Today, 19 January marks the anniversary of the birth of American author Edgar Allan Poe in 1809. In December 1811, just weeks before her son’s third birthday, Poe’s mother, Eliza Poe, an English-born American actress, died from tuberculosis. His father, David Poe, who was of Irish descent, had abandoned the family by then. Local paper, the Enquirer, reported on Poe’s mother’s death:
“On this night, Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance and asks it perhaps for the last time“.
Poe was taken into the home of Scottish Merchant John Allan, who gave the young boy his name. Best known for his chilling yet utterly compelling tales of the macabre, it was Poe’s supernatural narrative poem, The Raven that brought him to the attention of an admiring American public when it appeared in the New York Mirror on February 8, 1845; it had been published in the American Review the previous month under the pseudonym ‘Quarles’. Within weeks, The Raven had been reprinted a dozen times and had spawned several parodies.
This hugely positive response ensured that Poe achieved fame in his lifetime, and his literary legacy lingers to this day. References to The Raven in popular culture include appearances in: Hubert Selby Jr’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) when Georgette, the lead character in ‘The Queen is Dead’, reads the poem aloud; in Joan Aiken’s novel Arabel’s Raven (1972); in Stephen King’s novel Insomnia (1994); in the 1989 film Batman when Jack Nicholson’s Joker asks Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale to ‘Take thy beak from out my heart’; and in The Simpsons ‘Treehouse of Horror’ when Lisa reads the poem aloud to Bart and Maggie.
Yet, Poe might never have achieved such prominence without the help of Anne Lynch Botta (1815-1891), a prominent patron of the arts whose literary gatherings at her brownstone salon at 25 West 37th Street, were described as a ‘bibliophile’s dream’, and were attended by every major poet, artist and musician of her day, among them Emerson, Irving, Trollope, Thackeray, Horace Greeley, Fanny Osgood and Margaret Fuller. Lynch Botta introduced Poe, virtually unknown in New York, to her influential circle and encouraged him to read early versions of The Raven aloud.
Although a published poet herself, friends confirmed: ‘It was not so much what Mrs. Botta did for literature with her own pen, as what she helped others to do, that will make her name a part of the literary history of the country’.[i] In The Literati of New York – No. V, Poe wrote of her:
In character Miss Lynch is enthusiastic, chivalric, self-sacrificing, “equal to any Fate,” capable of even martyrdom in whatever should seem to her a holy cause — a most exemplary daughter. She has her hobbies, however, (of which a very indefinite idea of “duty” is one,) and is, of course, readily imposed upon by any artful person who perceives and takes advantage of this most amiable failing.
He described her appearance too:
In person she is rather above the usual height, somewhat slender, with dark hair and eyes — the whole countenance at times full of intelligent expression. Her demeanor is dignified, graceful, and noticeable for repose. She goes much into literary society.
While his literary talent also emerged in time, it may have been the revolutionary credentials of his formidable mother that attracted Lynch Botta to young Oscar Wilde, who she entertained during the early weeks of his 1882 tour of America. Her own father, a revolutionary Dubliner named Patrick Lynch, had been first imprisoned, then deported from Ireland, aged eighteen, after the failed rising of 1798. By coincidence, Lady Jane Wilde, as she had become by then, presided over a hugely popular literary salon of her own in London, where she had resettled after the death of her husband, Sir William Wilde. Both women are included in my book, Wilde’s Women.
UPDATE: John Cooper’s blog on Oscar Wilde in America is a wonderful source of information and he provides fascinating new insights into Wilde’s connection with Botta in a recent blog post.