Publishing Law Basics

Saturday, December 17, 2011

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

Poe's Legal Battle with the Literati
By Lloyd Jassin

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 - many of them about his (former) friends.  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 abhorrer 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 the wrong guy, a minor poet and publisher.  His name was Thomas Dunn English.  Poe, who knew English from his hardscrabble days in Philadelphia, carved English up in print, taking issue with his appearance (comparing him to an ass), his poetry (allegedly plagiarized) and punctuation.

In payment for for the sketch, English dished out double what Poe had heaped in front of him.  The following day 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 Poe deployed a lawyer as opposed to picking up a pen, is unclear.  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.

"Helplessly persecuted" or did  Poe "invite the 'Punchy' writers  .. . . to take up their pens and impale him for public amusement"?   Was Godey's Lady's Book a good career move for Poe?  I don't think so. 

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.  

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 

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