Gilbert: Poe at 200

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(HOST) Today we celebrate two American originals. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of course. But it’s also the 200th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe. Commentator Peter Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council, has been thinking about Poe’s life and his connections to Vermont.

(GILBERT) Edgar Poe’s remarkable and tragic life began exactly two centuries ago in, perhaps surprisingly, Boston. Orphaned young, he was taken in by the Allan family of Richmond, Virginia, but never formally adopted. He enrolled at the newly established University of Virginia, where visitors today can view his former dormitory room, preserved with period furniture – and a carved raven perched on the window sill, an allusion to his famous poem, "The Raven" and its refrain, "Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’"

Poe dropped out of UVA after a year. At 26, he secretly married his cousin, who was thirteen, although she wrote on the marriage certificate that she was 21.

Poe became a poet, editor, and literary critic, and a brilliant, original writer; we know him best for his gothic, macabre stories of mystery and horror — like "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Pit and the Pendulum." He also invented the detective story, was one of the earliest American short story writers, and actually was the first well-known American writer to try to support himself on his writing alone.

In 1846 the University of Vermont’s literary societies invited him to speak in August, but citing "continued ill health [and the] pressure of engagements," he declined the invitation. In fact, it may have been that he didn’t have the money to pay for the trip from New York City.

The other connection between Poe and Vermont is his literary executor.

Rufus Wilmot Griswold was an editor and prominent poetry anthologist who’d been born on a farm in Benson, Vermont, the twelfth of fourteen children. Griswold’s prosperous family moved to Hubbardton when he was seven. He learned the printing business at a newspaper in Rutland County and founded "The Vergennes Vermonter", a weekly paper, before moving to New York. Griswold and Poe were long-time rivals who held grudges for both personal and literary reasons. Exactly how he became Poe’s literary executor is unclear.

When Poe died in 1849 at the age of forty, Griswold published a lengthy, scathing, and widely reprinted obituary in the "New York Tribune".  It began by noting that news of Poe’s death [quote] "will startle many, but few will be grieved by it." There, in a Memoir, and elsewhere, Griswold portrayed Poe in the worst possible light, depicting him as treacherous, ungrateful, and erratic. Poe was clearly no saint: he was unwell most of his life, he had a problem with drink, particularly after his wife’s death, he was sometimes quarrelsome, and he socialized with women a bit too publicly. But some of Griswold’s assertions were significant distortions, or worse. Poe scholars agree that Griswold’s view of Poe was influential into the twentieth century, when original scholarship finally revealed the extent of his distortions.

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