Text: Henry W. Wells, “Thomas Ollive Mabbott,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 75-77 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 75:]



I cannot refrain from a brief, unsolicited statement for the Jay B. Hubbell Center for American Literary Historiography concerning my friend, Thomas Ollive Mabbott, deceased, but still vivid in memory. I wish especially to emphasize the conclusion, so often to be drawn, that persons of high attainments have been to the manner born. Tom was from his early years clearly destined to be a research scholar and to dedicate his efforts to Poe. He persisted in his course virtually from youth to his final year, even leaving much of his work to be posthumously completed. I knew him best when he seemed scarcely passed boyhood; he certainly appeared unmistakably youthful. I saw relatively little of him during the many years of his distinguished teaching at Hunter College. Thus I knew him best as a fellow-student, not when he was a teacher, well-known and widely recognized in the scholarly world. For this very reason I may be in a position to add items of reminiscence or biography that few others can now supply, depicting him as I knew him intimately over half-a-century ago. He was one of the rarest of men, at least one of the rarest among us in his own times. I have often thought that it would take a Balzac to do him justice.

I first met Tom socially in an extremely old-fashioned and conservative hotel on Fifth Avenue, around the corner from Washington Square. I never had the opportunity really to know his parents, but in those early years he was to all appearances living with two elderly aunts. Henry James would have been hard put to imagine the formality of this social setting. Politically the climate was entirely Republican, a form of secular piety. I recall it best in terms of starched table napkins and a dining room hushed, even solemn. Even at that time Tom was completely entranced by Poe, with whom he had been joined in a child-marriage destined to last through a lifetime. There was no question about it; the two had met, never to part. I myself was of a totally different temperament where such orientation was concerned, but at least no one of my own inclinations could fail to love and admire Tom.

Although Poe was at the core of Tom’s intellectual life, there was much more to him than that, though possibly it would better be said that into his studies of Poe he poured an extraordinary wealth of knowledge, richness of sensitivity and humanity. It is not, I trust, improper to describe him as a strange man; so was Poe, and Tom was peculiarly, possibly uniquely qualified to be the charioteer of that eccentric and romantic genius. There was genius there, even if of a secondary order. Tom was a virtuoso in scholarship no less than Poe in poetry, but you could not thrust Tom into any category; he was himself. Although unabashed in his many violently held opinions, [page 76:] which an unsympathetic observer might term prejudices, he possessed a far-reaching mind, acquisitive and curious to explore — as did Poe — infinite corners in both light and shade.

Tom was a classicist as well as a romantic. This accorded with his chief hobby, numismatics. He possessed coins of virtually all the Roman emperors, several of his rarest pieces not duplicated even in the collections of the British Museum. With the meticulous care of a devoted collector, he kept his treasures in a cabinet of considerable elegance, exhibiting them to his friends as another collector might jewels. No one was less mercenary or less avaricious. He became a distinguished member of the Numismatic Society. He himself seemed as much at home in a great library as a plant in a botanical conservatory. His true home in New York was not that which I have attempted to describe in the Washington Square area but in his beloved library at Forty-Second street. Still dearer to him was the British Museum, with which he was in frequent correspondence. It was of interest to me that he also showed an admiration for the thoroughness and systematic procedure of so much German scholarship in the fields that especially attracted him. All his enthusiasm for learning notwithstanding, there were other sides to him. He enjoyed the company of people of many types and conditions; I recall his really warm friendship with an Irishman prominent in Tamany Hall and the New York Police Department. Although he certainly was himself a rare bird, it is just as certain that he was no snob. By no means was he a castrated chicken locked in an academic coop. He loved lyric poetry; truth to tell, he was at least normally inclined to the erotic. You could hardly decide whether he enjoyed more the odes of Sappho or Broadway musical comedy, where he frequently sat among the rows nearest the stage.

Devoted as he was to the man as well as to the book, he showed a natural admiration for distinguished scholars whom he met. None stood higher in his esteem nor was held more warmly in his heart than the Editor-in-chief of The Cambridge History of American Literature and specialist in Daniel Defoe, William P. Trent, his teacher at Columbia. Trent, as we knew him during his latter years as teacher, had some physical infirmities. It seemed altogether natural that Tom should carry the heavy cluster of books and papers that Trent invariably transported to his lecture hall. I, too, admired Trent. It is a pleasure as I think of the two in my mind’s-eye trudging together slowly up and down the extensive flights of ceremonious steps at Columbia between Philosophy Hall, a building in the high Renaissance style, and that monument in the Neoclassical manner, Low Memorial Library, in its imposing architecture seemingly less a library than a mausoleum.

If Tom remained remarkably faithful to his promise in youth and to his [page 77:] intellectual commitments and ideals, he nonetheless altered radically in physical condition. The young man I knew best was tall, slender, willowy in his movements — endowed with an appetite equally prodigious and that of an acutely refined gourmet. When at the height of his academic career owing, perhaps, to sitting overlong in library chairs — he became stout, slightly awkward, with more than a slight zest for the bottle. Others will know him best and speak best of him as a mature scholar. For several years he was one of my three or four most intimate friends, and he had a pronounced talent for friendship. Just why for so many years we drifted apart is a perplexing question. We should not have done so, for physically only Central Park stood between us. Tom seemed, however, not greatly in favor of cultivating his relations with the Columbia folk, who had not, I fear, at the time recognized his superior talents, while he gave the greater part of his attention to new friends promptly acquired through his teaching at Hunter College. I was myself no Poe specialist but, truth to tell, most deliberately a specialist in not being a specialist. I always felt affection for him, however, and I had scarcely ever met a woman whom I admired more than his wife, Maureen, distinguished in her own right as hostess, friend of poets and scholars and, ultimately, a devoted assistant and collaborator in her husband’s studies. I would surely have been much the gainer had I seen more of Tom in his mature years. I am not at all sure, though, that he was really more noteworthy or engaging in the flower, so to speak, than in the bud. As it now seems to me, all that was to be was at least implied when I first caught sight of him, which, as I recall, was in W. P. Trent’s class on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature. This is a happy occasion for me to lift a glass to an old friend, one of the most extraordinary and richly endowed persons I have ever known.

[page 77, continued:]


*  For permission to publish this reminiscence of Thomas Ollive Mabbott, gratitude to the Jay B. Hubbell Center for American Literary Historiography, Duke University, lot which it was originally prepared, is acknowledged. Special thanks go to Maureen Cobb Mabbott, who first called my attention to this sketch, and to her daughter, Jane Mabbott Austrian, for their assistance.





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Henry W. Wells, 1986)