Monday, November 23, 2009

A Poe/Osgood Conundrum

Frances Sargent Osgood Edgar Allan PoeThe evidence we have that, after they permanently parted ways at the beginning of 1846, Edgar Allan Poe entertained friendly personal, as apart from professional, feelings toward Frances S. Osgood comes from the curious letters he allegedly sent Sarah Whitman and "Annie" Richmond. Even more curiously, the favorable references to Osgood in these letters are strangely confused.

We know that after Poe made his abrupt departure from New York and her life, Osgood made indirect attempts to contact him. In April 1846, her good friend Mary Hewitt wrote Poe a very odd letter. In this message, she admitted that she didn't know if it would even reach him, as she, along with everyone else in New York (including Osgood) had no idea where he was. She made a pointed reference to Osgood, saying how they both often spoke of him and his "dear wife," adding somewhat ominously, "you know the power of the femenine [sic] organ of laudation, as well as its opposite." Hewitt said she, Osgood, and the other "Bluestockings" were anxious to have the Poes rejoin their midst. Her letter was an obvious attempt--likely initiated by Osgood--to "smoke Poe out" and learn his whereabouts. There is no evidence Poe answered her.

About this same time, Osgood received a letter from writer John Neal's daughter Mary. The girl asked Osgood for a lock of her hair to add to her collection of such trophies from literary celebrities. Osgood replied not only with the requested item, but, bizarrely, suggested Miss Neal might like some hair from Edgar Allan Poe as well. Neal wrote back a pleased, if surprised assent, enclosing a note to Poe for Osgood to forward to him. Obviously, Osgood was using Neal to provide herself with an excuse to write Poe. The interesting thing is that Poe failed to respond to Neal's request. In a letter written months later to his cousin Mary Gove, John Neal indicated that he had not heard anything from Poe for some years. If Poe actually read Miss Neal's note, surely his normal gallantry towards women--particularly the daughter of an old friend--would have compelled him to reply. In other words, he was not even aware of Neal's query. How is this possible? It strongly suggests that when Osgood forwarded Neal's note, enclosed in one of her own, Poe recognized her distinctive manic scrawl on the envelope...and threw it away unread.

Sarah Helen Whitman related a particularly strange--and desperate--effort of Osgood's to reach out to the ever-elusive poet. Whitman claimed that sometime late in 1848, Osgood, having heard rumors of her engagement to Poe, traveled to Providence to interrogate her. Whitman--who was aware Osgood had no contact "written or otherwise" with Poe since the uproar involving Elizabeth Ellet--described her as anxious for Whitman to pass on to Poe everything she was saying to Whitman about him. Whitman was not specific about the content of these messages, except that they were extremely flattering and conciliatory. Why would Osgood use another woman--particularly his reputed fiancee--as a conduit for her own verbal bouquets? The obvious answer is that she knew he would refuse to hear these sentiments directly from herself. (Whitman stated that she obeyed this request--although she was offended by the effrontery of using her as a messenger service for Osgood's overtures--but she did not indicate what reaction, if any, Poe had. In fact, when describing the incident in later years, Whitman was forced to merely speculate about what Poe's feelings toward Osgood may have been, indicating that she simply did not know how he regarded her. Again, this brings into question the validity of the positive references to Osgood found in the letters Poe supposedly wrote Whitman. It also makes one wonder how well Whitman and Poe truly knew each other.)

And, of course, Osgood published a number of poems that have been theorized as making references to her relationship with Poe, although that has never been proven. The most interesting of the lot appeared in "Godey's Lady's Book" in May 1847, under the pseudonym of "Anna F. Allan." Entitled simply "To - - -," the verses begin:
"Since thou art lost to me on earth forever--
Since never more my lips may breathe thy name--
Since 'tis thy will that I not e'er endeavor
To learn where beats and burns that heart of flame..."

(Assuming this poem had anything to do with Poe--which, remember, may well not have been the case--it again showed Osgood's awareness that Poe wanted nothing more to do with her.) In January 1849 the "American Metropolitan" published her poem "Lines From an Unpublished Drama," (which I shall deal with in detail later,) which was said to be addressed to Poe. "Lines" is simply a desperate plea for him to forgive, or at least notice her. She undoubtedly made other attempts to reach out to him of which we know nothing. If so, they also were futile. Even Rufus Griswold told Whitman, soon after Poe's death, that Osgood had not had any communication with the late poet in years.

Poe's cold non-response to these overtures simply does not match the statements about Osgood in the Whitman/Annie letters, which are themselves internally contradictory. One of the letters to Whitman gives a vague and garbled account of the evil machinations of Elizabeth Ellet. Osgood is described as Ellet's innocent dupe, until the last line of the passage, which states flatly, "You will now comprehend what I mean in saying that the only thing for which I found it impossible to forgive Mrs. O. was her reception of Mrs. E."

This, of course, makes no sense. If his esteemed friend Frances had simply been manipulated and betrayed by Ellet, why would Poe find it "impossible to forgive" her? And what in the world does "her reception of Mrs. E." imply? That Osgood somehow colluded with Poe's enemy? (We know that Osgood attempted to repudiate a letter she had written--a letter that Virginia Poe had used to confront Ellet--by telling Ellet the Poes had forged the missive. Did Poe become aware of this?) The documented actions of both Poe and Osgood prove that she did indeed do something that Poe found unforgivable (and he himself once described his "resentments" as "implacable")--but it is impossible to reconcile this fact with the kindly pro-Frances attitude expressed in the Whitman/Annie letters.

As Whitman herself would say, it is impossible, for many reasons, to find "Poe the man" in the correspondence she and Mrs. Richmond bestowed to history. The Osgood references are a perfect example of this peculiarity.

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