Monday, September 27, 2010

Poe, Providence, and the Second "To Helen"

"Hardly anybody behaves normally in this history...In other words, if there ever was a life to illustrate the truth that there are many more questions in the world than answers, this is that life."
-Edward Wagenknecht, trying and failing to make sense of it all in "Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend"
Edgar Allan Poe ManetEdgar Allan Poe traveled to or through Providence RI on at least one, and quite possibly two occasions in 1845. Both these visits have engendered controversy, and unfortunately many of the details surrounding these trips are engulfed in fog, thanks largely, as usual, to Sarah Helen Whitman.

In November of 1848, Poe published a poem titled simply "To ---," which opened with the lines, "I saw thee once--once only..." After his death, Rufus Griswold republished these verses under the title "To Helen," with the explanation that Poe addressed these lines to Mrs. Whitman, and that the sighting described in the poem was based on a true incident. According to Griswold, when Poe stayed overnight in Providence while returning to New York after his appearance at the Boston Lyceum in October 1845, he took a midnight walk through the town. During this stroll, he chanced to see Mrs. Whitman standing in front of her house, and supposedly the sight so inspired him that, three years later, he wrote this poem. (Although the "enchanted" garden in Poe's verses bore no resemblance to Whitman's actual residence.)Sarah Helen Whitman and Edgar Allan PoeWhitman, on the other hand, claimed this "sighting" of her (of which she had at the time been unaware--which is odd, considering that it must have happened on a small, otherwise deserted street,) took place in 1845, but, as the poem said, in July.

Perhaps the most curious part of her story is that we have no proof she ever heard of this poetic and momentous incident from Poe himself.***

The letters he allegedly wrote to Whitman indicate that the first time he ever actually saw her was when he visited Providence in September 1848. Whitman said she learned details of Poe's little Peeping Tom episode from Frances S. Osgood, of all people. Decades later, Whitman described a visit Osgood made to her in the fall of 1848, apparently with the aim of gleaning information about Whitman's rumored engagement to Poe. Whitman claimed Osgood told her that in mid-1845 (presumably in July,) he was passing through Providence on his way from Boston to New York, and stopped overnight at the same hotel where Osgood was staying. The next day, he informed her that he had spent most of the night walking in and around the town, and happened to pass Mrs. Whitman's home (he had "previously ascertained" its location from Osgood.) There, he observed the lady of the house herself walking up and down the sidewalk (he made the identification through Osgood's description of Whitman--and the question of why Frances would bother giving Poe a minute physical description of another woman, let alone directions to her home, was never explained.)

One of the letters Poe supposedly sent Whitman late in 1848 described an occasion when, while he was passing through Providence, Mrs. Osgood tried to persuade him to join her on a call to Mrs. Whitman, but he refused. A date is not given for this incident, although Whitman herself annotated the letter to indicate it was in July '45. We are not told why he rejected the opportunity to actually meet this woman he supposedly already adored from afar, other than the vague assertion that he "dared not" risk laying eyes upon her. This letter seems to contradict the scenario given in "I saw thee once..."

Incidentally, these Poe/Whitman letters also contradict another bit of known history. One of these letters stated that until Mrs.Whitman sent to him some Valentine verses she had written in his honor in February 1848, he had been unaware she even knew of his existence. Aside from the fact that it would be absurd for him to assume that a fellow member of the literati was ignorant of the writer of "The Raven," we know for a fact that in late 1845 or early 1846, Whitman requested her friend, New York socialite Anne Lynch, to ask Poe on her behalf for a copy of his critique of Elizabeth Barrett's poetry. Whitman--who had been intensely interested in Poe and his writings for some time--undoubtedly hoped he would write her personally. Instead, he merely gave Lynch a copy of the article to forward to Whitman. In other words, unless Poe had so little interest in Whitman that he immediately forgot about this incident, that letter simply makes no sense.

There is much uncertainty in what we're told about Poe's Providence visits. In late June/early July 1845, he was embroiled in an accusation of forgery that had been made against him by a New York merchant named Edward Isaiah Thomas. Poe and Thomas were strangers, but Thomas was a friend of the Osgood family, and passed on to Frances gossip he had heard about Poe. She, in turn, informed the poet of the accusations. Osgood was making an extended stay in Providence and Boston during this period--according to at least one Poe biographer, in the company of her husband--so all this rumor-mongering and tattle-taleing between the three principals was evidently being carried on through the post. According to his published "Reply to Thomas Dunn English," Poe briefly left New York in early July 1845 to "procure evidence" for his planned lawsuit against Mr. Thomas. The inference is that he wished to interview Osgood, and possibly others as well, to get details of these slanders being promulgated against him, and probably to persuade Osgood to provide a deposition. (In a later issue of the "Broadway Journal," Poe mentioned a visit he made to Boston around this time. It is unknown whether Osgood was then in that city, or if he merely questioned her in Providence en route to a visit made to Boston for other reasons.)

Now, contrary to what Whitman later said, Poe and Osgood could not have stayed at the same hotel in July of 1845, as Osgood's correspondence shows that when she was in Providence during that month, she was staying with friends, the family of Henry Bowen Anthony. When Poe traveled through Providence on his way to Boston in October, Osgood was living in Providence's City Hotel (with, her correspondence suggests, her husband, and presumably her young children!) The ineffable John Evangelist Walsh assumed that Poe stopped overnight at that same hotel, but, as usual with him, had no evidence this was the case. At that time, the City Hotel was the most prominent of Providence's many hostelries, an unlikely place for Poe to stay, even for one day. Even when he was in funds, he had little liking for ostentatious surroundings (he hated New York's lavish Astor House.) It is more likely that he spent the night at a more modest establishment. There is actually no indication that Poe so much as saw Mrs. Osgood during his overnight stop-over in Providence, or was even aware she was in the city. In short, whichever way you look at it, Whitman's account of what she claimed Osgood told her has problems. (Although in regards to her story, it should be noted that Mrs. Whitman not only knew both Poe and Osgood, but she had many contacts among New York's gossipy and cruel literary circles. Thus, she would know as well as anyone the true nature of their relationship. Particularly when she was in her self-appointed role of Poe's personal defender/love interest, her guileless openness about depicting Poe and Osgood in each other's society indicates her knowledge that their relations had been wholly innocent.)Rufus W. Griswold and Edgar Allan PoeIt is very curious how much of what we're told about the Poe/Whitman relationship originated from the Reverend Doctor Rufus Wilmot Griswold. He was the first to state publicly that the poem Poe published in November 1848 to an unknown addressee was written for Sarah Helen Whitman. She afterwards endorsed this tale, of course, stating that she received this poem as an anonymous manuscript in the spring of that year. Unfortunately, we have no proof this was the case, as this reputed manuscript disappeared. Whitman claimed she sent it to a psychic for a "reading," in whose hands it vanished without a trace. (Corroborating evidence for Mrs. W's stories had a way of doing that.)

Many months before they met, Poe supposedly sent Whitman a copy of his first "To Helen," torn out of one of his books. The mailing gave no indication that he was the sender, but, according to Whitman, a male New York acquaintance of his who happened to be visiting Providence identified Poe's handwriting on the envelope. This "acquaintance" may very well have been Griswold.

Similarly, the romantic tale of Whitman unknowingly captivating Poe's attention during this midnight walk of his was also first recorded by the good Doctor. Whitman herself claimed not to know how Griswold heard the story. She vaguely assumed he learned about it from Mrs. Osgood, but it taxes one's brain to come up with a motive for Osgood--who had had a falling-out with Whitman--to give Griswold this information. And if such a dramatic incident truly happened, why did Poe himself never write to Whitman about it? And if, as Griswold claimed, "I saw thee once..." referred to that encounter, why did he describe it as happening in October, when the poem describes a "July midnight?"Edgar Allan Poe To HelenIt is undoubtedly impossible for anyone this side of the grave to find definitive answers to all these conundrums, but these are nevertheless questions that Poe scholars must ask themselves.

***A footnote: Mrs. Whitman possessed a bound set of the "Broadway Journal," which she said Poe gave her in October 1848. Among the handwritten annotations is the comment, "N. B.--The poem which I sent you contained all the events of a dream which occurred to me soon after I knew you. Ligeia was also suggested by a dream. Observe the eyes in both tale & poem."

Years later, after George W. Eveleth learned of this annotation, he pointed out to Mrs. Whitman the obvious discrepancy: She claimed that the "I saw thee once..." poem was sent to her long before she and Poe met. So how to explain Poe's reference to writing the poem "after I knew you?"

Mrs. Whitman always had an explanation for everything. She--rather too stridently--wrote Eveleth that what Poe had actually written was that this poem, and the dream which inspired it, occurred to him "soon after I knew you through Mrs. Osgood's description." She said she had cut out those last four words and sent it to someone wanting a sample of Poe's handwriting. (This alleged scrap of writing--who'd have dreamed it?--vanished.) She offered this same alibi to John H. Ingram, who appears to have politely ignored it.

Whatever else one might have to say about Sarah Helen Power Whitman, one certainly has to give the lady high credit for ingenuity. Or perhaps it was all simply thanks to the ether she was constantly inhaling.

(Poe & Griswold images: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Linking Fancy Unto Fancy: More "Raven" Lore

"He's a walking contradiction
Partly truth and partly fiction"
-Kris Kristofferson, "The Pilgrim"
I have, as I earlier threatened I might do, compiled a list of at least the most notable instances of stories detailing "How Poe wrote 'The Raven,'" or "How I helped Poe write 'The Raven.'" (The latter has a sub-category of "How Poe stole 'The Raven' from me.) If nothing else, it all serves as yet another cautionary tale warning of the dangers of taking Poe reminiscences (even the first-hand ones) too trustfully. I probably missed a few "Raven" legends while putting this roster together, but if there are any stories weirder than these out there, I'm not sure I even want to be reminded about them.Gustave Dore The RavenHere is how and when Poe's most famous poem was written:

1.Under a New York streetlight sometime in the winter of 1844 (so Cornelius Mathews' niece told us in an earlier post.)

2. In the summer of 1842 or 1843, at the Barhyte estate in Saratoga Springs. (Again, see this earlier post.)

3. In the winter of 1843 in Philadelphia, as a desperate attempt to put food on the table of his starving wife and mother-in-law, an attempt that ended in failure, as no one he approached, including George R. Graham and Louis Godey, wanted anything to do with the poem. (This, according to the second or third-hand accounts related by Hyman Rosenbach, who was born nine years after Poe died. Rosenbach was one of those enterprising journalists with a nose for sniffing out colorful but extremely dubious Poe stories.)

4. It was written hurriedly during the course of one night while Poe was living in Fordham, in a frantic effort to obtain medical care and other necessities for Virginia. (So says Francis Gerry Fairfield in a particularly bizarre 1875 article, "A Mad Man of Letters." Of course, "The Raven" was first published in January of 1845, and Poe did not move to Fordham until the spring of 1846, but Fairfield was cheerfully untroubled by that pesky little detail.)

5. It was written piecemeal in New York City in the summer of 1844, with the aid of his fellow boozers at "Sandy Welsh's cellar on Ann Street." Thus, so we are told, "'The Raven' was a kind of joint-stock affair in which many minds held small shares of intellectual capital." (This was also related by Fairfield, who said he had it from a Col. Du Solle, who supposedly heard the story from Maria Clemm. Fairfield, however, insisted that #4 above was the "true" account, and that Poe, who was, according to Fairfield, a victim of "cerebral epilepsy," which turned him into a "habitual liar," simply invented the tale related by Du Solle.)

6. It was written in Richmond, in the office of "Southern Literary Messenger" editor John R. Thompson. As Thompson only took over on the "Messenger" in 1847, further comment is unnecessary. (This story comes to us from James K. Galt, John Allan's great-nephew.)

7. It was written while the Poes were boarders at the Brennan Farm outside New York City, sometime in the latter half of 1844. (This, incidentally, is the most credible account we have about the poem's creation.)

8. It was composed on an unspecified date at a Merion, Pennsylvania inn, as commemoration of Poe's failed love affair with a local girl. (This story appears to be the work of a Pennsylvania blowhard named Henry Shoemaker, who, during the early 1900s, gulled many an overzealous Poe devotee with a series of completely fabricated stories incorporating the poet into local history.)

9. It was composed over a period of ten years. (Susan Archer Talley Weiss claimed Poe confided this to her.)

10. And, of course, there is Poe's own version of how "The Raven" came to be written, "The Philosophy of Composition." Most Poe historians dismiss his account as a mere hoax, and certainly Poe was indulging himself in some gleeful nose-tweaking in this essay, but I would not be at all surprised if there wasn't a good deal of truth in his story. In any case, he must have greatly enjoyed how his account disconcerted the romantics. As he commented mockingly: "Most writers--poets in especial--prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy--an ecstatic intuition--and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peek behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought--at the true purposes seized only at the last moment--at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view--at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable--at the cautious selections and rejections--at the painful erasures and interpolations--in a word, at the wheels and pinions--the tackle for scene-shifting--the step-ladders, and demon-traps--the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio."

Certainly, that sounds more plausible than these giddy tales of a raven-haunted Poe deliriously scribbling lines in the rain under a streetlight, or enlisting his drinking buddies or a small boy in Saratoga to help him haphazardly cobble the poem together.Gustave Dore Edgar Allan PoeBut wait, there's more. Not content with being an eyewitness to literary history, an equally large flock of buzzards sought even greater glory by presenting to the world their accounts of how that untalented loser Poe just couldn't have written "The Raven" without them. (And, of course, if you consider all the people who later claimed to have been among "the very first" to hear Poe recite the poem, or to read it before its publication, you'd have to assume he unveiled it before a crowd the size of Australia.) My favorite listing in this category comes, of course, from the immortal Susan Talley Weiss, who, in her "Home Life of Poe," described the poet coming to her in the summer of 1849, begging her help in rewriting the poem, as he "regretted" having ever published it in such an imperfect form. (She added that she "did not feel particularly flattered by his proposal, knowing that since his coming to Richmond he had made a similar request to at least two other persons.") Weiss wrote that Poe had asked her to recite the poem, while he took notes on the many and glaring flaws they noted in the work. (This collaboration would have been an interesting sight, considering Weiss was completely deaf since childhood and unable to lip-read. As usual when writing about Poe, the lady coyly omitted that bit of information.) She told her readers that, alas, they were interrupted in their work by "the tumultuous entrance of my little dog, Pink, in hot pursuit of the family cat," and so the world was cruelly deprived of the new, improved Poe/Weiss "Raven."Edgar Allan Poe The RavenFor sheer unmitigated shamelessness, it is always hard to trump Mrs. Weiss when she was in top form, but many have tried. Probably the earliest entrant in the "Poe Plagiarized Me" sweepstakes was that strange and creepy being, Thomas Holley Chivers. After Poe was safely dead, Chivers worked off what seems to have been a long-festering jealousy and resentment of his "friend" by making a series of increasingly insane claims that Poe had stolen virtually his entire body of poetic work from Chivers. In 1850, he kicked off this campaign by publishing a pronouncement that "The Raven" was stolen from his own "To Allegra Florence in Heaven:"
"As an egg, when broken, never
Can be mended, but must ever
Be the same crushed egg forever--
So shall this dark heart of mine!
Which, though broken, is still breaking,
And shall never more cease aching
For the sleep which has no waking--
For the sleep which now is thine!"

Not to be outdone, yet another crushed egg, a Philadelphia friend of Poe's named Henry B. Hirst, became obsessed in his later years with the notion that he had actually written Poe's masterwork. His proof for this claim was evidently the fact that he had, at one point, owned a pet raven. Hirst went "harmlessly insane" in the latter part of his life, but it is difficult to say if this fantasy was a symptom of his madness or a cause. (As a side note, while Poe was still alive, Hirst aroused his wrath with claims that "Ulalume" was plagiarized from Hirst's "Endymion." Poe responded--in classic Poe fashion--by writing that on the contrary, it was Hirst who stole from him. "Now my objection, in this case, is not to the larceny per se. I have always told Mr. Hirst that, provided he stole my poetry in a reputable manner, he might steal just as much of it as he thought proper--and, so far, he has behaved very well, in largely availing himself of the privilege. But what I do object to, is the being robbed in bad grammar. It is not that Mr. Hirst did this thing--but that he has went and done did it." )

In 1870, the "New Orleans Times" published a "confession" from Poe himself, admitting that he had received "The Raven" from an unknown poet, one Samuel Fenwick, who died soon afterwards. Subsequently, said Poe, he became so intoxicated he no longer knew what he did, and while in that state signed his own name to the poem and sent it to be published. Although the letter was immediately revealed to be a hoax, the story continued to be repeated as fact for quite some time afterwards--a tribute to the power of the printed word, or the world's eagerness to denigrate Poe by any means necessary, or both.

In 1901, John A. Joyce published the claim that Poe stole "The Raven" wholesale from Leo Penzoni's "The Parrot," which he claimed had been published in the "Milan Art Journal" in 1809. (Modern-day researchers have been unable to find any clue that either Penzoni or the magazine in question ever existed.) In the years following Poe's death, claims were also made that "The Raven" was merely a translation of unspecified Chinese or Persian poems.The RavenPerhaps the apex to all this delirious nonsense was reached by one C.D. Gardette, who in 1859 published a poem entitled "The Fire Fiend," which he claimed Poe had written as an "incomplete" predecessor to "The Raven." Even after Gardette admitted in print that he had intended nothing more than a playful Poe-like hoax, "The Fire Fiend" continued to be described as Poe's genuine handiwork at least as late as the early 1900s. (Poe biographer William Gill even claimed to have seen the manuscript of the poem in Poe's handwriting!) One can best demonstrate the truly horrifying readiness of so many Poe devotees to believe virtually anything told about him by reciting these lines from Gardette's all-too-successful prank:
"Speechless; struck with stony silence; frozen to the floor I stood,
Till methought my brain was hissing with that hissing, bubbling blood--Till
I felt my life-blood oozing, oozing from those lambent lips:--Till
the Demon seemed to name me;--then a wondrous calm
o'ercame me,
And my brow grew cold and dewy, with a death-damp stiff and gluey,
And I fell back on my pillow in apparent soul-eclipse!"

When the ghost of Rufus W. Griswold, in whatever strange netherworld he was by then inhabiting, heard that Poe was actually being blamed for these lines, he must have just laughed his head off.

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.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The "Penn," the "Stylus," and Poe (Part Two)

"As for the mob--let them talk on. I should be grieved if I thought they comprehended me here."
-Edgar Allan Poe, letter to P.P. Cooke, Sept. 21, 1839

If Poe needed a cautionary tale, he did not have to look any farther than James McHenry. McHenry's story provides a chilling parallel to Poe's own career. Like Poe, he was a poet and critic who dared to expose the literary Mafia for what it was. In 1832, he published in the "American Quarterly Review" an article entitled "American Lake Poetry." It noted that American poets were conducting wholesale plagiarism of the British Lake poets, and, instead of being criticized for their thievery, these writers received blind praise from "pretended friends and sciolous editors," and "hireling puffers"--critical prostitutes who wrote laudatory notices of any author willing to pay for the privilege. McHenry named names, attacking such favored members of the New York literati as Nathaniel P. Willis, William Cullen Bryant, and James Gates Percival.

The article roused a fierce counterattack in virtually all the leading US periodicals of the time. At least one New York paper suggested--or, rather, threatened--that the "Quarterly Review" might be forced to shut down as a result of McHenry's expose. No one denied a word McHenry said--they were merely outraged that he had tipped-off the public that they were being manipulated into embracing inferior literature.

McHenry--as in the case of Poe a few years later--became a pariah. As in the case of Poe, he was publicly attacked, not just as an author, but as a man. As in the case of Poe, vicious satires appeared in print caricaturing him and ridiculing his writings. As in the case of Poe, articles appeared about him containing blatant lies. As Sidney P. Moss noted, the McHenry scandal illustrated the literary milieu of the time: "...the violent sectional antagonisms, the personal malice which vitiated impartiality of criticism, the cavalier resort to invective and lies, and the not at all infrequent use of an ostensibly critical article to assault a critic of an opposing camp."

Unlike Poe, however, McHenry was not capable of effective counterattacks. He quickly retired from the field in defeat. Poe was well aware of the history of his predecessor's downfall, and it says everything about Poe's determination and moral courage--this man who is so often depicted as a sniveling weakling--that with McHenry's fearful example before him, he remained resolved to not only follow in his footsteps, but outdo him in exposing the shoddy state of American literature. In the January 1842 "Graham's," Poe described McHenry as "the victim of a most shameful cabal in this country..." When McHenry died in 1845, Poe published a heartfelt eulogy in the "Broadway Journal." He described his fellow critic as a martyr who "fell victim to the arts of a clique which proceeded, in the most systematic manner, to write him down--not scrupling, either, to avow the detestable purpose."

If the "cliques" could do all that to a mere McHenry, what might they unleash upon a Poe?

These "cliques" recognized early on that Poe had the talent, the drive, and the courage to be a terrible opponent to have, should he ever achieve a position of power in the publishing industry. (The vicious hysteria of the attacks on him in the New York press from at least as early as 1836 is instructive.) Naturally, these people--beginning with the likes of Lewis Gaylord Clark and Theodore Fay, and continuing right up to Hiram Fuller, Charles F. Briggs, Thomas Dunn English, Horace Greeley, Rufus W. Griswold, and the Transcendentalists Poe too-effectively mocked--were determined that he would never obtain that power.
Edgar Allan Poe The StylusThere are some hints that his original plans to launch "The Stylus" were somehow sabotaged by his enemies. Shortly after Clarke's sudden and unexplained withdrawal from the project, John Tomlin, a correspondent of Poe's with ties to various Philadelphia literati, wrote him lamenting that "the devilish machinations of a certain clique in Philadelphia had completely baulked your laudable designs..." (It is possible that if these "machinations" existed, Clarke may have responded in some inept or cowardly fashion, explaining the "idiocy" of Clarke's that Poe later described.) Tomlin's quote is curiously similar in tone to a letter Poe himself later wrote to Fitz-Greene Halleck about the "Broadway Journal," where he declared that, "On the part of one or two persons who are much imbittered [sic] against me, there is a deliberate attempt now being made to involve me in ruin, by destroying 'The Broadway Journal'..." For that matter, it may be that George R. Graham--described by Poe as a "very gentlemanly" but "weak" man--reneged on his initial semi-agreement to help Poe not, as Poe suggested, out of professional jealousy, but out of simple fear of allying himself with a man who had so many powerful antagonists.

If Poe ever appeared paranoid, it only proves the old adage that paranoia is merely a state of heightened awareness.

Unfortunately, only one or two of Poe's biographers, most notably Sidney P. Moss and Nigel Barnes (Barnes' "A Dream Within a Dream" has many drawbacks, but he got this much right,) have noted that a good many of Poe's failures and apparent personal flaws were actually the result of this--there is no other way to describe it--organized persecution.

It can never be known how much of this persecution, as opposed to a truly devilish bad luck, was responsible for Poe's failure to obtain the one thing that could have saved his career, and perhaps even his life. Conspirators and general evil-doers are not in the habit of leaving road-maps behind them for the benefit of future historians. But it certainly cannot be ignored as a factor. The last thing his powerful--and numerous--enemies in the "cliques" wanted was for their chief bĂȘte noire to obtain a forum where he could for once express himself fully to a wide audience. It could have very well have been the death knell of their reign of terror over American literature.