- Who Killed Lucretia Davidson? or, Poetry in the Domestic-Tutelary Complex
In 1837, twelve years after her subject’s death at age seventeen from tuberculosis, popular novelist Catherine Sedgwick contributed a long biographical sketch of the poet Lucretia Maria Davidson to Jared Sparks’ Library of American Biography. Sedgwick’s biographical essay consolidated the reputation Lucretia Davidson had earlier won with her small posthumous collection, Amir Khan and Other Poems, assembled at the instigation of Lucretia’s mother Margaret, edited by academician Samuel B. Morse, and published in 1829. Thus sponsored chiefly by women, Lucretia Davidson’s posthumous career as a poet had also, as Cheryl Walker has put it, a number of contemporary “male midwives,” 1 Washington Irving and Robert Southey conspicuously among them. A few years later, Mrs. Margaret Miller Davidson would draw on similar forms of authorization—this time with Washington Irving supplying Sedgwick’s place as introductory biographer—in assembling and publishing the Poetical Remains of still another daughter, Margaret Miller Davidson, who also died of tuberculosis in her teens. The combined Remains of both sisters, together with Sedgwick’s and Irving’s biographies, were issued in a handsome new two-volume companion edition in 1841. Lucretia Davidson’s Remains sold well enough to circulate for several decades, in translations as well as in new American editions. 2 In 1843, finally, Mrs. Davidson completed the family portrait when she “appear[ed] for the first time before the public” in her own person, with Selections from the Writings of Mrs. Davidson, introduced again by Miss Sedgwick, who justified Mrs. Davidson’s discarding “the diffidence natural to a recluse and delicate woman” by referring to those readers “who have expressed a curiosity to know more of the mind whose holiest and brightest emanations were infused into those rare sisters, who seem hardly to have touched our world on their passage to Heaven.” 3
The combined 1841 Remains attracted the notice of Edgar Allen Poe, who damned them with faint praise and used them as a stick with which to beat on the Davidsons’ promoters. 4 Even Poe’s ambivalent notice, however, had to concede that those promoters had been effective; indeed, that is half his grievance as well as half his fascination with the Davidson sisters. By the time Poe [End Page 271] reviewed the composite Remains in 1841, he was well and ironically aware that “Lucretia Davidson” was a family enterprise, a cottage industry, a fulminating discursive formation, as well as the proper name of a dead girl. If, in his famous dictum, “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” what seems to have intrigued Poe in the Davidson sisters—young, white, upper-middle-class, consumptive, dead, thus by convention beautiful, and “poetical” both as subjects and objects—was at least in part the cultural machinery brought to the making of this “poetical.” His review of Margaret Miller Davidson’s Remains opens with an account of her elder sister’s making as a poet: “The name of Lucretia Davidson is familiar to all readers of Poetry. Dying at the early age of seventeen, she has been rendered famous not less, and certainly not more, by her own precocious genius than by three memorable biographies,” those of Morse, Sedgwick, and Southey.
The name and death of Lucretia authorize the appearance of her sister Margaret Miller, whose name and remains in their turn implicate yet another woman, the other Margaret Miller Davidson. “Few books,” Poe says of Margaret’s Remains, “have interested us more profoundly”:
Yet the interest does not appertain solely to Margaret. ‘In fact, the narrative,’ says Mr. Irving, ‘will be found almost as illustrative of the character of the mother as of the child; they were singularly identified in taste, feeling, and pursuit; tenderly entwined together by maternal and filial affection, they reflected an inexpressibly touching grace and interest upon each other by this holy relationship, and, to my mind, it would be marring one of the most beautiful and affecting groups in modern literature to sunder them.’ In these words the biographer conveys no more than a just idea of the exquisite loveliness of the...