Sunday, April 27, 2014
"Poe's Moral Nature" by William McCrillis Griswold
The following is a response by my dear son William to a review of "The Works of Edgar Allan Poe" (edited by George Woodberry & Edmund Stedman, 1894-5) in which he continues my important work of blackening the reputation of the wretch.
I would like to thank Undine from The World of Poe blog for helping me locate this document (nearly 2 years ago, and I am only just transcribing it!).
POE'S MORAL NATURE.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE NATION:
SIR: Will you permit me to correct a statement made in your notice of the new edition of Poe? It is of some consequence because it implies a wrong notion of the copyright law, about which it is important that literary people should not have indefinite or hazy ideas. You say that the publishers "have taken advantage of the recent expiration of copyright," which you date from the issue of the works of Poe edited by Dr. Rufus Wilmot (not William, as you have it) Griswold in 1850. But nothing was covered by the 1850 copyright except the editor's "memoir." Poe's tales and poems had been published from twenty to four years previously, and the copyright on any contribution could not have extended, under the most favorable circumstances, more than forty two years from the date of first publication. If all legal requirements had been complied with, the copyright on 'The MS. Found in a Bottle,' for instance, would have expired in 1875. But, in fact, if there had been any copyright on this production, it would have ended in 1861, and that on Poe's last published article in 1878, the original term of copyright (twenty-eight years) never having been renewed, since neither the author nor his wife was alive at these dates. Nor would it have made any difference, except in half-a-dozen cases, if he or she had then been living, for, with these exceptions, Poe's writings were published in uncopyrighted periodicals, and were not individually entered.
In view of the additional light thrown of late years on Poe's career, and the fact that the Nation has several times pricked the bubbles blown by Ingram and other admirers, it is strange that your present critic should blame Prof. Woodberry for mentioning other faults than his hero's drunkenness and irritable temper. "His worst faults," you say, "were as surely congenital as his genius." His worst faults, however, were not the ones named, but his utter lack of honor. Nor was this lack the result of ill treatment or misfortune. His first employer, T. W. White, whose honesty and even generosity are admitted even by Poe's defenders, declared, from his early knowledge of him, that "he was an unmitigated rascal." But his moral character is perhaps best illustrated by incidents related in a letter lately written to me by one of his few surviving contemporaries, and which I desire to put on record:
"Jan. 10th, 1895.
"MY DEAR SIR:
"The incident to which I alluded was as follows: Poe called on me one day in great glee and said: 'I have a good joke on Griswold. I met him the other day and suggested to him that he should get me, through his publishers, to write a review of his last work, "The Poets and Poetry of America." He said it would be a good idea, and that he would speak to his publishers about it, and said, "I am sure they'll pay fairly, and I think you can go on and do the work without waiting." Well, I wrote the review, and, a few days after, handed it to him, when he gave me the money for it from the publishers.'
"'Well,' I said, 'this is nothing more than the ordinary bookseller's device, and I dare say your review was a fair one and will be of use to the work.' 'There lies the joke,' he replied. 'I began at the very beginning and did not allow a single merit in the book: I assailed it to the extent of my powers, and should like to have seen Griswold's face as he read the manuscript.' I looked at him and said, 'That is a very good joke, doubtless, for you, but Griswold and the publishers paid you; of course you returned the money?' 'No,' said he, 'I spent it.' He had not the least idea that he had been doing a very contemptible thing, and it was impossible to get angry with him because, in spite of his unsurpassed ability in certain lines of literary work, he was in morals an absolute idiot.
"In other instances I remember that he showed this lack of appreciation of right and wrong, and one of them was his trip to Boston. He came to me one day looking very dilapidated, and I knew from the fact he was just recovering from indulging to excess in liquor, for Poe was naturally a very neat man in his person, and dressed with great care even when poorest. Whenever you found him slovenly or careless in his dress, you knew that he was on a drinking bout or he had been on one. I said to him rather testily: 'You have been on another of your sprees.' 'Well,' he said, 'it is the last; I never intend going on another.' I said, 'I have heard that so often it has lost its force with me, but what can I do for you? what do you want?' 'Well,' said he, 'I don't know what to do; I am in a strait.' 'What is the matter?' 'Well, you see, they have invited me in Boston to deliver an original poem, and I have been in such a condition that I am unable to do it; I have got to go next week.' 'Well,' I said, 'write to them that you have been indisposed, because you have been (I consider it a case of disease in you), and postpone the event.' 'But,' said he, 'I want the money.' 'Well,' I said, 'you can't get the money without you earn it.' He said 'I'll fix that,' and went off. The next thing I heard was that he went down to Boston and read 'Al Araaf,' a poem which he wrote when he was a young man (he said when he was a boy, but that is another of his figments). They were disappointed. It was not what they expected, but they treated him with great courtesy, gave him a supper, and, speaking under the influence of champagne and excitement, he let the facts out. Of course, they became very indignant, and when Poe came back he wrote an article in the Broadway Journal in which he assumed that he had gone there with this poem in order to test their acumen. He had not the least notion that he was doing anything wrong. He never had. Anything that he did was right, regardless of its morality, or lack of it; and everything he said was true to him, however false it might be. I could cite numerous instances of his recklessness of assertion and bold statement without basis. In morals, as I have said before, he was an idiot."
Yours, etc., W.M. Griswold
W. M. Griswold, “Poe’s Moral Nature,” The Nation, p. 381