death, Poe’s former fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman published her own biography of Poe, and several others followed. With a few notable exceptions, most of them portrayed Poe in a much better light. Now any objective biographer can safely dismiss the popular view of Poe as an insane opium addict.
When the Poe Museum tries to provide its visitors a fair and objective view of Poe’s life and work it is helpful to distinguish the facts from the fictions associated with his biography. A big part of this involves examining the man who started these myths and the reasons he did it. That’s why most Poe Museum tours end with at least some mention of Rufus Griswold’s infamous biography of Poe.
A few months ago, an antique dealer contacted the Poe Museum with an offer to sell a collection of Rufus Griswold artifacts including oil paintings of Rufus Griswold and his wife Caroline as well as about forty-five letters to and from Griswold, members of his family, and the poet (and enemy of both Poe and Griswold) Elizabeth Ellet. As soon as the collections committee heard about the opportunity, it voted to acquire the items. To raise the money, the museum launched a Gofundme campaign which quickly raised the money thanks to generous gifts from Susan Jaffe Tane, Stephan Loewentheil, Abbe Ancell, Michael Brazda, Teresa Carter, Christine Clements, Christopher Davalos, Escape Room Live DC, Katrina Fontenla, Mary Lee Haase, Sarah Huffman, Magdalena Karol, L. L. Leland, Aimée Mahathy, Lizzie O., Neca Rocco, Robert Rosen, Jennifer and Joe Rougeau, Justin and Elizabeth Schauer, Ernst Schnell, John Spitzer, Wayne and Pat Stith, Kurt Strom, Amy H. Sturgis, Sara Tantlinger, Patrick Tsao, Ashleigh Williams, and Seven Anonymous Donors.
Now, after years in the possession of descendants of Rufus Griswold’s daughter Emily, this collection is finally in a public collection where anyone can see and study it. Although the portraits were printed once in a 1943 biography of Rufus Griswold, the small black-and-white reproductions in that book only provided the slightest hint of the face of Griswold we will see when we have finished conserving the original paintings. For the first time ever, the public will be able to see Rufus and Caroline Griswold as they appeared when Griswold himself owned the paintings.
While seeing the portraits will be like traveling back in time to meet the man, reading his private letters in this collection will be like having a conversation with him. This will be our chance to learn about Griswold’s private struggles, his aspirations, and his motivations.
The paintings’ trip to the Poe Museum is just one step on their decades-long journey. Painted in 1840, they went from Griswold (1815-1857) to his daughter Emily Griswold Hartley (1838-1906, a missionary) to her son Randolph Hartley (1870-1931, a librettist and theatrical agent) to Wakeman Hartley to a Massachusetts antique dealer. The next step is a visit to the conservator to repair the damage caused by decades of neglect. Now obscured by dark varnish, dust, smoke, and grime and covered with cracks, holes, and restorers’ over-painting, these 176 year old artifacts need to be cleaned and repaired in order for us to finally see them as they would have appeared in Griswold’s time. You will learn more about that in next week’s installment.
If you would like to help take care of the Poe Museum’s artifacts, please make a contribution here.