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A Gentleman, If Not a Christian: the Life of Rufus Griswold

In August of 2014, we covered the scandal between Poe and Rufus Griswold, Poe’s defamer. We went in depth into the situation and analyzed the happenstances leading up to Griswold’s scheme. However, it should be recognized that Griswold was more than just a villainous character in the life of Poe.

Rufus Griswold

Rufus Wilmot Griswold was born February 13, 1815, in Benson, Vermont. He and his ten siblings lived on a small farm with their parents, Deborah and Rufus Griswold. According to biographer Jacob Neu in his article, “Rufus Wilmot Griswold,” not a lot of information is known about his childhood. Neu paints Rufus’ modest childhood:

…no doubt [Rufus] performed such chores as are incident to the duties of a boy on a small farm. Very likely he took a boy’s part in the husking-bees, the sugar-making, and the fur-trapping. He attended such church services as were held in the church of his parents. His diversions he found in the companionship of other boys at the ‘bees’ of the neighborhood, in occasional visits to the banks of the Hudson or to Benson’s Landing, both but a few miles…from his home, or to the lumbering camps near the Westhaven settlement south of his home (102). 

 According to his son, William, in Passages from the Correspondence and Other Papers of Rufus W. Griswold, Rufus attended the Rensselaer school at Troy, thanks to the graciousness of his brother, Heman, who was a well known business man in that town. Just fifteen, he was kicked out of the school because of a school prank, and was sent to live in Heman’s counting-room (7). According to William, Rufus became acquainted with George G. Foster, writer of New-York by Gaslight, and abandoned his family to move in with Foster in Albany, New York.

Although it is believed that Griswold spent his later teenage years voyaging the world, according to Neu for example, many modern biographers since have discovered the fallacy in this part of his biography. What is known is that, according to the Vergennes Vermonter, he spent time in the South during this time (Neu 104).

In October of 1834, he began working for the office of the Constitutionalist in Syracuse, New York. After his brother, Silas, brought to his attention another job, it is presumed that Rufus began editing for the Chautauqua Whig, officially establishing himself as an editor (104). His success continued with the editorships of both the Western Democrat and Literary Inquirer in 1835 and the Olean Advocate in 1836 (105). It was just before he took the Olean Advocate job when he found his first love and future wife, Caroline Searles.

According to Joy Bayless in her book, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Griswold was walking with a friend when a downpour occurred sending the two men to take shelter in a home at 51 1/2 Clinton Street. Griswold’s friend, Butler, was well known by the owner of that home, Mrs. Angell, who was the mother of Hamilton Randolph Searles and Caroline Searles, who was then nineteen (15). According to Bayless, “This beautiful girl, with her dark, shy eyes and her glossy auburn hair, immediately became the center of Griswold’s world; and he learned later that from the moment she saw him her heart was his” (15).

Caroline Searles Griswold

The two were separated for a time when Griswold accepted a job as editor for the Olean Advocate in Olean, New York, however he left the paper Christmas 1836, and rejoined Caroline. The two married March 20, 1837, and, according to Bayless, “…[he], romanticizing himself into the rôle of tragic outcast rescued from his exile by a good angel, was happier than he had ever been in his life” (20).

Griswold’s life was improving and seemed promising with his new wife. According to Bayless,

He was smooth and suave as if he had lived in metropolitan cities all his twenty-two years. His slender physique carried his fashionable dress gracefully; and his glib tongue discoursed easily of books he had read, of sights he had seen, and of literary and political happenings of the day….He was intelligent looking, with a high broad forehead and large gray eyes, sharp, trenchant nose, and an expression of cocksure defiance…Griswold’s best asset, however, was his ability to attract friends…(22).

It may have been this charming demeanor which gained him a friend, Horace Greeley, founder of The New-Yorker. Greeley became Griswold’s mentor and sponsored the young man as he endeavored to become a successful literary historian.

Horace Greeley

In 1837, Griswold become a Baptist preacher, which must have been a contradiction with his religious stance, as he was not devout at this point in his life. It is possible that Caroline influenced him to become a preacher (24). By late 1837 to early 1838, Caroline was expecting their first child, and Griswold left for work in Vergennes, Vermont, to work for The Vergennes Vermonter (25).

According to Bayless, Griswold’s first daughter, Emily Elizabeth, was born four days after he began publishing for this paper. Caroline joined her husband three months later, and the three lived in a rented house (25). However, the family moved back to New York in 1839, where he rejoined Greeley to work for his Daily Whig paper (28).

Park Benjamin

By July, he was acquainted with both Park Benjamin, editor of The New England Magazine, and Charles Fenno Hoffman, founder of The Knickerbocker (28). Griswold and Benjamin began working together for the Evening Tattler, which featured Edgar Allan Poe as the butt of a joke in their July 19, 1839 issue (29-30). Greeley did not see any promise or true benefit for Griswold working with Benjamin, and he attempted to obtain a position for him with Thomas W. White, publisher of The Southern Literary Messenger; however, he was not given the position and looked for work in Boston. He was unable to find work there and accepted an assistant editorship position for The New-Yorker (32).

During this time, another daughter was born, Caroline, and Emily was two-years-old. He became closer to Hoffman, whom he greatly admired, and “fairly worshipped,” according to Bayless. He also began working on his first gift book, The Biographical Annual (33). The book was printed and, unfortunately, flopped. His next anthology was entitled The Poets and Poetry of America, and would be one of his most successful volumes.

By 1840, Griswold was in Boston, and his family remained in New York (36).

He worked for the Boston Notion, where he demonstrated his enthusiastic support of Hoffman’s poetry by publishing thirty-six of his poems. He would print these and nine more in his anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America, which was published by Carey and Hart on April 18, 1842 (44). The anthology features ninety-one writers, selected verses, and brief biographical sketches of each writer. Edgar Allan Poe was given an inaccurate portrayal and only had three of his poems featured (45). Regardless, the book was given a fair and positive critique, considered as, “…the best collection of American poetry that has yet been made,” although, “…the author, without being aware of it himself, has unduly favored the writers of New England.” Another editor agreed with the latter statement by stating, “We protest against this injustice. The Southern states will be degraded in the eyes of the foreigners, by the course which this partial and prejudiced compiler has pursued” (46).

The volume did wonders for Griswold’s career and aided him in receiving an editorship job for Graham’s Magazine, taking Edgar Allan Poe’s place (49). By May 1842, he was in Philadelphia (50). In November 1842, however, his world seemingly ended. On the ninth of November, while staying in a hotel in Philadelphia, he received word that his wife, who had just given birth to their third child, a son, had died from an unknown cause. His son passed as well (64).

Bayless describes the scene after Griswold heard the news powerfully,

Hysterically he rushed on the night train to New York, where he took a seat near Caroline’s coffin and for thirty hours refused to leave her side. The watchers urged him to try to sleep, but he answered them by kissing the cold lips of his dead wife and embracing her. His two little children came to him, clung to him, and cried for their mother; and he, as much a motherless child as they, showed them ‘her soulless clay’ (64-65).

Griswold heartbreakingly wrote to his friend James T. Fields,

You knew her my friend—she was my good angel—she was the first to lead me from a cheerless, lonely life, to society…She was not only the best of wives, but the best of mothers. You have seen our dear children—she taught them as children are rarely taught, and when she went her way they were left by her at the feet of Christ, at the very gate of heaven…They will bury her then [11:00 that day]—bury my dear Caroline and my child from my sight!…then I must set about tearing up the foundations of my home. Alas for me, I shall never more have a home to fly to in my sorrows—never more a comforter in my afflictions—never more a partner to share in all my woes or to be a source and author of all my pleasures…May God forever keep you from all such sorrow—farewell (65).

The funeral took place on November 11, with the procession moving to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. According to Bayless, “When the body was placed in the tomb, Griswold uttered a shriek, fell upon the coffin, and burst into agonized weeping” (65).

Those standing by, including Caroline’s brother, Hamilton Randolph Searles, and his wife, gently urged Griswold to leave the tomb. After seeing they couldn’t console the reverend’s throbbing heart, they let him be to make peace with Caroline’s death. Captain Waring, Caroline’s uncle, finally had to pry Rufus from her grave, stating, “In Heaven’s name, Rufus, have done with this nonsense and come along home with me,” to which Rufus obliged and followed (65).
The night after Caroline’s death, Rufus wrote his most heart-wrenching poem, “Five Days,” which was printed anonymously in The New-York Tribune on November 16, 1842. The poem can be found here.

Forty days after Caroline’s death, Griswold went to her tomb, inspiring his account given below:
I could not think that my dear wife was dead. I dreamed night after night of our reunion. In a fit of madness I went to New York. The vault where she is sleeping is nine miles from the city. I went to it: the sexton unclosed it: and I went down alone into that silent chamber. I kneeled by her side and prayed, and then, with my own hand, unfastened the coffin lid, turned aside the drapery that hid her face, and saw the terrible changes made by Death and Time. I kissed for the last time her cold black forehead—I cut off locks of her beautiful hair, damp with the death dews, and sunk down in senseless agony beside the ruin of all that was dearest in the world. In the evening, a friend from the city, who had learned where I was gone, found me there, my face still resting on her own, and my body as lifeless and cold as that before me. In all this I know I have acted against reason; but as I look back upon it it seems that I have been influenced by some power too strong to be opposed. Through the terrible scenes of the week I have been wonderfully calm, and my strength has not failed me, though it is long since I have slept. It is four o’clock in the morning—I am alone—in the house that while my angel was by my side was the scene of happiness too great to be surpassed even in heaven. I go forth today a changed man. I realize at length that she is dead. I turn my gaze from the past to the future (67).
Despite his broken heart, Griswold persevered knowing that he had to take care of his little girls and continue working.

Because of an overblown feud with Poe, Griswold resigned from Graham’s, and remained in Philadelphia (78). He continued compiling and publishing anthological volumes of poetry and stories, compiled from both American and English writers. Ironically, he also became one of the strongest advocates for copyright laws in the 1840s, organizing the American Copyright Club with other writers and friends, including Charles Fenno Hoffman (83).

Charles Fenno Hoffman

Despite keeping busy, Griswold found himself in need of a woman by his side. The emptiness of Caroline’s loss and loneliness of being without a partner may have left him seeking companionship-although it has been said that he enjoyed his bachelorhood for a time. It was in the summer of 1844 when he met his second wife, Charlotte Meyers, a wealthy Jewess from Charleston, South Carolina, according to Bayless (104). Griswold, aged twenty-nine, and Meyers, aged fifty-five, married August 20, 1845 (107).

Unhappy in his new marriage, Griswold left Meyers with the agreement that she keep his little daughter, Caroline, whom she loved and cared for deeply. According to Bayless, “The action which Griswold finally took to terminate this unhappy alliance was to plunge him into the greatest disaster which ever befell him in his eventful, troubled career” (113). His young Caroline was with Meyers and his eight-year-old Emily was with a relative in New York.

Just as things were looking worse, he published another notable volume, The Prose Writers of America, on March 3, 1847 (117). He did not consider this work as being one of his strongest; however, it proved to be positive for Poe who received the greatest praise, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne (119). About Poe, Griswold said, “The tales of Mr. Poe are peculiar and impressive. He has a great deal of imagination and fancy, and his mind is in the highest degree analytical…The reader of Mr. Poe’s tales is compelled almost at the outset to surrender his mind to the author’s control…” (120).

Seventy-two writers were featured in the book; however, only five were women, including Margaret Fuller, who was treated with contempt, according to Bayless (121). Meanwhile, an eighth edition of The Poets and Poetry of America was issued, where he spoke well of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, revising previous statements he had printed in the seventh edition (127-128).

Margaret Fuller

In fall of 1847, he was involved in a controversy with the Reverend Joel T. Headley. Both men were working on books about Washington, causing stress between the rival editors. Griswold published Washington and the Generals of the Revolution under Carey and Hart; whereas, Headley published Washington and His Generals under Baker and Scribner (132). Headley swore revenge against Griswold; the controversy became public and continued for about a month (133). According to Bayless, Headley won the battle by calling Griswold, “such a liar that even his friends replied to his statements with the query, ‘Is that a Griswold or a fact'” (134).

Joel Headley

Headley was not the first person who would cause trouble for Griswold that year, however. During winter of 1847, Elizabeth Ellet, a well-known lady associated with the high circles of literary society, approached Griswold and proposed the idea of a book about American Revolutionary women. She inquired about being granted access to any information Griswold may have, to which he agreed. He gave her permission to enter his private library, of which she took full advantage. Once her book was published, Griswold was shocked to find she had neither thanked nor mentioned him. This was the first mark against her character (143-144). He avenged himself by including the following statement about her book in his own anthology, The Female Poets of America:

Her object was to illustrate the action and influence of her sex in the achievement of our national independence,….and with the assistance of a few gentlemen more familiar than herself with our public and domestic experience, she has made a valuable and interesting work (150-151).

Elizabeth Ellet

This insult was quickly replaced by the kind friendship of Frances Sargent Osgood, whom he greatly admired and said of her, “She is in all things the most admirable woman I ever knew” (144). The two grew close, discussed poetry and prose, attended salons together, and Frances wrote an acrostic for him:

For one, whose being is to mine a star,
Trembling I weave in lines of love and fun
What Fame before has echoed near and far.
A sonnet if you like–I’ll give you one
To be cross-questioned ere it’s truth is solv’d.
Here veiled and hidden in a rhyming wreath
A name is turned with mine in cunning sheath,
And unless by some marvel rare evolved,
Forever folded from all idler eyes
Silent and secret still it treasured lies,
Whilst mine goes winding onward, as a rill
Thro’ a deep wood in unseen joyance dances,
Calling in melody’s bewildering thrill
Whilst thro’ dim leaves its partner dreams and glances (World of Poe).

From top to bottom on the left, the poem spells out Frances Osgood’s name. From top to bottom on the right, the poem spells out Griswold’s name.

Poe’s death on October 7, 1849, affected Griswold deeply, leaving him with conflicting emotions, yet he took full advantage of the writer’s death, and endeavored to destroy Poe’s image. You can read about the controversy here.

During this time, his dearest friend, Fanny Osgood, passed away and he was busy working on her memorial along with Mary Hewitt, while also working on multiple gift books, including Gift Leaves from American Poets (Bayless 202-203).

In 1852, he took steps to divorce Charlotte Myers Griswold, due to his disinterest in her and increasing interest in the poetess, Alice Cary (213). Cary, deeply smitten with Griswold, had been communicating with him long distance through letters, until their first meeting in the summer of 1850. She ultimately left dejected as Griswold found another woman more suitable for a married life, Harriet McCrillis (215-218). According to Bayless, she was domestic, religious, loving, socially important, but most importantly, very wealthy (219). Unfortunately, complications ensued.

Meyers did not want to divorce Griswold. Not only was the divorce denied, but Ellet and Ann Stephens, an ex-coworker of his and enemy, stepped in to plead against McCrillis marrying Griswold, “…telling her that she could be congratulated upon her escape from an illegal marriage, and informing her that she could not expect to be happy with a man who was undecided as to whether he should marry her or another lady,” according to Bayless (220-221).

Finally, there was an ultimatum. Charlotte agreed to the divorce if she could take full custody of little Caroline. After the divorce was finalized, Griswold did not see Charlotte or Caroline ever again (222). He and Harriet married on December 26, 1852.

Once again, Ellet intervened, causing Harriet to leave with Griswold’s daughter, Emily. Unfortunately, the train the two took to go to her brother’s house was in an accident which sent all the cars plunging into the water below. Harriet was slightly injured; however, fifteen-year-old Emily had to be resuscitated back to life after being pronounced dead (224-225). Another accident followed soon after. In October of 1853, a gas fire occurred in Griswold’s house, and he was badly burned while saving a twelve-year-old child’s life (227).

Finally, abandoned by Harriet over the great scandal perpetrated by Ellet and Stephens, Griswold took a small room at 239 Fourth Avenue. In early 1857, he became ill, and Alice Cary returned to make his last days comfortable (252). He attempted to visit the parents he had not seen in many years; however, he was too ill to do so and returned to New York.

Alice Cary

He wrote to Harriet and requested to see her and their little son, William, one more time before he died. According to Bayless, “Harriet hastened to him and remained with him to the end. In the conversation the minister asked him if he had been a Christian. ‘Sir, I may not have been always a Christian, but I am very sure that I have been a gentleman,’ was the answer.” He passed away August 27, 1857.

In an empathetic anonymous obituary, the writer states,

That Rufus W. Griswold was a weak and ill-judging man, no one will deny. As a man, there was much in him to regret; but those who knew something of his last lonely years, his bed of solitary and uncheered suffering, will feel for him only pity, as one who was made to atone deeply for all the mistakes of his life. He left three children, and we much doubt if either of them were with him in his last moments (Emerson’s Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly).

Despite being Poe’s defamer, Griswold lived a varied and interesting life. He was an accomplished anthologist, publishing a great number of works, which you can view here. He was a father, a husband, and a loyal friend to many. Although his attacks on Poe were uncalled for, shameful and hurt Poe’s reputation, perhaps Griswold may also be remembered for his valuable achievements. Thanks to his support and aid, many nineteenth century writers and poets, who might not have been remembered, are remembered today.
You can view objects in the Poe Museum in Richmond by visiting the following links:


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