Edgar Allan Poe, the king of the macabre, fought a bitter rival
Edgar Allan Poe was born on Jan. 19, 1809, in Boston, Mass. For nearly 200 years now, his legacy has endured as one of literature’s most influential writers of novels, poems, short stories, and criticism.
Throughout his 40 years, Poe invented or redefined countless aspects of popular fiction. He found massive success in his time, and his short stories and poems were popular enough for him to be one of America’s first full-time fiction writers.
Poe is best known for his work in the horror genre, having penned short stories like The Cask of Amontillado, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Tell-Tale Heart, but his influence reaches far beyond just the macabre. He’s also been credited with effectively creating the modern detective fiction genre and is often cited as heavily influencing science fiction’s early development. Suffice it to say that Poe forever changed fiction in the U.S. and around the world.
However, as is always the case, there are bound to be those who resent success and popularity; and you don’t become the legendary Edgar Allan Poe without making a few enemies. For Poe, his short life and career’s most notable rivalry was with the writer, poet, and critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold.
Alongside his creative writing endeavors, Poe also found work as a literary critic and was generally thought to be a particularly harsh one at that. So it may come as some surprise that Griswold one day decided to pay Poe ten dollars to review his new anthology: The Poets and Poetry of America, in 1842.
Perhaps Griswold thought that his inclusion of some of Poe’s work in the anthology would serve to ease Poe’s perennially sharp words. This proved to be a miscalculation on Griswold’s part, and Poe’s review of the collection, while still being generally favorable, questioned Griswold’s judgment in including poets who were “too mediocre to entitle them to particular notice.” Poe’s review was a far cry from the glowing praise Griswold was hoping for and marked the beginning of a literary grudge match between the two men.
Poe didn’t go out of his way to ease the matter at all, and as he toured the east coast providing lectures on poetry, he often took opportunities to make jabs at Griswold, his work, his literary judgment, and his friends.
The two men went tit for tat over the next few years. Poe wrote a book satirizing Griswold’s The Poets and Poetry of America. Griswold wrote an essay attacking Poe’s editorial skills. Poe then wrote a story where a character gets dumber as he reads Griswold’s work. The two fought over Frances Sargant Osgood’s romantic affections, who was herself a prolific writer of the day. Neither man pulled their punches.
Interestingly, Poe experts claim that his understanding of his and Griswold’s relationship is that it was a good-natured, sportsmanlike professional rivalry. Their feud appears to have been far more than that for Griswold, who continued to attack Poe with intense personal vitriol even after Poe’s death.
The circumstances surrounding Poe’s death are mysterious, with no one explanation being entirely satisfactory. On Oct. 3, 1849, Poe was discovered on Baltimore’s streets dressed in another man’s clothes, clearly distressed and utterly incoherent. Investigators at the time were baffled, and when Poe died in the hospital four days later, it seemed that there was no hope of ever knowing for sure just what had come over him or what events led to his death. To this day, there is no officially recognized cause of death.
Enter Griswold, who found one last opportunity to strike at the man he felt had slighted him in life in Poe’s passing. As the story goes, Griswold somehow managed to convince Poe’s mother-in-law to sign away the rights to Poe’s work. Griswold published Poe’s writings and his biography of Poe, titled Memoir of the Author. The portrait he painted of Poe was not flattering. He portrayed Poe as a degenerate alcoholic, drug-addict, and madman.
Griswold was also the author of an infamous Poe obituary in which he levels similar defamatory claims against the author. Although he signed the obituary simply “Ludwig,” he later owned up to being its author. The obituary announces: “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”
Fortunately for Poe, Griswold’s attempt to control the narrative of his life ultimately fell flat. In the short term, at least, Griswold’s efforts were a success. Poe’s status did suffer after Griswold’s “memoir” was published. But while Poe certainly got his fair of cheap shots in against Griswold, who’s retribution was not entirely unfounded, time seems to have selected a victor in their feud. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason that not many have heard the name Rufus Wilmot Griswold, while Edgar Allan Poe is still considered one of the single most important names in American letters.
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- “A Vengeful Arch-Nemesis Taught You Fake News About Edgar Allan Poe.” Todd Van Luling. The Huffington Post. Jan. 17, 2019.
- “The Long-simmering Feud Between Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus Griswold.” Kim Reynolds. Boston Public Library. Jan. 15, 2019.
- “Poe’s Character Under Attack.” National Park Service. Nov. 2, 2017.
- “Edgar Allan Poe.” Thomas Ollive Mabbott. Encylopedia Britannica.
Originally published at https://bidwellhollow.substack.com.