Above: Oil on canvas portraits of Frances Sargent
Osgood
(1834) and Edgar Allan Poe (1845), both painted
by Osgood's husband, Samuel Stillman Osgood. Property
of the New York Historical Society.

Q. What inspired you to write Poe & Fanny?

A. I took a 19th Century poetry course at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro a number of years ago in which I was assigned to read poetry reviews of the 1840s in order to establish the critical norms being applied to poets. In searching for reviews in the Broadway Journal, the magazine edited by Edgar Allan Poe, I came across the poems exchanged by Poe and Frances Osgood. My interest was aroused in both the flirtation and in this woman of whom I’d never heard. I resorted to biographies of Poe of which there are many, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became. Here was a beautiful story that deserved being told.

Q. Is this a true story?

A. Poe & Fanny is fiction based on real people and events. With regard to Poe, the historical record is quite thorough, and the novel follows this record more or less faithfully. With regard to Poe’s relationship with Fanny Osgood, however, the record is incomplete.

The novel, therefore, relies heavily on the poems that the two poets exchanged in order to fill in the gaps. The existence of the poetry is what makes the story of Edgar Poe and Fanny Osgood so unique. The poems are rich with innuendo and provide a window onto what might have happened. To interface the information they contain with the historical record is an approach that could only be called novelistic.

Q. Was Fanny Osgood’s third child really fathered by Edgar Allan Poe?

A. There is no incontrovertible evidence to support this contention. From a strictly historical perspective, such a contention would be based solely on circumstantial evidence. I am persuaded, however, by such evidence and also by the literary output of the two writers that Edgar Poe was indeed the father of Fanny Osgood’s third daughter.

At the time her child was conceived, Fanny was separated from her husband, Samuel Stillman Osgood. She would, however, reconcile with Sam after she became pregnant, so he must be considered. Though Fanny appears to have had many male friends, Edward J. Thomas (Ned in Poe & Fanny) was special, so he must be considered also. And then there was Poe to whom she was writing love poems. These are the three most likely possibilities.

I ruled Sam out based on Fanny’s poetry. Many of her poems express hurt, indignation, and a sense of betrayal, and they seem pointed at Sam. It’s hard to imagine her having a sudden change of heart in the summer and fall of 1845, and there’s no evidence that Sam was on the scene. Insofar as Thomas is concerned, he was on the scene, but one naturally asks that if he was the father, why he didn’t marry Fanny? He was a man of means and influence; he obviously adored her; and he could have helped obtain her divorce. This leaves Poe who just happened to be in Providence in October 1845, the most likely month in which Fanny’s daughter, Fanny Fay, was conceived.
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Q. What happened to all the letters?

A. They disappeared. The rapid sequence of events involving the letters did occur, though Poe biographers disagree on precisely when and where. The Poe Log (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987) puts all of these events in “Late January, 1846.” Information later supplied by Fanny seems to purposefully confuse the issue. To my knowledge there are no letters to Poe among Fanny’s papers in the Houghton Library at Harvard. It’s possible, of course, that she wrote to him even after her letters were returned to her in late January 1846. But if she did, they’re lost. After Poe’s death, his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, reported that she destroyed hundreds of letters written to him by “literary ladies.” There is but one extant letter purportedly written by Poe to Fanny. It is undated:

My Dear Madam,
     Through some inadvertence at the Office of the B. Journal, I failed to receive your kind and altogether delightful note until this morning.
     Thank you a thousand times for your sweet poem, and for the valued words of flattery which accompanied it.
     Business, of late, has made of me so great a slave that I shall not be able to spend an evening with you until Thursday next.

[Signature missing]

John Ward Ostrom (The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, Harvard University Press: 1948) dates this letter, “late October, 1845.” Apparently the handwriting is Poe’s, and someone, perhaps Rufus Wilmot Griswold, wrote at the top of page 1, “Poe to Mrs. Osgood.” The absence of a signature seems to me an indication of intimacy that overrules the formal greeting.

Q. Did Poe really escort Harriet Jacobs home after attending the performance of Fashion with Willis?

A. No. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet says, “In the spring, sad news came to me. Mrs. [Willis] was dead. Never again, in this world, should I see her gentle face, or hear her sympathizing voice.” And in the next paragraph: “We sailed from New York, and arrived in Liverpool after a pleasant voyage of twelve days.” This implies that Harriet was not in New York when Mary Willis died but that she came down in preparation to sail with Willis and his surviving daughter for England six weeks later. (In the novel Willis decides to go to Boston instead of England, but, in actuality, he went to England where he stayed for about eight months. For purposes of novelistic continuity, it was important that Will not disappear from the scene.) It is remotely possible, therefore, that Poe met Harriet Jacobs, but there is no record of such a meeting.

Q. Did Willis really attend the premier of Fashion the very night after his wife died in childbirth?

A. Possibly. In his biography of Anna Cora Mowatt, The Lady of Fashion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), Eric Barnes describes the gala opening night of Fashion: “The pit, as one witness recalled, ‘unprecedentedly . . . had been surrendered to the fair sex.’ Here, seated with the ladies, were such notables as . . . Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Parker Willis,” etc. This seems to me to stop short of declaring positively that Willis was there. Barnes may have been guessing. I cannot verify one way or the other.

On the surface it would seem uncharacteristically callous and disrespectful of Willis to attend, but he’d probably had a sleepless night and a long day of greeting what must have been a throng of sympathetic well-wishers. There would have been much excited talk about the play, for it was eagerly awaited. Probably drinks were served. I can imagine Willis getting swept up in a swirl of people, fatigue, grief, excitement, shock, and alcohol-induced unreality. In such a state, not wanting to be left alone and feeling an obligation to his readers to review the play, it is possible that he attended. After all, there was no one in all of New York City for whom Fashion held greater significance.
That Willis sat with Poe for the performance is a guess. Poe, however, was definitely there; he was so taken with the play that by his own account, he saw it eight times.

Q. How much was Poe paid for “The Raven?”

A. There is some question as to the amount. From Thomas Ollive Mabbott’s The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), “[Poe] had better luck with George Hooker Colton, a young man who was establishing The American Review: A Whig Journal as ‘a five dollar monthly’ in New York. For its second number (February 1845), he bought ‘The Raven,’ probably for fifteen dollars, fair compensation at space rates.” Other estimates of what Colton paid were as low as ten dollars and as high as thirty. The poem was published simultaneously in Nathaniel Parker Willis’s New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845 “in advance of publication” according to Willis. The two periodicals, the former a monthly and the latter a daily, probably went on sale within a day or two of each other. According to Arthur Hobson Quinn in Edgar Allan Poe, A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), “. . . it is true that magazines were published in advance of their dates, and the Review may have been out before January 29th.” I can find no evidence that Willis paid Poe anything.

As to the value of an 1845 dollar, I concluded that 25 is a reasonable multiplier which would mean that Poe was paid the equivalent of about $375 in 2004 dollars, assuming Mabbott’s guess of $15 is correct, and his guess is based on Colton family tradition and a note Colton wrote to James Russell Lowell, saying that the amount was less than twenty dollars.

Q. Why has no one ever written a biography of Fanny Osgood?

A. A mystery. There are biographies of many prominent literary women of this era—Anne Lynch, Mary Gove, Margaret Fuller, Maria Child, Fanny Forrester, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Oakes Smith. And all the men, of course. Why not Fanny?

I wondered if Fanny’s relationship with Poe perhaps left her contemporaries reluctant to write about her. As late as the 1870s, a good friend of Fanny’s, Sarah Helen Whitman, to whom Poe had been engaged after Virginia’s death, guided one Poe biographer away from the subject of Fanny. Other Poe biographers avoided her as well. On the other hand, a biography of Fanny would have required close scrutiny of her poetry, and, since Poe is the object of many of her poems, a discussion of their relationship would have been essential. To suggest that they had a love affair would be tantamount to suggesting also that Fanny’s daughter, Fanny Fay, might have been fathered by Poe. Was the subject just too hot to handle?

In order to preserve Fanny’s good name and out of respect for her suffering and the deaths of her two surviving daughters so soon after her own death, it is possible that those who might have written about her elected not to. In a few more years the country was at war, Fanny’s friends aged and died, Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass and poetry took new and innovative directions. It is possible that all of these things conspired against Fanny, sweeping her aside along with the other women of her generation who wrote the now out of fashion sentimental, rhyme-and-meter poetry.

Regarding Sam, Fanny wrote many poems that express the same sentiment as this one, entitled “A Song.” Sam was rumored to have had an affair with Elizabeth Newcomb of Boston. Perhaps this is what Fanny is referring to when she speaks of “thy falsehood.”

I turn’d from the monitor,—smiled at the warning
That whisper’d of doubt—of desertion to me;
I heard of thy falsehood, the dark rumor scorning,
I gave up the soul of my soul unto thee!

Too wildly I worshipp’d thy mind-illumed beauty;
Too fondly I cherish’d my dream of thy truth;
Forgetting, in thee, both my pride and my duty,
I made thee the god of my passionate youth!

And dearly and deeply I rue that devotion,—
Thou hast broken the heart that beat only for thee!
Not even thy voice can now wake an emotion;
I am calm as thyself while I bid thee “be free!”

The line, “I made thee the god of my passionate youth!” clearly implicates Sam as the object of this poem. This and other, similar poems were included in a collection of Fanny’s poetry published in late 1945. Taken together, and considering also her involvement with both Thomas and Poe during that year, it is difficult to believe that Sam was Fanny Fay’s father. One must also consider Sam’s near violent threats aimed at Elizabeth Ellet and the fact that his and Fanny’s reconciliation did not last. He left her again and spent a year searching for gold in California.

As for Edward Thomas, he appears to have had great affection for Fanny. In a letter to her written in March, 1847, long after the tumultuous events of late 1845 and early 1846, he says, “I have thought of you daily and this I cannot help—for by some way or the other I never find myself giving up a few moments to reflection but in runs Mrs. Osgood—occupies the chief place . . . Well I like it for if I cannot see her I can think of her.” But, again, why didn’t he marry her? And why had he accused Poe of forgery in Fanny’s presence? Was he voicing his jealousy of Fanny’s poet friend?

As for Poe, Thomas Holly Chivers, in his Chivers’ Life of Poe (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1952), vividly tells of meeting Poe on Nassau Street in late June, 1845, and hearing his drunken harangue about an amorous affair. Poe told Chivers that he had just had a letter “in which she requests me to come [to Providence] this afternoon on the four o’clock boat. Her husband is a Painter—always from home—and a d—d fool at that.” He then asked Chivers to loan him money for the ferry. Chivers’ account rings true, and he says that Poe did, indeed, go to Providence a few days later.

And the implications of Fanny’s short story, “Ida Grey” (Graham’s Ladies & Gentlemen’s Magazine, August 1845) and the poetry must be considered. Her story was published after Poe’s visit to Providence in early July. The story’s characters are transparent: a woman in love with a married poet, and it contains a line from “The Raven” and her beautiful love poem, “Had We But Met” (see “Addendum”).

Regarding the poetry, Fanny had evidently been much taken by Poe’s poem “Israfel.” The poem begins with the lines, “In Heaven a spirit doth dwell, / Whose heart-strings are a lute.” In September Poe published in the Broadway Journal Fanny’s poem “Echo Song” that begins:

I know a noble heart that beats
For one it loves how “wildly well!”
I only know for whom it beats;
But I must never tell!

The phrase in quotes, “wildly well” appears twice in Poe’s “Israfel,” an obvious connection.

On September 13th, Poe published anonymously the poem “To F——” that begins with the lines, “Thou wouldst be loved?—then let thy heart / From it present pathway part not!” And this was followed by two signed poems, both published in Graham’s, one in October, one in November, “The Divine Right of Kings” and “To F. S. O.” Both express love and hope.

And in November, again in the pages of the Broadway Journal, he published Fanny’s “To——” that contains the first two lines of Poe’s “Israfel” as a subtitle.

I cannot tell the world how thrills my heart
To every touch that flies thy lyre along;
How the wild Nature and the wondrous Art,
Blend into Beauty in thy passionate song—

But this I know—in thine enchanted slumbers,
Heaven’s poet, Israfel,—with minstrel fire—
Taught thee the music of his own sweet numbers,
And tuned—to chord with his—thy glorious lyre!

This sequence of poems would indicate that during the summer and autumn of 1845, Poe was the important love interest in Fanny’s life and she in his. That Fanny Fay Osgood was conceived toward the end of this period seems too coincidental. The circumstantial evidence combined with the literary evidence are very persuasive that Edgar Allan Poe was the father of Fanny Fay Osgood.

I have heard it argued that Poe and Fanny were purposefully fanning the rumor mill with this public expression of affection for one another in order to elevate their popularity. Poe’s love of a hoax gives this plausibility. But if it’s true, the publicity stunt certainly backfired tragically for both of them, and one might expect that such a hoax would have been revealed in order to diffuse Fanny’s extremely precarious situation. Not the least hint of this exists in the historical record; therefore, I dismissed it.



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