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  • Poe in Richmond: Revealing Rufus Griswold
  • Christopher P. Semtner

The conservator gently rolled a cotton swab across the painting’s surface. The swab quickly blackened as it absorbed nearly two centuries of grime. Underneath the accumulated layers of varnish, dust, and linseed oil, an eye gradually came into focus. Long lost underneath the dull brown varnish, a portrait was beginning to emerge.

Scott Nolley of Fine Art Conservation of Virginia was performing a test cleaning on a small square of a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary executor, biographer, and enemy Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815–1857). The Poe Museum in Richmond had recently acquired the piece as part of a collection of Griswold documents, and the museum is now preparing to make these artifacts available to the public for the first time. The visit to the conservator’s studio in July 2016 was only one small step in a long journey that began in 1840 in New York.

Griswold was about twenty-five years old when he and his wife, Caroline Searles Griswold (1824–1842), sat to have their portraits painted by Charles Loring Elliott (1812–1868). The couple had married three years earlier, and the marriage would end a little over two years later with Caroline’s death on November 23, 1842. So devastated was Griswold’s by his wife’s sudden death that he refused to leave her side for thirty hours, when a relative forced him to come home. Forty days after her funeral, he returned to her crypt to cut a lock of her hair, kiss her cold lips, and spend the night with her.

A month after her death, he wrote a poem that begins,

A day of joy to all the world is this, But unto me, alas! a day of gloom; For she who was the fountain of my bliss [End Page 217] Is hid from me forever in the tomb. “A happy Christmas!” comes from many a voice,— ’T is kindly meant,—it brings me only pain,— She who alone could bid my soul rejoice, Oh, wo is me! I ne’er shall see again!


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Fig. 1.

Detail test cleaning of Rufus Griswold portrait. (Photographs in this article courtesy of the Poe Museum unless otherwise stated.)

Written on mourning stationery, the manuscript for this poem is among the nearly four dozen handwritten documents included in the museum’s acquisition, which also includes newspaper clippings and a copy of a history of the Griswold family written by his grandson. The original life portraits of Rufus Griswold and his wife, Caroline, are, however, the most spectacular pieces in the lot.

Griswold himself must have been pleased with these portraits since he later commissioned Elliott to paint another, slightly smaller, picture of him that Griswold bequeathed to the New-York Historical Society. Griswold also hired Elliott to paint William Cullen Bryant in 1854. [End Page 218]


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Fig. 2.

Portrait of Rufus Griswold painted in 1840 by Charles Loring Elliott.

About a year after he and his wife had their portraits painted, Griswold met Poe, the struggling poet with whom he would forever be linked. Griswold rose to fame with the publication of his anthology The Poets and Poetry of America in 1842. Much to Poe’s disappointment, the book contained only three of his poems while including dozens of examples by other poets. When Poe died in 1849, Griswold secured his place in Poe’s history by writing an obituary in the October 9, 1849, issue of the New York Daily Tribune that begins, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead . . . This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” Both this widely circulated obituary and his infamous biography of Poe tarnished the author’s reputation by portraying him as a misanthropic scoundrel and madman who likely based his darkest terror tales on personal experience. More than anyone else, Griswold created the Poe myth now omnipresent in popular culture.

After Griswold’s death in 1857, his oldest daughter, Emily (1838–1906), inherited the Elliott’s portraits of him and his wife. Emily Griswold had already died once, when her...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-2932
Print ISSN
2150-0428
Pages
pp. 217-228
Launched on MUSE
2016-11-17
Open Access
No
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