Edgar Allen Poe In New York City
( Originally Published 1921 )
THE year 1921 is the seventy-seventh anniversary of the most famous and most crowded year of the life of Edgar Allan Poe, the year in which "The Raven" first saw the light and in which he produced those critical and controversial papers that established him not only as a poet but as a critic—in both capacities an original and not a borrower or an imitator of British models. When Poe's first literary work attracted attention he was living in Richmond, Va. It was at the suggestion of John P. Kennedy (Horse Shoe Robinson) that he first sought fame and fortune in our great city.
In a frame house of two stories and a "lean-to," numbered 13 1/2 Carmine Street, he came in January, 1837, bringing with him Mrs. Clemm, his good—even if rather portly—angel, and Virginia, the child of barely fifteen years, her daughter, whom Mrs. Clemm had married (some authorities claim to have found that there were two distinct ceremonies) to Poe in the poor little child's twelfth year.
In this house Mrs. Clemm opened a boarding house, and one of her boarders was an old bachelor named William Gowans, later the well known Nassau Street book miser and bookseller, who died blissfully ignorant of how many books he had accumulated, and how many the bad little boys of the neighborhood had enriched themselves by "swiping" out of his rear door and selling back to him at the front entrance at bar-gains too attractive to be resisted. Mr. Gowans was wont to embroider his current Sales Catalogue with reminiscent or gossipy matter anent books and book-men, and in its issue No. 28 for 1870 he indulged him-self in some memorabilia of his fellow-boarders, Mr. and Mrs. Poe, at Carmine Street, thirty-three years before. He dilated upon the perfect and rather stately courtesy of the husband and the small wife's beauty, "whose blue eyes outshone those of any houri and whose features would defy the genius of a Canova to imitate." This may have been the hyperbole of an elderly bachelor, for other accounts of the little lady were of a face of waxen and unhealthy paleness, with exceedingly black hair and large plaintive black eyes. That they were in any regard normal husband and wife seems problematical. Poe always called her "Sis," and petted her as a man pets a favorite child. Not much is certain, but it has been remarked as throwing some light upon the matter that Poe's occasional gallantries, which worried Mrs. Clemm, never seemed to disturb Virginia in the least. Indeed, the whole gravamen of Mrs. Weiss's "Home Life of Poe" seems to be to attack this "fatal" marriage which, she more than intimates, Mrs. Clemm contrived for economy of rooming charges in their various menages.
Mrs. Clemm struggled with her Carmine Street boarding house for more than eight months, principally stressed up no doubt by the loyalty of the "star boarder" Mr. Gowans; until, neither fame nor fortune seeking the poet, the whole family borrowed money (doubtless from the loyal Mr. Gowans) and early in the year 1838 migrated to Philadelphia. The move was a good one. Poe found employment as an assistant editor of W. E. Burton's "Gentleman's Magazine." And Mr. Burton, the famous comedian, was a kind and appreciative and even charitable employer. Here and later as editor of "Graham's Magazine" Poe passed perhaps the most uniformly successful period —at least from a pecuniary point of view—of his variegated life. But the chronicle thereof belongs not in a history of "Poe in New York City."
On Sunday, April 7th, 1844, Poe and his child wife, now fully sixteen years old, came by boat from Perth Amboy again to New York City and found a boarding house at No. 130 Greenwich Street. On Sunday, April 7th, he writes Mrs. Clemm that he has still four dollars, to which he hopes tomorrow to add three dollars by the advance of some employment, "so that I may have a fortnight to go upon."
Among the manuscripts that Poe brought with him to Greenwich Street was one of the quasi-scientific, half-marvellous sort in which he had already revelled in "Hans Phaal," "Arthur Gordon Pym" and "The Gold Bug." What this manuscript was is best noted from the fact that just seventy-five years from the day on which this dreamer of dreams aspired to the possession of seven real dollars to keep the wolf from the door for a whole fortnight, a dirigible balloon crossing the Atlantic landed passengers upon these Western shores; and that among the New York City newspapers chronicling the achievement one of them ("The Sun") remarked that this was not the first time that its columns had announced such an event, since three-quarters of a century before, a stranger in the city had brought to it in manuscript a hypothetical and, as it appeared, a prophetic account of just precisely such an achievement, and that this stranger was Edgar Allan Poe!
That is to say, on Saturday, April 13, 1844, "The Sun" in a postscript in double-leaded type announced that a balloon had just landed on Sullivan's Island from England across the Atlantic Ocean, and that an "extra," giving full details would be immediately put to press. And an hour later came this "extra":
"ASTOUNDING NEWS BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK!
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS!
SIGNAL SUCCESS OF MR. MONCK MASON'S FLYING MACHINE!
ARRIVAL AT SULLIVAN'S ISLAND, NEAR CHARLESTON, OF MR. MASON, MR. ROBERT HOLLAND, MR. HENSON,
MR. HARRISON AINSWORTH AND FOUR OTHERS IN THE STEERING BALLOON VICTORIA, AFTER A PASSAGE OF SEVENTY-FIVE HOURS!
FULL PARTICULARS OF THE VOYAGE."
And "The Sun" declared that in announcing the feat of 1919 it could use almost the exact words of Poe in 1844: "The air as well as the earth and the ocean has been subdued by science and will become a common and convenient highway for mankind! The Atlantic has been actually crossed by a balloon!" This is what became known as "The Balloon Hoax." A better name today would be: "Edgar Allan Poe's prophesy in 1844 of an achievement of the year 1919."
Doubtless the actual reason for Poe's second ad-vent in the big city was the prospect of permanent employment in Willis's "Mirror" office. At any rate he obtained such employment and sat at a desk in its office at the corner of Nassau and Ann streets daily and wrote whatever he pleased. Criticism of other men's poetry, poems of his own, fiction, paragraphs and what not. But the price of board for the two at No. 130 Greenwich Street was not met by his earnings, whatever they were, for in June or July he found furnished rooms at the Brennen Mansion, a more or less out of repair frame building on the Bloomingdale Road which the Brennen heirs had abandoned save that one of them, Mrs. Mary Brennen, was permitted to lease its rooms for the summer. Here until cold weather (for at that date its location, now the corner of Broadway and West Eighty-fourth Street, was in open fields swept by cold winds from the Hudson River) remained the Poes until they found two rooms at what is now No. 15 West Third Street, then Amity Street, where a caller describes them as "surrounded by a simplicity due less to simple tastes than poverty."
In selecting a residence on Amity Street Poe returned to the vicinity of his first months in the big city; for Carmine Street is a diagonal, running southeasterly from Sixth Avenue at the point just below where Amity Street began. And a stone's throw beyond is Waverly Place, soon to be associated with Poe. And a bit further, just west of Carmine Street, the loiterer in Poe vestiges today will find a small playground bristling with paraphernalia for youthful sports, yclept "Hudson Park." In this park he will find a marble sarcophagus, surmounted by two carved firemen's helmets, commemorative of two firemen who lost their lives perhaps in the great fire of 1835. We say "perhaps," for the inscriptions, except only the words "Engine Co. 13," are worn away by time and the elements. A bronze upon one end of the shaft reads:
THIS GROUND WAS USED AS A CEMETERY BY TRINITY PARISH DURING THE YEARS 1834-1898. IT WAS MADE A PUBLIC PARK BY THE CITY OF NEW YORK IN THE YEARS 1897-98. THIS MONUMENT STOOD IN THE CEMETERY, AND WAS REMOVED TO THIS SPOT IN THE YEAR 1898.
This graveyard, used by St. Luke's Church, then a Chapel of Ease of Trinity Parish, had been a favorite spot for Poe in his sombre moods, and was not too far for Virginia in the Carmine Street days to wander with him there.
Again in 1846 he lived somewhere on Amity Street, as two letters dated November 13th, 1846, have been discovered written from that address. And here at No. 15 it was that Poe began to be sought out by literary people, among them Miss Anne Lynch—later Mrs. Botta—who boarded in Waverly Place, near Sixth Avenue, in the Amity Street vicinity. In her parlor were wont to gather Bayard Taylor and Margaret Fuller; the latter detested but employed by Greeley on the "Tribune," as was also Bayard Taylor. Also Mrs. Ann S. Stevens, who wrote more novels by half than she had lived years; Lydia Maria Child; Richard Henry Stoddard and the literary lady he married, Elisabeth Barstow. Here, too, Poe after becoming famous, was to read "The Raven," but in these days he only read from his earlier poems, such as "The Murder in the Rue Morgue," or the horrible "Case of M. Vlademar," which he almost certainly wrote in the Amity Street lodgings.
Thus our record brings us to the year 1845, which may be said to be the most important year of Poe's life; for it saw the birth in print of his most memorable and most immortal poem "The Raven." Obviously poems like "The Raven" could not have been written in a single heat and sent to the printers. And there is ample evidence that, as early as his Philadelphia days, Poe had the poem afterwards to be called "The Raven" blocked out in his mind as well as on paper. But he would be a bold man, indeed, who would wittingly plunge into the troubled waters that boil and surge around the genesis of a great poem. There is a story that in Philadelphia Poe read to a "Mr. Rosenbach" (a nebulous person sans given name or even initials—Woodberry speaks of him only as "Mr.") a poem in which a bereaved lover, brooding over the loss of his lady-love, is visited in his study at midnight by an owl, which by some diablerie or mental process films into a wraith of the departed lady.
But this is not Mr. Rosenbach's sole effort in the premises. Later he offers an alternative yarn for acceptance by those who are disinclined to accept the owl. This latter yarn runs thus: He (Rosenbach) remembers that once in Philadelphia Mr. Graham, Mr. Godey and another gentleman were together when Poe entered and endeavored to sell them a poem called "The Raven." The gentlemen read it and the criticism was unfavorable. But Poe said he was in great distress for money, that his wife and Mrs. Clemm were starving ; and so finally Mr. Graham, Mr. Godey and the other gentleman sent Poe fifteen dollars by him (Rosenbach), not to pay for the poem, but as a charity.
But this tale is obviously a composite. The abject poverty, with Virginia and Mrs. Clemm "starving," belongs to the Fordham cottage period (as we shall see later on). In Philadelphia Poe was consecutively an editor of Burton's "Gentleman's Magazine" and "Graham's," besides being a well-known contributor to "Godey's"; so that his offering a single poem to Messrs. Graham and Godey together is, to say the least, unlikely. The rider that these and another gentleman sent Poe fifteen dollars by the hands of Rosenbach may be a testimonial to the value of Rosenbach as a fiduciary agent; but we demur to an opinion of Graham and Godey that "The Raven" was rubbish, unless each gentleman wanted to prevent the other from securing it. However, we repeat the story in its appropriate sequence to lead up to its next in order.
A Mr. Henry B. Hirst, of Philadelphia, claims to be the real author of "The Raven." Except that Mr. William Sartain testifies he owned a bird of that species, he leaves no substantial claim. With this claim Poe himself deals, but only years after when contributing to "Godey's Lady's Book" in 1846 a series of six articles entitled "The Literati; Some Honest Opinions at Random Respecting their Authorial Merits, with Occasional Words of Personality." Of this Hirst, Poe says :
"Mr. Hirst to my face and in the presence of my friends, has always made a point of praising my own poetical efforts, and for this reason I should forgive him the amiable weakness of abusing them anonymously. * * * In a late number of the `Philadelphia Saturday Courier' he does me the honor of attributing to my pen a ballad which (giving the passage) he says is borrowed from the first canto of Hirst's `Endymion.' * * * Now I really feel ashamed to say that as yet I have not perused `Endymion,' for Mr. Hirst will retort at once, `That is no fault of mine. You should have read it. I gave you a copy. And, besides, you had no business to fall asleep when I did you the honor of reading it to you.' * * * To be a good imitator of Henry B. Hirst is honor enough for me."
The Chivers claim, though never so far as known asserted in print or elsewhere perhaps than in three personal letters to be noted, requires a bit of circumlocution. Thomas Holley Chivers, a physician of Digby Manor, Wilkes County, Georgia, was a gentle-man of parts, with a knack of grotesque rhyming which seems to have attracted Poe's attention as early as the year 1841, when editor of "Graham's Magazine" in Philadelphia; for, in the December issue of that periodical, Poe wrote:
"Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers is at the same time one of the best and one of the worst poets in America. His productions affect me as a wild dream—strange, incongruous, full of more than arabesque monstrosity, and snatches of sweet unstained song. Even his worst nonsense (and some of it is horrible) has the indefinite charm of sentiment and melody. We can never be sure that there is any meaning in his words; neither is there any meaning in many of our finest musicians. But the effect is very similar in both. His figures of speech are metaphor run mad and his grammar is often none at all. Yet there are as fine individual passages to be found in the poems of Dr. Chivers as in those of any poet whatsoever."
But this did not come up (or down) to what Chivers estimated to be his due; and he wrote to Poe to protest. A long interchange of letters ensued, with what trend may be inferred from Poe's next notice of Chivers, which ran about like this :
"This is the work of that rara avis, an educated, passionate yet unaffectedly simple minded and single minded man, writing from his own vigorous impulses, from the necessity of giving utterance to their expression, and thus writing not to mankind but solely to himself."
Which seems to have satisfied Chivers, for the two became fast friends, leading to almost daily correspondences and to long intimacies. Poe even pro-posed to take Dr. Chivers into partnership in "The Stylus," the magazine upon which he (Poe) lavished so much of prospectus and manifesto, but never found capital to carry further. Dr. Chivers finally visited Poe at his Fordham cottage, and has left by far the most delicate and interesting account of Poe's life there that we possess, supplementing the very meagre details we can draw from the poet's reticence. How he sometimes caught a bobolink and devised for it out of some wood and a bit of wire a cage, which he hung to one of the cherry trees, and stood in front of it for hours trying to hypnotize it into melody. "I said to him," says Chivers, "that this bobolink was as much out of place in that cage as he was in Fordham. The bird would only dash itself back and forth against the wires until it died; that he ought to free it at once. `No,' said he, `you are wrong in wishing me to free the bird; he is a splendid songster, and as soon as he is tamed he will delight our home with his wonderful gifts. You should hear him ring out like a chime of joybells his wonderful song.' But all the same the poor bird died." Dr. Chivers gives us the fullest record, too, of his conversations, how he carried a cane "like a gentleman" in his walks along the embankment of the then just finished Croton aqueduct, or to West Farms, then the nearest post office, or loitered for hours leaning over the parapet of the beautiful High Bridge, looking into the crystal Harlem River, then unpolluted of traffic. And of Virginia, with her willing feet, to bring "Eddie" his manuscripts, and her fearful paroxysms of coughing. And of Mrs. Clemm, fussing like a motherly old hen over her two darlings, and so on.
That he (Chivers) received into the intimacy that he himself dilates on and boasts of, should after Poe's death set up a claim to be the real author of "The Raven," is only a piece of the fate that loved to dog the footsteps of Poe and spoil anything that seemed ameliorative. But here is his claim :
First (in a letter to W. Gilmore Simms, April 10, 1852) :
"All these things are mine. I am the Southern man who taught Mr. Poe all these things. All these things were published long before the poem from which `The Raven' was taken."
Second (Ibid., June 12, 1852) :
"When I show you how that truly great man, Poe, failed in `The Raven' in attempting to do what I had already done in the poem from which he stole it, you will then admit that I have `a happy faculty in rhyme.' "
And, third (in a letter to A. J. H. Duganne, December 17, 1850) :
"Poe stole `The Raven' from me, but he was the greatest poetical critic that ever existed."
There is only one other, which we exhaust by copying the claim in full from the New Orleans "Times" of July 22, 1870:
"'The Raven' was written by Samuel Fenwick and sent as a contribution to Poe who, on the death of Fenwick, appropriated it."
But these are all, unless the statement by "Col. du Solle," to be reported presently, be a "claim." But except as above, once by Poe himself and by these three letters that saw no light of print, no attention has ever been paid to claims of plagiarism in "The Raven."
The real circumstantial evidence of time and place of "The Raven's" genesis begins to appear and dove-tail together at about the date of Poe in the Brennen mansion, where its author reads it from his pocket manuscript to Mrs. Mary Brennen from whose domicile it receives its baptism of print.
It was at about the Greenwich Street date, April 7, 1844, that Poe regularly entered into the employment of N. P. Willis, who at that date occupied an office on the corner of Ann and Nassau streets, where the "Mirror" daily and Sunday gave abundant scope for Poe's restless pen. Opposite and across Ann Street, with entrances both upon Ann and Nassau streets, was a famous beer cellar (called in the directories of the date "a refectory") kept by one Alexander Welsh, but known not otherwise than "Sandy Welsh's." This was the famous resort at the noon hour of all news-paper men and knights of the pen in the neighbor-hood, and almost every newspaper of the day had its headquarters in the vicinity from Ann to Spruce streets. Sandy Welsh's beer cellar was apparently the predecessor of "Pfaff's," beloved of George Arnold and Fitz James O'Brien and that fine ilk of Bohemia which the Civil War dispersed. And so, along with his fellow feuilletonists, litterateurs and toilers upon newspapers, Poe became a habitue of Sandy Welsh's.
Among these newspaper worthies was a Mr. John Augustus Shea, a writer on Horace Greeley's "Tribune," who later became the father of an eminent son, the Hon. George Shea, associate counsel for the Confederate President Davis with Charles O'Conor, and later until his death Chief Justice of the Marine (now City) Court of New York City. To this Mr. Shea, who was wont to vary his stint of newspaper work with poems and fiction, Poe seems to have been specially attracted. At this date the various offices with which Poe was or became thereafter connected were grouped round the corner of Nassau and Ann streets. The "Broadway Journal" was at 135 Nassau Street, though when Poe obtained full control of it it moved up to Clinton Hall at Beekman and Nassau streets (the site is now called "Temple Court"), and again to No. 304 Broadway, where it finally gave up the ghost under his impracticable and sporadic business management.
In a paper "A Mad Man of Letters," which saw the light in "Scribner's Monthly" for October, 1875, by Francis Gerry Fairfield, there is made the remarkable assertion that:
"The poem was produced stanza by stanza at small intervals and submitted by Poe piecemeal to the criticism and emendation of its (i.e., SandyWelsh's beer cellar's) inmates, who suggested various alterations and substitutions. Poe adopted many of them. Col. du Solle quotes particular instances of phrases that were incorporated at his (du Solle's) suggestion. Thus `The Raven' was a kind of joint stock affair in which many men held small shares of intellectual capital. At length when the last stone had been placed in position and passed upon, the structure was voted complete."
Judge Shea gave to me as follows :
"Poe was exceedingly timid as to a possible public reception of `The Raven.' Especially did he dread the comments of his fellow litterateurs, whom for about a year he had been mercilessly criticizing and castigating in the pages of the `Evening Mirror,' in which N. P. Willis, its editor, permitted him full swing.
"Poe, nevertheless, carried the poem about with him wherever he went and on all occasions would produce it and, if permitted, read it line by line and stanza by stanza and him-self point out what he considered or claimed to consider its blemishes, and invite suggestions for its betterment from any one, though doubtless he would not have for an instant contemplated accepting any of the suggestions he invited. And he did this not once but many times in `Sandy Welsh's beer cellar in Ann Street.'
"For example, he would express his doubt about the 'velvet, violet LINING being' gloated o'er by the same lamp-light which in another stanza threw a shadow at once over the bird perched above that chamber door and upon the same floor where `each separate dying ember wrought its ghost.' But my father told him not to worry about these; that as an experiment in rhyme they were permissible, and finally prevailed on Poe to allow my father to offer the poem anonymously to a publisher `as an experiment in rhyme.'"
At that date the literary periodicals of the city were "The Democratic Review" and a rival "The American Review," which had just been launched by G. H. Colton as editor and publisher at 118 Nassau Street. N. P. Willis's two "Mirrors," "The Evening Mirror," a daily ; "The New York Mirror," a weekly edition thereof, and "The Broadway Journal," whose first office was at 135 Nassau Street.
Mr. John Augustus Shea took the poem to Mr. Col-ton, whose first issue only had so far appeared, and on page 143 of "The American Review" for February, 1845, it appeared under the title "The Raven; by Quarles," prefixed by a note in twenty or thirty lines of fine print discussing the relative flexibility of English prosodical forms over Classic, Saphic, Adonaic, etc., rhymes; assonance, alliteration and the like, signed "Ed. `Am. Rev.,' " but which are so palpably in Poe's style in this vein as to deceive nobody. But be-fore "The American Whig Monthly," titularly dated February, 1845, left the press, Poe had either shown the poem without Mr. Shea's knowledge, or Willis had somehow got wind of it. At any rate, in "The Evening Mirror" for February 28, 1845, the poem appeared, with the Rubric: "We are permitted to copy in advance of publication from the second number of `The American Whig Review' the following remarkable poem by Edgar A. Poe."
Upon the appearance of this copy of "The Evening Mirror" the poem spread like a prairie fire. It was copied everywhere throughout the United States and soon got over to England. And Poe, who for twenty years had been only more or less known in limited literary circles in Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities, awoke to find himself famous and pointed out on the street as "Poe, the man that wrote `The Raven'."