This is a true story about fabrications that improbably became common knowledge. The protagonist is a poet whose name you’ll recognize, but whose life is still widely mischaracterized. It would have been his birthday today, Jan. 19. The story’s villain is a poet whose name you won’t recognize, but is arguably the sole reason you believe the false information.
Perhaps a tale about two feuding poets is no spy story, but, ― but! ― its villain is very quirky. And the villain’s bizarrely obsessive hatred is so strong, that it’s almost endearing.
The story starts on Oct. 9, 1849, two days after Edgar Allan Poe’s death, when one of the most popular newspapers of the era ― the now defunct New-York Daily Tribune ― published an obituary for the writer.
It begins matter-of-factly, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead.”
But within the very first paragraph, the obit stated, “This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it,” as well as, “he had few or no friends.”
Perhaps most ridiculous, the writer of this obituary described Poe as a person who “walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned).”
This piece achieved a vast readership across America. The author, Rufus Griswold, was Poe’s arch-nemesis.
In broad-stroke descriptors of their relationship to each other, Griswold was a northerner, while Poe was a southerner. Both edited the same literary publication, Graham’s Magazine, at different times. Griswold published Poe’s work in his anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America. Poe made a habit of criticizing the merits of this anthology.
“Poe and Griswold might have just rubbed each other the wrong way,” Chris Semtner, a curator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, explained to The Huffington Post. “Poe did not help by writing scathing book reviews attacking Griswold’s friends in addition to lectures ridiculing Griswold’s magnum opus, The Poets and Poetry of America.”
Poe even wrote a character into a story that gets dumber after reading Griswold’s work.
Ron Smith, a Poe scholar and former member of the Museum’s board, told Richmond’s Style Weekly in an article last year that Poe, although inarguably mean-spirited, did this in jest, or in an act of literary “sport.” But instead of ribbing back, Griswold plotted to destroy his foe. The famous Virginia writer became “the man [Griswold] hated most,” Semtner added. (The curator is an authority on the manner as The Edgar Allan Poe Museum has the world’s largest collection of Griswold’s personal items ― including letters, manuscripts and paintings. Certainly an ironic fate for Griswold’s legacy.)
After Poe’s death, Griswold convinced Poe’s mother-in-law to sign away the rights to the author’s work. Griswold went on to publish the collected works attached with his own biography of Poe that invented stories of his drunkenness, immorality and instability.
As Semtner described the biography, Griswold portrayed “Poe as a scoundrel who cheated a woman out of her money and who spends most of the time intoxicated.”
Perhaps most over-the-top in hilarious evilness are the made-up quotes Griswold attributed to Poe. “Griswold also added entire fabricated passages to Poe’s letters that he quoted in the biography,” Semtner said. “In the additions, Poe bestows fawning praise upon Griswold.”
In the end, Griswold’s plan ended up back-firing. The tall tales of Poe being a scoundrel ― no matter how refuted ― transformed the writer into a legend, greatly increasingly his popularity.
Both men were popular in their day, but you only know Poe’s name more than a century later. That’s a shame, as Griswold had his own real-life struggles that were ripe for lore-making and certainly contribute to the legend of Poe, as well.
“Griswold was a bitter man who seemed to make enemies wherever he went, but he was also a complex individual who was alternately deeply devoted to his dead first wife, but seemingly neglectful of his living children,” said Semtner. “A month after his first wife died, he crept into her crypt and spent the night with her.”
During the eight years between Poe’s death and his own, Griswold may have spent much of his energy trying to destroy his nemesis, but in a way, he also clearly couldn’t quit him.
“When [Griswold] died, one of his prized possessions was a portrait of Poe that was hanging in his hall,” said Semtner. Griswold had stolen this oil portrait ― the only portrait made of Poe during his lifetime ― from Poe’s mother-in-law (along with those rights to Poe’s work).
“I wonder what went through his head when he saw it hanging on his wall,” said Semtner. “Poe was the one who had belittled and ridiculed him, but Poe had achieved international fame during his lifetime. Griswold was still best known as an anthologist of other people’s poetry, and he would soon be known only as his worst enemy’s biographer.”
Today, Griswold might suffer from the same fate he bestowed upon Poe, as he is also no longer here to defend himself. In part because of his own actions, only Poe scholars are around today to interpret Griswold’s life and write his history. As mentioned before, the largest collection of Griswold’s work now resides in a museum dedicated to his enemy.
The distinction between the hero and the villain is often ambiguous outside of stories. And the two roles need each other to become stronger. Sadly, in this case, Griswold became the footnote of the man he tried to stomp out. Despite the bitterness that led to making Poe immortal, Rufus Griswold is dead.