Monday, July 30, 2012

In Which I Am All At Sea. As Usual.

Pauline, popular proprietor of the peerless "Pauline’s Pirates and Privateers" potpourri, has done yours truly the undeserved honor of having me guest-post at her site. I discuss the mysterious and fatal voyage of the good ship Glendower a century ago. The story has nothing to do with Poe, but I’m sure the old boy would have found it a wonderful piece of work for M. Dupin.

I hope you like the essay, but, in any case, stop wasting your time around here and go read the archives of Pauline’s site, if you haven’t already. You’ll learn more than you ever will hanging around this disreputable online neighborhood of mine.

(A footnote: In a curious coincidence, it was on this date in 1838 that "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" was published. What better time for strange sea stories?)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Lawyers, Gold-Bugs, and Money (Part Two)

“No doubt you will think me fanciful--but I had already established a kind of connexion.”
-“The Gold-Bug”
In 1876, the magazine "Notes & Queries" carried a letter from a regular contributor known only as “Uneda,” claiming Francis H. Duffee had proven that Poe ("a most unprincipled man") plagiarized from George Ann Sherburne’s “Imogine.”

“Uneda’s” accusations caught the attention of John H. Ingram, an ardent Poe defender who was then engaged in researching his biography of the poet. Ingram sent a reply challenging the pseudonymous writer's statement. "Uneda" retorted he had good reason for the "very decided opinion that I entertain upon Poe's moral character." (He added "I never heard any one in this country express any other opinion than that which I entertain respecting the character of Poe"--an assertion absurd enough to disqualify anything he had to say on the topic.) He quoted a letter from Duffee giving his (demonstrably and remarkably inaccurate) side of the story: "I did accuse Edgar A. Poe of plagiarism, a charge which was never disproved...Miss Sherburne...informed me, in the first place, of the plagiarism, and I exposed Poe in an article in one of our daily papers, for which he commenced a libel suit." Duffee claimed that after Poe received a letter from him, the author "soon dismissed the matter, for very good reasons."

Ingram responded by sending "Notes & Queries" what he described as a "shutter up" letter. He pointed out a long list of people who had expressed an admiring view of Poe's character, and asked “Uneda” “in justice to the dead, and for the satisfaction of the living, to state how, when, and where this charge of literary theft was proved against Edgar A. Poe. Mr. Duffee's letter gives no particulars as to the necessary data.

“Uneda” took over a year to respond. He commented sniffily that Ingram’s query should have been addressed to Duffee, "and ought to have been answered by him." However, as that gentleman failed to respond, “Uneda” “after much trouble and a considerable expenditure of time” found a copy of “Imogine,” a story he had never before read. In a rather startling about-face, “Uneda” stated matter-of-factly, “It is a very extraordinary work for a girl of thirteen to produce, but it does not bear the slightest resemblance to Poe's story of the Gold Bug, either in its incidents or its style. I cannot imagine why my friend Mr. Duffee was made the victim of so silly a hoax.”
Edgar Allan Poe The Gold Bug
Yes, “Uneda” repeated in print long-discredited, long-forgotten accusations that Poe was a plagiarist without ever bothering to discover for himself whether or not the charges had merit. And he admitted it without even a shadow of visible embarrassment. Truly, if Dr. Griswold had been unable to take on the job as Poe’s official biographer, “Uneda” would have made a worthy substitute. (“Uneda” also sent Ingram a private letter accusing Poe of what the biographer described as “all kinds of filthy crimes,” but this letter, perhaps fortunately, is not extant and its exact contents unknown.)

Ingram did not record the identity of this adversary who bore such a stubborn, irrational grudge against Poe, but we now know he was William Duane, Jr. Duane, whom a contemporary once described as “a strange, solitary, unsociable man,” was of distinguished ancestry (his father had been Secretary of the Treasury, and his mother boasted Benjamin Franklin as a grandfather.) However, in Poe biography he is known solely for figuring in another odd, and seemingly embarrassingly trivial scandal. In 1844, Poe, with Henry B. Hirst acting as self-appointed go-between, borrowed a volume of the “Southern Literary Messenger” from Duane. When Poe was engaged in moving from Philadelphia to New York City in April of that year, Mrs. Clemm was given the task of returning the book. According to her, she left it in Hirst’s office, with one of his brothers.

Duane and Hirst, however, insisted otherwise. According to them, Mrs. Clemm--either accidentally or deliberately--sold the book, after which it wound up with a Richmond bookseller, thus forcing Duane to rebuy his own property. Angry letters were exchanged between Poe--who defended his mother-in-law’s integrity--and Duane over the incident. Duane claimed that Poe later realized his error, and suffered a good deal of mortification for his rudeness, but we have only Duane’s word for this, and the “Uneda” episode hardly inspires faith in his credibility.

As so often happened elsewhere in Poe’s history, there is in this saga a curious pattern of seemingly unrelated incidents having obscure links. In this case, the link between the Duffee scandal, the attempt to revive it by Duane, and the curiously overblown incident involving a misplaced book is Henry B. Hirst.

Duffee, it will be remembered, blamed Hirst for the dispute with Poe that nearly got Duffee sued. Hirst was also central in the later problems between Poe and Duane. According to Poe, Hirst “seemed to make a point” of personally obtaining the desired “Messenger” volume from Duane. (He later put it even more strongly, describing Hirst as the person “who insisted upon forcing” the book on him.) If we believe Mrs. Clemm’s story--and, unlike virtually all of Poe’s biographers, I see nothing that disproves it--the book was returned to Hirst, after which it mysteriously wound up in the hands of an out-of-town book dealer. As Duane and Poe apparently had no personal acquaintance, it is probably thanks to Hirst that Duane acquired such a vehement, oddly personal loathing of the late poet.

It all suggests that Hirst (who was once described by a woman who knew him well as "the most accomplished liar of his day") made a habit of fomenting what Duffee would call “mischief” all throughout Poe’s Philadelphia years--and beyond. Over the years, Hirst made other, equally irrational, charges of plagiarism against Poe, and it seems not improbable that he spread other unflattering gossip against his soi-disant friend. (In 1867, Elizabeth Oakes Smith quoted Hirst as telling her that "the real contempt which Poe felt for his contemporaries came out at once under the influence of the wine-cup, and he ridiculed, satirized, imitated and abused them right and left without mercy." In a column published two weeks after Poe's death, Hirst stated he "never heard [Poe] express one single word of personal ill-feeling against any man...")

Thomas O. Mabbott wrote casually that Hirst eventually went “harmlessly insane.” Hirst’s so-called madness reads more like a method that was “business as usual” in the World of Poe. And it was far from harmless.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lawyers, Gold-Bugs, and Money (Part One of Two)

“Circumstances, and a certain bias of mind, have led me to take interest in such riddles…”
-“The Gold-Bug”

Poe scholars are familiar with his 1846-47 libel suit against the "New York Evening Mirror." What is less well-known is that this was not his first effort at bringing his defamers into court. Like his later suit, this earlier legal battle has a certain air of mystery around it.

The trouble involved Poe’s most popular story, “The Gold-Bug.” In June 1843, the tale won a short-story prize offered by Philadelphia’s “Dollar Newspaper,” and the yarn about codes and hidden treasure became an immediate sensation. Soon afterwards, however, a rival publication, the “Daily Forum,” printed a very curious attack on Poe’s work. Under the headline “The ‘Gold Bug’—A Decided Humbug” came the following:

“We have no hesitation in stating the fact, that humbug beyond all question is at last the ‘Philosopher’s stone,’ in the discovery of which so many geniuses have heretofore been bewildered. In this opinion we are more fully confirmed by the recent literary production entitled the ‘Gold Bug,’ which has been paraded in flourishing capitals by the publishers of the ‘Dollar Magazine,’ [sic] and pronounced by them as the most entertaining and superbly written ‘prize tale’ of modern times! That ‘one hundred dollars’ was paid for this signal abortion we believe to be an arrant falsehood, and in this sentiment we are not singular, for several of our friends who have read the portion which has already appeared, pronounce upon it the verdict of unmitigated trash! We are inclined to think that ten or fifteen dollars satisfied ‘the talented Edgar A. Poe, Esq.’ for this excruciating effort in the tale line.”

“In the publication of this unique affair, the proprietors of the ‘Dollar Magazine’ know how to give the public ‘two bites of a cherry’; but they will find it a very difficult task to point out hereafter even ‘the man in a claret coat’ who has read the second part of the ‘Gold Bug:’ The writer threw away three cents in the purchase of the commencement of the tale, but will be exceedingly careful in not getting blistered by the ensuing dose of cantharides, which is usually made out of Gold Bugs. The public are little aware of the humbug heretofore practised in this ‘prize tale’ business. We are indebted to a friend who obtained several of these kind [sic] of prizes, for the method in which it is accomplished. It is to this effect: the publisher announces with a grand flourish the literary tournament, and after having pranced about a while on his pegasus, induces a number of really meritorious writers to enter the lists and compete for the nominal prize, which has all the appearance at first of a 'Gold Bug,' but is certain to eventuate in a humbug! The period at length arrives for the distribution, when sure enough some 'youth unknown to fame' is knighted and bears off the palm of victory, merely 'to save expense' and because his name is well known to the reading community as 'a talented man.' This is not an overwrought picture, for let it be distinctly understood that the writer of this has never had 'a kink in his tale,' and consequently can feel no jealousy, but merely vents his indignation in relation to as great a literary humbug as was ever placed before the reading community. 'Having cast the first stone,' mark our prediction if this 'Gold Bug' is not generally pronounced unworthy of existence in literature."

This anonymous and decidedly overheated “communication” was the work of Francis H. Duffee, an unimportant, if noisy, local stockbroker, dramatist and journalist. Poe, never one to ignore slights on his personal dignity, did not waste any time fighting back. Two days later, another Philadelphia paper, “Spirit of the Times,” reported that Poe had filed an action for damages against his attacker. Two days after this notice appeared, the same paper published a letter to the editor from Duffee, nervously trying to walk back his charges, saying that his communication had been “stated merely as an opinion, the contradiction of which publicly given by the publishers, sets the matter at rest, and merely goes to show that I, in my criticism, have committed an error.”

The matter might have ended there, if the paper's editor John Du Solle had not made the mistake of trying to get cute. As an addendum to Duffee’s apology, Du Solle puckishly suggested that “The Gold-Bug” plagiarized “Imogine, or the Pirate’s Treasure,” an obscure 1839 tale written by a thirteen-year-old girl named George Ann Sherburne.

Historians believe Du Solle was merely exercising his idea of wit, but the allegation was repeated, as a serious charge, in the “New York Herald.”

Meanwhile, the other Philadelphia newspapers, always in search of a good fight, did their best to fan the flames. Poe’s friend George Lippard wrote in the “Citizen Soldier” that “The Gold-Bug” was “one of the best stories Poe ever wrote” and dismissed Duffee’s attempts to tarnish it as “a humbug--a transparent, gauze-lace, cobweb-tissue humbug.” Lippard freely conceded that “name and not merit” commonly prevail among judges and other “secret critics.” “In such a system, the man of notoriety has all the chances--the man of genius none.” However, in Poe’s case, there could be no question that “the story is worth the ‘Prize money,’ ten times told.”

The “Public Ledger” also weighed in on Duffee’s allegations, stating that “Mr. P will, of course, allow the gentleman every opportunity he may desire to substantiate his charges, or any portion of them, and as he will necessarily fail in every particular to do so, or to show the least shadow or particle of the appearance of anything to justify the charges he has made, he will hold himself ready to bear the consequences of an act which must have been prompted solely and entirely by his own mere suspicions.” Duffee’s apology, they snorted, was “nothing more than an exposure of his own attempted injustice to the parties concerned.” For good measure, the “Ledger” sharply criticized the “Daily Forum” for publishing Duffee’s “foul slander” in the first place.

The “Forum” publishers defended themselves by washing their hands of Duffee. They carried an editorial stating, “the character of the gentlemen composing the committee to award the premiums, precluded the possibility of any collusion between the editors of the Dollar Weekly and Mr. Poe, and as we were of this opinion, we rejected one communication from the same source, and even cut out sentences from the published one. The correspondent spoke with certainty, and having a responsible name, we felt it a duty to lend our colemns [sic] to expose what was characterized as a humbug. Upon the first application made to us, we gave the name of our correspondent.”

This same issue of the paper carried another letter from Duffee, which was even more peevish and rambling than his last. He claimed that he had yet to receive notice that he was being sued. “If, however, to receive a polite note from a highly talented and amiable member of the bar--if to be waited upon by Mr. Edgar A. Poe, accompanied by two gentlemen with big sticks--if to meet them boldly and candidly acknowledge myself the author of the critique--if to be again waited on by the said Poe, accompanied by another gentleman with a big stick, and presented with a paper for me to sign calculated to make me acknowledge myself a liar and a scoundrel in the face of the public--if this is the commencement of legal proceedings, it is a way so outre, so 'grotesque and arabesque;’ that it could only emanate from the clique, and not from the proper tribunal, the law!” If Poe was so “excrutiating [sic] sensitive,” Duffee sputtered, why has he ignored innuendoes aimed at him by others? Poe was a man famed for his “severe and scorching criticisms” which have “driven from the field of poetry the timid and aspiring son of genius.” He had never “shown mercy to others,” so what right had he to suddenly be so “'demm’d' sensitive?” He closed by repeating as fact Du Solle’s fantasy about Poe plagiarizing from the youthful Miss Sherburne.

Du Solle soon realized his little “joke” had gone too far. Haunted, no doubt, by visions of Poe pursuing him with a pack of hungry lawyers, he quickly published a retraction, stating that the "exceedingly well written and ingenious" “Gold-Bug” bore "no further resemblance to Miss Sherburne’s tale, than it must necessarily bear from the fact of touching upon the same general grounds. Mr. Poe well deserved the prize of $100.”

The “Ledger,” meanwhile, rubbed a little salt into the self-inflicted wounds of their rivals by commenting that the “New York Herald” plagiarized a recent editorial from “Blackwood’s Magazine.” “This same paper charged Mr. Poe with having committed plagiarism in writing the prize story for the Dollar Newspaper, the Gold-Bug, by stealing the plot from a tale by Miss Sherbourne [sic]. Even this idea of the Herald was stolen from another paper, which has since retracted the charge in a handsome manner; but the Herald holds on to the stolen idea as if it was its own and honestly come by, even after the owner himself has repudiated it as unjust to Mr. Poe. For shame!”

The “Dollar Newspaper” also returned to the fray, giving an analysis of the Poe and Sherburne stories, and concluding there were no similarities between the two works other than “the finding of money--a subject which has been handled not only by Miss Sherburne, but by some fifty, if not by some five hundred talewriters.” They also reprinted Du Solle’s “magnanimously made” retraction. The "Saturday Museum" shrugged that the "supposed resemblance" was "altogether imaginary." Similarly, the "Daily Forum" "reperused" the stories in question, and could assure readers,"They are no more alike than the Gold Bug is like the 'Man that was used up.'" (Just to add to the general fun, the “Forum” also gleefully announced that Duffee was bringing a libel suit against the “Public Ledger” “for maliciously dragging his business relations before the public and throwing out intimations that he was connected with fraudulent institutions.”)

Meanwhile, the publisher of George Ann Sherburne's "Tales," which featured "Imogine," wasted no time rushing the small volume back into print, complete with notices inviting all who "like the Gold Bug" to "judge of the resemblance between the two." It's truly an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

By the end of July, Poe and Duffee had a personal meeting where they resolved their differences. Duffee evidently claimed his original column had merely been “misconstrued.” He repudiated any suggestion of collusion between Poe and the prize committee. In return, Poe dropped his suit. Duffee afterwards published a cryptic, vengeful column in the “New York Cynosure.” He made bitter reference to a certain "Petty-fogger" who "has been at the bottom of all the mischief between the belligerents in the matter of the 'Gold Bug.'" The "
creature" whom Duffee accused of engineering his “mischief” was evidently a mutual acquaintance, the poet Henry B. Hirst. (Hirst, who was also a lawyer, probably represented Poe in his aborted legal action against Duffee.)

This ended the “Gold-Bug” controversy, at least during Poe’s lifetime. However, it had a brief, strange revival nearly thirty years after his death, in the magazine “Notes & Queries.” I shall relate that episode--and explore its connection to another Poe scandal--in my next post.