Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, May 24, 2022


 'The Valley of Unrest:  A Book without a woman:  Edgar Allan Poe:  An Odd Oddity Paper" by Douglass Sherley first published in book form in 1883 [see below]; reprinted in The Man Who Called Himself Poe, edited by Sam Moskowitz, 1969)

This is an odd story, relating in part Edgar Allan Poe's sojourn at Virginia University when he was seventeen, and drawing itself on Poe's 1831 poem, "The Valley of Unrest" (originally, "The Valley Nis").

The unnamed narrator is a year younger than Poe when, lost and home-sick on his first day at Virginia University, he is approached by Poe, who says, "I like you.  I want to know you."  From day day, the narrator became Poe's closest friend while they attended the school.  Poe was a sometimes moody, sometimes whip-smart friend who had the natural ability of a leader.  He drew among him a number of students who were rebels of a sort -- prone to play fast and loose with the rigid standards of the university, mainly in the area of playing cards for money and drinking.  The most popular drink during these illicit card games was peach and honey, evidently a standard drink or either ale or wine among the Old South elite.

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University, had a bugaboo about playing cards for money and he wanted the practice stopped at the school.  He gathered the names of those most likely to involved and had the sheriff raid the school with writs for the suspected gamblers.  Word had gotten out about the raid and a group of students, led by Poe, managed to escape.  Poe led them "over an almost untrodden path" to the nearby Ragged Mountains, a wild part of the Blue Ridge, and to the remote Valley of Unrest.  The group had managed to bring food, playing cards, and a goodly supply of peach and honey with them.  There they stayed for three days, sneaking back to the university at night to have their supplies refreshed by some of their friends.  Each night around a campfire they amused themselves before retiring by taking turns telling stories.  They got word that they had been forgiven and on the third night, before marching back to the school, they again swapped stories.  The last to speak was Poe.

He told a tale of the location where they had been hiding, a spot inhabited by human shadows and three demons.  Two young men, fast friends since childhood, found themselves on opposite sides during a war.  One dark night in the heat of battle they faced each other unknowingly.  It was only after one of the friends was slain did the other realize who it was that he had killed.  Stricken by his action, the surviving friend found himself cursed to go about the world a homeless, friendless wanderer who would eventually find himself lying in a grave forever nameless.  And so it came to pass the he spent years in lonely wandering until a strange compulsion brought hi to the Valley of Unrest -- that same compulsion that forced him to dig a grave and to lay himself down in it.

After Poe had told that tale, the card-playing, peach and honey drinking group of students returned to the university..  The following December both the narrator and Edgar Allan Poe left Virginia University, never again to have contact with each other..

Thus ends the first part of the story, one that reads as if (and may possibly be) a true account.  But then there's the remaining part of the tale.

The time is now in the late 1870s, nearly three decades after Poe's strange death, and the narrator finds himself in a small Italian town.  It's Carnival time and he has has rented the Ducal palace and he strangely found himself longing to return to his native land.  As so he left the palace and the local folk began saying he was driven out by the ghost of some murdered Duke.  Returning home was a bit of a disappointment -- all his old friends had either died or had moved and all the places he had so fondly remembered had drastically changed, except for the University of Virginia, an unchanging landmark of his youth.  And one thought persistently and illogically came to him:  what if someone had actually been buried in the Valley of Unrest in a "nameless grave"?

But that lonely dell in the Ragged Mountains was not easy to find.  Our narrator searched long with the troubled thought of there being a bunch of "new-blown lilies on a nameless grave" in the Valley of unrest.  Suddenly he was aware of being watched by someone.  It was an old man, older than he.  The strange man recognized as one of the group of students who had camped out nearby almost fifty years before.  The old man had watched the group, silently and hidden, and remembered well Poe's tale that was related that final evening.  The man led the narrator through the thick forest to the same dell in the Valley of Unrest where the group played cards, drank, and told stories.

There, in the center of the dell, was "a green mound of earth, grave-shaped, without a stone, with only a bunch of lilies at the head, just coming into bloom.  In truth, I had found it, and there before me, the nameless grave."  

One day in 1835 (the old mountaineer, whose name turned out to be Gasper Conrad, said) a stranger came to the area and sought out lodging for the night from him.  A friendship grew and the stranger decided to build a small hut and spend the winter in the mountains.  He shunned all neighbors except for Gasper and soon earned a bad reputation among the mountain folk because of this.  He gave no name but was soon dubbed "shaggy" by the populace.  They thought he might be a criminal or a murderer, or some demon sent to plague the few mountain folk in the area.  Shaggy was shunned, as was Gasper for his friendship with the man.  The following year he told Gasper that he knew the day, hour, and time of his own appointed death.  Shaggy said he had once been associated with Aaron Burr, who was indirect cause of the one great evil in his life.  

On September 14, 1836 -- the same day that Burr died -- Shaggy led Gasper to the lonely dell where he had dug a wide grave in which he placed a coffin.  Shaggy lay in the coffin and then died, his last words being a pitiful cry, "Don't!  don't!  I am Albert Pike Carr!"  Gasper felt that the name belonged to someone other than Shaggy.

Years later he learned that Albert Pike Carr and his best friend from childhood had gone off to join Aaron Burr during his famous expedition.  Burr suspected one of his mean of treason and ordered Carr's friend to do away with him that night when the traitor was to be on sentry duty.  But the traitor had claimed illness and asked Carr to take his post.  Carr's friend mistakenly kills Carr, his best friend in the world.  Racked with guilt, the man wanders the earth until he finds himself the man who was called Shaggy in the Ragged Mountains.

Poe's story that he had made up before a campfire had become eerily true.

The publication of this story is unusual.  It was first published as a book of some 150 pages,  "printed on one side only of quarto [about twelve by nine inches -- JH] sheets of thick red* paper, with most generous margins.  The sheets are held together with blue** silk cords."   It was printed in antique style, with f replacing s throughout.  There was evidently an 1883 and an 1884 printing, both similar.

The author is presumed to be Douglass Shepley, who is listed as merely the editor and "who vouches for the authenticity of this posthumous manuscript."  Sherley attended the University of Virginia long after Poe, but Poe did attend and a man named Thomas Goode Tucker, who was a close friend of Poe.  Sherley had published some excepts from letters by Tucker in Virginia University Magazine and some assume that the story came from Tucker and was polished by Sherley.  We will probably never know.

Sherley (1857-1917) was a Kentuckian who studied law at UVA and published a number of short books.  1n 1893 and 1894 he went on a lecture tour that included James Whitcomb Riley and Mark Twain.  He died in Indiana and was buried in his native Louisville.

By the way, I have no idea why the book included in its subtitle "A Book without a woman," ecept, perhaps, because there was no woman in the story.

"The Valley of Unrest" is a quirky, readable story that deserves wider attention.  It can be read online in its original form on the internet; other, more eye-pleasing copies are also available.

* or maybe orange

** or maybe brown (the difference in color may be ascribed to the age of the book, or perhaps to individuals who perceived the different colors)


  1. Poe doesn't get the respect he deserves in most college English Department. Sam Moskowitz doesn't get much respect either although I read plenty of his anthologies Back In the Day!

  2. You find the strangest stories, and the anthology sounds interesting, even though I know little about Poe.