Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sarah and Edgar at the Athenaeum

Providence Athenaeum, Benefit St.
The Providence Athenaeum.
One of the most beautiful early 19th century buildings in Providence is the Athenaeum, a membership library built in 1838 in the Greek Revival Style.

It was within its dark and comforting confines that Sarah Helen Whitman, a Providence poet and essayist, found solace from her difficult home life, and was able to write and think in peace.
Sarah Helen Whitman House, Benefit St., Providence RI
Sarah Helen Whitman House, 88 Benefit Street.

Sarah Helen Power was born in 1803, and lived in a house at 88 Benefit Street, less than a half mile from what was to become the site of the Athenaeum.

She married a young Brown University graduate, John Winslow Whitman, and went to Boston to live with him in 1828. There she developed friendships with the leading literary lights of the time and place--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow among others.

Sadly, John died in 1833, and Sarah returned to Providence to live with her unhappy mother and mentally ill sister. The construction of the Athenaeum five years later must have seemed like a godsend.

Portrait of Sarah Helen Whitman by C. G. Thompson, 1838.
Portrait of Whitman by C. G. Thompson, 1838.
By all accounts, Sarah was beautiful, witty, and warm, as well as liberal and unconventional. She liked to dress in what was considered a pagan style of dress--loose, white, filmy clothing with soft slippers and lots of scarves--her friends reported that as she strode down the street pieces of her costume would fly off, which they were forever picking up! She wore a tiny coffin on a chain around her neck.

She believed in transcendentalism, spiritualism, abolitionism, and feminism. She was widely read and fluent in four languages. She was a talented poet, an insightful art/literature critic, and a perceptive commentator on the contemporary scene. She belonged to various literary groups, and ran a popular poetry salon. She also mentored young writers at Brown.

Daguerrotype of Edgar Allan Poe, Providence, RI, 1848.
Daguerrotype of Poe from 1848.
By 1848, she was considered the best woman poet in America and she and Edgar Allan Poe (who was six years her junior) had come to each other's attention, and admired each other from afar. By this time, Poe was the rockstar of the American literary world. He was handsome and gifted, and had the manners of a southern gentleman.

They engaged in a passionate correspon-dence, and wrote poems dedicated to each other. Poe came to Providence to court her in person in September 1848.

He stayed at a hotel called the Mansion House on Benefit Street, a couple of blocks from her house, but of course she couldn’t visit him there. And her mother did not approve of Poe, so that ruled out meetings at her home. So they met at the Athenaeum and at the Swan Point Cemetery.

At one point she showed him an anonymous poem she admired in a book that was in the Athenaeum's collection—he told here he’d written it, and signed that page in the book—and that book with that signature is still there. (Apparently it's OK to deface library books, if you're Edgar Allan Poe!)

After a brief courtship, Poe pressed her to marry him and she demurred--her health, her age, her mother's disapproval of his drug and alcohol habits. He promised to give up drinking if she would agree to marry him (a promise frequently made and frequently broken throughout history), and so she did.

This prompted New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley to write to a fellow editor:
Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman? Of course, you have heard it rumored that she is to marry Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and--you know what Poe is . . . Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her?
The wedding was due to take place on December 25th, and on December 23rd Sarah and Edgar were in the Athenaeum with some other people when someone handed her a note (so junior high!). They had seen Edgar drinking the previous night and that morning.

Sarah called off the wedding, fled down the street to her house, breathed a little ether (her drug of choice), and was swooning on the sofa when Edgar caught up with her.

They never saw each other again, and he would be dead within 10 months.

But Sarah would live for another 30 years, publishing her poetry and essays and fostering generations of younger writers and artists.  More than 80 of her essays were carried in the pages of the Providence Daily Journal as letters to the editor, book reviews, travel correspondence, and general essays.  She was active in the woman suffrage movement, and served as VP of the state suffrage association when it was formed in 1868.

However, despite all these accomplishments, she is most remembered today as a defender of Poe against his critics.  She published a scholarly brochure entitled Edgar Poe and His Critics in 1860—it’s the only work of hers that’s still in print.  She was almost singlehandedly responsible for saving Poe’s reputation which had been savaged by critics and editors after his death.

Illustration Credits and References

Photo of the Athenaeum from their website.

Photo of Sarah Helen Whitman house by the author.

Painting of Sarah Helen Whitman from the Brown University Portrait Collection.

Daguerrotype of Poe from the eapoe.org website.

Information for this post came from a number of sources including the Providence Athenaeum website, a book by Brett Rutherford, Last Flowers: The Romance and Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman, Poet's Press, 2011, and a lecture given by Sarah O'Dowd on May 2, 2012 at the Community Church of Providence.

Horace Greeley quote from the January 21 entry in A Reader's Book of Days, edited by Tom Nissley, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014. Greeley wrote the letter on January 21, 1849, apparently not aware that the engagement had been broken a few weeks before.