Publishing Law Basics

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Outside of a Dog #3: Poe's Legal Battle


Poe's Successful Defamation Lawsuit

Outside of a Dog is a series that features publishing wisdom from a variety of classic and contemporary sources.  As a lawyer, I'm fascinated by the economics and entrapments of publishing contracts and cases.

The New York Times reports that the literati have reached for their plagiarism pitch folks andtorches.  This time the literary prey is the author of a work of historical fiction whose main character is Mrs. Edgar Allan Poe.  The author of The Raven's Bride is in a perilous position - a literary outcast.  Ironically, Poe was vilified by New York's carnivorous literary establishment toward the end of his career.  In defense, instead of the pen, Poe reached for a lawyer.  Long forgotten, Poe's literary feud and lawsuit are a sad account of what happens when good writers do bad things.  

While famous for The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe was notorious for writing painful, intimate sketches of New York's literati.  Three years before his death, Poe's literary output was at a virtual standstill.  However, he had no difficulty spewing gossip for Godey's Lady's Book.  An abhorer of literary cliques, he used this lofty perch for self-promotion and to mercifully skewer friend and foe alike. He also used it to settle old debts. In July 1846,  Poe picked a fight with Thomas Dunn English, a minor poet and publisher, who Poe "profiled" in The Literati of New York.  Poe took issue with English's appearance (comparing him to an ass), his poetry (allegedly plagiarized) and even punctuation.  Poe knew English from his hardscrabble days in Philadelphia. Although the two had been friendly, that friendship ended in 1843, when English published a pro temperance novel, in which he ridiculed Poe by depicting him as a deceitful and quarrelsome drunk.   While English did not name Poe, the character in the novel was unmistakably a drawn-from-life portrayal of the brilliant writer.

In payment for Poe's unkind portrayal of him in Godey's Lady's Book, English dished out double what Poe had heaped in front of him in print.  On June 23, 1846, The Evening Mirror published English's "Reply to Mr. Poe," in which he called Poe a drunk, a forger, a fraud, a plagiarist, and, channeling Monty Python, an abject poltroon.  Curiously, Poe's large head and tiny hands were spared, but not his manhood.  My theory concerning English's apparent restraint, is that he had a large forehead and small hands. Petty, nasty and prideful describes both Poe and English.  English painted Poe as an unprincipled poseur:
"He is not alone thoroughly unprincipled, base and depraved, but silly-vain and ignorant -- not alone an assassin in morals, but a quack in literature.  His frequent quotations from languages of which he is entirely ignorant, and his consequent blunders expose his to ridicule, while his cool plagiarisms from known or forgotten writers, excite the public amazement."
Poe, no longer welcome in New York's literary salons, retreated north to a small, drafty, cottage in the village of Fordham.  Blacklisted and broke, he sued the owners of The Evening Mirror (but, not English) for publishing English's rejoinder. Why did Poe drop his pen and deploy a lawyer?  Three reasons.  English challenged Poe to sue him.   Poe's lawyer took the matter on a contingency fee basis.  And, in a letter to Horace Greeley, Poe wrote,  "I sue; to redeem my character from these foul accusations."  On February 17, 1847 a jury awarded "Mr. P. $225 damages and six cents costs."   He had sued for $5,000 in compensatory damages.  Within three (horrible and unhappy years) Poe was dead.

Was Godey's Lady's Book a good career move for Poe?  I don't think so.  Was challenging Poe to make good on his threat to sue him a smart move on the part of English?  Ditto. 

On a personal level, while not condoning possible bad behavior, I hope the author of The Raven Bride survives the persecution and returns as a full-member of the literary world.  The journals that vilified Poe are long forgotten.  Poe is evermore. There are second acts.  

Related
Outside a Dog: Nos. 1 & 2 (Mark Twain's 1900 eBook Contract  & Reserved Rights)
Libel-in-Fiction: Is Dick Cheney a Robot?  by Lloyd J. Jassin
Poe Makes Appearance as Marmaduke Hammerhead in Tom Dunn English's 1844 Roman a Clef 

Resources
Poe's Major Crisis: His Libel Suit & New York's Literary World (1970, Duke Univ) by Sidney P. Moss
Israfel: The Life & Times of Edgar Allan Poe  (1927, Doran) by Harvey Allen
Poe's Poisoned Pen: A Study in Fiction as Vendetta (2009), by CL Givens

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells" sung by Phil Ochs