Monday, January 4, 2010

Poe and Thomas Dunn English

edgar allan poe thomas dunn englishIt is well-known among students of Edgar Allan Poe that he and Thomas Dunn English became the most bitter of enemies in 1846, a feud which culminated in Poe's successful lawsuit against the newspaper which published English's libels against him. The ostensible initial cause of their dispute was English's accusation that Poe lied when he said Elizabeth Ellet had written him some sort of incriminating letters. (I would very much like to know why English so involved himself in an issue where he could not have had any personal knowledge, and which was none of his business to boot. It suggests some sort of sinister alliance between him and Ellet.)

What is less well understood is that Poe and English had been at odds since at least the early 1840s. It has been suggested that during Poe's disastrous visit to Washington D.C. in 1843, he managed to offend the proud and touchy English. English, in turn, may have tried to use his political connections to help sabotage Poe's efforts to obtain a minor governmental appointment. English's enmity did not stop there. Many years later, his business partner, Thomas H. Lane, recalled how English always "had the capacity of being a perfect irritant" to Poe.

In 1843, English published a pro-temperance novel, "The Doom of the Drinkers," which featured a character named "Walter Woolfe." He described Woolfe as a brilliant writer, but also a drunk who "was the very incarnation of treachery and falsehood." The character was intended as a cruel Poe caricature. The following year, English published--under Poe's name--"The Ghost of a Grey Tadpole," a crudely obvious parody of Poe's Gothic prose style. For his part, Poe, in an 1844 letter, contemptuously dismissed English as "a bullet-headed and malicious villain." (This excellent character summation was, however, eclipsed by Poe's later description of his antagonist as "the animalcula with moustaches for antenna.") Anne Clarke, the daughter of Poe's friend Thomas C. Clarke, recalled that during the time Poe lived in Philadelphia, he and his fellow poet Henry Hirst were on such bad terms with English that on one occasion when all three men called simultaneously at the Clarke residence, they had to be escorted to separate sections of the house "lest they come to deadly strife."

Clearly, the two men were never soul mates. The curious thing is that in 1896, when English published his "Reminiscences of Poe," he was careful to hide this fact. He depicted Poe as a drunken, deceitful jerk (who, English suggested, was virtually run out of Philadelphia in 1844 for reasons left unsaid because--he slyly suggested--they were far too scandalous for a gentleman such as himself to reveal. This claim, incidentally, is evidently as false as the rest of English's testimony.) Contradictorily, however, he also described himself as a near-constant companion and confidante of this disreputable creature. If you believe English, he was the chief advisor to the entire Poe household. Poe went to him for help (or "kindness and counsel," in the immortal words of Frances S. Osgood) when he was accused of forgery. Poe went to him for help when he could not come up with an original poem for a recital. Poe went to him for help when the "Broadway Journal" hit the skids. Poe went to him for help when Elizabeth Ellet's brother went gunning for him.

In these "Reminiscences," English gave a distorted version of the Ellet/Osgood letters scandal that first appeared in John Ingram's 1880 biography. (It is notable that English, in all of his previous published accounts of Poe, never said a word about him and Mrs. Osgood until after Ingram's book came out, inspiring English with the need to put his own spin on the Poe/Ellet/Osgood fracas that Ingram publicized.) In English's retelling of the story, Ellet is whitewashed to look as an innocent victim of Poe's insults, with only Osgood--whom English had strongly disliked--and Poe depicted in a negative manner. He is also, interestingly, careful to avoid any mention of any letter written by Osgood as figuring in the dispute--which just bolsters the belief that the "Osgood letter" which instigated the scandal was not a love note, but a tell-all to the Poes dishing the dirt on her enemy Ellet. Just to add that final touch of deceitful sleaze to his report, he claimed that Mrs. Clemm went to him, their dear family friend and councilor, about concerns Virginia had about Poe's friendship with Mrs. Osgood. English claimed that as he had "more influence" with Poe than anyone else in the world, Mrs. Clemm wished him to talk to Edgar about the matter. English said he soothingly assured her Poe and Osgood's relationship was entirely platonic. (Why the ladies Clemm did not go to Poe himself with these alleged worries is not explained.) If his tales--which, let us keep in mind, were published over fifty years after the events in question--are to be believed, no one in the Poe family was capable of so much as buying a pair of shoes without the advice and support of Thomas Dunn English. (Poe specialist Benjamin F. Fisher once neatly summarized English's recollections as "back-stabbing reminiscences which long sustained the guise of plausible biographical information." Indeed, English's own prefatory remarks to these "reminiscences" acknowledge they were written to counter the negative way in which he himself was described in recent Poe biographies by John Ingram and George Woodberry.)

Everything English said was, of course, all rot. It is assumed that for most of 1845, Poe and English had, for reasons of mutual self-interest, maintained a relatively quiet relationship. (Although even that presumption hardly squares with Thomas Lane's memories of Poe storming into their offices during this period announcing "Where is English? I want to kill him.") However, the notion that Poe--or anyone in his family--could have seen the bullet-headed villain who had lampooned him as any sort of confidante is simply impossible. English's efforts to suggest they ever had a close relationship were intended to lend plausibility and objectivity to his assaults on Poe's character (he was saying, in effect, "look, I was such close friends with the guy, you can trust every rotten thing I say about him.") Instead, this fundamental falsehood robs everything he wrote of the slightest credibility. Another reason to ignore English's statements is the oft-ignored fact that, as a result of Poe's libel suit, a New York City courthouse officially ruled that he was an unmitigated liar. Even more: English's later publication, the "John-Donkey," lasted less than a year before collapsing under the weight of the multiple libel suits brought against the publication. The man hardly made an ideal character witness.

English's "Reminiscences" is yet another part of Poe lore that, in a saner world, the poet's biographers would have thrown straight to the dogs.