One of the landmark events in Edgar Poe's life--the famous January 1846 "letters scandal" involving Elizabeth F. Ellet and Frances S. Osgood--is remarkably undocumented and unfathomable. Anyone making an examination of the business immediately becomes lost in a maze of plot and sub-plot, accusation and counter-accusation, like something out of Jacobean drama (John Webster in particular would have adored this story.) Biographers struggling to understand how Poe so suddenly went from literary lion to social pariah as a result of the episode have unfortunately relied almost exclusively on Sarah Helen Whitman. In the 1870s, she began providing a version of the dispute (which she claimed to have heard thirty years earlier from literary socialite Anne Lynch,) and after a close study of the few known facts of the case, I am convinced that her story came straight out of her ether bottle. (Speaking of Mrs. Whitman, can anyone explain to me why Poe biographers all place such confidence in the accuracy of the reminiscences of an admitted habitual drug user?)
According to Whitman, "some ladies" visiting the Poe household (she quite erroneously claimed this was after Poe had moved to Fordham,) chanced to see a letter written by Frances S. Osgood, that had been left openly lying about the house. Something about this letter so agitated these callers that they went straight to Osgood and urged her to demand the return of her entire correspondence from Poe. (Whitman claimed that Elizabeth F. Ellet was the instigator and leader of all this, but she failed to explain Ellet's precise actions, her motivation, or why all these other women passively did her bidding.) Two women (Whitman vaguely thought they may have been Lynch and Margaret Fuller) were deputized to go to Poe and order him to hand over Osgood's letters. He, insulted and angry, asserted that Mrs. Ellet should be concerned about her own letters. And with those words, all hell proceeded to break loose.
All one has to do is consider the details of this story to realize its absurdity. Would anyone in Poe's family leave what everyone presumes was an indiscreet love letter to him lying about as a conversation piece? If Osgood, for whatever reason, desired the return of her letters, why not quietly ask Poe herself, rather than allowing the request to become a public performance for the entertainment of all? Why should any of these other women give two hoots about what Osgood wrote to whom? If Ellet (as the story suggests) had written compromising letters to Poe as well, why would she draw attention to Osgood's letters, thus leaving herself wide open to the same criticism? Poe's biographers all assume that Ellet's actions were motivated by jealousy over Osgood's friendship with him. If that was the case, what satisfaction could she have derived from revealing proof of his partiality to all the world? Why, in Whitman's story, is Poe described as expressing outraged fury towards only Ellet, and not Osgood, who did, after all, allow them both to be put in this humiliating position? And, most importantly, why is there no contemporary corroboration for any of this? Whatever truly happened, this obviously ain't it.
There is a letter, said to be from Poe to Mrs. Whitman, which seems to allude to the Ellet fracas, but unfortunately it is extremely vague and downright incoherent. The letter indicates only that Poe, angered by an unspecified insult Ellet delivered "upon both families," said something--we are not told exactly what--that he immediately regretted. He then, to compensate, gathered up some letters--presumably Ellet's--and delivered them to her doorstep. That lady responded by sending her brother to order Poe to...return her letters.
If you can make any sense of all that, I salute you.
More to come...
(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)