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“This Slender Foundation .. .Made Me Immortal”: Sarah Helen Whitman vs. Poe’s Helen Noelle A. Baker University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh both consolidated Whitman’s fame as Poe’s fiancke and effaced her significance as an author in her own right-independent of Pee. Understandably, Pee's biographers consider Whitman through Rufus Griswold’s allegations about the end of their engagement in his 1850 ttMernoir,l,through Whitman ’s sonnets to Poe, and through her 1860 vindication of his reputation in Edoar Poe and His CritIt is a sad injustice to the memory of one of this country’s most gifted women to allow her to go down to posterity as merely a charming personage to whom Poe was engaged for a brief time. She was a woman of rare poetic gifts and vivid personality, and her title to fame should rest securely on her own work. -Caroline Ticknor, Poe ’ s Helen In 1916 Caroline Ticknor prefaced her Poe’s Helen with an earnest claim-that the literary contributions of Providence writer Sarah Helen Whitman merit serious analysis because of their intrinsic value, without consideration of her engagement to the legendary Edgar Allan Poe and her posthumous defense of his reputation.’ Ticknor’s important study printed excerpts from Whitman’s correspondence for the first time and established a preliminary biography, apart from the relationship with Poe. Nevertheless, even this ground-breaking work focused primarily on Poe: a full 219 of the total 292 pages treat Whitman’s famous literary romance. Moreover, as the epigraph to this essay suggests, Ticknor’s book focuses on her subject’s “poetic gifts” and especially Whitman’s sonnets for and about Poe, giving limited attention to her literary criticism, much of which does not examine Poe. Ticknor’s critical emphasis is not surprising. The role of sweet singer and “poetess” afforded respectability to nineteenth-century women writers, and outside of an inner circle of New York and New England literati who recognized her literary criticism , Whitman would have been best known to her contemporaries as a poet.2 Nonetheless, by approaching a lesser-known woman writer primarily in terms of her connection to an iconic male author, Ticknor (like many others before and after her) leaves vital dimensions of the woman herself unexplored . Even recent feminist reconsiderations of Whitman as a woman writer stress her relationship with Poe and her verse.3 Thus Sarah Helen Whitman ’s reputation today still derives in large part from her representation in Poe bi~graphy.~ Indeed, as Ticknor implicitly recognizes and anticipates in her preface, the “building” of Poe biography has ics. Thereby, scholars uniformly emphasize Whitman ’s fidelity to Poe, suggesting that timid idealism , enduring love, and naivet6 enabled her tireless support of William Fearing Gill, John Henry Ingram , Richard Henry Stoddard, Eugene Lemoine Didier, and other early would-be biographers. Much of the biographical record on which such renderings of Whitman are based is true. Whitman certainly maintained a case for Poe’s integrity, despite his notorious reputation in the second half of the nineteenth century. I would propose, however, that the motivations underlying her affectionate support of Poe are complex and merit further consideration . We should begin to think about Whitman as a woman writing: as one who might simultaneously love her memory of Poe, evaluate and make use of the relationship’s professional advantages , and guard against its disadvantages. And also, reciprocally, as a literary figure whose regional reputation Poe found useful as he struggled with his own career in the late 1840s. Studies by Mary De Jong, Phyllis Cole, and Joan Goodwin (among many others) make a compelling argument that women connected famously to canonical male authors should be reconsidered in terms of their own lives and work. According to Cole, such women’s biographies, intellects, and motivations deserve to be “extricat[ed] . . . from the male tradition that preserved [them]”in order “to turn the tables and reenvision the tradition from [their]vantage point.” Shirley Marchalonis observes similarly that relationships between male and female writers have too often been oversimplified-analyzed by way of such overly predictable models as the male mentor/female pupil relationship, or the poetic love affair.5 When we look...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 8-26
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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