Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lawyers, Gold-Bugs, and Money (Part One of Two)

“Circumstances, and a certain bias of mind, have led me to take interest in such riddles…”
-“The Gold-Bug”

Poe scholars are familiar with his 1846-47 libel suit against the "New York Evening Mirror." What is less well-known is that this was not his first effort at bringing his defamers into court. Like his later suit, this earlier legal battle has a certain air of mystery around it.

The trouble involved Poe’s most popular story, “The Gold-Bug.” In June 1843, the tale won a short-story prize offered by Philadelphia’s “Dollar Newspaper,” and the yarn about codes and hidden treasure became an immediate sensation. Soon afterwards, however, a rival publication, the “Daily Forum,” printed a very curious attack on Poe’s work. Under the headline “The ‘Gold Bug’—A Decided Humbug” came the following:

“We have no hesitation in stating the fact, that humbug beyond all question is at last the ‘Philosopher’s stone,’ in the discovery of which so many geniuses have heretofore been bewildered. In this opinion we are more fully confirmed by the recent literary production entitled the ‘Gold Bug,’ which has been paraded in flourishing capitals by the publishers of the ‘Dollar Magazine,’ [sic] and pronounced by them as the most entertaining and superbly written ‘prize tale’ of modern times! That ‘one hundred dollars’ was paid for this signal abortion we believe to be an arrant falsehood, and in this sentiment we are not singular, for several of our friends who have read the portion which has already appeared, pronounce upon it the verdict of unmitigated trash! We are inclined to think that ten or fifteen dollars satisfied ‘the talented Edgar A. Poe, Esq.’ for this excruciating effort in the tale line.”

“In the publication of this unique affair, the proprietors of the ‘Dollar Magazine’ know how to give the public ‘two bites of a cherry’; but they will find it a very difficult task to point out hereafter even ‘the man in a claret coat’ who has read the second part of the ‘Gold Bug:’ The writer threw away three cents in the purchase of the commencement of the tale, but will be exceedingly careful in not getting blistered by the ensuing dose of cantharides, which is usually made out of Gold Bugs. The public are little aware of the humbug heretofore practised in this ‘prize tale’ business. We are indebted to a friend who obtained several of these kind [sic] of prizes, for the method in which it is accomplished. It is to this effect: the publisher announces with a grand flourish the literary tournament, and after having pranced about a while on his pegasus, induces a number of really meritorious writers to enter the lists and compete for the nominal prize, which has all the appearance at first of a 'Gold Bug,' but is certain to eventuate in a humbug! The period at length arrives for the distribution, when sure enough some 'youth unknown to fame' is knighted and bears off the palm of victory, merely 'to save expense' and because his name is well known to the reading community as 'a talented man.' This is not an overwrought picture, for let it be distinctly understood that the writer of this has never had 'a kink in his tale,' and consequently can feel no jealousy, but merely vents his indignation in relation to as great a literary humbug as was ever placed before the reading community. 'Having cast the first stone,' mark our prediction if this 'Gold Bug' is not generally pronounced unworthy of existence in literature."

This anonymous and decidedly overheated “communication” was the work of Francis H. Duffee, an unimportant, if noisy, local stockbroker, dramatist and journalist. Poe, never one to ignore slights on his personal dignity, did not waste any time fighting back. Two days later, another Philadelphia paper, “Spirit of the Times,” reported that Poe had filed an action for damages against his attacker. Two days after this notice appeared, the same paper published a letter to the editor from Duffee, nervously trying to walk back his charges, saying that his communication had been “stated merely as an opinion, the contradiction of which publicly given by the publishers, sets the matter at rest, and merely goes to show that I, in my criticism, have committed an error.”

The matter might have ended there, if the paper's editor John Du Solle had not made the mistake of trying to get cute. As an addendum to Duffee’s apology, Du Solle puckishly suggested that “The Gold-Bug” plagiarized “Imogine, or the Pirate’s Treasure,” an obscure 1839 tale written by a thirteen-year-old girl named George Ann Sherburne.

Historians believe Du Solle was merely exercising his idea of wit, but the allegation was repeated, as a serious charge, in the “New York Herald.”

Meanwhile, the other Philadelphia newspapers, always in search of a good fight, did their best to fan the flames. Poe’s friend George Lippard wrote in the “Citizen Soldier” that “The Gold-Bug” was “one of the best stories Poe ever wrote” and dismissed Duffee’s attempts to tarnish it as “a humbug--a transparent, gauze-lace, cobweb-tissue humbug.” Lippard freely conceded that “name and not merit” commonly prevail among judges and other “secret critics.” “In such a system, the man of notoriety has all the chances--the man of genius none.” However, in Poe’s case, there could be no question that “the story is worth the ‘Prize money,’ ten times told.”

The “Public Ledger” also weighed in on Duffee’s allegations, stating that “Mr. P will, of course, allow the gentleman every opportunity he may desire to substantiate his charges, or any portion of them, and as he will necessarily fail in every particular to do so, or to show the least shadow or particle of the appearance of anything to justify the charges he has made, he will hold himself ready to bear the consequences of an act which must have been prompted solely and entirely by his own mere suspicions.” Duffee’s apology, they snorted, was “nothing more than an exposure of his own attempted injustice to the parties concerned.” For good measure, the “Ledger” sharply criticized the “Daily Forum” for publishing Duffee’s “foul slander” in the first place.

The “Forum” publishers defended themselves by washing their hands of Duffee. They carried an editorial stating, “the character of the gentlemen composing the committee to award the premiums, precluded the possibility of any collusion between the editors of the Dollar Weekly and Mr. Poe, and as we were of this opinion, we rejected one communication from the same source, and even cut out sentences from the published one. The correspondent spoke with certainty, and having a responsible name, we felt it a duty to lend our colemns [sic] to expose what was characterized as a humbug. Upon the first application made to us, we gave the name of our correspondent.”

This same issue of the paper carried another letter from Duffee, which was even more peevish and rambling than his last. He claimed that he had yet to receive notice that he was being sued. “If, however, to receive a polite note from a highly talented and amiable member of the bar--if to be waited upon by Mr. Edgar A. Poe, accompanied by two gentlemen with big sticks--if to meet them boldly and candidly acknowledge myself the author of the critique--if to be again waited on by the said Poe, accompanied by another gentleman with a big stick, and presented with a paper for me to sign calculated to make me acknowledge myself a liar and a scoundrel in the face of the public--if this is the commencement of legal proceedings, it is a way so outre, so 'grotesque and arabesque;’ that it could only emanate from the clique, and not from the proper tribunal, the law!” If Poe was so “excrutiating [sic] sensitive,” Duffee sputtered, why has he ignored innuendoes aimed at him by others? Poe was a man famed for his “severe and scorching criticisms” which have “driven from the field of poetry the timid and aspiring son of genius.” He had never “shown mercy to others,” so what right had he to suddenly be so “'demm’d' sensitive?” He closed by repeating as fact Du Solle’s fantasy about Poe plagiarizing from the youthful Miss Sherburne.

Du Solle soon realized his little “joke” had gone too far. Haunted, no doubt, by visions of Poe pursuing him with a pack of hungry lawyers, he quickly published a retraction, stating that the "exceedingly well written and ingenious" “Gold-Bug” bore "no further resemblance to Miss Sherburne’s tale, than it must necessarily bear from the fact of touching upon the same general grounds. Mr. Poe well deserved the prize of $100.”

The “Ledger,” meanwhile, rubbed a little salt into the self-inflicted wounds of their rivals by commenting that the “New York Herald” plagiarized a recent editorial from “Blackwood’s Magazine.” “This same paper charged Mr. Poe with having committed plagiarism in writing the prize story for the Dollar Newspaper, the Gold-Bug, by stealing the plot from a tale by Miss Sherbourne [sic]. Even this idea of the Herald was stolen from another paper, which has since retracted the charge in a handsome manner; but the Herald holds on to the stolen idea as if it was its own and honestly come by, even after the owner himself has repudiated it as unjust to Mr. Poe. For shame!”

The “Dollar Newspaper” also returned to the fray, giving an analysis of the Poe and Sherburne stories, and concluding there were no similarities between the two works other than “the finding of money--a subject which has been handled not only by Miss Sherburne, but by some fifty, if not by some five hundred talewriters.” They also reprinted Du Solle’s “magnanimously made” retraction. The "Saturday Museum" shrugged that the "supposed resemblance" was "altogether imaginary." Similarly, the "Daily Forum" "reperused" the stories in question, and could assure readers,"They are no more alike than the Gold Bug is like the 'Man that was used up.'" (Just to add to the general fun, the “Forum” also gleefully announced that Duffee was bringing a libel suit against the “Public Ledger” “for maliciously dragging his business relations before the public and throwing out intimations that he was connected with fraudulent institutions.”)

Meanwhile, the publisher of George Ann Sherburne's "Tales," which featured "Imogine," wasted no time rushing the small volume back into print, complete with notices inviting all who "like the Gold Bug" to "judge of the resemblance between the two." It's truly an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

By the end of July, Poe and Duffee had a personal meeting where they resolved their differences. Duffee evidently claimed his original column had merely been “misconstrued.” He repudiated any suggestion of collusion between Poe and the prize committee. In return, Poe dropped his suit. Duffee afterwards published a cryptic, vengeful column in the “New York Cynosure.” He made bitter reference to a certain "Petty-fogger" who "has been at the bottom of all the mischief between the belligerents in the matter of the 'Gold Bug.'" The "
creature" whom Duffee accused of engineering his “mischief” was evidently a mutual acquaintance, the poet Henry B. Hirst. (Hirst, who was also a lawyer, probably represented Poe in his aborted legal action against Duffee.)

This ended the “Gold-Bug” controversy, at least during Poe’s lifetime. However, it had a brief, strange revival nearly thirty years after his death, in the magazine “Notes & Queries.” I shall relate that episode--and explore its connection to another Poe scandal--in my next post.