WAS HAWTHORNE’S THE SCARLET LETTER A FICTIONAL TREATMENT OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, REV. GRISWOLD & FANNY OSGOOD?

Did Nathaniel Hawthorne (left) exploit a contemporary, real-life drama in his most famous work?

Two famous poets died in 1850.

One was Margaret Fuller, who died in a shipwreck returning from Italy.   The other female poet was even more famous and more beloved than Margaret Fuller.   She was married to a painter, who painted the oval portaits seen above.  She was widely known in literary circles and was especially close to two men who will be forever linked in history: the anthologist Rufus Griswold and the poet Edgar Poe. (depicted above)

Her name is Frances Sargent Osgood. (depicted above)

Poe (d. 1849) as a dashing poet and a critic sympathetic to women scribblers, Osgood (d.1850) as legendary femme fatale poet and Griswold (d. 1857) Poe’s rival and the best-selling anthologist of his day—these three—helped to create an era that lasted into the 20th century, an era  in which the poetess out-sold the poet.

The Rev. Rufus Griswold’s anthology “Female Poets of America” made him the most powerful man in Letters.

Modernist poetry, more than anything, was about male energy muscling out the Woman’s Muse.   Poe was  libeled and Osgood was forgotten as Ezra Pound’s pedantic, bombastic, Futurist clique took control.

The alleged affair (which may have  produced a child) between Poe and Fanny  hurt Mrs. Osgood’s reputation but Nathaniel Hawthorne was among many literati who came to her defense.

Let’s allow the author of this theory to lay out her fascinating thesis:

“Fanny Osgood was already the most widely written about woman in American literature during the 1840s. Hundreds of stories and numerous poems were written about the Poe-Fanny-Virginia triangle. After their child’s death Fanny’s friends rallied around her to protect her, and the number of stories and poems about her situation increased. Publicly, her reputation suffered; but privately, sympathy was strongly in her court.”

After Poe’s death, and Fanny’s own fatal illness, she came to be regarded as downright saintly by her peers– for having been victimized by society over her relationship with Poe. Fanny Osgood and her plight had become a cause celebre. ‘Fanny worship’ was at an all-time high by the time of her death. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny Osgood was, most certainly, the Scarlet Woman of her time, and therefore, the most deserving of sympathy.

‘Fanny Worship’ was rife in the literary/artistic crowds who adored her. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny’s ‘gypsy life-style’ made her very popular in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Richmond, Portland and even Saratoga Springs. Fanny also had many friends in her Transcendentalist and ‘Fourierist’ coteries in and around Boston, where both Poe and Fanny were born.

At one time, she and Sarah Helen Whitman were extremely close to Margaret Fuller, another highly controversial figure living and working primarily in the Boston area. Fanny Osgood knew all the people Fuller knew, and that was everyone: The Lowells, the Hawthornes, the Peabodys, the Fields, the Holmes, and surely, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; but unlike Fuller, who most people (certainly Poe, Lowell and Hawthorne) grew to despise, Fanny was adored as a loving free spirit by virtually everyone.

Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising to learn that Poe, Fanny and their great romantic tragedy were used as characters by some of the greatest writers of their time. One of these was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who indeed, had experimented with Fourierism at Brook Farm, and whose wife, Sophia Peabody, had herself been under the spell of Margaret Fuller, much to Hawthorne’s displeasure.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, within months of Poe’s and Fanny’s deaths. He felt compelled to write the tragedy of these two dear friends, to vent his own fury and sense of helplessness over the great loss he had suffered.

The characters of Hester Prynne and Rev. Dimmesdale are tributes to Poe and Fanny Osgood. The daughter, Pearl, represents Fanny Fay on some level, though Pearl’s personality seems clearly based on Hawthorne’s own daughter, Una, as well as on Fanny’s own childish and mercurial personality. The hideous, predatory Chillingsworth is Rufus Griswold, who was despised by Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, N.P. Willis and virtually every writer of the time.

It must be remembered that Poe supported and mentored Hawthorne, but there were also bonds between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, who indeed, moved in the same circles in the Boston area. The bond between Hawthorne and Poe, between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, and their mutual friends provides an answer to, “Why would Hawthorne write a thinly veiled account of the Poe-Osgood melodrama?” For one thing, ‘it made great copy,’ but a close study of the letters and business transactions of the ‘Hawthorne Circle,’ during this period helps us understand that yes, The Scarlet Letter was intended as both a tribute and a requiem, for both Poe and Fanny.”

Cynthia Cirile http://www.10thhousepress.com/fiction.html

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2 Comments

  1. larry10 said,

    December 8, 2009 at 5:04 am

    not as interesting as Tiger Woods

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 8, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    If poetry is essentially word-play, as Auden said, then since seeing this headline I must agree with larry10:

    Tiger Woods plays a round