Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mrs. Ellet's Letters (Part Two)

Edgar Allan Poe the Purloined LetterThe little evidence left to us does indicate that, sometime late in January of 1846, there was a dispute involving Edgar Allan Poe and letters he claimed Elizabeth Ellet had written. Ellet's friend Thomas Dunn English took her part, echoing her hysterical denials of writing Poe so much as a line. (As if English could know one way or another.) This caused Poe's relations with English--never exactly affectionate even in the best of times--to blossom into open, bloody warfare, which culminated in Poe suing a newspaper that had published a libelous column English wrote about him.

English claimed--although proof was never produced--that Poe had "vilified a certain well-known and esteemed authoress of the South, then on a visit to New York; that he had accused her of having written letters to him which compromised her reputation..." Ellet then allegedly sent her brother, William Lummis, to demand that Poe produce these letters--letters Poe (depending on which story you prefer) either refused to produce, or had already returned to her. According to Ellet and English, Poe--fearing Lummis would kill him--then extricated himself by writing Ellet a letter retracting his claim about her letters. This Poe letter, incidentally, was never made public, then or ever, which is odd if his worst enemies had a statement so damaging to him in their hands.

Griswold, of course, later gave his own version of the event in his Poe memoir, claiming that Poe had borrowed money from this "distinguished literary woman of South Carolina," and, in order to get out of repaying the debt, "denied all knowledge of it, and threatened to exhibit a correspondence which he said would make the woman infamous, if she said any more on the subject. Of course there had never been any such correspondence..." How Poe thought he could carry off an effective blackmail with letters his victim knew never existed is not explained. Also "infamous" seems too strong a word to use in reference to mere love letters. And, of course, in private, Griswold evidently insisted to various people that Ellet had written Poe letters of some unspecified, but scandalous variety. Interestingly, he hinted they were anonymous.

Osgood's exact role in all this is never made clear, only that her actions caused Poe to never speak or write to her again. And the literati rose as one to go after Poe with bell, book, and candle. The bulk of the literary world set out to destroy him personally and professionally, and destroy him they did, in a manner that would disgrace the most savage pack of piranhas. As Sidney P. Moss wrote, "Poe as a person was reduced to ruin by the New York literati and their sponsors, who used the occasion while he was defenseless to work out old grudges or new ones. What the record fails to show clearly enough is that Poe, up to the time he had written 'The Literati' sketches, had achieved an unparalleled national reputation as a critic, whatever notoriety he earned in gaining that reputation; that on the strength of 'The Raven,' he became famous as a poet...his narratives, widely, if not invariably accepted as brilliant at home, were beginning to be acclaimed in England and France...His encounters with English, Fuller, and company, however, brought his career to a grinding halt, for his personal reputation, smeared beyond recovery by his enemies, soured his literary reputation, so that his manuscripts often went begging for publication..."

Here is what we know of the situation:

In a letter of May of 1846, Horace Greeley made a vague reference to Poe having "scandalized two eminent literary ladies" (presumably Mrs. Ellet and--interesting to note--Mrs. Osgood.)

In January 1848, Anne Lynch, in response to Sarah Helen Whitman's inquiries about Poe, wrote her an equally vague letter describing "a great war in bluestockingdom some time ago and Poe did not behave very honorably in it."

In 1875, Elizabeth Oakes Smith commented to Whitman that "Mr. Poe was the last person to whom I should ever have attributed any grossness...I saw women jealous in their admiration of him. I think he often found himself entangled by their plots and rivalries. I do not for a moment think he was false in his relations to them."

Shortly after Poe's death, Margaret Fuller wrote these words about him to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "...several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend."

Greeley, in a January 1849 letter to Rufus W. Griswold discussing rumors of Poe's engagement to Mrs. Whitman, thought Mrs. Osgood would make a good envoy to dissuade the widow from having anything to do with the author of "The Raven."

In the wake of Poe's successful libel suit against the "Mirror," the paper that had published English's actionable column, sinister anonymous items began appearing in that newspaper, predicting that Poe would now turn his attention to hauling certain literary ladies (note the plural) into the dock as well.

At the end of 1845, just before matters came to a head, Osgood sent the "Broadway Journal" a bitter, angry poem entitled "To the Lady Geraldine," which describes how a woman who posed as her friend had caused certain other people to turn against her. (A February 1846 letter to Osgood from another friend indicates that Frances had made similar complaints to her.)

In March 1847, Edward Thomas, a friend of the Osgood family, wrote Frances a letter discussing Poe's recent lawsuit. Thomas had testified on Poe's behalf, recanting accusations he had helped spread that Poe was a forger. (Incidentally, English claimed that Poe told him that Thomas--a man Poe had never even met--spread these charges in the hopes of eclipsing Poe in Mrs. Osgood's affections. This claim seems hardly supported by the known facts, including Thomas' own letters to her. In any case, considering that English had just been established in a New York courthouse as a libeler--not the last time he would face such charges--one should be wary of accepting his word on anything--most particularly his word on people he hated. Besides, if Thomas was jealous of anyone around Osgood, surely it would have been her husband.) In Thomas' letter to Mrs. Osgood, he noted that he was not surprised that Poe won his suit, as he himself had always thought English's column "a libel in reality," apologized to her for being unable to give "Sam" the loan Mr. Osgood had recently sought from him, and then commented: "Poor Poe--he has lost his wife--his home--may the folly of the past make him contrite for the future--may he live to be what he can be if he has but the will. He is now alone and his good or evil will not so much afflict others." Thomas' words indicate not only that he never regarded Poe as a romantic rival, but that he assumed his friend Mrs. Osgood did not know--or approve of--the troubled writer any more than he himself did.

Finally, there is a most curious quote from Poe himself. In 1846, he published a review of Osgood's poetry, where he discusses at length a verse drama of hers called "Elfrida." Referring to the title character--a heartless, treacherous woman who cold-bloodedly plots the murder of her innocent husband so that she may marry a king--he notes, "In the depicting the impassioned ambition of Elfrida, the authoress seems especially at home, and upon this character she has evidently put forth her strength." What in the world was he trying to insinuate about Mrs. Osgood?

What do all these fragmentary clues tell us? That certain "literary ladies"--obviously Ellet and Osgood, as theirs are the only names to surface--got into a jealous catfight over their mutual admiration of Poe. Ellet did or said something to Poe that caused him to think badly of Osgood. That "bluestocking," in revenge, fed Poe some even more damaging information about Ellet. (The proof that she did so will be described later.) Poe, now weary of both these ladies--or, to be more accurate, "women"--invited them both to go straight to the devil, and left town to bury himself in the country at Fordham, leaving no forwarding address, and telling no one--particularly his erstwhile female fan club--where he had gone. Which brings us to the most detailed and revealing piece of hard evidence we have regarding the whole deranged business: A letter Mrs. Ellet wrote Mrs. Osgood in July, 1846.

To be continued...

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