Text: Sidney P. Moss, “Did Poe Father Fanny Fay?,” Poe Studies, December 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:p-p


[page 40, column 2:]

Did Poe Father Fanny Fay?

John Evangelist Walsh. Plumes in the Dust: The Love Affair of Edgar Allan Poe and Fanny Osgood. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1980. 163 pp. Cloth, $14.95.

Mr. Walsh has a penchant for literary sleuthing and likes to play Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes he does it well, as in Poe, The Detective: The Curious Circumstances Behind The Mystery of Marie Roget; at other times he does it badly, as in The Hidden Life of Emily Dickinson. This time he is on the track of Edgar Poe again, who, he alleges, got Mrs. Frances Osgoode with child — a far cry, incidentally, from the thesis argued by Joseph Wood Krutch in Edgar Allan Poe that Poe was impotent.

Such theses, novelistically treated for their amusing possibilities, as Frederick Busch recently did with Dickens in The Mutual Friend, can be great fun; but, unfortunately, Mr. Walsh is in earnest. He expects us ro take his “weaving of . . . facts, assumptions, assertions and conclusions” (p. 4) as proof and wants us, it seems, to play Watson to his Holmes and exclaim “ingenious,” “brilliant,” “definitive,” to use the language of the dust jacket blurb. Much as one would like ro oblige Mr. Walsh in these respects, it is hard to do so, for speculation, however plausible, has only one value: to put us on the scent of evidential proof. Without such evidence, speculation may be ingenious and brilliant, but never definitive. Unhappily, Mr. Walsh is left with his “weaving,” for the only new evidence he has turned up — a “small collection of Osgoode papers at Houghton Library, Harvard, consisting mostly of letters to Fanny” (p. 113) — corroborates little, if anything, in his argument.

The circumstances and reasoning that “point irresistibly to Poe being the father” (p. 2) of Mrs. Osgoode’s third child are these: that Mrs. Osgoode was separated for a time from her husband; that during this time she met Poe and became infatuated with him; that Poe stayed in the same hotel as Mrs. Osgoode when they were in Providence; that Mrs. Osgoode subsequently became pregnant; ergo: Poe was the man.

It is not easy to deal with this book, as the text of ninety-seven pages tries to be a “romantic thriller” (to quote the blurb again) aimed at the popular market. The form simply encourages too many liberties with fact, including the creation of imaginary conversations. To capture the scholarly market as well, forty-four pages of notes (not, however, page-keyed to the text), two appendixes, a bibliography, and an index are provided to explain how the facts, assumptions, and conclusions were pieced together. Tracing Walsh’s evidence through this maze is not easy; nevertheless, the attempt must be made.

The text tells us that sometime in 1843 (an inadvertence for 1844) the Osgoods began to live apart (p. 10). The notes (pp. 113-114) offer as evidence for the breach some quotations from Mrs. Osgood’s story, “Florence Errington,” which touches on the reason for the break-up, namely, Sam Osgood’s philandering. The notes also refer us to Mabbott’s Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, where we find the tentative statement: “In 1844 I judge that [page 41:] there was a rift with her husband” (I, 556). We also find in Mabbott a passage that Mr. Walsh does not mention: “It should be plainly said that Poe broke up no home, but was used by a clever woman as part of a successful campaign to win back an errant husband” (I, 557). Mr. Walsh’s notes also contain a letter from Mr. Osgoode to his wife, dated 17 April 1S44, which indicates no rift at all. He is, as Mr. Walsh recognizes, “doing a portrait in Baltimore” (p. 113), for, in pursuit of his profession, “he had to spend time away from home painting portraits” (p. 143). But what happened to the Osgoods’ marriage in 1844 is altogether irrelevant. The crucial question is when they became reconciled. Mr. Walsh’s statement “that the two were apart during most of 1844-45” (p. 113) suggests that they might have been together in October 1845 and would account for the paternity of the child because she became pregnant at that time. To be sure, Poe put himself in an awkward position by flirting with Mrs. Osgoode, a flirtation, by the way, that his wife encouraged, if only to keep him from drunkenness. Sometime in late June or early July 1845, Poe, in a drunken macho mood, during which he wanted to attack Lewis Gaylord Clark on the street, announced to Chivers that he was in the damnedest amour you ever knew a fellow to be in in all your life and bragged that he had a letter from the lady requesting him to take the four o‘clock boat that very day and visit her in Providence. That the lady was Mrs. Osgoode is undoubted, since Poe mentioned her painter-husband, who is “always from home.” (He does not say, notice, that the Osgoods were estranged.) But what to make of this drunken braggadocio is anyone’s guess.

The text further tells us that Poe stayed in the same hotel as Mrs. Osgoode in July 1845, though at this point (p. 21) Mr. Walsh says the “veil descends,” for “No record remains of how Fanny and Poe spent their three or four days together (and there is good evidence that they were together) . . . .” The “good evidence” offered in the notes (pp. 119-120) derives from a letter written by Helen Whitman in 1864, in which she says: “. . . Mrs. Osgoode [was] . . . at the hotel in Providence, where Mr. Poe stopped on that ‘July midnight’ [mentioned in the second ‘To Helen’ poem].” Mrs. Whitman’s word stopped and her reference to a midnight walk can hardly bear the weight of the construction that there was an amour of three or four days in a hotel suite. One wonders what Mrs. Osgoode did with her children all that time — leave them with Mrs. Brown, a neighbor, or with her relatives in Providence? The ostensible reason for Poe’s visit to Providence was to inquire of Mrs. Osgoode the source of the rumor that he had committed forgery”

At any rate, Mrs. Osgoode did not become pregnant during that July visit, because the child, Fanny Fay, was born on 28 June 1846. Even if the child were conceived out of wedlock, any one of the many men she flirted with — including, as Mr. Walsh says, “Rufus Griswold and Richard Henry Stoddard [who] . . . enjoyed particularly intimate friendships with her” (p. 3) — could have been the father. Yet, if one takes Mrs. Osgoode’s poems as pure autobiographical revelation, as Mr. Walsh often does, she had no affair with any of them. She assured her husband in “The Return” that, “while he was gone,” she had kept the “faith that never died.” Mabbott (Works, I, 556) reports that [column 2:] “Samuel Osgoode either believed himself the father [of Fanny Fay] or chose to accept that position.”

Mr. Walsh offers two additional theses. The first is that the death of Fanny Fay in October 1848 constituted the cause and subject of “Ulalume,” as Poe mentions October in the misty mid region of Weir, a region that, according to Mr. Walsh’s interpretation, represents the “memory-haunted precincts of conscience, . . . in which hereafter he must wander, unable to forget the poor, doomed child born in sin” (p. 88). The second thesis is that Poe’s seduction of Mrs. Osgoode caused the controversy over his character, “with both sides always taking care never to mention its underlying cause, its real cause” (p. 97) so as to protect the woman’s reputation. The vilification of Poe, Mr. Walsh surely knows, preceded Mrs. Osgoode’s pregnancy by many years. If, indeed, the alleged seduction were really its cause, why, for instance, did Nathaniel Willis, a great admirer of Mrs. Osgoode, defend Poe?

Despite the statement in the blurb that Mr. Walsh’s “conclusions [are] as convincing as a brilliant court summation,” it seems clear that no jury, on the evidence adduced, would have convicted Poe in a paternity suit. On the contrary, Poe on the evidence could have sued the author for libel and won.

Sidney P. Moss, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]