Text: Floyd Stovall and Clarence Gohdes, “In Memoriam: Thomas Ollive Mabbott,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1968, vol. I, no. 2, 1:17-18


[page 17, column 1:]

In Memoriam:
Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 1898-1968

In the death of Thomas Ollive Mabbott in May, 1968, American scholarship, and Poe scholarship in particular, suffered an irreplaceable loss. Among his immediate contemporaries he was without peer in the specialized knowledge of Poe’s life and work, and no one in this century, unless it was Killis Campbell of the preceding generation, has devoted so great a part of his life and energies to the study of Poe. His doctoral dissertation, a critical edition of Poe’s unfinished play Politian based on the original manuscript, was published more than forty-five years ago, and hardly a year has passed since then without some published evidence of his further study. He had become well known as an authority on Poe by the time he was twenty-five years old.

Besides Politian he edited several volumes of Poe’s works, including Al Aaraaf (1933), Tamerlane and Other Poems (1941), and The Raven and Other Poems (1942), all for the Facsimile Text Society. All of these, and especially Tamerlane, contain important biographical as well as textual information about Poe and his poems. In 1922 he edited the Letters from George W. Eveleth to Edgar Allan Poe, in 1928 The Gold Bug, with textual notes, and in 1929 (with J. E. Spannuth) The Doings of Gotham, consisting of Poe’s contributions to the Columbia Spy, an obscure paper published in Pennsylvania. In 1926, with Hervey Allen, he published Poe’s Brother, containing the poems of William Henry Leonard Poe, with an account of his life and much information also about Edgar. His Selected Poems of Edgar Allan Poe was published in 1928, and his edition of Poe’s Selected Poetry and Prose, annotated, was published by the Modern Library in 1951. He was the authority consulted by C. F. Heartman and J. R. Canny on special problems in the preparation of their Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1940; rev. ed. 1943).

He edited or assisted in editing a number of volumes in areas more or less related to Poe. In collaboration with Frank L. Pleadwell he published in 1926 The Life and Works of Edward Coote Pinkney, the Baltimore poet, and in 1938 he brought out an edition of The Complete Poetical Works of W. W. Lord. Of more interest to Poe scholars, in 1941 he edited for the Scholars ’ Facsimiles & Reprints, the poem Merlin, by Poe’s Baltimore friend Lambert A. Wilmer, together with selections from Wilmer’s book Our Press Gang (1860) and from newspapers now difficult [column 2:] of access, having reference to Poe.

Mabbott also published a number of articles and many reviews in the learned journals and perhaps a hundred short items on Poe’s poems and tales, their meaning, and their sources. These have appeared in newspapers, library bulletins, Modern Language Notes, Notes and Queries, The Explicator, and elsewhere. Many of these short pieces are significant out of proportion to their length. They are on record for the world to see in periodicals and bibliographies, but there are many contributions to Poe studies, and perhaps equally important ones, which by their very nature cannot be well known. These consist of facts, opinions, interpretations, judgments on autographs and manuscripts claimed to be Poe’s, and other dicta of a specialist given freely and magnanimously to others at their request, which appear, if they appear at all in print, inconspicuously in acknowledgments, prefaces, and footnotes widely scattered.

Mabbott’s greatest contribution to the study of Poe is the vast accumulation of material, textual information, and critical notes, the work of more than forty years, which he collected in preparation of his edition of the Complete Works of Poe. This edition was the dream of his youth and the unremitting labor of his lifetime. He wrote to Killis Campbell as early as 1924 affirming his intention to produce a definitive edition of Poe’s complete works. It is most unfortunate that he did not live to complete this job. We can be thankful, however, that he did complete the first volume of the edition, the poems, and had advanced considerably on the tales and criticism, so that others can readily pick up where he left off. He had done work on the book reviews that perhaps no one else could have done so well. When this edition is completed and published, although others must now take over the task, it will stand as a monument to his industry and devotion.

Tom Mabbott was not only a leading scholar among the experts on Poe. He contributed notably to studies of Whitman also and was an authority on Blake and a number of other authors whom he regarded as hobbies. Of the British writers who meant most to him Milton was the chief, and he had a hand in planning the Columbia edition of Milton, to which he also served as a contributing editor.

From time to time he shifted from literary studies to numismatic researches. At the age of twelve he bought a coin from a dealer. He kept it until his death, and in the intervening years added so considerably to his collection that it became a prize indeed. For many years his idea of a summer’s vacation was to spend a week or two in Atlantic City, where coin shops abounded on the boardwalk. When he had duplicates he often shared them with other collectors, including the British Museum. As with every other subject which attracted him as a hobby, he followed up with careful study; his special bailiwick of knowledge of coins was the early Roman Empire. Every coin in his [page 18:] collection was carefully boxed and identified. In addition to the publication of articles in the field, he served as an editor of the Numismatic Review from 1943 to 1948, and in the year following was awarded the silver medal of merit by the American Numismatic Association.

Another of his hobbies was collecting fifteenth-century block prints, on which likewise he became an expert. The New York Public Library very wisely asked to look over his print collection after his death, with the idea of picking up from it the rarities which it did not possess. While his efforts in this field were not as extensive as his endeavors along the numismatic line, his assemblage of rare prints was a remarkable one.

Throughout his life Mabbott enjoyed the means to forward his hobbies, and maintained his several interests during the great depression of the 1930’s. As a result he was able to add to his purchases during a period of low prices. But even when collector’s items ranged high in price he added to his purchases if he thought that the cost was within reasonable limits. Like all good collectors and scholars he was enthusiastic about his pursuits. None palled upon him as he grew older, and the casual visitor who dropped into his apartment to discuss Poe would often be greeted warmly and then shown a gold piece of the second century A. D., with the owner carefully explaining with his engaging smile: “You know, there is only one other coin of that particular denomination known.” The visitor might next observe a few books on the top of a filing case, bound in that dreadful brindle which characterizes the product of the bookmakers of the 1840’s. “Oh, yes,” Mabbott might observe, turning rapidly from coins to books. “The New York Public Library sent them out for me to authenticate the autographs of Poe in them.” Most, of course, were forgeries — and the gentle Tom would then proceed to instruct a novice in the fine art of distinguishing between the real and the fake. He was remarkable for his mastery of detail and his interest in it — an interest which naturally made him a welcome as well as a prolific contributor of small notes to a variety of journals. When he was associated with Columbia University in the 1920’s the librarian actually allowed him to correct information in certain books on the shelves, which he occasionally did, following up with his careful “T. O. M.”

But teaching was, after all, his first and primary interest. After brief engagements at Columbia, Northwestern, and Brown Universities, he joined the faculty of Hunter College in 1929, and remained there until his retirement in 1966. During his last two years he was happily employed as Visiting Professor at St. John’s University.

Mabbott’s main characteristic was probably his enthusiasm — a word that comes etymologically with the meaning “a god within.” He was a warm-hearted man, a benefactor of scholarship, and a person who really enjoyed learning for and in itself.

Floyd Stovall
University of Virginia

Clarence Gohdes
Duke University


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None.


[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]