Curator's Choice: Among 200 Poe objects, this one stands out
The Ransom Center’s Koester Poe collection contains 72 letters written by Edgar Allan Poe, 16 of which appear in the bicentennial exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. One of these letters has become my favorite item to share with visitors during tours through the gallery. Written in January 1848, the long, newsy letter is mostly a summary of Poe’s professional doings during 1847, but toward the end, Poe suddenly pours out a lengthy description of his wife Virginia’s slow, painful death of tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother. It is a fascinating document that shows how entwined the personal, the professional, and the poetical were in Poe’s life—a fact confirmed by many artifacts in the exhibition.
The letter is written to George Eveleth, a medical student who wrote Poe a fan letter in 1845, initiating a correspondence that lasted until at least July of 1849, three months before Poe’s own death. Several letters between the men survive. They primarily concern Poe’s professional life and opinions, as well as Eveleth’s desire to purchase various publications of Poe’s works. In July 1847, Eveleth had written Poe a letter containing several questions, one of which referred to an open letter Poe had published in “The Spirit of the Times” in Philadelphia two weeks earlier. In that piece, Poe had defended himself vigorously against charges including forgery and fraud, posed by one of his literary rivals, Thomas Dunn English. In that piece, he defended himself in part by referring cryptically to a “terrible evil” in his personal life. Soon after, he launched a famously successful libel suit against the magazine in which English’s piece was published. This professional crisis, combined with the trauma of Virginia’s long deterioration and death, and Poe’s own illness, made 1847 one of the most difficult years of the writer’s life.
Poe was unable to respond to Eveleth until January of the following year, and the resulting letter seems to mark a turning point; early in the letter he states that he feels “better—best. I have never been so well.” He offers numbered answers to Eveleth’s many questions, ticking through his publishing plans and literary rivalries—including the English affair—with vigor. When he reaches the number ten, the letter shifts tone. He writes, “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.”
The description that follows is stunning—Virginia’s slow decline is described in painful detail, and the reader has a precious glimpse of this pivotal moment in Poe’s life. But what is most remarkable about the passage is its tone. It does not shift from the professional to the personal, as one might expect; it shifts from the professional to the literary. Poe’s description of Virginia’s death is a beautiful prose construction, equal in artistry to his greatest tales and essays. It is written not in the language of the grieving widower, but that of the great artist performing to his audience; each sentence deserves to be diagrammed. Two in particular seem carefully constructed to manipulate Eveleth just as Poe manipulated magazine readers as the author of Gothic tales. Both set up a strong emotional reaction in the reader by ending with a word or phrase directly opposite what the reader expects: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” The second half of each of these sentence shocks, particularly in the second example, in which Virginia’s death is reduced to a cure for her husband’s suffering—not because Poe wished for her death, but because it works so beautifully as a narrative device for his audience of one. Each time I share it with visitors in the gallery, I am as disturbed as they are.
Perhaps Poe’s ability to write with such art is a sign that he can view Virginia’s death with perspective; as such, perhaps this letter is a sign of his (temporary) rehabilitation. Whatever the reason, the lines about Virginia are unsettling in just the manner of Poe’s best tales and poems—but more so, being a description of the death of a real beautiful woman, not just an imagined one.
You can view the original letter in its entirety in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.
You can read transcriptions of all surviving letters between Edgar Allan Poe and George Washington Eveleth, as well as “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others” in The Spirit of the Times on the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website.
You can see this and many more original artifacts until January 3, when the exhibition closes.