Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The libel suit, cont'd

Edgar Poe sued editors of the Weekly Mirror and its supplemental Evening Mirror, alleging libel. Poe had been accused of forgery and borrowing money under false pretenses. The defendants, editor Hiram Fuller and assistant editor Augustus W. Clason Jr., put in a plea of "not guilty" at the preliminary hearing, held August 4, 1846 at New York City Hall. The judge ordered a trial, scheduled for the first Monday in September.

The real source of the allegations against Poe was Thomas Dunn English, a trained medical doctor and licensed lawyer who would later go on to become a politician in New Jersey. In fact, the Mirror had only re-published English's accusations; his letter was first published in the Morning Telegraph. Sidney Moss, an expert on Poe's literary battles, conjectured that Poe was advised to go for the deepest pockets and win legally not for revenge but for vindication.

When Hiram Fuller heard Poe was considering bringing a lawsuit against him, Fuller actually challenged him to do it. He lied and said that English's letter was, in fact, a paid advertisement over which he had no responsibility (also untrue).

Word spread quickly of this public literary feud. Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms was concerned for Poe. A few days before the hearing, Simms wrote to Poe: "These broils do you no good—vex your temper, destroy your peace of mind, and hurt your reputation." Nevertheless, Poe's "Literati of New York" series kept getting published and Poe continued to make sometimes harsh judgments on his fellow writers. Hiram Fuller was kind enough to continue criticizing Poe, even as the trial for libel was pending. Fuller published in the Evening Mirror later in August that "Mr. Poe will go on with his pedantic skethces of our literati. His remarks on Mrs. [Lydia Maria] Child are evidently well intended. He describes her personal appearance with a flippant inaccuracy; it is possible that he has never seen her... His remarks about Mr. [Lewis Gaylord] Clark of the Knickerbocker are probably intended to be sarcastic, but sarcasm is Mr. Poe's weakness."

In the meantime, Thomas Dunn English (who, ultimately, was responsible for all this bickering) continued writing something of his own — a novel which would be published before the end of the year. More on that another time.

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