Thursday, July 23, 2009

Poe sues for libel

Editor Hiram Fuller and his associates at the Evening Mirror had a bit of back and forth on Poe, accusing him of being "a poor creature... in a condition of sad, wretched imbecility" (July 20, 1846) as well as having a "habit of misrepresentation... and malignity is so much a part of his nature, that he continually goes out of his way to do ill-natured things" (July 23, 1846). Finally, Poe had enough. On July 23, 1846, he filed a lawsuit at the Superior Court of the City of New York against Hiram Fuller and his assistant Augustus W. Clason, Jr.

The Evening Mirror's continuous, unwarranted focus on Poe was one thing, but what likely really set him off was a writer named Thomas Dunn English. A provocateur all his own, English was known for satire and for getting on the wrong side of literary figures. He had a duel with Henry B. Hirst in Philadelphia and was kicked out of the office of John S. Du Solle of the Spirit of the Times, for just a couple examples.

Poe himself, of course, was not without fault. In a series of essays called The Literati of New York City (trashy celebrity gossip pieces, really, though more indicative of the period than of Poe personally) Poe referred to English as "a man without the commonest school education busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind in topics of literature" (certainly inappropriate, considering English had both a law degree and a medical degree). English responded with a vitriolic letter that he put into the hands of many, many publishers and editors.

English particularly latched onto the line that Poe's narrative persona wrote in The Literati of New York City: "I do not personally know Mr. English."

Of course the two knew one another. As English wrote in his reply, Poe tricked him into loaning him $30 to help the Broadway Journal in 1845. English also apparently gave Poe legal advice and set him up with a lawyer in June 1845 to defend charges of forgery (unsubstantiated). Most interestingly, English must have been surprised that Poe did not remember the fistfight the two fell into, thanks to the meddlesome Elizabeth F. Ellet. During that scuffle, English punched Poe directly in the face while wearing a large pinky ring. What appear to be bags under his eyes in Poe's later portraits is, in fact, the remnants of the scar. English concludes his letter with the characterization of Poe as a drunk who is "thoroughly unprincipled, base and depraved... not alone an assassin in morals, but a quack in literature."

The Mirror printed the reply, along with an introduction by Hiram Fuller himself in which he acknowledges its "severity" with "a twinge of pity." Other editors refer to English's reply as "most caustic and fearful," another notes it as "one of the most savage and bitter things we ever read," and one refers to English's "literary meat-axe" (in lieu of a tomahawk, perhaps?). Even Rufus Griswold, Poe's greatest enemy, noted English's attacks were in poor taste. Another publication expected Poe would "muster his intellectual forces, and give his adversary another battle."

Poe's response was relatively light, but his letter (published in a number of periodicals) does hint at legal action. He particularly blames Hiram Fuller for publishing it, noting he has "prostituted his filthy sheet to the circulation of this calumny." Fuller responds, "Let him institute a suit, if he dare." English responded as well, daring Poe take up a lawsuit.

He did. Poe hired Enoch L. Fancher as his counselor and, with his suggestion, sued the Mirror rather than go after English directly. Poe asked to be awarded damages of $5000 for two libelous remarks: that he obtained money under false pretenses and that he committed forgery. The suit was filed on July 23. The next day, the Mirror suddenly notes that "we do not hold ourselves responsible for Mr. English's charges against Mr. Poe," claiming English's letter was a paid advertisement (not true!). "But," Fuller writes, "if the latter gentleman chooses to take the matter into Court, we shall not shrink from the trial."

This post is long enough, I think. The results of Poe's libel suit, and English's continued provocations, will likely be continued at a later date.

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