Monday, September 13, 2010

In Which Undine Actually Has a Good Word For Someone

"History is full of calumnies, of calumnies that can never be effaced."
-Henry Hallam

S.S. Osgood self-portrait

Frances S. Osgood's husband has been as unfairly slandered as she has been unjustly championed. Samuel Stillman Osgood has, in recent years, acquired a reputation as a philanderer whose affairs with other women and careless neglect of his wife drove the couple into estrangement, and Frances herself into the waiting arms of Edgar Allan Poe.

There is not a word of truth to any of it. Sam's unpleasant reputation all stems from "scholar" Thomas O. Mabbott, a man who, throughout his long and influential academic career, was to Poe studies what the Black Plague was to the 14th century. It is largely thanks to Mabbott and his ilk--and those biographers who blindly repeat everything they wrote--that so much of what passes for Poe "scholarship" is, in fact, unfounded gossip-mongering. According to Mabbott, Mr. Osgood had a fling of some sort in 1842 with a Providence, RI woman named Elizabeth Newcomb. The ever-creative "scholar" built upon that claim to imagine that Sam continued his womanizing ways, and pointed to an 1844 poem Frances published, "Lower to the Level"--which Mabbott misquoted--as proof that she was then separated from her husband. (Even though the poem did not even imply anything of the sort, Mabbott imagined this gave him the right to picture the worst about her relationship with Poe, which commenced soon afterwards.) John Evangelist Walsh later took the wheel from Mabbott's fantasy vehicle and ran it straight into a roadside ditch with his infamous 1980 "book," "Plumes In the Dust," where he made the astounding (and completely undocumented) claim that since the Osgoods were, as Walsh's friend Mabbott claimed, estranged during 1845, who else but Poe could have fathered the child Mrs. Osgood conceived in the autumn of that year?

Frances Sargent Osgood children

History is full of fallacies, but one seldom sees a case where so much has been built upon such a completely nonexistent foundation. In fact, when closely studied, the entire process of how the modern-day Poe/Osgood legend was built takes on an air of deliberate misrepresentation that looks positively sinister. To begin with, Samuel Osgood was no philanderer. The Elizabeth Newcomb story--which is the sole basis for the claim--rests upon an 1842 letter written by her mother to the girl's brother, Charles King Newcomb. In this letter, Mrs. Newcomb mentions that Mr. Osgood, who (along with his wife) was then living in Providence, was frequently visiting her daughter. As Elizabeth Newcomb was then a tubercular invalid, these calls could hardly have been of an amorous nature. And Mrs. Newcomb's letter makes it clear that her reference to her daughter's married "gentleman callers" was of a casually facetious nature. That is the first and last we hear of Mr. Osgood and Miss Newcomb. No one has uncovered any valid hint that during his marriage, Sam Osgood took the slightest interest in any woman other than his wife.

To put it simply, no evidence exists to show the Osgoods were ever estranged, during 1845 or any other time. Sam's work as a painter caused him to travel frequently to execute commissions, but "separation," does not automatically translate into "marital trouble." In fact, his wife and children occasionally accompanied him on his travels, (it is documented that he was with his wife in Connecticut during May 1845 and probably in Providence in the summer and fall of that year,) and he and Frances kept up (from the examples we have) an extremely affectionate correspondence during his absences.

Samuel Osgood may have been a bit dim (and a truly awful poet,) but all the evidence we have shows him to have been a decent and likable person who was a devoted husband and father.

A further note about the Osgood's marriage: Nearly all of the poetry Frances supposedly wrote "to" or "about" Poe has gained that attribution purely through modern-day unsupported guesswork. (It is grimly amusing how Frances Osgood's biographer Mary De Jong can calmly write that Osgood's poetry "appropriated conventions from literary annuals and magazines," describe her "skill in creating personae," comment that "even some of the writings presented as non-fiction incorporate fictive elements and veils," and note how many of her later poems followed "the central story of nineteenth-century literature, the affinity of lovers who cannot share their lives on earth but whose souls will be forever united in heaven," and then--urge us to see Osgood's late-1840s poems as a way of gaining insights to her relationship with Poe!)

Seen clearly and objectively, Osgood's writings tell us nothing about Poe. However, if we wish to interpret all of Frances' verses and short stories as expressions of her private life, as Mabbott, Walsh, De Jong, et al, are so anxious to do, the following poem should be noted. Unlike her alleged "Poe poems," this is open autobiography, a clear statement of her true feelings, and it tells a story that is, as the lawyers say, dispositive. It demolishes the commonly-held belief that she was deeply emotionally involved with the famous poet.

Early in 1849, Samuel Osgood, like so many people, traveled to California hoping to bolster his shaky fortunes by striking it rich in the Gold Rush. His absence, coupled with Frances' close personal and professional relationship with Rufus W. Griswold, unsurprisingly fostered some very ugly gossip. Soon after Samuel's homecoming a year later, his wife published a poem titled "The Return":
"No summer came while he was gone; but sooner than I thought,
The blissful balm and bloom of Spring, his sunny presence brought.
Worn, weary, wasted with long grief--the Faith that never died
Through all that suffering, glows again, now he is by my side.
My brave, beloved wanderer! he came to make me light,
And with a sudden morn of joy, flushed all the fearful night.
Ah! Pain, Misfortune, Care, no more your flying steps I fear;
His love has drawn a magic ring--ye cannot enter here!

Mean Envy! while your serpent speech winds hissing from those lips.
The pearls and flowers, Affection speaks, your keenest words eclipse;
Wild Hate, the child of Love disdained, yet mourned with pitying tears,
You cannot harm or fright me now--go rave to other ears;
False Slander, turn and sting yourself!--ours is a charmed sphere;
His love has drawn the magic ring--ye dare not enter here!

Sweet friends! beloved and loving ones--the gifted, pure, and true!
To heart and hearth a welcome warm!--we still have room for you,
When, scared by evil eyes--too frail to cope with coarser foes--
Your cherished one shrank mutely back, in Truth's unreached repose,
Ye did not shrink--but shamed them down to coward Falsehood's fear;
Come, enter Love's enchanted ring--you're always welcome here!"

These touching, pitiful lines--which have a realism and sincerity absent from any of her so-called "Poe poems"--singlehandedly destroy the idea that she ever had any serious extramarital entanglement, with Poe or anyone else. Aside from this poem's demonstration of her deep love and emotional need for her husband, it shows how sensitive Frances Osgood was to public opinion. She was by all accounts an immature, fragile, deeply insecure, and dependent personality who could not bear being the target of gossip or criticism. (It is a curious thing that some modern writers, such as De Jong and John May in his contemptible novel "Poe & Fanny," have tried to portray Frances as a bold proto-feminist heroine, when in truth, the poor woman was a high-strung bundle of neuroses.) Such a person, especially one who was a literary celebrity, would never purposefully risk getting the worst possible censure for a woman of her time and position--the accusation of being a morally "loose" female.

In "The Literati of New York City," Poe said of Mrs. Osgood that "Her character is daguerreotyped in her works--reading the one we know the other." If that was the case, Frances Sargent Locke Osgood was superficial, with some sprightly charm that was merely skin-deep, histrionic, childishly careless, clever rather than truly intelligent, fanciful rather than imaginative, mawkishly sentimental, intensely conventional, concerned with building a beautiful private fantasy world rather than dealing with ugly reality, and pathetically anxious to favorably impress. All those qualities undoubtedly sometimes led her into situations that, to the outside world, could appear suspicious or incriminating. They were also qualities that made her the last woman in the world to be deliberately disloyal to a loved and loving husband.