Saturday, September 5, 2009

The libel suit, cont'd

Frequent readers of this blog may recall that Poe had brought a libel suit against Hiram Fuller, editor of the New York Mirror and the Evening Mirror. The trial was originally scheduled for September 7, 1846, though it would be postponed. Poe's lawsuit was in response to Fuller publishing a letter from Thomas Dunn English, though English himself was not named in the suit (likely because English didn't have money, but the publication did). Perhaps because of this, English assumed he was safe — so he continued his attacks on Poe.

On September 5, 1846, the Weekly Mirror included the seventh installment of English's serialized novel 1844, or, The Power of the "S. F." This seventh installment introduced a character named Marmaduke Hammerhead, a man described as:
a very well known writer... who aspires to be a critic, but never presumes himself a gentleman. He is the author of a poem, called 'The Black Crow,' now making some stir, in the literary circles... He never gets drunk more than five days out of the seven; tells the truth sometimes by mistake; has moral courage sufficient to flog his wife, when he thinks she deserves it.
In other words, as a trial inspired by English's libelous actions against Poe was about to begin, English continued libeling Poe. Most notably in this excerpt is the accusation that Poe was a wife-beater (at this time, Virginia Poe was an invalid in the last few months of her life).

The Mirror continued as well, apparently unconcerned about the libel suit and even made light of it. A filler published on September 10 included an epigram:
P— money wants to "buy a bed," —
His case is surely trying;
It must be hard to want a bed,
For one so used to lying.
Vindication for Poe would not come for a long time. The trial was delayed until February 1, 1847 (the day that Virginia Poe's obituary was published). Finally, on February 17, the Superior Court returned a verdict in Poe's favor, awarding him $225 in damages and additional court fees. These results were a bit controversial, with various newspapers taking one side or another. Hiram Fuller later published a defense in his own newspaper. But, what about Poe?

To him, it was more important for him to know that he was right, not to broadcast it to others. He left no public response to his victory nor to his shame caused by English and Fuller.

Or did he? Perhaps he left his last jest with no intention of ever taking credit for it. After all, true vindication for Poe was not merely to punish, but to punish with impunity, as he relates in a short story published a couple months after Marmaduke Hammerhead is introduced in English's novel 1844. That last example, readers might note, features a man taking revenge for unspecified insults. At the end of the tale, the narrator admits (boasts?) his revenge has not been discovered for 50 years.


melissa said...

$225?? Poe was a great man for not taking from the men more than just their money. And I am lost on the Impunity bit. How did he punish without punishing? Because their cruel acts will forever be remembered through his work? I don't know if I agree. Their injustice may be remembered through his work but I would rather the injustice be visible by the broken jaw on their face!

Rob Velella said...

$225 was the judgment granted from the court; Poe didn't choose the number. If you're interested, however, that translates to about $5000 dollars today. Considering Poe made only $9 for "The Raven," $225 is a substantial sum!

My argument as far as punishment is that, even though T. D. English seems to have gotten away with libeling Poe through his Hammerhead character, he is still taken to task through "The Cask of Amontillado." Poe must have felt vindication on a personal level enough that he didn't worry too much about public vindication... though I'm sure a broken jaw would have satisfied him too! Poe and English did get into a fistfight once...