I am returning to the question of whether my past-life self, Mathew Franklin Whittier, was the real author of "The Raven," which was plagiarized from him by Edgar Allan Poe, because yesterday I realized there are two clues back-to-back, within the same short sentence, in one of his letters to the editor of the Boston "Weekly Museum," while signing as "B." I had only picked up on one of them. One may be coincidence or misinterpretation on my part--two are unlikely to be so.
But then, there is another letter, to the same editor, written a couple of years later, under another pseudonym, which seems--at least on its surface--to contradict my conclusions. So while I now have quite a bit of evidence, I'm going to try to discipline myself to just stick to these two.
First of all, we have Mathew, signing as "B.," who lives in Westbrook, Maine (just outside of Portland, where Mathew supported his recently-estranged wife and three children). The evidence for this being Mathew's signature is fairly strong, but not as certain as the second one, "Quails." He is writing sometime in November of 1849, and he is speaking of Poe's recent death. As he does so, he recounts that he was among those who witnessed Poe giving a public reading in Boston, in 1845. The historical account of this meeting tells us:
The details of this reading are somewhat complicated. Essentially, Poe had been requested to recite a poem at the Boston Lyceum on October 16, 1845. Although he was paid $50 to present a new poem, he was apparently unable to compose one of appropriate merit in the allotted time. Instead, he recited “Al Aaraaf,” renamed as “The Messenger Star of Tycho Brahe.” The response, as Poe probably expected, was mixed. After, he claimed that the whle thing was a hoax to test the cultural integrity of the “Frogpondians.” He further claimed that the poem read had been written when he was only 10 years old. The title page was perhaps altered as substantiation.
The deceit portrayed here is troubling enough, for anyone who wishes to claim that Poe's character wasn't consistent with the plagiarism I am charging. However, as regards the "mixed response" of the Boston audience to his reading, Mathew's account is stronger:
For many reasons I consider that I was fortunate in hearing him recite his poem, "Al Aaraaf," before the Boston Lyceum four years ago. Probably he was quite as unpopular in Boston as in any other city, and the circumstances attending his performance injured him, variously, in the opinions of the Bostonians, more than anything he had previously done. Two thirds of his audience left before he closed, but with the most imperturbable sang froid, he requested the presiding officer to announce to those still in the house, that if they would remain, he would be pleased to recite to them "The Raven." All was hushed at once, and Mr. Poe recited that remarkable poem in a manner that will never be repeated.
If Mathew's account isn't exaggeration--and he typically would not have exaggerated facts, unless he was telling a tall-tale--then by any measure, it would be more accurate to say that Poe "bombed" at this event. The quality of the poem, "Al Aaraaf," in my opinion, is excellent (I conclude he had stolen this one, also); but admittedly, it is rather longish. Still, audiences in that day were prepared for a long poem, so it must have been largely due to Poe's lackluster delivery. It so happens that I have a natural and untutored skill in reading aloud. I know the trick of it--you have to deeply understand what you are reading, and you have to have that understanding in real time, as you read. Poe didn't understand what he was reading, on the deep level required to successfully read a poem. His was a superficial, if facile, intellect.
But that's not the double-clue I was speaking of. Look at the line, regarding Poe's last-minute decision to read "The Raven": "All was hushed at once, and Mr. Poe recited that remarkable poem in a manner that will never be repeated." I wouldn't make too much of this, if I wasn't very familiar with Mathew's way of expressing himself "around the corner." I know his MO, from having studied literally hundreds of his productions, and dozens of his publicly published letters. Mathew twice praises the poem, itself--once when the audience is "hushed"; and again, when he calls it "that remarkable poem." But he dissociates the poem from Poe when he calls it that remarkable poem, instead of his remarkable poem. Under normal circumstances, Mathew was scrupulous about giving credit to artists and authors. Using "that" instead of "his" is deliberate.
Then comes the second clue, which I had pointed out in an earlier blog entry, namely, that the poem was read in a manner that will never be repeated. It will never be repeated, because Poe is dead--but that's not praise. It's just a statement of biological fact.
To translate Mathew's obfuscation into plain language, Poe bombed because he couldn't deliver poetry--especially, poetry he didn't deeply understand, which wasn't his to begin with. But admittedly he had brass balls to stand up there and make the attempt, with one of the authors he had stolen from present in the audience.
No doubt Mathew arrived early so he could sit near the front, where Poe would be sure to see him.
There is no question that this is Mathew's meaning--the only question, in my mind, is whether "B." is, in fact, Mathew Franklin Whittier. I've made my case for it, and I'm reasonably certain for a number of reasons.
But now we come to Mathew's commentary on Poe's last portrait, known, today, as the "Ultima Thule" portrait. Mathew is writing on June 2nd, 1851. And by God, I missed it. I can't believe I have known of this letter for some two years now, and missed this clue. June 2, 1816, was the birthday of his beloved wife, Abby, who died in 1841. It was Mathew's faith crisis, after Abby's death, which inspired "The Raven." This is a very strong clue. This isn't the publication date--it's the date of the letter, which means, it was deliberately chosen by Mathew. Trust me, it had a hidden meaning for him, to write this letter on that date.
So what has transpired, is that Mathew was, as he often did, visiting a daguerreotype studio and admiring the sample portraits. I have quoted "Quails" remarking on this habit in yesterday's entry, so no need to copy it again, here. He happens to be in the studio of Samuel Masury, in Boston (Mathew kept a home base in Boston at this time), and he happened upon the Ultima Thule portrait of Poe. He is fascinated, because he knows Poe was a scoundrel, but he has always been fascinated by scoundrels. He sort of collects them, as it were. One of his early ghost-written books was about Mike Martin, the last of the highwaymen (published and signed by Francis A. Durivage, who later plagiarized an entire series of short stories from Mathew). Mathew, who was easily duped, always struggled within himself as to whether such a person was really good at heart, or not; whether he was a complete phony, or a real genius gone bad. He couldn't bring himself to believe that a person could be entirely without conscience. In other words, he had no conceptual framework to deal with sociopaths. So he would vacillate, and struggle with this issue.
Here, it appears that he has resolved the issue by concluding that Poe was a real genius gone bad, as a result of unfortunate childhood experiences. But ask him two or three months hence, or a year hence, and you might get a different interpretation.
There are two things I know for certain: "Quails" is definitely Mathew (I went into this question exhaustively in my first book); and Mathew knew that Poe was not, in fact, a brilliant poet. Mathew, after all, is kin to one of the most talented poets of 19th-century America, John Greenleaf Whittier. Mathew was ambivalent about his brother's character, as well--but he knew full-well of his brother's abilities as a poet. Keep in mind that when he closes by calling Poe--whose own productions were, in my estimation, really substandard--"this greatest of American poets," he is excluding his own brother. This, he would never do, unless he were speaking tongue-in-cheek.
But then, that would mean the entire commentary is tongue-in-cheek--and it doesn't read that way. Or does it?
Having studied Mathew for many years, my conclusion is that it is, and it isn't, because he, himself, is ambivalent. The skeptical part of him is writing sarcastically and ironically; the naive part of him is writing in earnest. He knows--but he can't bear to let himself know. The reason is, that if Poe was really a fraud--as I have concluded, today--then one of Mathew's best poems, which put Poe on the literary map--a poem that was written for and about his grief for his precious Abby--was stolen by a two-bit imposter. This would be unbearable. But if it was stolen by a real literary genius who was warped by an unfortunate childhood, then it would be bearable.
Now, a word about Mathew's take on the science (or, we would say, today, the pseudoscience) of "phrenology." I have lampoons that Mathew wrote on this subject, in his youth. But then, at that age he poked fun at anything "woo-woo," despite the fact that young Abby was trying to teach him about these topics. However, after her death, he began to accept some of what she had taught him, including Spiritualism. (I have no evidence that Abby believed in phrenology.) Mathew became, as it appears, more open-minded about phrenology, but never agreed that it could fully explain the depth of a man's soul. Here, he seems convinced by the fact that Poe's skull evinced pronounced protrusions in the region of "ideality," or what I take to be, creativity, plus Poe's high forehead. But even supposing that phrenology were a true science, all this means is that Poe was smart, and he could lie his ass off. It doesn't prove he was a deep thinker, or a true poet. Whether Mathew is cognizant of this, and is writing ironically, or whether it hasn't occurred to him, is difficult to discern.
You can see his ambivalence, where he states:
Of his forehead we hardly know what to write; we have seen higher ones, but so expressive a one, never; and until we had seen this picture, we were always under the impression that Poe either must have been drunk or crazy, when he wrote that flesh-crawling magnetism story, but a sigh at the shape of his head sets us all right; the organs of ideality are as prominent as two large robin's eggs would be, placed one on each side of an ordinary head.
Again, his language gives him away. "A sigh" appears to be simply an exaggeration, a manner of speaking. But it isn't, it's literal and quite in earnest. He is struggling--and anything he can grasp onto, which relieves him of the terrible suspicion that his poem to Abby was stolen by a literary hack--who became famous thereby--is a huge relief.
Except that he knows he is fooling himself, and hence, what he says comes out as irony. Whether or not it is intentional irony, is, again, a complicated call.
I think I'm right. I think he vacillates, and we have caught him in his "positive" phase; but the cynical phase is lurking just beyond. The psychological reason for this, is that Mathew was severely "mystified" (as R.D. Laing explains his coined term) in childhood. He struggles with this issue, regarding his famous brother--who all but abandoned him, and barely mentions Mathew at all in his copious correspondence--all his life. He barely mentions his parents, but where he does, by analogy in a handful of his stories, the implication is clear. His mother kept up a show of extreme piety, but was subject to sudden outbursts of violent temper; while his father, attempting to institute a parenting philosophy of "toughening training," at times bordered on the sadistic. Mathew could never come to grips with this dissonance; and all through his life, he vacillated when trying to give sociopathic characters the benefit of the doubt. Especially, when those people had plagiarized his work.
Ossian Dodge, a con-artist (his nickname was "The Dodge") who claimed Mathew's "Quails'" letters, was one of these sociopathic personalities Mathew became entangled with. I gather that they traveled together at times, and I think that Mathew even wrote some of Dodge's humorous material for him. Oddly enough, historians tell us that Dodge ended up with a copy of the Ultima Thule portrait. I would guess that Mathew was admiring it--or was studying it, being fascinated by it--in Masury's studio. Masury assumed that Mathew was a fan of Poe, and on that basis, offered to send him a copy. Mathew could hardly refuse, and incorporated the exchange into his travel letter to the Boston "Weekly Museum." But while it was interesting as an addition to his "rogue's gallery" collection, over time he reverted to his cynical interpretation, and gave it to Dodge, as he really didn't want to have it around. This would have had to be sometime before mid-1852, when Dodge showed his true colors as a racist, and bought out the "Weekly Museum."
What do you do, when you have clear evidence that something is true, which just can't be true? What, for example, would Christians do with my Guru, Meher Baba's statement that Jesus physically survived the crucifixion, and afterwards went to live in India? What happens, if the evidence is good enough, is that you go back and forth. That part of you which responds to self-evident truth, is pulled towards it--but that part of you which has an ordered world, and wants to stay in that ordered world, resists it. Cognitive dissonance like this will saw you back and forth until it cuts you in half, if you let it. One has to decide which it shall be--truth or safety. Mathew was no exception. That he wrote this on Abby's birthday tells us--or at least, it tells me--that Mathew was really struggling with this one, and that this is how he resolved it for himself. That is, until truth won out, and he gave the portrait away to Ossian Dodge.
Below is that portion of "Quails'" letter--separated by a horizontal line--which deals with the Ultima Thule portrait. He is writing to the then-editor of the Boston "Weekly Museum," Charles A.V. Putnam.
By the way, friend Putnam, we must not forget to mention in this letter, that we have received during the last week, from Samuel Masury, of Providence, R.I., a daguerreotype picture of the late Edgar A. Poe. The following facts will show, to a certain extent, the great reason we have to feel proud of the possession of this really beautiful and striking picture:--For a number of years previous to Poe's death, the literati of Gotham tried their utmost to induce him to sit for his likeness, but owing to the misanthropic views which this child of genius had unfortunately formed in his childhood, and which had grown with his strength, until he looked upon all mankind as little better than Cannibals, having no emotions of friendship above selfishness, and ready at a moment's warning to take advantage of a brother's weakness, he could never be persuaded to sit for his picture, fearing that it might--at some future day--be used in some manner to his detriment. Indeed, hundreds of his most intimate acquaintances are under the impression, even to the present day, that he never sat for his picture. But some three weeks previous to his death, (while returning from his last visit to Boston) he made a stop in the city of Providence for a number of days, and regardless of the entreaties of his friends, indulged to an almost unlimited extent, his unconquerable appetite for strong drink, and while in this highly nervous state of mind, accidentally dropped into the daguerrean gallery of Samuel Masury, and as he was highly delighted with the pictures placed on exhibition, he proposed, on the impulse of the moment, to try for experiment and see if his own likeness could be taken to look as well as those on the table. Without a moment's delay, and before he had time to change his mind, the offer was instantly and joyfully accepted, and the reflection of his peculiarly expressive features was soon transfered to a full-sized plate.
This being the only daguerreotype ever taken of him, and the one sent to us the only copy of the original, we attach a value to this present that none but the lovers of eccentric genius can comprehend. For the gratification of our literary friends at a distance, we give a description of the picture.--
Mr. Poe had on, at the time the picture was taken, a fine black dress-coat, but no vest; the deficiency of the latter article, however, was nearly concealed, by buttoning across the breast the two top buttons of the coat. He had on a low standing collar, around which was rather carelessly tied a fine cheek linen neck-cloth. To describe his features and expression, requires a far more graphic pen than our own, for his is a likeness that is felt as well as seen. The form of his head, when seen from a square front view, as presented in this picture, somewhat resembles that of Shakspeare's, with the exception that causality and ideality appear to be far more prominent.
His hair is black, and apparently wet, somewhat bushy, and looking as though the poet's fingers had been the only comb it had seen for many days. Finely chiseled nose, though somewhat prominent, and nostrils distended as in cases of constant excitement and irritability. A small moustache, but no whiskers. Mouth small but expressive. Eyes, snappingly brilliant, and black as the raven so graphically described in his poem. Eyebrows heavy, and one of them slightly drawn down at the outer end, as if partly to conceal the piercing propensity of the eye.--From the base of the nose there are four sharp, perpendicular lines running some two inches up on the forehead, caused, no doubt, by the constant frown or contraction of the eyebrows. Of his forehead we hardly know what to write; we have seen higher ones, but so expressive a one, never; and until we had seen this picture, we were always under the impression that Poe either must have been drunk or crazy, when he wrote that flesh-crawling magnetism story, but a sigh at the shape of his head sets us all right; the organs of ideality are as prominent as two large robin's eggs would be, placed one on each side of an ordinary head. Poe's head is in fact the best illustration of the truth of phrenology of any we have ever seen, and could the correct cast have been obtained, it would have been worth a fortune to Fowler. Mr. Masury has the original daguerreotype in his gallery at Providence, and the public can see the "counterfeit presentment" of this most brilliant of American poets by giving friend Masury a call.
I am, dear Putnam, thine, as ever,
And what shall we make of the seemingly casual, cute phrase, "counterfeit presentment" used to describe Poe's likeness? Coming from Mathew Franklin Whittier, the king of double meanings, it can only mean one thing.
But wait, there's more. I had the thought to provide a detail from the photograph of the "Weekly Museum" page which shows the date of "Quails'" letter, June 2, 1851. But when I got into it, I noticed a poem directly on top of it, entitled "Be Kind Always," in which the poet, Robert Johnson, urges the reader to "deal kindly with thy erring brother." Now, there's a back-story to this, as well--and I could interpret it several ways, but I'm going to take an intuitive stab at it.
First of all, for anyone new here, this was a long-standing habit of Mathew's--to juxtapose his various works, with various signatures, together on the page so as to inform each other with an even-greater, hidden meaning. Sometimes he used other people's work, placed above, below or to the side of his own; sometimes it was all his own work. I could bring out perhaps 15 or 20 examples without looking very hard.
Now, as near as I could tell, from many clues (as set forth in my first book), Robert Johnson was a hack poet who lived in Norwich, Conn., and whom Mathew would mentor when he traveled through that town, while working as a postal inspector. Johnson had published at least one of Mathew's poems under his own name, which--rather like "The Raven"--includes a deeply personal reference to Abby mourning for one of their children. Johnson, like Poe, is an awful poet when left to his own devices. One of his lines, which I poked fun at in my book(i.e., as poetry), speaks of letting "God's goodness make us glad," which gives you a pretty good idea of the type of stuff he was churning out.
This one, however, looks like Mathew's work. It has that meter, and that sort of masculine, austere edge, that Mathew's poetry had. Has Mathew taken one of his poems, and deliberately submitted it under Johnson's name, as a kind of supreme irony? As if to say, "My spiritual training tells me to be forgiving, but in the very act of doing so, I am getting revenge"? That's how I interpret it, having studied Mathew's MO for almost a decade. In other words, the entire poem speaks of Mathew's spiritual training to turn the other cheek, the training which Abby tried to impress upon him (and I have evidence for this, as well)--and he has dedicated it to her, by writing it on her birthday. But he has essentially turned it upside down, by the very act of assigning his own poem to another of his pesky plagiarists. It looks like the ultimate turning of the other cheek--but it's really sarcastic irony. Some part of him is desperately trying to honor Abby's remembered admonitions--but that little devil in him gets the last word. Either that, or he has decided that this heroic self-abnegation, above and beyond any reasonable call of duty--almost verging on the suicidal--would please Abby.
Either way, in doing so, he tells posterity what really happened between Poe and himself.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Music opening this page: "Jesus Died in Kashmir," by James Newell, from a private performance