Category Archives: literary mysteries

A Speculative Discussion at the Rosenbach: Sir Walter Scott, Rebecca Gratz, and Washington Irving

Washington Irving

An event I’ve been waiting to announce has at last become officially Official—but before I post it, I need to give you a bit of context first.

In 1817, Washington Irving spent several days with his literary idol, Sir Walter Scott, at Abbotsford, Scott’s stately home near Melrose, Scotland. At the time, Scott was known more for his romantic poetry than his novels, though at the time of Irving’s visit, Scott was reviewing the proofs of his historical novel Rob Roy, part of his popular Waverley series.

Rebecca Gratz

Three years after Irving’s visit–right around the time Irving was enjoying international success with the publication of The Sketch Book—Scott published a blockbuster of his own, another installment of the Waverley series, the medieval adventure novel Ivanhoe.  Featured prominently in Scott’s story is the character Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of a Jewish moneylender, as well as a healer who saves Ivanhoe and is later tried–and, with the help of Ivanhoe as her champion, cleared–of charges of witchcraft.

Walter Scott

Rebecca doesn’t get Ivanhoe in the end—he marries the Lady Rowena instead–but to most, Rebecca is the heroine of the novel.   She was also a strong Jewish character in a novel written at a time when Jews were struggling for emancipation in England–and Scott’s sympathetic portrayal of Rebecca is credited by some as helping pave the way for reforms in English law that began to give  Jewish citizens—or, at least, the men—the same status as other “emancipated” Englishmen.

Why is that relevant here?  This is where it gets interesting.  Shortly after the publication of Ivanhoe, the Jewish Philadelphia philanthropist Rebecca Gratz—who was also a friend of Washington Irving–was constantly being collared by friends  who had read Scott’s novel and swore up and down that the character of Rebecca was based on her.  Gratz had never met Scott, and Scott had never met Gratz.  That left only a mutual acquaintance–the aforementioned Mr. Irving—who could possibly have told Scott about Gratz.

But did he?  Was Scott’s heroine indeed based on Gratz?  And if so, did Scott learn of Gratz through Irving?

On Thursday, March 3, Gratz scholar Susan Sklaroff and I are going to talk about it in a “speculative discussion” at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. More information can be found on the Rosenbach’s website by clicking here. The discussion starts at 6:00 p.m., and if you’re in the City of Brotherly Love at that time, come by and throw in your two cents. This one’ll be fun.

My thanks to Susan and the folks at the Rosenbach for inviting me.  Susan also writes a fine blog on Rebecca that you can see right here.  Check it out.


There was a minor stir in the back alleys of American literature yesterday:  for the first time since 1949, the enigmatic Poe Toaster failed to appear at Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore gravesite to mark Poe’s January 19 birthday.

The Poe Toaster is the mysterious figure — usually in a black coat and hat — who strolls into Baltimore’s Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in the early hours of January 19, silently walks to at Poe’s gravesite, toasts Poe with a glass of cognac, then departs, leaving behind three red roses and a half bottle of cognac on the grave.  It’s a neat tradition that’s been going on since 1949 — perhaps intentionally begun on the 100th anniversary of Poe’s death — and has gone on uninterrupted for the last fifty years, despite efforts of gawkers to block or unmask the mysterious Toaster.

It’s generally accepted that there have been at least two Poe Toasters — whether it’s a father and son is uncertain — because at one point, the Toaster left a note at the grave saying, “The torch will be passed.”  The newer Toaster, however, has annoyed Poe purists by leaving behind notes commenting on current events, starting with the 2001 Super Bowl between the Giants and Ravens (oddly, the Toaster chose the Giants) and taking an apparent jab at the French in 2004.

News trickled out early yesterday morning that the toaster — who normally makes his appearance between midnight and 5 a.m. on the morning of the 19th — had failed to appear.  I was hoping that perhaps he might be waiting until late last night to make his appearance, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the small crowds that have been gathering to watch his ceremony, but as of this morning . . . no such luck.

Jeff Jerome, curator for the Edgar Allan Poe house in Baltimore, offered several explanations for the Toaster’s absence, from sickness to car troubles to just plain deciding to hang it up for good.  After all, 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, making a neat bookend for a tradition that began on the 100th anniversary of his death. 

Perhaps appropriately, it’s a mystery worthy of the writer and poet that inspired it.  Happy (belated) 201st, Edgar Poe.