Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Death of "Fanny" Osgood

On May 12, 1850, poet Frances Sargent Osgood died after a struggle with tuberculosis. She was 38 years old.

In the 1840s, she became estranged from her painter husband, Samuel Stillman Osgood, who was tempted enough by one of several discoveries of gold in California that he left his wife and children to find some. During their estrangement, "Fanny" Osgood (as she was known) carried on a very public flirtation with Edgar A. Poe — whose wife Virginia was very much still alive. In 1845, even while Virginia was writing Poe a Valentine, her husband was writing one to Osgood.

Biographers continue to debate the sort of relationship that Osgood and Poe shared, and the range is fairly wide. Some say their flirtation was purely platonic, an innocent game of poetry. Others suggest the couple went so far as to have a bastard child together, Fanny Fay, who died just over a year later and may have inspired Poe's poem "Ulalume" ("It was surely October / On this very night of last year / That I journeyed —I journeyed down here! — / That I brought a dread burden down here — / On this night of all nights in the year..."). That unlikely story was actually sparked by the rumor-mongering New Yorker Elizabeth F. Ellet, though it still has its believers today.

Here's an example of the "scandalous" poetry between the two.
"Impromtu. To Kate Carol" (1845)
When from your gems of thought I turn
To those pure orbs, your heart to learn,

I scarce know which to prize most high —

The bright i-dea, or the bright dear-eye.

Kate Carol was one of a handful of pseudonyms that Osgood used; another was Violet Vane (though they don't appear to be very secret). Regardless of her relationship with Poe, "Mrs. Osgood" was an accomplished poet and prose writer. Her popularity made her one of the most widely-read women writers of her day, especially as a contributor to many of the more popular magazines — including Graham's Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book. Over a century and a half after her death, however, Osgood is almost universally denounced as a trashy sentimentalist who embodied the stereotypical "safe" writing of women of her day. This critique comes especially from feminist critics, who can't help but cringe at reading some of her poetry, including "Song" ("Call me pet names, dearest! Call me a bird, / That flies to thy breast at one cherishing word, / That folds its wild wings there, ne'er dreaming of flight...").

Mrs. Osgood also carried on a simple flirtation with Poe's greatest enemy, Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Griswold was on the receiving end of a couple "romantic" poems, as well as the dedication of a volume of poetry. This minor rivalry for Osgood's (platonic?) affection may have been one more motivation behind Griswold's posthumous attacks on Poe. Either way, Osgood later did reunite with her husband the painter. Always frail, her death by tuberculosis in 1850 was not unexpected. She is today buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts — alongside her husband and little Fanny Fay.

*The portrait above is by Samuel Stillman Osgood. He also painted one of his "competitor," Edgar A. Poe before he grew his now-iconic mustache.

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