Poe and Griswold

Portrait of Rufus Griswold

Engraving of Rufus Griswold
Engraving of Rufus Griswold

The Strange Case of the Defamation of Edgar Allan Poe


Professional jealousy makes other people crazy

When they think you've got something that, they don't have,

Van Morrison from the song 'Professional Jealousy'

As witnessed by Van Morrison's harmonic lament, professional jealousy is a powerful and sometimes destructive force that is an all-too-common human emotion. Unfortunately, this artistic rivalry is just as much alive today, as it was over 150 years ago, when both Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus Wilmot Griswold competed for the literary accolades of the rapidly-growing American Republic.

The two writers first met in 1841, when Griswold was putting together an anthology that would be called “The Poets and Poetry of America”. Poe heard about the project and approached Griswold with some of his own work for the book, plus he recommended several other poets for possible inclusion. Griswold did include Poe's work, while ignoring his suggestions for publishing the other poets. After publication of the anthology, Griswold offered Poe a sum of ten dollars to review the text of the new book. Edgar Allan did just that, producing a generally favorable review that mildly criticized the poetry collection for not including more writers.

Griswold had expected a better review, but let the matter slide until a much harsher review appeared in the January 1943 issue of the Philadelphia Saturday Museum. Since Poe resided in Philadelphia, Griswold jumped to the conclusion that the negative comments were those of Poe. Time have proven otherwise, though the fact that the real writer, Henry Hirst, was a friend of Poe's does complicate the situation.

Nonetheless, this literary feud between the two writers and editors simmered until Poe's untimely and sudden death in 1849. Upon hearing the news, Griswold launched a major attack upon Poe's reputation and moral character. Even though Griswold's allegations have been successfully negated by modern historians, there still remains an aura surrounding the famed writer, which suggests that he was a low-lifer, possessing similarities to some of the more macabre characters in his stories.

Soon after Poe's death Griswold wasted no time in characterizing the writer as a destitute drunkard with a gambling problem. Griswold went on to say that these negative traits prevented Poe from completing his studies at the University of Virginia and caused him to be expelled from the West Point military academy. Other writers jumped on the bandwagon and went on to characterize 'Poor Poe' as an opium addict, who drew upon his drug experience to create some truly menacing and frightening, fictional persona.

Despite these negative characterizations of the author, Poe still stands tall as a truly inventive and creative author of the early 19th century. Some of his stories and poems such as The Raven, The Pit and Pendulum and The Telltale Heart have become timeless icons of American literature.

Furthermore, the prolific writer is credited with paving the way for the development of the short story, while adding much to defining the modern horror genre. On the other hand Griswold's claim to fame lies in his “Memoir of the Author” (Poe), a piece of non-fiction that we now realize is filled with half truths and incorrect information. The irony of the whole story is that during the time when both men were alive and in communication with each other, Edgar Allan Poe requested that Griswold be relegated as his official biographer.

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe
Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

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