Monday, August 27, 2012

Deathday: Rufus Wilmot Griswold 1857 Poe Rival

Rufus Wilmot Griswold (February 13, 1815 – August 27, 1857) was an American anthologist, editor, poet, and critic. Born in Vermont, Griswold left home when he was 15 years old. He worked as a journalist, editor, and critic in Philadelphia, New York City, and elsewhere. He built up a strong literary reputation, in part due to his 1842 collection The Poets and Poetry of America. This anthology, the most comprehensive of its time, included what he deemed the best examples of American poetry. He produced revised versions and similar anthologies for the remainder of his life, although many of the poets he promoted have since faded into obscurity. Many writers hoped to have their work included in one of these editions, although they commented harshly on Griswold's abrasive character. Griswold was married three times: his first wife died young, his second marriage ended in a public and controversial divorce, and his third wife left him after the previous divorce was almost repealed.

Edgar Allan Poe, whose poetry had been included in Griswold's anthology, published a critical response that questioned which poets were included. This began a rivalry which grew when Griswold succeeded Poe as editor of Graham's Magazine at a higher salary than Poe's. Later, the two competed for the attention of poet Frances Sargent Osgood (below).They never reconciled their differences and, after Poe's mysterious death in 1849, Griswold wrote an "unsympathetic obituary." Claiming to be Poe's chosen literary executor, he began a campaign to harm Poe's reputation that lasted until his own death eight years later.

Griswold considered himself an expert in American poetry and was an early proponent of its inclusion on the school curriculum. He also supported the introduction of copyright legislation, speaking to Congress on behalf of the publishing industry, although he was not above pirating other people's work. A fellow editor remarked, "even while haranguing the loudest, [he] is purloining the fastest."[1]


Griswold died of tuberculosis in New York City on August 27, 1857.[62] Sarah Anna Lewis, a friend and writer, suggested that the interference of Elizabeth Ellet had exacerbated Griswold's condition and that she "goaded Griswold to his death".[63] At the time of his death, the sole decorations found in his room were portraits of himself, Frances Osgood, and Poe.[64] A friend, Charles Godfrey Leland, found in Griswold's desk several documents attacking a number of authors which Griswold was preparing for publication. Leland decided to burn them.[65]

Griswold's funeral was held on August 30. His pallbearers included Leland, Charles Frederick Briggs, George Henry Moore, and Richard Henry Stoddard.[62] His remains were left for eight years in the receiving tomb of Green-Wood Cemetery before being buried on July 12, 1865, without a headstone.[66] Although his library of several thousand volumes was auctioned off, raising over $3,000 to be put towards a monument, none was ever commissioned.[66]

Relationship with Poe

Griswold first met Edgar Allan Poe (Sartain's painting of Poe, above) in Philadelphia in May 1841 while working for the Daily Standard.[82] At the outset, their relationship was cordial, at least superficially.[13] In a letter dated March 29, 1841, Poe sent Griswold several poems for The Poets and Poetry of America anthology, writing that he would be proud to see "one or two of them in the book."71] Griswold included three of these poems: "Coliseum," "The Haunted Palace," and "The Sleeper."[13] In November of that year Poe, who had previously praised Griswold in his "Autography" series as "a gentleman of fine taste and sound judgment,"[71] wrote a critical review of the anthology, on Griswold's behalf. Griswold paid Poe for the review and used his influence to have it published in a Boston periodical. The review was generally favorable, although Poe questioned the inclusion of certain authors and the omission of others.[83] Poe also said that Griswold "unduly favored" New England writers.[84] Griswold had expected more praise and Poe privately told others he was not particularly impressed by the book,[85] even calling it "a most outrageous humbug" in a letter to a friend.[86] In another letter, this time to fellow writer Frederick W. Thomas, Poe suggested that Griswold's promise to help get the review published was actually a bribe for a favorable review, knowing Poe needed the money.[87]

Making the relationship even more strained, only months later, Griswold was hired by George Rex Graham to take up Poe's former position as editor of Graham's Magazine. Griswold, however, was paid more and given more editorial control of the magazine than Poe.[85] Shortly after, Poe began giving a series of lectures called "The Poets and Poetry of America," the first of which was given in Philadelphia on November 25, 1843. Poe openly attacked Griswold in front of his large audience and continued to do so in similar lectures.[88] Graham said that during these lectures, Poe "gave Mr. Griswold some raps over the knuckles of force sufficient to be remembered."[89] In a letter dated January 16, 1845, Poe tried to reconcile with Griswold, promising him that his lecture now omitted all that Griswold found objectionable.[90]

Another source of animosity between the two men was their competition for the attention of the poet Frances Sargent Osgood in the mid to late 1840s.[47] While both she and Poe were still married to their respective spouses,[91] the two carried on a public flirtation that resulted in much gossip among the literati. Griswold, who was smitten by Osgood, escorted her to literary salons and became her staunchest defender. "She is in all things the most admirable woman I ever knew," he wrote to publisher James T. Fields in 1848.[92] Osgood responded by dedicating a collection of her poetry to Griswold, "as a souvenir of admiration for his genius, of regard for his generous character, and of gratitude for his valuable literary counsels."[47]

"Ludwig" obituary

After Poe's death, Griswold prepared an obituary signed with the pseudonym "Ludwig." First printed in the October 9, 1849, issue of the New York Tribune, it was soon republished many times.[93] Here he asserted that "few will be grieved" by Poe's death as he had few friends. He claimed that Poe often wandered the streets, either in "madness or melancholy," mumbling and cursing to himself, was easily irritated, was envious of others, and that he "regarded society as composed of villains." Poe's drive to succeed, Griswold wrote, was because he sought "the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit." Much of this characterization of Poe was copied almost verbatim from that of the fictitious Francis Vivian in The Caxtons by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.[94]

Griswold biographer Joy Bayless wrote that Griswold used a pseudonym not to conceal his relationship to the obituary but because it was his custom to never sign his newspaper and his magazine contributions.[95] Regardless, Griswold's true identity was soon revealed. In a letter to Sarah Helen Whitman dated December 17, 1849, he admitted his role in writing Poe's death notice. "I was not his friend, nor was he mine," he wrote.[96]


Griswold claimed that "among the last requests of Mr. Poe" was that he become his literary executor "for the benefit of his family."[97] Griswold claimed that Poe's aunt and mother-in-law Maria Clemm said Poe had made such a statement on June 9, 1849, and that she herself released any claim to Poe's works.[97] And indeed a document exists in which Clemm transfers power of attorney to Griswold, dated October 20, 1849, although there are no signed witnesses.[98] Clemm, however, had no right to make such a decision; Poe's younger sister Rosalie was his closest next of kin.[99] Although Griswold had acted as a literary agent for other American writers, it is unclear if Poe really appointed Griswold his executor (perhaps as part of his "Imp of the Perverse"[100]), if it were a trick on Griswold's part, or a mistake on Maria Clemm's.[99] It is also possible that Osgood persuaded Poe to name Griswold as his executor.[47]

In any case, Griswold, along with James Russell Lowell (above) and Nathaniel Parker Willis (below), edited a posthumous collection of Poe's works published in three volumes starting in January 1850.[101] He did not share the profits of his edition with Poe's surviving relatives.[102] This edition included a biographical sketch titled "Memoir of the Author" which has become notorious for its inaccuracy. The "Memoir" depicts Poe as a madman, addicted to drugs and chronically drunk. Many elements were fabricated by Griswold using forged letters as evidence and it was denounced by those who knew Poe, including Sarah Helen Whitman, Charles Frederick Briggs, and George Rex Graham.[103] In March, Graham published a notice in his magazine accusing Griswold of betraying trust and taking revenge on the dead. "Mr. Griswold," he wrote, "has allowed old prejudices and old enmities to steal ... into the coloring of his picture."[104] Thomas Holley Chivers wrote a book called New Life of Edgar Allan Poe which directly responded to Griswold's accusations.[105] He said that Griswold "is not only incompetent to Edit any of [Poe's] works, but totally unconscious of the duties which he and every man who sets himself up as a Literary Executor, owe the dead."[106]

Today Griswold's name is usually associated with Poe's as a character assassin,[107] although not all believe that Griswold deliberately intended to cause harm.[27] Some of the information that Griswold asserted or implied was that Poe was expelled from the University of Virginia and that Poe had tried to seduce his guardian John Allan's second wife.[108] Even so, Griswold's attempts only drew attention to Poe's work; readers were thrilled at the idea of reading the works of an "evil" man.[109] Griswold's characterization of Poe and the false information he originated appeared consistently in Poe biographies for the next two decades.[94]

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