Thursday, 7 April 2011

This "evil" was the greatest which can befall a man

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When he wrote the following letter to George Eveleth in 1848, Edgar Allan Poe's wife, Virginia, had been dead for almost a year, having finally succumbed to tuberculosis after first contracting the disease in 1842. The latter part of this letter — the rest of which mainly concerns his ultimately unpublished journal, The Stylus — is a brief summary, in Poe's words, of his young wife's traumatic final years, and a heartbreaking glimpse at Poe's mental state during a period that saw him famously turn to alcohol in a bid to cope.

Poe passed away the next year.

Transcript follows. Images courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center's Edgar Allan Poe Collection at The University of Texas. Huge thanks to Alicia for her help.




Image: Harry Ransom Center's Edgar Allen Poe Collection at The University of Texas

Transcript
New York. Jan. 4, 1848.

My Dear Sir —

Your last, dated July 26, ends with—"Write will you not"? I have been living ever since in a constant state of intention to write, and finally concluded not to write at all until I could say something definite about The Stylus and other matters. You perceive that I now send you a Prospectus — but before I speak farther on this topic, let me succinctly reply to various points in your letter. 1. — "Hawthorne" is out — how do you like it? 2 — "The Rationale of Verse" was found to come down too heavily (as I forewarned you it did) upon some of poor Colton's personal friends in Frogpondium — the "pundits" you know; so I gave him "a song" for it & took it back. The song was "Ulalume a Ballad" published in the December number of the Am. Rev. I enclose it as copied by the Home Journal (Willis's paper) with the Editor's remarks — please let me know how you like "Ulalume". As for the "Rat. of Verse" I sold it to "Graham" at a round advance on Colton's price, and in Grahams hands it is still — but not to remain even there; for I mean to get it back, revise or rewrite it (since "Evangeline" has been published) and deliver it as a lecture when I go South & West on my Magazine expedition. 3 — I have been "so still" on account of preparation for the magazine campaign — also have been working at my book — nevertheless I have written some trifles not yet published — some which have been. 4 — My health is better — best. I have never been so well. 5 — I do not well see how I could have otherwise replied to English. You must know him, (English) before you can well estimate my reply. He is so thorough a "blatherskite" that to have replied to him with dignity would have been the extreme of the ludicrous. The only true plan — not to have replied to him at all — was precluded on account of the nature of some of his accusations — forgery for instance. To such charges, even from the Autocrat of all the Asses — a man is compelled to answer. There he had me. Answer him I must. But how? Believe me there exists no such dilemma as that in which a gentleman is placed when he is forced to reply to a blackguard. If he have any genius then is the time for its display. I confess to you that I rather like that reply of mine in a literary sense — and so do a great many of my friends. It fully answered its purpose beyond a doubt — would to Heaven every work of art did as much! You err in supposing me to have been "peevish" when I wrote the reply: — the peevishness was all "put on" as a part of my argument — of my plan: — so was the "indignation" with which I wound up. How could I be either peevish or indignant about a matter so well adapted to further my purposes? Were I able to afford so expensive a luxury as personal and especially as refutable abuse, I would willingly pay any man $2000 per annum, to hammer away at me all the year round. I suppose you know that I sued the Mirror & got a verdict. English eloped. 5 — The "common friend" referred to is Mrs Frances S. Osgood, the poetess. 6 — I agree with you only in part as regards Miss Fuller. She has some general but no particular critical powers. She belongs to a school of criticism — the Gothean, esthetic, eulogistic. The creed of this school is that, in criticizing an author you must imitate him, ape him, out-Herod Herod. She is grossly dishonest. She abuses Lowell, for example, (the best of our poets, perhaps) on account of a personal quarrel with him. She has omitted all mention of me for the same reason — although, a short time before the issue of her book, she praised me highly in the Tribune. I enclose you her criticism that you may judge for yourself. She praised "Witchcraft" because Mathews (who toadies her) wrote it. In a word, she is an ill-tempered and very inconsistent old maid — avoid her. 7 — Nothing was omitted in "Marie Roget" but what I omitted myself: — all that is mystification. The story was originally published in Snowden's "Lady's Companion". The "naval officer" who committed the murder (or rather the accidental death arising from an attempt at abortion) confessed it; and the whole matter is now well understood — but, for the sake of relatives, his is a topic on which I must not speak further. 8 —"The Gold Bug" was originally sent to Graham, but he not liking it, I got him to take some critical papers instead, and sent it to The Dollar Newspaper which had offered $100 for the best story. It obtained the premium and made a great noise. 9 — The "necessities" were pecuniary ones. I referred to a sneer at my poverty on the part of the Mirror. 10 — You say —"Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil" which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented?" Yes; I can do more than hint. This "evil" was the greatest which can befall a man. Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever & underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again — I went through precisely the same scene. Again in about a year afterward. Then again — again — again & even once again at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death — and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can & do endure as becomes a man — it was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope & despair which I could not longer have endured without the total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new but — oh God! how melancholy an existence.

And now, having replied to all your queries let me refer to The Stylus. I am resolved to be my own publisher. To be controlled is to be ruined. My ambition is great. If I succeed, I put myself (within 2 years) in possession of a fortune & infinitely more. My plan is to go through the South & West & endeavor to interest my friends so as to commence with a list of at least 500 subscribers. With this list I can take the matter into my own hands. There are some few of my friends who have sufficient confidence in me to advance their subscriptions — but at all events succeed I will. Can you or will you help me? I have room to say no more.

Truly Yours — E A Poe.