Poe versus Griswold: Fight! Fight! Fight!

EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.

I’ve never watched RuPaul’s Drag Race (personally I only dig reality tv when it centres around people going on terrible dates or weddings going wrong), but apparently ‘reading someone’ or ‘taking someone to the library’ is drag slang for getting into a verbal war/throwing a barrage of insults somebody’s way – as in you’re reading someone and pointing out all the ways in which they’re shit.

I like it; even though the expression flagrantly disregards the fact that the library is a place for quiet, and the only acceptable type of fight you can have in there is one with a lot of whispering, rude hand gestures and miming ‘fuck you!’.

Anyway, learning this double-meaning got me thinking about literary rivalries and how a war of words is particularly spicy when one or both parties happen to be talented wordsmiths. Because you just know that they’re packing some quality hurtful insults if they’re coming to the table with a proven ability to eloquently string words together.

So let’s talk Poe’s heated exchanges with Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857) – his rival in life and the sneaky snake who managed to worm his way into writing the first biography of Poe following his death in 1849.

The top quote is a slice from Poe’s scathing obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune written under the name “Ludwig”. Republished in many newspapers, it was the start of what are longstanding myths surrounding Poe’s character – namely that he was a bitter erratic genius; talented, but nevertheless a drunk, paranoid, opiate addicted madman with no friends.

“Ludwig” was Rufus Griswold – a fellow editor and critic, who Poe wasn’t shy about slagging off publicly. Whether any of Griswold’s harsh assessment of Poe’s character is fair, remains debateable – and yet their rivalry is pivotal to understanding every biography written on Poe.

First meeting in 1841, when Poe was the editor at Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was working on the first of his anthology series, The Poets and Poetry of America; initially their relationship was amicable, with both praising the other in reviews.

Things soured in 1842, when Poe left Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was hired and paid more to be his successor. Around about the same time, Griswold paid Poe to write a review on The Poets and Poetry of America (in which three of Poe’s poems were included) and while this review didn’t go full bus stop it wasn’t as positive as Griswold expected, with Poe suggesting in a letter to a friend that Griswold’s payment was a bribe and commenting, “that review has not yet appeared, and I am doubtful if it ever will”.

Poe then went on to write two anonymous articles in 1893 where he criticized Griswold; stating that Griswold was “wholly unfit either by intellect or character, to occupy the editorial chair of Graham’s”, that he was “one of the most clumsy of literary thieves” and his anthology was “a very muttonish production”. In turn an article defaming Poe’s character was subsequently published, that he understandably suspected Griswold of writing (according to a letter from Poe to Griswold).

From 1843-1845, Poe was on an American poetry lecture tour of the East coast; here he publicly discussed The Poets and Poetry of America and accused Griswold of favouring his friends and New England writers rather than good poetry. My personal favourite catty remark was about one of Griswold’s friends, Charles F. Briggs, saying that he, “. . . has never composed in his life three consecutive sentences of grammatical English”.

In an attempt to patch things up, Poe made an effort in his 1845 lectures to omit anything which had the potential to offend Griswold and for little while there was a truce. On speaking terms long enough for Griswold to help Poe keep his magazine, The Broadway Journal, in print; in 1847 Griswold critiqued Poe’s editorial skills amongst general bitching and it was back on!

Needless to say they both shared a mutual suspicion for the other [one scholar even suggests that a large factor of their longstanding quarrel was fancying the same poet, Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood]. Griswold was likely the last person who Poe would want having any authority over his legacy; and yet, following Poe’s death in 1849 Griswold managed to gain the post-humous rights to publish a collection of Poe’s work through Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm (who was unaware of their history and the fact that those rights actually belonged to Poe’s sister, Rosalie).

Doubling down on the less-than-flattering obituary; in 1850, Griswold began publishing volumes of Poe’s work, which included a much nastier ‘memoir’ of Poe’s life, where he exaggerated details to make Poe sound like ten-times more of a dropkick than was actually the case (going so far as to forge letters to validate his fabrications).

Griswold died in 1857, and published four volumes of Poe’s work. He was in a position where he was profiting off Poe, and thus it became in his interest to perpetuate the myth that Poe was a train wreck. Until 1875, Griswold’s memoir was the only available account of Poe’s life – and while Poe had his defenders, and more well-balanced biographies were later created, Griswold marred the public image of Poe in a way that was irreversible.

I guess my point is, if you do have a Machiavellian-level nemesis who you’ve ‘taken to the library’ on more than one occasion make sure they don’t have the ability to write a bitter memoir about how shit you were. But at the same time, their exaggerations may also spark a greater popular interest in your bird poetry so it’s not all bad.

“Quoth the Raven: what a shine

The Penguin

Do you know what there needs to be more of in contemporary publishing? Publishing houses that share their names with batman villains!

I’ve checked and, as expected, Penguin Random House is the only one that can boast that honour; and what an unforgivable waste that is when you think about the pool of possible stellar names just sitting there, utterly neglected, and not being tapped into for publishing houses or imprints. Think about it publishing bigwigs that’s all I ask! 

I would trust Deathstroke or Riddler Publishing to accumulate a decent list. Plus I love the thought that, Danny Devito à la Batman Returns, is secretly the head honcho of Penguin, and all of their revenue goes to keeping his nightclub, Iceclub Lounge in business (there’s an ice bar in Melbourne!?! Holy shit I’m on to something).

He does resemble your classic bibliophile when someone’s getting too rough with their immaculate collection

It’s surprising though actually, Penguin and Penguin do share a little bit in common, beyond their love for adorable flightless birds. The biggest thing being that just like Penguin Classics, the Penguin has an established look attached to his reputation that’s uniform across his Penguin Commandos (to be fair though the members of his army are literally penguins sent to do his evil bidding – kind of like the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz). 

Penguin Classic’s universally recognisable imprint and cover design personifies the power of visual cues to cultivate and establish brand identity. The cover uniformity expressed through ‘a basic horizontal tripartite division of the colours’ as well as the illustrated penguin logo, not only immediately signals to readers which books are Penguin texts, they are also symbolic references to the publication’s background story and historical context – a narrative that is pivotal to the reverence that the Penguin brand has earned.

Sustained public awareness that these visual symbols are relics representing the company’s origins and historical significance is further reiterated through each book’s back cover, where prior to the text’s blurb, a summary appears recounting Sir Allan Lane’s struggle to find reading material at Exeter train station and stating that the original price was extraordinarily cheap ‘the same price as a packet of cigarettes’.

Thus while the Penguin Random House mission statement, to ‘We celebrate writers, stories and ideas that entertain, educate and inspire.’, would not be automatic knowledge to the general consumer, visual and literal reminders to readers of Penguin’s established position within the publishing industry, grants the text the cover is packaging a legitimacy – by extension – for being a work that the Penguin brand feels has merit and is worth celebrating. Massively similar I’m sure to when residents of Gotham see a penguin wearing a mind-control helmet and a rocket – they would automatically associate that branding to that suss millionaire fellow always donning a monocle, top hat, and tuxedo.

The Life of ‘The Well of Loneliness’

radclyffeOne thing which is particularly fascinating and beautiful about books is their historical context, and the lives they take on following publication.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, is one of those books where in order to truly appreciate what it has meant to a lot of people, it cannot be studied from a literary perspective alone.

The Well of Loneliness was published in 1928 by Jonathan Cape. It was Hall’s fifth novel, and the product of a long-held ambition to attempt to explain lesbianism to a heterosexual audience.

The sombre narrative which traces protagonists Stephen Gordon’s realisation that she is a lesbian – or ‘invert’, and her struggles living in-between social conventions, was banned in Britain under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act and underwent a trial in America.

At Hall’s death in 1943, the book was selling a thousand copies per year, yet it still remained unpublished in Britain. In 1949, Una Troubridge – Hall’s long term partner, found a publisher prepared to print it, and although the law remained unchanged this time it did not lead to official obstruction.

There were prior novels which touched on lesbian themes, however The Well of Loneliness continues to be considered the first because of the wide-scale controversy it was met with.

Novels published in the same year such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, and Elizabeth Bowden’s comedy The Hotel, all had themes alluding to lesbianism – however these novels were never banned as they ensured that lesbianism was either condemned or satirised.

Michael Baker, Hall’s biographer, believes that it was by making Stephen virtuous that caused moral censure. Additionally, outside of the book’s content, Hall’s known identity as an open ‘invert’ and her masculine appearance, is another vital factor in fully comprehending why The Well was the target of legislative restraint whereas other novel with similar themes and emerging during the same period were not.

The public criticism The Well received was another central factor in its eventual suppression. On August 19th – two weeks after publication, an article written by James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, appeared which classified the novel as a ‘gloating study in the mental and physical corruption of the flesh’ .

Titled ‘A Book that should be Suppressed’ it pleaded to the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, to ‘set the law in motion’ on the grounds that this kind of ‘moral poison kills the soul’. In response, Cape wrote to the Home Secretary, without Hall’s knowledge, and offered to withdraw the novel from sale if he judged it to be obscene. Joynson-Hicks responded with a letter to Cape demanding suppression and to cease sale of the book as it was ‘inherently obscene…supports a deprived practise’ and thus ‘gravely detrimental to public interest’.

Douglas’s condemnation not only sparked Cape’s actions, it led to the first printing rapidly selling out, and with one library in London receiving six hundred enquiries in a single day.  A correspondent to Time and Tide noted that the ‘nauseous details, discussions and suggestion’ which were filling the daily newspapers had a far more harmful affect than the written book itself because it gave ‘certain facts’ attention ‘which ordinarily would never have come to their notice’.

Allegations of obscenity towards The Well led a wider debate on literary censorship. Both America and Britain held a vague, almost absent, legal definition of what classified a text as obscene.

When The Well’s New York publisher Donald Friede was charged in February 1929 with violating Section 1141 of the Penal Code by selling an obscene book, his prime defence was who could determine the dangerous social consequences of one book rather than another?  Hall expressed a similar stance in an interview with the Daily Herald, asserting that it was an ‘insult to the public intelligence’ the belief that ‘literary food must be pre-digested by a government office before consumption’.

Its link to controversy turned it into a bestseller, and it was advertised in America once it had won its obscenity trial as ‘the most controversial book of the century. Suppressed in England and vindicated by an American court’.

The level of publicity it gained also sparked open communication within the public sphere to the existence of homosexuality – what was generally (as a Sunday Chronicle article classified it in an article on The Well) an unspoken ‘secret canker of modern life’. In 1921, for example, attempts to create legislation against lesbianism were denied by Lord Desart on the grounds that it would ‘tell the world there was such an offense’.

The hundreds of letters Hall received which expressed gratitude for ‘having broken the silence’ and personal stories, underscores that the novels existence (as a sympathetic account of lesbianism during this period) alone is symbolically significant. In these letters, Hall writes, individuals expressed a feeling of ‘added humiliation and burden’ which came with the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding lesbianism.

In later decades, the style of writing was considered by some readers to be quite antiquated. However The Well’s historical context and Hall’s bravery, means a respect exists for this book beyond a literary perspective.

(It is worth reading by the way, I really liked it. All books age a little)

Booker

This is probably one of those things that everybody was already aware of, but it blew my mind finding out that the UK’s lucrative literary award, the Man Booker prize (formerly the Booker prize), was named after the Sugar Company that founded it – Booker McConnell, and later The Man Group which became the new sponsors in 2002.

I just thought Man Booker was a clever name; this is like finding out that after writing some stellar philosophy Plato went on to invent the plate.

The Booker McConnell company, founded in 1835 by George and Richard Booker, owned Caribbean sugar plantations, and only started investing in books when their headquarters were moved to London following the independence of Guyana in the 1960s.

Their additional branch was called Booker Books, and its purpose was to buy the copyrights of popular authors such as Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming.

Anyway, it’s still two months away before the 2016 winner is announced; and what would really warm my heart is for the winner to accept their award in a literary themed way by pulling a Yossarian (Catch 22) and rocking up to the award ceremony naked.