Monday, May 10, 2010

The Devil's Law-Case (Part Two)

"A poltroon charges his foe, by instinct, with precisely that vice or meanness which the pricking of his (the poltroon's) conscience assures him would furnish the most stable and therefore the most terrible ground of accusation against himself."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Reply to Mr. English and Others"

"I'm the innocent bystander
But somehow I got stuck
Between a rock and a hard place
And I'm down on my luck."
-Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"

*"Mirror" editor Hiram Fuller, some months after the lawsuit ended, referred to the incident in his paper with the words, "There have been actors behind the scenes in all this business, whom we may yet have to call before the footlights. When a man has robbed you he will kill you also if he can, for the reason that 'dead men tell no tales.'" What in the world did he mean by that? A letter Sarah Helen Whitman claimed Poe wrote her in 1848 described Fuller and English--in frustratingly vague terms--as being merely Elizabeth Ellet's "tools" in the publication of libels against him. But who else could have been secretly involved? Surely, Ellet alone was not powerful enough to use such prominent literary figures for her own petty personal grudges. And, in any case, Fuller clearly had men--or one particular man--in mind. The last sentence quoted, incidentally, is particularly chilling in its implications. Could Fuller really have been suggesting someone "behind the scenes" might actually kill--or, at least, use very drastic means--in order to prevent the true history of the lawsuit from being told?

*In December 1846, Fuller published an editorial commenting on the widespread reports of Poe's destitution. Without mentioning his enemy by name, Fuller said that "we cannot now call to mind a single instance of a man of real literary ability suffering from poverty, who has always lived an industrious, honest, and honorable life; while of the other class of indigents, we know of numerous melancholy specimens, of both sexes." [My italics.] Now, this cheap jab was clearly meant, not just for Poe, but for someone else--a female someone. But what literary woman was Fuller insulting?

In the early 1840s, he and Frances Osgood had a close, coyly flirtatious relationship, but by this time they were estranged, for reasons unknown to us. Perhaps Fuller had become aware of the fact that Osgood passed his more overheated letters to her around to other of her friends for their entertainment, turning him into something of a laughingstock within her circle. He also had professional reasons to resent the poetess. Her friend Edward Thomas' sworn testimony that Poe was not a forger--an refutation she may well have encouraged him to make, if only to keep both her and Thomas out of trouble--effectively lost the lawsuit for the "Mirror." Fuller later published blind items suggesting that Poe would sue certain "literary ladies" who figured in the trial. That was obviously a taunt aimed at least partly at Osgood, who, so far as is known, was the only woman whose name surfaced in the lawsuit. Were Fuller's remarks about destitute literary figures who led disreputable lives also directed to Osgood, who was suffering from financial problems during this period?

*In an open letter to Nathaniel P. Willis that was published in Willis' "Home Journal" in January 1847, Poe, among other things, stated that his wife's illness had been "heightened and precipitated" by the receipt of two anonymous letters (evidently from Elizabeth Ellet)--one containing a newspaper report of the Poe family's degrading poverty, the other enclosing the violent columns Fuller and English wrote against Poe.

Virginia Clemm Poe

This persecution of the dying Virginia--seemingly an innocent bystander if ever there was one--raises several questions. What had Virginia done to inspire such venomous and vengeful hatred in Poe's enemies? It suggests that she played a larger role in his literary and personal battles than has been presumed. And why send her previously published attacks, of which she must already have been aware? Receiving in the mail attacks that were already public hardly seems enough to "heighten and precipitate" a fatal illness. Did these letters contain, not merely abuse against her beloved husband, but actual covert threats? (The newspaper paragraphs describing their destitution claimed that not only Virginia, but Poe as well, was soon to die.)

*In July 1846, Fuller, again carefully avoiding Poe's name but making his target plain, published a truly ugly column attacking the poet as "a poor wretch" whose personal misbehavior had "reduced his mind and person to a condition where indignation for his vices, and revenge for his insults, are changed into compassion for the poor victim of himself," that he was now "the most pitiful of all pitiable objects," and "in a condition of sad, wretched imbecility." (This piece of abuse probably was among the items included in the poison-pen letters sent to Virginia.)

Intriguingly, in this column Fuller momentarily veered from his assault on Poe to address someone else. In an obvious reference to Poe's "The Literati of New York City," Fuller remarked that "It would be unreasonable to look to such a person for a just appreciation of the works of an upright intellect. But the only harm that such men can do is by praise, and we might well suspect the merits of those who are lauded by such persons, if we did not know that their seemingly good words were as sinister as their abuse."

In short, Fuller claimed that Poe's praises of certain writers included in "The Literati" were, in reality, veiled insults. Was this another of Fuller's sly attempts to derogate his erstwhile friend Frances Osgood? Poe's "Literati" sketch of her, as well as his other published reviews of her work, certainly were full of "seemingly good words"--words which, Fuller now stated unequivocally, were actually attacks. Whether Fuller had Osgood specifically in mind or not, his remark bears keeping in mind when considering any "praise" Poe ever made of her. In this regard, of particular note is Poe's review of Osgood's poems that was published in March of 1846. When discussing her verse drama "Elfrida," (a play he strongly panned, incidentally,) Poe commented, "In depicting the impassioned ambition of Elfrida, the authoress seems especially at home, and upon this character she has evidently put forth her strength."

The title character Poe referred to was a heartless, deceitful, scheming woman who plotted the murder of her innocent husband because he stood in the way of her "impassioned ambition" of marrying a king. Could Poe's identification of Osgood with such a creature be called anything but "sinister?"

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