Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Little Longfellow War

"Is it altogether impossible that a critic be instigated to the exposure of a plagiarism, or still better, of plagiarism generally wherever he meets it, by a strictly honorable and even charitable motive?"
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Mr. Longfellow and Other Plagiarists"

Yes, one more "Raven's Bride" post. Not to fear, I'll be getting back to regularly scheduled programming next week or so. But my observations that many parts of this novel are a virtual cut-and-paste job from "The Very Young Mrs. Poe" have caused a certain amount of, shall we say, unrest in some quarters. Much to my amusement, I've even acquired my very own Outis--although he is hardly of the same caliber as his distinguished predecessor. As a result, I wanted to post a short "reader's guide" listing a sampling of the too-close-to-be-coincidental resemblances between the two novels. I won't list all the exact resemblances I've found--I'm sure they'd be as tedious for you to read as they were for me to compile--but enough for my point to be made.The Very Young Mrs PoeThere are entire episodes these two books have in common, which are too lengthy to quote verbatim. Mind you--and this is a point I cannot emphasize enough--I am not speaking of episodes that both writers merely repeated from historical sources. It is, of course, a given that biographical novels about the same person will repeat many of the same incidents of that person's life. I am saying that Lenore Hart's novel repeats events that Cothburn O'Neal invented out of whole cloth. In other words, she used another work of fiction as her main source. For instance, history tells us that when Poe returned to Richmond in the summer of 1835, he stayed at a boardinghouse run by a Mrs. Poore. In October of that year, when he brought Mrs. Clemm and Virginia to live with him in that city, the two women lodged with a Mrs. Yarrington. It is not clear if Poe lived in the same boardinghouse with them, or returned to Mrs. Poore's. That is all we know.

O'Neal expanded upon these few details, creating a scene where the trio arrive at Mrs. Poore's, hoping to find rooms. She refuses to let them in the house. Poe is utterly puzzled by her attitude, but the implication is that her hostility is due to Poe's drunkenness while he lived there. Thomas Cleland then helpfully leads them to Mrs. Yarrington's, where they all take lodgings. These imaginary details--including their initial walk through Richmond to Mrs. Poore's and the description of the room Virginia and her mother are given at the Yarrington house--are all repeated in Hart's book.The Raven's Bride"The Raven's Bride" is even peppered with lines of dialogue and descriptive passages that were copied only from "The Very Young Mrs. Poe." (The main difference is that, while both novels are told from Virginia's viewpoint, "The Raven's Bride" is directly narrated by her.) Some examples from the opening chapters of each book:

In both novels, when Virginia first meets "Eddy" she is a small girl who arrives home after playing with two French neighbor girls.
O'Neal: "...making puppet motions with her hands and repeating the words to a gamesong they had been playing..."

Hart: "...making the sweeping hand motions that went along with our last shared song..."

She comes in to be introduced to her cousin:
O'Neal: "A stranger was sitting...before the empty fireplace, talking to Granny Poe, who was propped up on her couch as usual."

Hart: "Granny Poe was propped up on her settee by the fire, a sight which I'd expected."

In both novels Sissy feels "shy" as she approaches him.

In both novels "Eddy" remarks to her how much he likes her black curls and black eyes.

Later in both books, "Sissy" and "Muddy" are shown on the Light Street Wharf in Baltimore, ready to travel to Richmond. Muddy remarks to her daughter:
O'Neal: "I hope Eddy gets a letter...I'd feel better...if he had had some word from Mr. White."

Hart: "I do wish Eddy had received another letter from Mr. White."
Same scene:
O'Neal: "Sissy felt like hugging her mother. But it was such a public place, so many people around...That would look childish." (She wanted to live up to the chic traveling dress Maria had made for her.)

Hart: "For a moment I wanted to cling to my mother...But people were thronging all around us. Such behavior would look so childish..." (Even the dark traveling dress Muddy had cut down and restitched would not be sufficient to mark her as a grown woman.)

O'Neal: "She [Virginia] turned to look out across the basin toward Federal Hall."

Hart: "I turned away to look out across the basin toward Federal Hall."

O'Neal: "The docks...looked like a forest bare of leaves, the tall masts and spiky yards of...clippers standing naked...resting between trips to Brazil."

Hart: "Clipper ships...[with]...tall naked masts and spiky yards were bare of sails, their snarl of lines a thick forest without leaves...resting between dashes to Brazil and New York and Cuba."

O'Neal: "...his [Eddy's] plain black suit amid the colorful clothes...was all to his advantage. His fine head and scholarly demeanor set him apart."

Hart: "Eddy's black sack coat, black trousers...his broad pale forehead...set him apart to advantage."

O'Neal: "...there was no one on the pier to see them off, since they had already said good-bye to the family. Sissy waved anyway...she could wave farewell to Baltimore."

Hart: "There was no one to say good-bye and see us off...we'd already written or called on the few family and friends left in Baltimore....I waved from my spot at the rail...'She's waving good-bye to Baltimore,' he said..."

O'Neal: "The boat from Norfolk to Richmond was smaller and slower than the one they had boarded in Baltimore. The trip up the James River was more leisurely, too..."

Hart: "The boat we boarded in Norfolk to continue on to Richmond was smaller and a good deal slower than the Baltimore Line steamer. Our trip up the James was more leisurely too."

O'Neal: "Beyond ...the confluence of the Appomattox, the James grew narrower and wound in great loops around Bermuda Hundred."

Hart: "Beyond the confluence of the Appomattox, the James grew narrower and wound in great loops around Bermuda Hundred."

On their arrival in Richmond, Eddy describes Mrs. Poore's boardinghouse.
O'Neal: "She has a large house. There's always room."

Hart: "It's a large house. There's always space."

O'Neal: "The docks were busy, and the wagonette was held up now and then by dray wagons loaded with hogsheads of tobacco and sacks of flour and cornmeal. Sometimes an empty collier's wagon rumbled toward the coal yards...farther upstream."

Hart: "...the docks were very busy. We would lurch forward, only to stop for a dray loaded with sacks of flour and cornmeal, or an empty collier's wagon rumbling...toward the coal yards upstream."

The trio arrives at Mrs. Poore's (and, keep in mind that there is no detailed historical description of the house):
O'Neal: "'This is Capitol Square,' he said. 'Mrs. Poore's house is the next one here on Bank Street.'" "They turned into the yard of a large two-story brick house with a Greek portico fronting in the square. The half-paned front door revealed a well lighted hallway inside. Eddy climbed the steps and opened the door without knocking, just as though he still lived there."

Hart: "'Capitol Square,' he said. 'Mrs. Poore's is the next house on Bank Street.'" "We turned into the yard of a two-story brick structure with a whitewashed Greek portico facing the neatly-planted square. Within lay a wide, well-lighted hall. Eddy opened the door without even ringing a bell or knocking." "'Well, he used to live here,' I whispered."

In both books, the little family gets a negative reception (again, a scene that does not exist in the historical record):
O'Neal: "There was a wait, then the sound of a door opening upstairs. 'What was that, Tom?' a voice shrilled. 'I say Mr. Poe is back--' 'That's what I thought you said,' the voice interrupted. 'Well, you can tell him I don't have a vacancy and I'm not likely to have one.' The door slammed shut....'She doesn't have a vacancy,' he [Cleland] said with a grin. Eddy looked helplessly from Tom to Maria to Sissy and back to Tom. 'What are we to do?' he asked, of anybody."

Hart: "A door creaked shrilly on protesting hinges upstairs, and an equally high voice called down, 'What was that, Tom?'...'I said Edgar Poe is back, and he--' 'That's what I thought you said," the woman shouted. 'Well, you can tell him for me, I do not have lodgings for him, and am not likely to have any now or later!' The hinges squealed derisively as the door slammed again...Cleland turned back, avoiding our eyes. 'Ah, well, It seems my mother-in-law has no vacancy here just now.' Eddy stared at him helplessly. 'But I--then what are we to do?'"

In both books is the same completely imaginary scene where, after Virginia has some very unsettling "lessons" with the mentally disturbed Rosalie Poe--something that never happened in reality--she upsets "Eddy" by saying she can't help but love Rosalie, as he is so much like her. He runs off hysterically, crying out (in both books) "We are nothing alike." Later that night, he returns to their boardinghouse, and visits the room Virginia and her mother share.
O'Neal: "'I wanted to say good night,' he [Eddy] said...He pecked her [Mrs. Clemm] on the cheek. Then he kissed Sissy on the lips. There was no liquor on his breath. Perhaps that was what he wanted known. He made no explanations. No one asked him where he had been or what he had been doing. He looked tired, haggard...'It is good to come home to a room that has love and beauty in it,' he said."

Hart: "I wanted to say good night,' Eddy muttered from the foot of the bed...He came around and kissed my mother's cheek, then moved to my side and pressed his mouth to mine...He did not explain, and I did not ask where he'd been...he looked gaunt and hollow and tired. 'It's good to come home to such love and beauty,' he whispered...There'd been no taint of liquor on his breath. Perhaps that was why he'd kissed me full on the mouth, in front of my mother. So I would know that."

After Eddy and Virginia are married, they take a train to Petersburg for their honeymoon. In both novels, the conductor, recognizing them as newlyweds, escorts them to the ladies' coach so they may sit together.
O'Neal: "He [the conductor] asked permission of the half-dozen lady passengers to bring them aboard. 'If you ladies don't object,' he said, 'I will close my eyes to company rules and allow the groom to sit in the ladies' coach with his lovely bride.'...She [Sissy] felt that she passed inspection...It was difficult to determine the age of a young lady, especially if she were reasonably well filled out and modestly veiled. 'I must ask you not to smoke, Mr. Poe,' the conductor warned in parting. 'Smoking is restricted to the gentleman's car on the rear.' 'Thank you,' Eddy said. 'I seldom smoke.'"

Hart: "'Going to flout company rules, folks, and seat you all in the second coach.' He [the conductor] grinned at Eddy. 'Already cleared it with the ladies aboard.' When we climbed up no one looked askance or asked how old I was. Of course, if a female is veiled and reasonably well filled out, it's hard to tell her exact age anyhow. The conductor left after admonishing the groom, 'Smoking is restricted to the gentleman's car at the rear, sir.'...'Thank you for the information,' he said. 'In any case, I seldom smoke.'"

Both novels have a scene where William Burton comes to their house for dinner. (There is no historical record of this happening, and it is highly unlikely, as the two detested each other.) In both scenes, Burton offers to hire Virginia for his theatre, has an identical discussion with her about comedy being "a very serious business," (an observation of Virginia's which in both scenes has Burton holding a piece of cake halfway to his mouth in surprise,) and where Burton seeks to hire Poe for his new magazine.

In both novels, the scene with Burton is immediately followed by one where the Poes go boating on the Wissahickon. (O'Neal drew the scene from Poe's essay, "Morning On the Wissahickon," but added Virginia to the outing.) Again, we have no proof this ever actually took place. In both novels, Poe comes up with a skiff that someone had left on the bank. When Virginia objects to him appropriating it, he answers that the owner can steal their horse in exchange. They have a picnic where, afterwards, Eddy rests with his head in Virginia's lap. In both scenes, there is reference to their hopes of living someday in a cottage overlooking the river.

In both books is a scene where Eddy gets drunk on his way back from Henry Hirst's office. He stays away overnight, although there is hot soup waiting for him. Virginia spends the night in her mother's room, suffering terrible nightmares about what might have befallen him. The next day, as Mrs. Clemm goes out to look for him, Virginia anxiously prepares dinner for three--hot biscuits and sweet potatoes. Mrs. Clemm finally brings back the intoxicated Eddy. He has with him a caged talking bird (in O'Neal's book, it is a parrot; in Hart's, a black bird.)

In both books is a scene where Virginia forces her doctor (in O'Neal's book, Dr. Mitchell; in Hart's, Dr. English) to tell her how much time she has left. These two scenes--of which we have no historical record--are virtually similar.

In both novels, Virginia develops pneumonia. (Again, there is no factual evidence for this.) In both cases, Rosalie comes to help attend her. The combination of Virginia's illness and his sister's presence causes Eddy to go on a bender. Their landlady brings her some broth, commenting on how thin Virginia looks.

Both novels have Eddy getting into a quarrel with a "young lieutenant" at his gymnasium after Eddy outpoints him in a pistol-shooting contest. In both cases, the lieutenant tells Eddy that poets have no intelligence or common sense, and can't be trusted with firearms. In both novels, Virginia is suffering from a touch of pleurisy at the time. The Poes are both feeling ill, and are confined to bed, much to their mutual boredom, although Virginia suspects Eddy is just "sulking." Virginia recovers, although Muddy won't let her out of bed until she is free of pain and fever for two days. While the two invalids are recuperating, Eddy quickly solves a magazine's word puzzle, which gives him the idea of offering a public challenge for people to send him cryptograms to solve. The thought inspires him to rise from his sickbed, get dressed, and go out the door, fully recovered. To repeat: This fictitious scenario O'Neal invented appears in both books.

In both novels, after Virginia has her first hemorrhage, doctors order her to bed for many months. This evidently did not happen in reality. (Also, in both novels her initial physician is none other than a kindly Thomas Dunn English. Although English had a physician's license, he does not seem to have ever actually practiced as a doctor--and we certainly have no reason to believe Virginia was ever his patient.)

In both novels, there is the same scene when they are living at the Brennan Farm. Eddy is going into town, so Virginia--who is trying to convince him that she is well--takes advantage of his absence to take some laudanum and rest. Because of the heavy snowfall, he returns unexpectedly, and is aghast to find her in bed. In both scenes, he picks up the laudanum bottle and asks her, "How long have you been taking this?" In O'Neal's book, his question is described as "not an accusation; it was a petition, a supplication, a plea for a reprieve from doom." In Hart's, it is "less a medical inquiry than a child's plea: Tell me a story. Make me believe all is well, and will end happily ever after." In both cases, the scene ends with Poe brooding on birds and coming up with the genesis for "The Raven."

All the above does not fully detail all the fictional resemblances to be found in these two books. Not even close. I think, however, I have given enough examples. I find it impossible to believe that, after reading all this, any disinterested observer could fail to see that there are major-league shenanigans afoot. I truly have never come across anything like this.