Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fanny Osgood Writes Home to Mom

Deposited in Providence R.I.'s Brown University is a very intriguing letter written by Frances S. Osgood to her mother, Mary Ingersoll Locke. (Incidentally, the name of her mother has been erroneously given as Martha J. Locke, which was actually the name of one of Osgood's sisters.)

The letter, dated April 23, 1849, is extremely mutilated. Someone (when this was done is unknown) tore most of the first page away, leaving us with only a fragmentary story. What remains, however, hints at dark doings. Although Poe is not a subject in the letter, it gives a peep into the ugly and Byzantine maneuverings of the literary circles surrounding him.

The surviving portions of the letter feature Osgood's railings against "the Whelpleys." (Evidently James D. Whelpley, the editor of the "American Whig Review," and his wife Anna--who happened to be Osgood's niece.) According to Osgood, her niece and her husband had been spreading "wicked calumnies" about her. The exact nature of the "calumnies" is not clear, but they clearly had to do with Osgood's very close relationship with Rufus W. Griswold, as at one point Osgood complained that she had intended to buy or rent a house and have Griswold board with her to share the expenses, "but after all this talk I could not of course take him." (Her husband, Samuel, was then seeking his fortune in the California gold rush.) I suspect Osgood's motives in selecting Griswold, of all people, as a housemate were basically innocent. She would hardly have revealed her plans to her own mother if they were not, and, in any case, Osgood was too childishly self-absorbed and too fond of living in her own fairyland fantasy-world to be likely to take a great interest in sex. However, Osgood's obvious obliviousness to how this would look to the world speaks volumes about her lack of sense.

Osgood also had bitter words about her youngest sister Elizabeth and her husband, Henry Harrington. She indicated that they had expressed skepticism about her version of "the Whelpley affair," and stated that she will never visit them again until they agree to believe "implicitly every word I have said" about the scandal. (The idea that her own sister and brother-in-law expressed "a doubt about my veracity" regarding what were obviously ugly charges made against her by her niece and her husband gives a curious picture of Osgood's family life.)

The main missing portion of the letter deals with Osgood's discussion of a certain man. His name--except for a portion of the first letter of it--has been torn away from the letter, but from the context of the letter's previous lines--more about the Whelpleys and how "shamefully" they had behaved, while she herself had acted with "perfect [word missing] throughout," the man was probably Griswold. She said that "they" (whose identities are not revealed in the surviving parts of the letter) "know all about poor [name missing here] and smile as all sensible and pure-minded people do--at the false reports to which his fits of insanity have given currency--not only about me but every woman who has been kind..."

And there her story ends, for our phantom editor who mutilated the letter clearly did not want us to know the rest. All that is clear is that, in a scandal having nothing to do with her famous association with Poe, Osgood's own relations were spreading--and believing--some sort of unsavory stories involving her and Griswold, who was very likely the man Osgood casually described as subject to "fits of insanity," and who evidently had many unpleasant stories told about his relations with other women, as well. (According to Elizabeth F. Ellet, Griswold was in the habit of boasting about his supposed romantic conquests among the ladies of his acquaintance.) The Roman Emperors depicted in "I, Claudius" had nothing on the nineteenth-century New York Literati.

I would dearly like to know what the rest of this document contained. I would also be pleased to discover who bowdlerized this missive, and why. And for that matter, who wanted this letter--the only letter from Osgood to her mother extant--available for public study?

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