Textile Executive Publishes First Book
Reprinted from the Greensboro News-Record, Greensboro NC, Sunday, April 18, 2004

Midlife moments can hit at the strangest times. Just look at Greensboro textile executive John May.

He was in bed one night, reading a biography of Pocahontas, when he got to a footnote that described 150 people marooned on Bermuda in 1609. The shipwreck Englanders built boats and sailed to Jamestown, where they helped the struggling colony to survive.

That night, in the light of a bedside lamp, two thoughts swelled strong inside of May, a frustrated writer then on the threshold of 50. One thought was what a great piece of historical fiction the shipwreck story would make. The second thought was if he didn’t write this story, or another one, he was going to kick himself later in life.

May, now 61, has spared himself some bruises. His first novel, Poe & Fanny, a book of historical fiction about the relationship between poets Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Sargent Osgood, appears in bookstores this month.

May packs a triple dose of good fortune. Not only has his first book been published, it has been published by the prestigious Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, and May has found literary hope at an age when most frustrated writers have long given up on their dreams.

“It feels great. It really does,” he says.

His dreams of writing started when he was in prep school at Woodberry Forest in Virginia. Fascinated by the fiction of Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy, May toyed with the idea of being a writer, but he was, by his own admission, a poor student. He left UNC-Chapel Hill after two years and later went to work for his father’s textile company, Peaches ‘n Cream, a maker of children’s apparel. He readily concedes it was the easiest path for the son of a successful family.

“My wife says I took the ‘wide gate,’” says May.

For a while, in his 20s, May dabbled with words. He wrote and shelved a few short stories. His responsibilities grew as the time went by. He became more involved with the family business. He married. He and his wife, Nancy, raised a daughter and a son. May spent his spare time sailing. He also spent a fair amount of time reading nonfiction. His favorite parts were those in which the authors speculated on what might have happened between the known facts.

For 30 years, May’s interest in writing simmered but never boiled until the night he read the Pocahontas biography.

“It was truly a wonderful moment,” he says of the instant he resolved to do what he ’d always wanted.

By then, it seemed, everything had fallen in place. May and his wife were empty-nesters, and 30 years in business with his two brothers had given May the discipline he needed to write.

He enrolled at UNCG, where he studied, mostly at night, to earn an English degree. It was in a poetry class that he encountered the work of Frances “Fanny” Sargent Osgood, an acclaimed poet of the 1840s.

Osgood met Poe in the spring of 1845, just after he had written his famous poem “The Raven” and became the darling of New York literary society. Poe, the editor of a New York literary magazine called The Broadway Journal, published the flirtatious poems that Osgood, also a New Yorker, sent him. He appeared to answer her verse with his own published poems.

May was intrigued by the apparent love story between Poe, who was married to his young and ailing cousin, and Osgood, who was separated from her husband. Wouldn’t it make a good book?

He squirreled away the idea and followed his English degree with a master’s degree from Bennington College in Vermont. He began researching Poe & Fanny the day he handed in his last assignment.

May practically camped at UNCG’s Jackson Library, reading everything he could find on Poe, the subject of numerous books and biographies. Seldom, however, have biographers dealt with Poe and Osgood’s relationship. Two recent biographies don’t mention it. A third acknowledges the speculation about an intimate relationship, then dismisses it. May believes the speculation.

“I came to the conclusion that the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming,” he says.

Poe and Osgood met in the spring of 1845. That September Osgood’s poem “Echo-Song” was published. In it, she says she knows someone who loves someone else “wildly well . . . but I must never tell.” “Wildly well” is a phrase that Poe used in his poem “Israfel.”

Osgood and Poe were known to have been together in Providence, R. I., in October 1845. Osgood conceived in late October or early November, May says. She reconciled with her husband after she became pregnant, and Poe left New York when his magazine failed. The following summer, Osgood gave birth to a daughter, Fanny Fay Osgood. The girl died just after her first birthday.

May is convinced that the child was Poe’s.

The love story, he says, is compelling when you consider that Poe was not a very attractive person — in looks or temperament.

“We look at his daguerreotypes and go, ‘Ugh,’” he says of the sourpuss poet.

May says he has some compassion for Poe, a hard drinker who often insulted the very people who helped him. “I think he was very much a victim of his circumstances. On the other hand, he was very much to blame for them. He’s hard to like.”

To bring Poe to life, May imagined the thoughts that might have played in Poe’s head. He also leans on vivid details of what life would have been like in New York in the 1840s. For example, there are references to “sponging” clothes, a way of blotting away dirt before dry cleaning came along. May picked up on that detail and many others from reading the newspaper columns of Nathaniel Parker Willis and a book called The Frugal Housewife by Maria Child.

Finding details about Osgood’s life was harder. She has no biography, and though she wrote or edited 11 books, most of her poetry has been out of print for 120 years. May found four of her books through used-book dealers online.

He took only one road trip for research, to New York to walk the streets, confirm landmarks and figure out where the sun would have been at certain times of day — details that give the book a feeling of authenticity.

May says he considering a sequel to Poe & Fanny, which ends three and a half years before Poe dies. “The last three and a half years of his life are fascinating,” May says, who’s also tinkering with a contemporary story. He has given up on the shipwreck story. He believes it would be too vexing to deal with the Elizabethan English that the castaways would have spoken.

These days, May works part-time in the textile business. He left his family’s company seven years ago, and he and two Mexican partners founded another children’s apparel company, Bonaventure Co.

May knows that novelists/textile executives are few and far between, but he says his partners and employees have been very understanding of his newfound life as a writer — the one he always wanted, the one he finally has after all these years.

“They know where my passion is,” he says.




"John May nails the gritty, lush details of Poe’s rise and fall in New York City’s high society. An astonishing debut in historical fiction, Poe & Fanny is part literary history, part heartbreaking love story."
—Julianna Baggott, author of The Madam



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