Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others,” The Spirit of the Times (Philadelphia), July 10, 1846


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[COMMUNICATED.]

MR. POE’S REPLY TO MR. ENGLISH AND OTHERS.

NEW YORK, June 27.

To the Public. — A long and serious illness of such character as to render quiet and perfect seclusion in the country of vital importance, has hitherto prevented me from seeing an article headed “The War of the Literati,” signed “Thomas Dunn English,” and published in “The New York Mirror” of June 23d. This article I might, and should indeed, never have seen but for the kindness of Mr. Godey, editor of “The Lady’s Book,” who enclosed it to me with a suggestion that certain portions of it might be thought on my part to demand a reply.

I had some difficulty in comprehending what that was, said or written by Mr. English, that could be deemed answerable by any human being; but I had not taken into consideration that I had been, for many months, absent and dangerously ill — that I had no longer a journal in which to defend myself — that these facts were well known to Mr. English — that he is a blackguard of the lowest order — that it would be silly truism, if not unpardonable flattery, to term him either a coward or a liar — and, lastly, that the magnitude of a slander is usually in the direct ratio of the littleness of the slanderer, but, above all things, of the impunity with which he fancies it may be uttered.

Of the series of papers which have called down upon me, while supposed defenceless, the animadversions of the pensive Fuller, the cultivated Clark, the “indignant Briggs,” and the animalcula with moustaches for antenna that is in the capital habit of signing itself in full, “Thomas Dunn English” — of this series of papers all have been long since written, and three have been already given to the public. The circulation of the Magazine in which they appear cannot be much less than 50,000; and, admitting but 4 readers to each copy (while 6 would more nearly approach the truth) I may congratulate myself on such an audience as has not often been known in any similar case — a monthly audience of at least 200,000, from among the most refined and intellectual classes of American society. Of course, it will be difficult on the part of “The Mirror” (I am not sure whether 500 or 600 be the precise number of copies it now circulates) — difficult, I say, to convince the 200,000 ladies and gentlemen in question that, individually and collectively, they are block-heads — that they do not rightly comprehend the unpretending words which I have addressed to them in this series — and that, as for myself, I have no other design in the world than misrepresentation, scurrility, and the indulgence of personal spleen. What has been printed is before my readers; what I have written besides, is in the hands of Mr. Godey, and shall remain unaltered. The word “Personality,” used in the heading of the series, has of course led astray the quartette of dunderheads who have talked and scribbled themselves into convulsions about this matter — but no one else, I presume, has distorted the legitimate meaning of my expression into that of private scandal or personal offence. In sketching individuals, every candid reader will admit that, while my general aim has been accuracy, I have yielded to delicacy even a little too much of verisimilitude. Indeed, on this score should I not have credit for running my pen through certain sentences referring, for example, to the brandy-nose of Mr. Briggs (since Mr. Briggs is only one third described when this nose is omitted) and to the family resemblance between the whole visage of Mr. English and that of the best-looking but most unprincipled of Mr. Barnum’s baboons?

It will not be supposed, from anything here said, that I myself attach any importance to this series of papers. The public, however, is the best judge of its own taste; and that the spasms of one or two enemies have given the articles a notoriety far surpassing their merit or my expectation — is, possibly, no fault of mine. In a preface their very narrow scope is defined. They are loosely and inconsiderately written — aiming at nothing beyond the gossip of criticism — unless, indeed, at the relief of those “necessities “ which I have never blushed to admit and which the editor of “The Mirror” — the quondam associate of gentlemen — has, in the same manner, never blushed publicly to insult and to record.

But let me return to Mr. English’s attack — and, in so returning, let me not permit any profundity of disgust to induce, even for an instant, a violation of the dignity of truth. What is not false, amid the scurrility of this man’s statements, it is not in my nature to brand as false, although oozing from the filthy lips of which a lie is the only natural language. The errors and frailties which I deplore, it cannot at least be asserted that I have been the coward to deny. Never, even, have I made attempt at extenuating a weakness which is (or, by the blessing of God, was) a calamity, although those who did not know me intimately had little reason to regard it otherwise than as a crime. For, indeed, had my pride, or that of my family permitted, there was much — very much — there was everything — to be offered in extenuation. Perhaps, even, there was an epoch at which it might not have been wrong in me to hint — what by the testimony of Dr. Francis and other medical men I might have demonstrated, had the public, indeed, cared for the demonstration — that the irregularities so profoundly lamented were the effect of a terrible evil rather than its cause. — And now let me thank God that in redemption from the physical ill I have forever got rid of the moral.

It is not, then, my purpose to deny any part of the conversation represented to have been held privately between this person and myself. I scorn the denial of any portion of it, because every portion of it may be true, by a very desperate possibility, although uttered by an English. I pretend to no remembrance of anything which occurred — with the exception of having wearied and degraded myself, to little purpose, in bestowing upon Mr. E. the “fisticuffing” of which he speaks, and of being dragged from his prostrate and rascally carcase by Professor Thomas Wyatt, who, perhaps with good reason, had his fears for the vagabond’s life. The details of the “conversation,” as asserted, I shall not busy myself in attempting to understand. The “celebrated authoress” is a mystery. With the exception, perhaps, of Mrs. Stephens, Mrs. Welby, and Miss Gould — three ladies whose acquaintance I yet hope to have the honor of making — there is no celebrated authoress in America with whom I am not on terms of perfect amity at least, if not of cordial and personal friendship. That I “offered” Mr. English “my hand” is by no means impossible. I have been too often and too justly blamed by those who have a right to impose bounds upon my intimacies, for the weakness of “offering my hand,” without thought of consequence, to any one whom I see very generally reviled, hated, and despised.

Through this mad quixotism arose my first acquaintance with Mr. English, who introduced himself to me in Philadelphia — where, for one or two years, I remained under the impression that his real name was Thomas Done Brown.

I shall not think it necessary to maintain that I am no “coward.” On a point such as this a man should speak only through the acts, moral and physical, of his whole private life and his whole public career. But it is a matter of common observation that your real coward never fails to make it a primary point to accuse all his enemies of cowardice. A poltroon charges his foe, by instinct, with precisely that vice or meanness which the pricking of his (the poltroon’s) conscience, assures him would furnish the most stable and therefore the most terrible ground of accusation against himself. The Mexicans, for example, seldom call their antagonists anything but cowards. It is the “stop thief!” principle, exactly, — and a very admirable principle it is.

Now, the origin of the nick-name, “Thomas Done Brown,” is, in Philadelphia, quite as thoroughly understood as Mr. English could desire. With even the inconceivable amount of brass in his possession, I doubt if he could in that city, [next column:] pronounce aloud that simple word, “coward,” if his most saintly soul depended upon the issue.

Some have been beaten till they know

What wood a cudgel’s of, by the blow —

Some kicked until they could tell whether

A shoe were Spanish or neat’s leather.

These lines in “Hudibras” have reference to the case of Mr. English. His primary thrashing, of any note, was bestowed upon him, I believe, by Mr. John S. DuSolle, the editor of “The Spirit of the Times,” who could not very well get over acting with this indecorum on account of Mr. E’s amiable weakness — a propensity for violating the privacy of a publisher’s MSS. I have not heard that there was any resentment on the part of Mr. English. It is said, on the contrary, that he shed abundant tears, and took the whole thing, in its proper light-as a sort of favor. His second chastisement I cannot call to mind in all its particulars. His third I was reduced to giving him myself, for indecorous conduct at my house. His fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, followed in so confused a manner and in so rapid a succession, that I have been unable to keep an account of them; they have always affected me as a difficult problem in mathematics. His eleventh was tendered him by the Hon. Sandy Harris, who (also for an insult to ladies at a private house) gave him such a glimpse of a Bowie knife as saved the trouble of a kick — having even more vigorous power of propulsion. For his twelfth lesson, in this course, I have always heard him express his gratitude to Mr. Henry B. Hirst. Mr. English could not help stealing Mr. Hirst’s poetry. For this reason Mr. Hirst (who gets out of temper for trifles) threw, first, a pack of cards in Mr. English’s face; then knocked that poet down; then pummeled him for not more than twenty minutes; (in Mr. E’s case it cannot be well done under twenty-five, on account of callosity — the result of too frequent friction on the parts pummeled); then picked him up, set him down, and wrote him a challenge, to come off on the following morning. Of course, this challenge Mr. English accepted; — the fact is he accepts everything, from a kick to a piece of gingerbread — the smallest favors thankfully received. At the hour appointed Mr. Hirst was on the ground. In regard to Mr. English’s whereabouts on the occasion I never could put my hand upon a record that was at all precise. It must be said, however, in his defence, that there is not a better shot in all America than Mr. Hirst. With a pistol, at fifty yards, I once saw him hit a chicken in full flight. Mr. English may have witnessed this identical exploit — if so, as a “bird of a feather” he was excusable in staying at home. My own opinion, nevertheless, is, that he would have been at the rendezvous without fail, if his breakfast could have been got ready for him in time.

I do not think that Mr. English was ever afterwards flogged, or even challenged, in Philadelphia — but I cannot hope that he would ever “take me by the hand” again, were I to omit mention of that last and most important escapade which induced him at length to desert, in disgust, the city of his immense forefathers.

There are, no doubt, one or two persons who have heard of one Henry A. Wise. At all events Mr. English had heard of him, and he resolved that nobody else should ever hear of him — this Mr. Wise — or even think of him, again. That Mr. Wise had never heard of Mr. English (probably on account of his being always called Mr. Brown) was no concern of Mr. English’s. He wrote an “article” — I saw it. He put “the magic of his name” —   his three names — at the bottom of it. He printed it. He handed it for inspection to all the inhabitants of Philadelphia. He then buttoned up his coat — took under the tails of it seven revolvers — and dispatched the article, duly addressed, with his compliments, to “the Hon, Henry A. Wise,” who then resided at the house of the President.

Now, I never could understand precisely how or why it was that the Hon, Henry A. Wise did not repair forthwith from Washington to Philadelphia, with a company of the U. S. Artillery — the loan of which his interest could have obtained of Mr. Tyler — why he did not come, I say, to Philadelphia, engage Mr. English, take him captive, cut off his goatee, put him on a high stool, and insist upon his reading (upside down) the whole of that “Sonnet to Azthene” in which the poet sings about his “dreams” that “seems” and other English peculiarities. The punishment would have been scarcely more than adequate to the offence. The Philippic written by Mr. E. was, in fact, very severe. It called Mr. Wise “a poltroon” — an “ass,” if I remember — and “a dirty despicable vagabond”of that I feel particularly sure. There occurs then, of course, a question in metaphysics — “why did not the Hon. Henry A. Wise repair to Philadelphia and take Mr. Thomas Dunn Brown by the nose?[[”]] Perhaps the legislator had a horror of moustaches. But then neither did he write. Not even one word did he say-absolutely not one-nothing! Mr. Brown’s distress was, not altogether that he could not get himself kicked, but that he could not get any kind of a reason for the omission of the kicking.

This affair is to be classed among the “Historical Doubts” — among the insoluble problems of History. However — Mr. Wise felt himself everlastingly ruined, and soon after, as Minister to France, went, a brokenhearted man, into exile.

Mr. Brown abandoned the city of his birth. He has never been the same person since — that is to say be has been a person beside himself. He fords it impossible to recover from a chronic attack of astonishment. When he dies, the coroner’s verdict will be “Taken by Surprise.” This matter will account for Mr. English’s inveterate habit of rolling up the whites of his eyes.

About the one or two other unimportant points in this gentleman’s attack upon myself, there is, I believe, very little to be said. He asserts that I have complimented his literary performances. The sin of having, at one time, attempted to patronize him, is, I fear, justly to be laid to my charge; — but his goatee was so continual a source of admiration to me that I found it impossible ever to write a serious line in his behalf. And then the Imp of Mischief whispered in my ear, telling me how great a charity it would be to the public if I would only put the pen into Mr. English’s own hand, and permit him to kill himself off by self-praise. I listened to this whisper — and the public should have seen the zeal with which the poet labored in the good cause. If in this public’s estimation Mr. English did not become at once Phoebus Apollo, at least it was no fault of Mr. English’s. I solemnly say that in no paper of mine did there ever appear one word about this gentleman-unless of the broadest and most unmistakeable irony — that was not printed from the MS. of the gentleman himself. The last number of “The Broadway Journal” (the work having been turned over by me to another publisher) was edited by Mr. English. The editorial portion was wholly his, and was one interminable Pan of his own praises. The truth of all this — if any one is weak enough to care a penny about who praises or who damns Mr. English — will no doubt be corroborated by Mr. Jennings, the printer.

I am charged, too, unspecifically, with being a plagiarist on a very extensive scale. He who accuses another of what all the world knows to be especially false, is merely rendering the accused a service by calling attention to the converse of the fact, and should never be helped out of his ridiculous position by any denial on the part of his enemy. We want a Magazine paper on “The Philosophy of Billingsgate.” But I am really ashamed of indulging even in a sneer at this poor miserable fool, on any mere topic of literature alone.

He says, too, that I “seem determined to hunt him down.” He said the very same thing to Mr. Wise, who had not the most remote conception that any such individual had ever been born of woman. “Hunt him down!” Is it possible that I shall ever forget the paroxysm of laughter [next column:] which the phrase occasioned me when I first saw it in Mr. English’s MS? “Hunt him down!” What idea can the man attach to the term “down? “ Does be really conceive that there exists a deeper depth of either moral or physical degradation than that of the hog-puddles in which he has wallowed from his infancy? “Hunt him down!” By Heaven! I should, in the first place, be under the stern necessity of hunting him up — up from among the dock-loafers and wharf-rats, his cronies. Besides, “hunt” is not precisely the word. “Catch” would do better. We say “hunting a buffalo” — “hunting a lion,” and, in a dearth of words, we might even go so far as to say “hunting a pig” — but we say “catching a frog” — “catching a weasel’ — “catching an English” — and “catching a flea.”

As a matter of course I should have been satisfied to follow the good example of Mr. Wise, when insulted by Mr. English, (if this indeed be the person’s name) had there been nothing more serious in the blatherskite’s attack than the particulars to which I have hitherto alluded. The two passages which follow, however, are to be found in the article referred to:

“I hold Mr. Poe’s acknowledgments for a sum of money which he obtained from me under false pretences.”

And again:

“A merchant of this city had accused him of committing forgery, and as he was afraid to challenge him to the field, or chastise him personally, I suggested a legal prosecution as his sole remedy. At his request I obtained a counsellor who was willing, as a compliment to me, to conduct his suit without the customary retaining fee. But, though so eager at first to commence proceedings, he dropped the matter altogether when the time came for him to act — thus virtually admitting the truth of the charge.”

It will be admitted by the most patient that these accusations are of such character as to justify me in rebutting them in the most public manner possible, even when they are found to be urged by a Thomas Dunn English. The charges are criminal, and with the aid of “The Mirror” I can have them investigated before a criminal tribunal. In the meantime I must not lie under these imputations a moment longer than necessary. To the first charge I reply, then, simply that Mr. English is indebted to me in what (to me) is a considerable sum — that I owe him nothing — that in the assertion that he holds my acknowledgment for a sum of money under any pretence obtained, he lies — and that I defy him to produce such acknowledgment.

In regard to the second charge I must necessarily be a little more explicit. “The merchant of New York” alluded to, is a gentleman of high respectability — Mr. Edward I. [[J.]] Thomas, of Broad Street. I have now the honor of his acquaintance, but some time previous to this acquaintance, he had remarked to a common friend that he had heard whispered against me an accusation of forgery. The friend, as in duty bound, reported this matter to me. I called at once on Mr. Thomas, who gave me no very thorough explanation, but promised to make inquiry, and confer with me hereafter. Not hearing from him in what I thought due time, however, I sent him (unfortunately by Mr. English, who was always in my office for the purpose of doing himself honor in running my errands) a note, of which the following is a copy:

OFFICE OF THE BROADWAY JOURNAL, ETC.

EDWARD J. THOMAS, Esq.

Sir: — As I have not had the pleasure of hearing from you since our interview at your office, may I ask of you to state to me distinctly, whether I am to consider the charge of forgery urged by you against myself, in the presence of a common friend, as originating with yourself or Mr. Benjamin?     Your ob. serv’t.,  

(Signed)  EDGAR A. POE.

The reply brought me was verbal and somewhat vague. As usual, my messenger had played the bully, and, as very usual, had been treated with contempt. The idea of challenging a man for a charge of forgery could only have entered the head of an owl or an English: — of course I had no resource but in a suit, which one of Mr. E’s friends offered to conduct for me. I left town to procure evidence, and on my return found at my house a letter from Mr. Thomas. It ran thus:

NEW YORK. July 5, 1845.

E.A. POE, Esq., New York,

Dear Sir: — I had hoped ere this to have seen you, but as you have not called, and as I may soon be out of the city, I desire to say to you that, after repeated effort, I saw the person on Friday evening last, from whom the report originated to which you referred in your call at my office. [The contemptuous silence in respect to the communication sent through Mr. E. will be observed.] He denies it in toto — says he does not know it and never said so — and it undoubtedly arose from the misunderstanding of some word used. It gives me pleasure thus to trace it, and still more to find it destitute of foundation in truth, as I thought would be the case. I have told Mr. Benjamin the result of my inquiries, and shall do so to — [the lady referred to as the common friend]’ by a very early opportunity — the only two persons who know anything of the matter, as far as I know.   I am, Sir, very truly your friend and obed’t. st.

(Signed)  EDWARD J. THOMAS.

Now, as this note was most satisfactory and most kind — as I neither wished nor could have accepted Mr. Thomas’ money — as the motives which had actuated him did not seem to me malevolent — as I had heard him spoken of in the most flattering manner by one whom, above all others, I most profoundly respect and esteem — it does really appear to me hard to comprehend how even so malignant a villain as this English could have wished me to proceed with the suit. In the presence of witnesses I handed him the letter, and, without meaning anything in especial, requested his opinion. In lieu of it he gave me his advice; — it was that I should deny having received such a letter and urge the prosecution to extremity. I promptly ordered him to quit the house. In his capacity of hound, he obeyed.

These are the facts which, in a court of justice, I propose to demonstrate — and, having demonstrated them, shall I not have a right to demand of a generous public that it brand with eternal infamy that wretch, who, with a full knowledge of my exculpation from so heinous a charge, has not been ashamed to take advantage of my supposed inability to defend myself, for the purpose of stigmatising me as a felon!

And of the gentleman who (also with a thorough knowledge of the facts, as I can and will show) prostituted his filthy sheet to the circulation of this calumny — of him what is it necessary to say? At present nothing. He heads Mr. English’s article with a profession of pity for myself. Ah yes, indeed! Mr. Fuller is a pitiful man. Much is he to be pitied for his countenance (that of a fat sheep in a reverie) — for his Providential escapes — for the unwavering conjugal chivalry which, in a public theatre ——— but I pause. Not even in taking vengeance on a Fuller can I stoop to become a Fuller myself.

The fact is, it is difficult to be angry with this man. Let his self-complacency be observed! How absolute an unconsciousness of that proverbial mental imbecility which serves to keep all the little world in which he moves, in one sempiternal sneer or giggle!

Mr. Fuller has fine eyes — but he should put them to use. He should turn them inwardly. — He should contemplate in solemn meditation, that vast arena within his sinciput which it has pleased Heaven to fill with hasty pudding by way of brains. He needs, indeed self-study, self-examination — and for this end, he will not think of me officious if I recommend to his perusal Heinsius’ admirable treatise “On the Ass.”

EDGAR A. POE.


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Notes:

This “reply” is in regard to Thomas Dunn English, who responded to Poe’s entry on him in “The Literati of New York City” with an attack printed in the Evening Mirror (New York) on June 23, 1846, and reprinted in the Weekly Mirror (New York) on June 27, 1846. It was also printed in the Morning Telegraph (New York). English again replied in the Evening Mirror on July 13, 1846, in which English challenged Poe to make good on his threat to take legal action. Poe did sue the Evening Mirror, and Hiram Fuller (the editor of the Mirror), and won a small settlement.


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