Monday, July 16, 2012

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

“No doubt you will think me fanciful--but I had already established a kind of connexion.”
-“The Gold-Bug”
In 1876, the magazine "Notes & Queries" carried a letter from a regular contributor known only as “Uneda,” claiming Francis H. Duffee had proven that Poe ("a most unprincipled man") plagiarized from George Ann Sherburne’s “Imogine.”

“Uneda’s” accusations caught the attention of John H. Ingram, an ardent Poe defender who was then engaged in researching his biography of the poet. Ingram sent a reply challenging the pseudonymous writer's statement. "Uneda" retorted he had good reason for the "very decided opinion that I entertain upon Poe's moral character." (He added "I never heard any one in this country express any other opinion than that which I entertain respecting the character of Poe"--an assertion absurd enough to disqualify anything he had to say on the topic.) He quoted a letter from Duffee giving his (demonstrably and remarkably inaccurate) side of the story: "I did accuse Edgar A. Poe of plagiarism, a charge which was never disproved...Miss Sherburne...informed me, in the first place, of the plagiarism, and I exposed Poe in an article in one of our daily papers, for which he commenced a libel suit." Duffee claimed that after Poe received a letter from him, the author "soon dismissed the matter, for very good reasons."

Ingram responded by sending "Notes & Queries" what he described as a "shutter up" letter. He pointed out a long list of people who had expressed an admiring view of Poe's character, and asked “Uneda” “in justice to the dead, and for the satisfaction of the living, to state how, when, and where this charge of literary theft was proved against Edgar A. Poe. Mr. Duffee's letter gives no particulars as to the necessary data.

“Uneda” took over a year to respond. He commented sniffily that Ingram’s query should have been addressed to Duffee, "and ought to have been answered by him." However, as that gentleman failed to respond, “Uneda” “after much trouble and a considerable expenditure of time” found a copy of “Imogine,” a story he had never before read. In a rather startling about-face, “Uneda” stated matter-of-factly, “It is a very extraordinary work for a girl of thirteen to produce, but it does not bear the slightest resemblance to Poe's story of the Gold Bug, either in its incidents or its style. I cannot imagine why my friend Mr. Duffee was made the victim of so silly a hoax.”
Edgar Allan Poe The Gold Bug
Yes, “Uneda” repeated in print long-discredited, long-forgotten accusations that Poe was a plagiarist without ever bothering to discover for himself whether or not the charges had merit. And he admitted it without even a shadow of visible embarrassment. Truly, if Dr. Griswold had been unable to take on the job as Poe’s official biographer, “Uneda” would have made a worthy substitute. (“Uneda” also sent Ingram a private letter accusing Poe of what the biographer described as “all kinds of filthy crimes,” but this letter, perhaps fortunately, is not extant and its exact contents unknown.)

Ingram did not record the identity of this adversary who bore such a stubborn, irrational grudge against Poe, but we now know he was William Duane, Jr. Duane, whom a contemporary once described as “a strange, solitary, unsociable man,” was of distinguished ancestry (his father had been Secretary of the Treasury, and his mother boasted Benjamin Franklin as a grandfather.) However, in Poe biography he is known solely for figuring in another odd, and seemingly embarrassingly trivial scandal. In 1844, Poe, with Henry B. Hirst acting as self-appointed go-between, borrowed a volume of the “Southern Literary Messenger” from Duane. When Poe was engaged in moving from Philadelphia to New York City in April of that year, Mrs. Clemm was given the task of returning the book. According to her, she left it in Hirst’s office, with one of his brothers.

Duane and Hirst, however, insisted otherwise. According to them, Mrs. Clemm--either accidentally or deliberately--sold the book, after which it wound up with a Richmond bookseller, thus forcing Duane to rebuy his own property. Angry letters were exchanged between Poe--who defended his mother-in-law’s integrity--and Duane over the incident. Duane claimed that Poe later realized his error, and suffered a good deal of mortification for his rudeness, but we have only Duane’s word for this, and the “Uneda” episode hardly inspires faith in his credibility.

As so often happened elsewhere in Poe’s history, there is in this saga a curious pattern of seemingly unrelated incidents having obscure links. In this case, the link between the Duffee scandal, the attempt to revive it by Duane, and the curiously overblown incident involving a misplaced book is Henry B. Hirst.

Duffee, it will be remembered, blamed Hirst for the dispute with Poe that nearly got Duffee sued. Hirst was also central in the later problems between Poe and Duane. According to Poe, Hirst “seemed to make a point” of personally obtaining the desired “Messenger” volume from Duane. (He later put it even more strongly, describing Hirst as the person “who insisted upon forcing” the book on him.) If we believe Mrs. Clemm’s story--and, unlike virtually all of Poe’s biographers, I see nothing that disproves it--the book was returned to Hirst, after which it mysteriously wound up in the hands of an out-of-town book dealer. As Duane and Poe apparently had no personal acquaintance, it is probably thanks to Hirst that Duane acquired such a vehement, oddly personal loathing of the late poet.

It all suggests that Hirst (who was once described by a woman who knew him well as "the most accomplished liar of his day") made a habit of fomenting what Duffee would call “mischief” all throughout Poe’s Philadelphia years--and beyond. Over the years, Hirst made other, equally irrational, charges of plagiarism against Poe, and it seems not improbable that he spread other unflattering gossip against his soi-disant friend. (In 1867, Elizabeth Oakes Smith quoted Hirst as telling her that "the real contempt which Poe felt for his contemporaries came out at once under the influence of the wine-cup, and he ridiculed, satirized, imitated and abused them right and left without mercy." In a column published two weeks after Poe's death, Hirst stated he "never heard [Poe] express one single word of personal ill-feeling against any man...")

Thomas O. Mabbott wrote casually that Hirst eventually went “harmlessly insane.” Hirst’s so-called madness reads more like a method that was “business as usual” in the World of Poe. And it was far from harmless.