“What’s Eating Rufus Griswold?” by Alpha Unit

Rufus Griswold is a fascinating character, but hardly anyone has ever heard of him anymore. Most of the events below were happening in the 1830’s and 1840’s. He was part of the Young America movement along with Longfellow, Thoreau, Emerson, Lowell, Bryant and some others. This movement sought to create a real American literature rooted in the continent. Logically, it also sought to break away from Britain.

There was also a big debate about Classics in education at this time. Classics had always been a big part of education in Britain, if not in Europe as a whole. The new American literary crowd sought to do away with or reduce the level of Classical study by US students. Studying the Classics was also an Elitist thing, since the son of your average American worker or farmer could hardly understand Homer or Juvenal. So getting rid of Classics was a way to democratize education.

AU touches on Griswold’s lies about Poe’s character. These lies continued in almost every Poe biography for the next 100 hundred years, but finally historians got the truth mostly sorted out from the fantasies. It’s interesting that Poe’s fans loved these scurrilous and character-assassinating lies, since they made him seem “evil,” and they wanted to see Poe as an evil man, the better to go along with terrifying stories.

The part about mourning his dead wife is incredible. I think he must have set a Guinness world record for Greatest Mourner of all Time.

He was a defamer and character assassin, variously described by contemporaries as a liar, “irritable,” “vindictive,” “an ass.” He was a forger and a cheat. A licensed clergyman who was, by all accounts, as thoroughly un-Christian as they come.

He was Rufus Wilmot Griswold, newspaper editor and literary critic. He adored and detested with a passion. And nothing could excite him more than his intended target’s demise.

Griswold is usually given credit for being one of the first influential people to push the teaching of American poetry alongside English poetry in American schools. He is also usually noted for publicly supporting copyright law at a time it was being considered (his reputation being that he shamelessly stole from other writers).

But if not for his association with the American poet Edgar Allan Poe, no one would probably know or care who he was. It was in his dealings with Poe that he achieved lasting notoriety. Poe’s death became Griswold’s shining moment, in a sense.

Both Griswold and Poe were writers with backgrounds in journalism. Poe submitted poems to Griswold for inclusion in an anthology of American poetry; Griswold included several of them. Poe then arranged to write a review of the anthology.

Poe’s review included some mild criticisms of the book; but even these were evidently too much for Griswold. In addition, Poe expressed his true feelings about the book in private letters. In one, he called it “a most outrageous humbug,” and, in another, he divulged his belief that Griswold’s help in getting the review published was intended as a bribe for a favorable review.

These events were the opening salvo in a war of recriminations between Griswold and Poe, a war that outlasted Poe.

Once Poe was departed, Griswold’s hostility toward him took on a new and almost surreal twist. He pseudonymously published an obituary of Poe that amounted to character assassination. But Griswold was just getting warmed up. He subsequently made the claim – a dubious one, it appears – that he was Poe’s literary executor and was therefore authorized to edit a posthumous collection of Poe’s works, for the supposed benefit of Poe’s survivors.

Poe’s survivors didn’t see any of the profits from the collection. If that wasn’t enough, a third volume included more attacks on Poe. According to one account:

[Griswold] even forged letters from Poe to exaggerate his own role as Poe’s benefactor and to alienate Poe’s friends.

Poe’s choice not to return to the University of Virginia became expulsion for wild and reckless behavior. Poe’s honorable discharge from the army became desertion.

Once again, Poe’s friends came to his defense, but Griswold had done his work well. For every magazine that carried a condemnation of Griswold’s infamy, three repeated his titillating slanders.

Talk about an inability to “let it go.”

There was no escape, apparently, from being the focus of Griswold’s passions, not for Poe, but also not for his first wife, Caroline, who might have elicited more devotion from him in death than she ever had while alive.

Upon being informed that both she and their third child had died not long after delivery, he became the soul of despondency.

Deeply shocked, Griswold traveled by train alongside her coffin, refusing to leave her side for 30 hours. When fellow passengers urged him to try to sleep, he answered by kissing her dead lips and embracing her, his two children crying next to him. He refused to leave the cemetery after her funeral, even after he other mourners had left, until forced to do so by a relative.

Griswold had difficulty believing she had died and often dreamed of their reunion. Forty days after her entombment, he entered her vault, cut off a lock of her hair, kissed her on the forehead and lips, and wept for several hours, staying by her side until a friend found him 30 hours later.

A colorful character, and one who apparently attached some significance to doing something for 30 hours.

One scholar who has documented some of Griswold’s behavior suggests that Griswold was mentally ill. He does come across as obsessive. And those he felt strongly about couldn’t even be the focus of attention upon their deaths.

When I review some of the descriptions of narcissism, it’s very tempting to go through a checklist and say,”Yep – that’s Griswold, all right!” But does diagnosing him really make him any more sympathetic? Isn’t anybody just a good old-fashioned son of a bitch anymore?

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7 thoughts on ““What’s Eating Rufus Griswold?” by Alpha Unit”

  1. Interesting post, about an interesting (if extremely unpleasant) character.

    It has been claimed that Griswold not only drank heavily, but regularly took opium as well. I don’t know if that would explain all his uglier tendencies, but I think it was definitely a factor.

    A further note: There is a letter Griswold’s friend Frances S. Osgood wrote to her mother in 1849. The letter has been heavily mutilated, but in it, Osgood complains about scandalous rumors that were circulating about her and Griswold. There is a section where she refers to a certain man’s “fits of insanity.” The name of the man has been torn off, but from the context, I believe she was referring to Griswold.

  2. “How much of the scurrilous stuff he wrote about Poe was true?”

    Well, people have spent the last century and a half practically coming to blows over that very question. The short answer: Very little, and what truth there was in Griswold’s account was invariably distorted. Someone who knew Griswold well once said of him that he was utterly unable to tell the whole truth about *anything*, even if it was in his best interests to do so. Certainly, malice was behind much of what Griswold wrote and said about Poe, but I think simple habitual dishonesty was a factor as well.

  3. Can you just imagine if Poe acted that way with the corpse of Virginia!?? OMG!! People would be having a field day talking about how strange Poe was! Griswold was a piece of sh*t! I’m glad he suffered the last years of his life.

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