LiteratEye #31: Poe”™s Poems Were Hoaxers Focus

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the thirty first installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #31: Poe”™s Poems Were Hoaxers Focus
By W.J. Elvin III
September 18, 2009 master of macabre prose and poetry, Edgar Allan Poe”™s greatest masterpiece was undoubtedly himself. Fate had its cruel influence, but to a great extent he authored his own construction and destruction.

You might ask: “Isn”™t that true of all of us?” Probably so, to some degree.

But the little lies and exaggerations we construct about ourselves aren”™t likely any match for the mystifications of a man whose life remains a weird puzzle despite study by hundreds of researchers and scholars.

Poe”™s life and work have been very much in the spotlight this year. Events continue in his primary haunts – Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City – and throughout the nation and the world, in honor of his 200th birthday.

If you haven”™t participated, there”™s still time to take part in remembrances. Who knows what you might learn, about Poe or about yourself.

Poe walked in the psyche”™s darkness as easily as most of us walk in broad daylight. And he brought back tales putting a name and words to what we find inexpressible. Or at least that was so in his day. Today the reader probably thinks, “Yep, saw that last week on Warehouse Thirteen.” (The spooky sci-fi series did in fact incorporate Poe into a recent episode).

But then again, he probably didn”™t have anything therapeutic in mind. As portrayed by some students of his life and work, Poe may well have been a diabolical, disdainful and drug-addled trickster who delighted in tormenting his readers.

Decoding Poe is a great game with many players. If it appeals, the interested investigator need only dig in, comforted in the thought that with so many conflicting answers, his or her own are likely as valid as the next.

For me, investigative opportunities not so very far from home include the Baltimore Book Fair, featuring a salute to Poe, Sept. 25-27. It”™s a major mid-Atlantic book event, and it coincides to an extent with actor David Keltz”™s one man show, Poe in Person, Sept. 21 through Oct. 4 at the Baltimore Theater Project.

This has been a busy year for Keltz and other Poe impersonators. I have to wonder if any are a match for a DVD I found while searching for Poe material, Vincent Price reciting The Raven. Price and Poe were made for each other. Professionally, of course.

Although “¦ if the stories are true, Poe”™s libido roamed the spectrum.

Inspired by a heightened awareness brought on by all the media attention he”™s been getting, I added two Poe items to the LiteratEye collection. Naturally they have to do with my professional interest, literary deception. (see LiteratEye #7: Faux Poe).

One addition is The Fire-Fiend and The Raven, focusing on a poem — The Fire-Fiend — first published ten years after Poe”™s death as a discovery.

At the time it was thought to have been a forerunner that eventually evolved into his most popular work, “The Raven.”

“Fire-Fiend” was widely reprinted both in the United States and Great Britain, and several Poe scholars were convinced that it truly was the work of the master.

The book I acquired includes “The Fire-Fiend” as well as “The Raven,” plus Charles D. Gardette”™s explanation of the hoax.

Gerry de la Ree, an editor and publisher specializing in dark fantasy, produced the book. He issued a number of limited edition books that are now collectible. This one is #110 of an edition of 450, published in 1973.

As the poem begins, the tormented narrator dozes in front of his fireplace. Suddenly a demon leaping up in the flames awakens him. “Higher! Higher! Higher!,” exclaims the apparition, “I am demon of the fire!“

The demon takes over the poem, mainly chortling about his power to turn humans and their creations into ashes.

The discovery of a “lost Poe” poem of course created quite a stir. In the midst of the fuss, Gardette confessed authorship. The poem was “written as a hoax, published as a hoax “¦ and as no money was asked, nor received” should stand as “a venial and harmless literary joke,” Gardette suggested.

He didn”™t get off easy. A battle royal ensued as prominent critic R. Shelton McKenzie raked Gardette over the coals for “unjustifiable fraud.”

Gardette could have accepted the scorching delivered from on high in the literary world, and gotten on with the life of a reformed hoaxer. He didn”™t. He counter-attacked in a book denouncing McKenzie”™s “obtuse pertinacity,” sarcastically asking readers to temper their judgment of the critic with mercy “due to his age and infirmities.”

That wasn”™t the end of it. The dispute later took a strange twist with the assertion by Poe biographer W. Fearing Gill that the poem was indeed Poe”™s and was plagiarized by Gardette.

Gill, who helped elevate Poe to his rightful position among America”™s literary greats, claimed to have seen the poem – then titled “The Fire Demon” — in Poe”™s own handwriting. He said he knew of the whereabouts of the original.

And do we take Gill at his word? Well, he was a prominent writer and critic in his day. And he was on familiar terms with Poe. When the bones of Poe”™s wife, Virginia, who died at a fairly tender age, were disinterred in New York and about to be pitched as trash, Gill rescued them.

Gill kept the bones under his bed for some time. Eventually they were interred at a gravesite provided for Poe by donations from citizens of Baltimore.

Unfortunately, it appears that Gill was the sort who, if he heard and liked a good story about Poe, turned it into fiercely defended fact. So, when it comes to truth about Poe, Gill is hardly any more reliable than the great author himself. I could find no evidence to substantiate Gill”™s claims regarding “Fire-Fiend.”

My other acquisition was among hoax projects of Ambrose Bierce, this one accomplished with two collaborators. Bierce, the fascinating, cynical “Old Gringo” of novel and film, instigated the hoax and then dropped in and out of it, and in again, as it matured.

Bierce and the Poe Hoax, by Carroll D. Hall, was issued in 1934 by the Book Club of California, publishers of many unique, artful literary works over the years. Like “Fire-Fiend,” it is a limited edition. If for no reason other than design, though, it towers over “Fire-Fiend” due to its display of fine printing – handset type, handmade paper, that sort of thing.

Bierce, author of dark short stories and perhaps best remembered for his blistering “Devil”™s Dictionary,” was a journalist in San Francisco in the 1890s when his friend, Herman Scheffauer, showed him a poem he had composed in the style of Poe, “The Sea of Serenity.”

Bierce was a prankster whose motive was often simply to stir something up. He convinced Scheffauer and a newspaper editor colleague that they should publish the poem and then commence a debate as to its authenticity as “lost Poe.”

While the newspaper editor denounced the poem as a forgery, Bierce came to its defense, contending that if this was not a poem by Poe it was “written by his peer in that kind of writing” who “has so thoroughly mastered the method that there is nowhere a slip or fault.”

The hoax didn”™t qualify as one of Bierce”™s grandest efforts and the public treated it accordingly – there were other things going on, a war with Spain for instance, and the debate over the faux Poe poem never really caught fire.

At their best Poe”™s poems are musical, so no wonder an army of poets found it easy to put their own words to the meters he favored. As for subject matter, anyone sharing Poe”™s familiarity with the realm of nightmares could probably compete. Some of the imitations are at least as good as Poe”™s mediocre work, a cause for occasional debate over attribution.

Thomas Mabbott”™s authoritative “Complete Poems“ of Poe reprinted in 2000 lists several hundred poems thought at first to have been Poe”™s and now rejected. If you go looking for the list, make sure the edition includes Mabbott”™s appendices, left out in an earlier edition.

Frankly, it”™s fairly amazing that a fellow who carried on about “respite — respite and nepenthe” gets any attention at all today. Why couldn”™t he express himself normally, like: “Chill, bro, forget your troubles and chill out!”?

There are a great many sources of further information about Poe. A good starting point is the site maintained by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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