Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Little-Known Comment About Poe's Death

Frances Sargent Osgood
Aside from some self-serving, self-glorifying, and arguably dishonest reminiscences of her acquaintance with Edgar Allan Poe that appeared in December 1849 in a magazine entitled "Saroni's Musical Times," (and later republished by Rufus W. Griswold in his Poe memoir,) we have only one reference from Frances S. Osgood about the death of Poe. It is in a brief letter (now in the New York Public Library) she wrote sometime in October 1849 to someone she identifies on the envelope only as "my sister May." (The note was evidently hand-delivered.) In between inconsequential news of her activities, she breezily comments:

"I am well but very sad--for I have just heard of the sudden death in Richmond [sic] of the friend of whom I spoke to you Saturday--the author of the Raven! Half an hour before I heard of his death I was reading with much emotion a late critique of his upon my poems--a most kind and beautiful one. Poor fellow! And he was just about to be married so happily too!"

(One wonders if this "late critique" was the one where Poe commented about Osgood's poems that "her versification is sometimes exceedingly good, but more frequently feeble," and, regarding her verse-drama, "Elfrida," that she had "unquestionably failed in writing a good play." That would certainly arouse "much emotion.") There is nothing in this note to indicate Osgood was particularly grief-stricken over the death of a man who had, of course, refused to have any contact with her for nearly four years. Her notion that Poe died in Richmond, instead of Baltimore, is a characteristically daft touch.

The identity of "sister May" is uncertain. It has been presumed she was Osgood's sister Martha, but that seems impossible. Aside from the fact that "May" is an unlikely nickname for "Martha," the note is obviously addressed to a child, and it invites "May" to come see Osgood "after school."Ellen and May Osgood
Ellen and May Osgood

Osgood's nine-year-old daughter May Vincent was then enrolled in a fashionable New York City boarding school (it is interesting that the girl lived at this school, instead of at home, even though her mother was then living in the same city.) Also, the letter was not sent through the post, which would have been the case if Osgood was writing to her sister Martha in Boston. It is most likely that the note was addressed to her daughter. If so, the fact that she called the girl "sister" and signed the note "your own Fanny," casts a peculiar light on Osgood as a mother. Her lack of maternal instinct was evidently well-known in her circle. Even her literary patron Rufus W. Griswold admitted she was "not domestic." Still more telling is a published quote from Elizabeth Oakes Smith:

" is the face of Fannie Osgood, oriental, not Madonna-like; her soft brown eyes beamed upon you as if conscious of their loneliness; but I never could bear to think of her as a mother. She was so fragile, so dependent, so utterly impracticable, that maternity looked distorted upon her..." Regarding "Fannie's" daughters, Smith added that Osgood "did not mean to neglect them..." Chillingly, Smith went on to say that, for their sakes, she was relieved when Osgood's "delicately organized" (i.e., neurotic) daughters Ellen and May died the year after their mother passed away.

Incidentally, the above quote, as well as Osgood's portraits, confirm that her eyes were brown. Why Poe, in his description of her in "The Literati of New York City," said her eyes were grey is anyone's guess. Was it a subtle form of insult? Or did he simply not know her well enough to be able to correctly recall the color of her eyes?

(Images: New York Public Library, Wikipedia)

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