Yesterday Poe’s most probable cause of death, cooping, was explained (although it’s worth noting that other factors such as flu may have contributed, turning a damaging mishap into a fatal one.)
There’s more to the story, however. Specifically, there’s the matter of why his death due to alcoholism is so popularly known. It comes down to one more thing Poe pioneered: he was America’s first regular book reviewer.
Among the books he reviewed was The Poets and Poetry of America by Rufus Griswold. Griswold had included some of Poe’s work in the book, and Poe had naturally read it. Read it, and disliked it. Poe savaged the book in a review, commented negatively about it when he had the opportunity, and took care to read books by Griswold’s friends which were typically given bad reviews.
Upon Poe’s death, Rufus Griswold saw an opportunity for revenge; an opportunity which is arguably one of the most successful acts of vengeance in American history.
Griswold, at the time, was one of the obituary writers for the New York Daily Tribune – one of the most popular newspapers of the day. He wrote what was to become the official obituary for Poe, describing him as friendless and a person who was often found aimlessly wandering the streets in the throes of madness. Poe’s drinking, which had been at times prodigious, was turned into a lifetime spent in a near-constant state of alcoholism.
This description of Poe, ostensibly by one of his close associates, became the source material for research guides up to and including the Encyclopedia Britannica. And it didn’t end there.
Griswold contacted Poe’s mother-in-law, then the owner of the rights to Poe’s work, and purchased those rights. He published collected editions of Poe with “additional material” added… that additional material including stories of Poe’s debauchery, mental instability and constant intoxication. Just for good measure, he concocted quotes from Poe praising Rufus Griswold’s work.
The effort to tarnish Poe’s reputation worked perfectly. Today, far more people know the false stories about Poe than know the true ones. However, Poe had his revenge as well. Whereas Poe’s stories and poems remain influential and his mystery fiction has spawned one of the most popular literary genres, Rufus Griswold is virtually unknown.
The place with the greatest collection of Griswold material and artifacts? The Edgar Allan Poe museum.
Question of the night: What’s a book or movie that you would review positively?