"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..." Rufus Griswold
Poe's Character Under Attack
Edgar Allan Poe is known today for his chilling tales of horror and haunting poems. However, in his own day, he was best known as an editor and harsh literary critic. Poe’s reviews offended many of his colleagues—among them Rufus Griswold, who sought satisfaction by defaming Poe’s character after his death.
Poe met Rufus Griswold in 1841, when Griswold was planning a poetry anthology. Poe provided several works of his own for the anthology, and recommended other poets for inclusion, though Griswold ultimately ignored Poe’s suggestions. Poe wrote a favorable review of the anthology for the Boston Miscellany, but he criticized the inclusion of some of the poets, remarking that they were “too mediocre to entitle them to particular notice.” Griswold, expecting high praise, was displeased by the review.
The next year, Poe presented several lectures on the “Poetry of America.” Some reviewers felt his comments on Griswold were “witheringly severe.” The owner of Graham’s Magazine later commented that Poe “gave Mr. Griswold some raps over the knuckles of force sufficient to be remembered.”
Ironically, at a friendlier point in their relationship, Poe asked Griswold to serve as literary executor in the event of his death. The day after Poe’s death, Griswold published a death notice and commentary on Poe’s life in the New York Tribune. It began:
“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. The poet was known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends…”
As literary executor, Griswold published three volumes of Poe’s works and a biography entitled Memoir of the Author. In Memoir, Griswold depicted Poe as a destitute, uncontrollable drunkard, claiming the University of Virginia expelled Poe due to his alcoholism and gambling. Though Poe did in fact have a drinking problem, exacerbated by his apparently low tolerance for alcohol, he did not complete his studies at UVA due to financial and family reasons. Similar financial difficulties caused him to leave West Point Military Academy, though Griswold claimed Poe’s departure was due to his character flaws.
Many of Poe's friends were outraged by the content of the biography. Shortly after Griswold published Memoir, many contributed letters and articles to newspapers and magazines defending Poe's character. However, as time passed, Griswold's Memoir of an Author was accepted as a true account of Poe's life. This "official biography" was used in succeeding editions of Poe's work, thereby perpetuating Griswold's falsehoods.