The Fiction of Poe's Life

Fanny Osgood
Fanny Osgood
 
To truly understand who Edgar Poe really was, it is necessary to delve into the literature and art of the period when Poe lived. Yes, Poe's own writings, including his letters, provide much biographical information, but many of Poe's statements have been discounted as 'pure fiction.' This is because many scholars hold the opinion that virtually everything Poe wrote about himself was a lie. This is an unfortunate assessment because Poe is quite honest about himself at precisely the times when biographers have believed him to be lying.




"Fanny" Frances Sargent Locke Osgood
    Steel Engraving from 1874
 
In fact, like most writers, Poe was his own best biographer. Still, calling for a reappraisal of Poe's life by careful assessment of his writings and letters is an ongoing process. What is needed to truly understand 'who Poe was,' is the knowledge that the most factual biographical statements about Poe are to be found in the fiction of other writers, contemporaneous ones, people who were close friends of Poe's, as well as those who were hostile to him.

In these writings we find a virtual treasure trove of books, stories, editorials and poems about Poe, about Fanny Osgood, about Virginia Poe's trials, about Poe's relationships with Sarah Helen Whitman, Marie Louise Shew, Mary Gove Nichols and the host of known and unknown 'Poe Women,' written by his friends, his lovers, his protégés; and others, by his bitter enemies. Sometimes the “stories” are from the point of view of the women, taking Poe to task for his treatment of them. Others take a very negative view of, say, Marie Louise Shew and Mary Gove Nichols in general, but relate specifically to how they 'abused' Poe.

This vast collection of 'fiction' is far more revealing about Poe's life than most of the far more fictionalized accounts supplied as 'fact' by the same people after Poe's death! The fiction and the art from Poe's own period in history, is invaluable in helping us get to the truth of Poe's complicated life from a variety of perspectives.

There have been several recent attempts to extract 'what really happened' between Poe and Fanny Osgood, by extrapolating personal information from Fanny's own poems and stories about Poe. To be sure, everything Fanny wrote about Poe is fascinating and insightful, but her poetry and fiction provide far more information than does the little Memoir of Poe that she clearly wrote under the watchful eye of Rufus Griswold.

Two books (one, a novel) have recently appeared championing the notion that Poe was the father of Fanny Osgood's daughter, Fanny Fay Osgood.

However, the Poe-Fanny romance is just a 'case in point' for the kind of reappraisal that is needed in all aspects of Poe's life. Poe's relationships, his career and his status amongst his peers must all be freshly analyzed and the grain carefully separated from the chaff.


Rufus Griswold
Rufus Griswold
 
These books about Poe and Fanny are certainly moving in the right direction. However, a far closer examination of Fanny's work is needed, especially her writings under her various pseudonyms, to understand their relationship. The writings of others in the Poe-Fanny circle: Elizabeth Fries Ellet, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Mary Hewitt, Emma Embury, Lydia Sigourney, Lydia Maria Child, Ann Stephens, Mary Gove Nichols, T.D. English, Philip Pendleton Cooke, Henry Hirst, George Lippard and especially, Rufus Griswold, show us how other writers perceived Poe - not only in connection with Fanny Osgood, but about many other familiar Poe situations and relations. Poe, whose life was fascinating and enigmatic, was the most popular character in the fiction of his own time, as he continues to be in our time. The extent to which this is true has never been recognized because so much of the popular literature of Poe's time, especially newspapers and magazine work, is now considered 'substandard writing.' Much of it is substandard writing, but newspaper and magazine writings, and those 'sentimental novels' of the 19th century, contain much to interest us about the era's most intriguing hero. Susan Fenimore Cooper and perhaps, Emily Dickenson, took their places as 'commentators' on Poe's life.

Fanny Osgood's flirtatious character, along with the general knowledge that she, a married woman, was having a brazen love affair with a married man, and having their child, had reduced Fanny's reputation to rubble. Before she gave birth to Fanny Fay, Osgood went into hiding, and from that point on became reclusive and morose. Her agonies only increased after Fanny Fay's death. Poe's death on October 7th, 1849, threw Fanny into such illness and despair that she died quite suddenly on May 12th, 1850. Yes, Fanny followed Poe to the grave only 8 months after his death.

Fanny Osgood was already the most widely written about woman in American literature during the 1840s. Hundreds of stories and numerous poems were written about the Poe-Fanny-Virginia triangle. After their child's death Fanny's friends rallied around her to protect her, and the number of stories and poems about her situation increased. Publicly, her reputation suffered; but privately, sympathy was strongly in her court.

After Poe's death, and Fanny's own fatal illness, she came to be regarded as downright saintly by her peers-- for having been victimized by society over her relationship with Poe. Fanny Osgood and her plight had become a cause celebre. 'Fanny worship' was at an all-time high by the time of her death. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny Osgood was, most certainly, the Scarlet Woman of her time, and therefore, the most deserving of sympathy.

'Fanny Worship' was rife in the literary/artistic crowds who adored her. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny's 'gypsy life-style' made her very popular in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Richmond, Portland and even Saratoga Springs. Fanny also had many friends in her Transcendentalist and 'Fourierist' coteries in and around Boston, where both Poe and Fanny were born.

At one time, she and Sarah Helen Whitman were extremely close to Margaret Fuller, another highly controversial figure living and working primarily in the Boston area. Fanny Osgood knew all the people Fuller knew, and that was everyone: The Lowells, the Hawthornes, the Peabodys, the Fields, the Holmes, and surely, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; but unlike Fuller, who most people (certainly Poe, Lowell and Hawthorne) grew to despise, Fanny was adored as a loving free spirit by virtually everyone.

Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising to learn that Poe, Fanny and their great romantic tragedy were used as characters by some of the greatest writers of their time. One of these was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who indeed, had experimented with Fourierism at Brook Farm, and whose wife, Sophia Peabody, had herself been under the spell of Margaret Fuller, much to Hawthorne's displeasure.

Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, within months of Poe's and Fanny's deaths. He felt compelled to write the tragedy of these two dear friends, to vent his own fury and sense of helplessness over the great loss he had suffered.

The characters of Hester Prynne and Rev. Dimmesdale are tributes to Poe and Fanny Osgood. The daughter, Pearl, represents Fanny Fay on some level, though Pearl's personality seems clearly based on Hawthorne's own daughter, Una, as well as on Fanny's own childish and mercurial personality. The hideous, predatory Chillingsworth is Rufus Griswold, who was despised by Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, N.P. Willis and virtually every writer of the time.

It must be remembered that Poe supported and mentored Hawthorne, but there were also bonds between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, who indeed, moved in the same circles in the Boston area. The bond between Hawthorne and Poe, between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, and their mutual friends provides an answer to, “Why would Hawthorne write a thinly veiled account of the Poe-Osgood melodrama?” For one thing, 'it made great copy,' but a close study of the letters and business transactions of the 'Hawthorne Circle,' during this period helps us understand that yes, The Scarlet Letter was intended as both a tribute and a requiem, for both Poe and Fanny.

Another novel that embodies the essence of mystery, shadiness, timelessness and enigma surrounding Edgar Allan Poe and the cover-up of his murder, is Charles Dickens' The Mysteries of Edwin Drood. The character's surname, 'Drood,' clearly implies 'Druid,' meaning a mystical person of Celtic origins with attendant Pagan overtones. This Druid, Edwin, represents Edgar Poe, whose bloodline was of British and Irish descent. Poe had indeed been branded a Pagan, and Dickens surely empathized, as he had also suffered from being branded a Pagan by his antagonists.

The sense of 'the unknowable' about Poe's murder is reflected in this most modern, and most disturbing, of all Dickens' novels. Some Dickens biographers have claimed that writing Edwin Drood killed Dickens. It is a great tragedy for modern literature that this breakthrough work, foreshadowing the style of James Joyce and Ulysses, was left unfinished at Dickens' death. Still, 'the mystery' of Drood's murder is revealed within the text Dickens' finished and may indeed provide us with clues about Poe's murder. Drood also serves as evidence backing the notion that Poe and Dickens were friends. Some scholars have suggested a much deeper relationship between these two Literary Lions than has yet to be explored. It does seem very likely that they knew each other far more intimately than their one recorded meeting in 1842 suggests.

In 'Poe-land' nothing, quite literally, is 'as it seems.' What we have now is the expurgated story of Poe's life, a concoction of tall tales and significant omissions created by Poe himself to some extent, as well as by friends, family and enemies. Surely, the 21st century, the Poe Bicentennial, is the time for a re-appraisal of 'The Man who was Edgar Allan Poe.' Whatever tall tales do not stand up over time must be discarded in fairness to the reputation of our country's most beloved literary icon.




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