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Poe’s Last Visit To Richmond
Hunting an unattainable security, the poet sought his “lost Lenore” and then drifted into the shadows
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
During tin’s stay, he apparently did not sec EI mil a Royster Shelton. Uc saw his moronic sister, Rosalie, and the gracious Macken/ie family who had adopted her, he saw a lew friends from the days of his precarious privilege, and he worked. Edgar Poe was a good editor. The circulation multiplied tinder him and the Messenger was founded in its ante-bellum position. Hut with his ambition goading him. Poe sought an authority which the publisher denied and, in January, iSi(J. he became the urst southerner of talent to begin what became the traditional pilgrimage to New York.
Poe also became the first professional writer in America. Without personal income or sinecure, this frail carrier of literary gifts set out to support his tubercular wife and mother-in-law by what he could earn from published words. To his poetry and stories he added criticisms and literary essays, along with editorial jobs, and much ol this writing—ground out under the ceaseless goad for submarginal survivaldegenerated into hack work, with its attendant depressions and drains on his limited energies.
When he abridged the reality with the bottle he was accused ol depravity in his day, and since then has been the subject ol many studies in abnormal behavior as related to genius. By the current symptoms associated with schizophrenia, he seems a schizoid type ol personality, irrespective of his talent. The schizoid features and the creative gifts each existed: the nature of his life as a creative man in juxtaposition with his emotional unbalance intensified his eye les of disorder.
With alcohol, he was strictly a spree drinker. Possessing no tolerance at all lor it, he underwent a complete personality transformation under the influence; locked demons seemed to escape and rage through his mind. More significant for the probability of the schizoid elements were his relations with women.
In the last three years of his life, during the acceleration of his decline, he began to seek an ethereal bosom —a mate of the soul in ffeshless passion. Alter his wife died, this search was broadened to include also the more earthly comfort of a financially well-endowed wife. Because these bizarre episodes were invariably accompanied by an alcoholic escape, the incidents added to his growing reputation for depravity. The least carnal of men, Mrs. Clemm’s “poor Eddie” was ill, caught in the final downward spiral ol his cycles.
It was alter his fortieth birthday, while he and “Muddie” (as he called Mrs. Clemm) were living in the Ford ha m cottage, that the last vital energies began to wane and “Lcnorc” began to beckon as a haven. She was then the wealthily widowed Mrs. Shelton. It would be too simple to attribute cold calculation to Poe’s breedings over Elniira Shelton.
During that winter and spring. 1819, he alternated between an afflatus over his financial future ( Graham’s had offered him $5 a page and he said that he could win AJuddie s security by turning out a page and a half a day) and the inability to apply himself further to the drudge work. At this time he was experiencing his final lever of pure creativity, writing among other verse “The Hells” and the finished version of “Annabel Lee.” Then, while listening receptively to his longsuttering mother-in-law’s hints about Mrs. Shelton, he completed the arrangements to edit a financially supported magazine, the Stylus , a dream of his whole life.
Essentially he was tired and wanted a home where he and Muddie could rest from the long, unequal struggle; only he was not clear about that either. So the dream of the Stylus , the sanctuary of Mrs. Shelton and rellcx habits of earning a hand-to-mouth existence all blended into one vague purpose, with Richmond as the center. There he could give lectures for day-to-day cash, there he could gather the necessary 500 subscribers for the Stylus , there he could court “Lenore”—and there was home, such as he had ever known. “I am a Virginian,” he said, and then added sadly, “at least I call myself one.”
Leaving Mrs. Clemm on the last day of June with assurances that their future would be secured, he set out with his skimpily packed, flowered handbag on $50 advanced him for the Stylus . By the time he reached Philadelphia, his aloneness began to depress him and he stepped into a saloon. When he staggered to friends later, he was dangerously ill and delirious, suffering delusions of persecution. He lost the better part of two weeks and all of his money in that bout. His friends straightened him out enough to proceed the rest of the way and raised the money to pay his fare with a few dollars over.
He was still sick and disreputable-looking when he arrived in Richmond, and walked unnoticed to the suburb west of the city where his sister lived with the friendly Mackenzies. They took him in without reproaches and ministered as best they could, while he suffered the inevitable siege of remorse. Uc had but two dollars, one of which he sent Mrs. Clemm, with a note, “Oh, God, my Mother, shall we ever meet again? If possible, oh, COME! My clothes are so horrible and I am so ill .…”