Monday, June 21, 2010


Elizabeth Oakes Smith
Elizabeth Oakes Smith may have been a successful poet, magazinist, lecturer and essayist, but where Edgar Allan Poe was concerned, she is best known as an irresponsible fantasist. (Although, God knows, she was hardly unusual in that respect.) She was fond of publishing colorful and subtly malicious reminiscences about her literary brethren. Unfortunately for her quest for "copy," she did not know Poe well--if she actually knew him personally at all. Undeterred, she spread stories about him anyway, mixing together stray scraps of gossip, putting her own finishing touches on them, and generally coming up with a very strange brew indeed. (Poe's biographer John H. Ingram wound up contemptuously dismissing her as "imaginative.")

Her most notorious Poe anecdote was her lunatic claim that the poet died in 1849 as a result of a beating commissioned by a woman (Elizabeth F. Ellet, although Smith never named her publicly) whose letters Poe had refused to return. In other words, she gave a version of the 1846 dispute between Poe and Ellet, as narrated by Rod Serling.

A lesser-known tale of Smith's is equally unbelievable, but very interesting in its broader implications. It is told to us by a man named J.C. Derby, in his 1884 memoir, "Fifty Years Among Authors and Publishers." (Derby, it must be said, is not the world's most reliable source himself. Elsewhere in this same book, when discussing the Griswold edition of Poe's collected works, he made the astonishing statement that "The copyright was paid at first to Mr. Poe, and after his death to his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm...")

According to Derby, Smith told him an anecdote concerning Poe and a unnamed woman, who was obviously Elizabeth F. Ellet. He quoted Smith as saying:
"A certain lady of my acquaintance fell in love with Poe and wrote a love-letter to him. Every letter he received he showed to his little wife." [Note: This intriguing detail about Virginia reading all his correspondence was actually confirmed elsewhere by Mrs. Clemm.]

"This lady went to his house one day; she heard Fanny Osgood and Mrs. Poe having a hearty laugh, they were fairly shouting, as they read over a letter. The lady listened, and found it was hers, when she walked into the room and snatched it from their hands. There would have been a scene with any other woman, but they were both very sweet and gentle, and there the matter ended."

Now, this is a patently absurd little fable. Not only do we not have any other source--including Smith herself--that confirms Derby's story, but it flatly contradicts the little we do know. All the evidence we have indicates that the feud involving the three women started when Virginia Poe confronted Mrs. Ellet with a letter written by Mrs. Osgood. In any case, it seems far too conveniently coincidental that, after sending Poe this mash note, Ellet should just happen to enter the Poe house (unannounced, presumably,) at the precise time that the other two ladies are reading her effusions aloud. As the old saying goes, the story doesn't pass the smell test.

What is significant about this anecdote is what it does not say. It is an indirect piece of evidence that, contrary to what is assumed by modern-day Poe biographers, there were no salacious contemporary rumors involving Poe and Osgood's relationship. If there had been, surely the gossipy Mrs. Smith would have incorporated them in her various Poe stories. She never--publicly or privately--hinted at any improper or scandalous allegations about the pair. In fact, her one recorded comment on the Poe/Osgood relationship suggested just the opposite. She once told Sarah H. Whitman that certain of Poe's female admirers--obviously, Mrs. Osgood and Mrs. Ellet--got into a jealous catfight with each other, and Poe wound up being caught in the crossfire. Smith emphasized, however, that she believed him to have been blameless in the matter. Mrs. Smith once wrote that many people had had some very ugly things to say about Mrs. Osgood, but she never connected these calumnies to Osgood's dealings with Poe. In fact, despite whatever negative remarks Smith made about the late poet--and, in her rather condescending way, she made plenty--she described him as a faithful and loving husband. (According to Smith's close friend Mrs. Whitman, Smith and Osgood disliked each other, so she would hardly have a motive to protect the other woman's name.)

Instead of describing any sort of scandal involving the Poe/Osgood relationship, Smith depicted Mrs. Osgood and Poe's wife laughing together about another woman's advances to him. All the recorded contemporary commentary on Poe's controversial dealings with women in 1845-46 focused on the dispute involving Elizabeth Ellet and her reputed letters to him--Osgood is practically ignored. In fact, we have statements (from Hiram Fuller and Horace Greeley in particular) suggesting that relations between Poe and Osgood were believed to have turned hostile. In early 1849, Greeley even saw Mrs. Osgood as someone who could be sent to advise Sarah Helen Whitman not to have anything to do with Poe!