December Object of the Month: The John-Donkey
Most of what we know about Poe is wrong. It has long been well known that his literary executor Rufus W. Griswold fabricated stories about him in a successful effort to damage Poe’s reputation. When considering Poe’s literary enemies, one must not forget Thomas Dunn English, a rival editor Poe referred to in a January 4, 1848 letter to George Evelyth as “the Autocrat of all the Asses.” Poe and English even came to blows in 1846. According to Poe (in a June 27, 1846 letter to Henry B. Hirst), “I gave E. a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death — and, luckily, in the presence of witnesses. He thinks to avenge himself by lies — by [sic] I shall be a match for him by means of simple truth.”
English’s own account of that “flogging” (written fifty years after the fact), tells a different story:
One word led to another, and he rushed toward me in a menacing manner. I threw out my fist to stop him, and the impetus of his rush, rather than any force of mine, made the extension of my arm a blow. He grasped me while falling backward over a lounge, and I on top of him. My blood was up by this time, and I dealt him some smart raps on the face. As I happened to have a heavy seal ring on my little finger, I unintentionally cut him very severely, and broke the stone in the ring, an intaglio cut by Lovatt, which I valued highly. Tyler tried to call me off, but this did not succeed; and finally the racket of the scuffle, which only lasted a few moments, brought Professor Ackerman from the front room, and he separated us. He then led Poe away. The latter, in going up the street, met a friend of mine, who asked him how he had cut his face so terribly. His reply was that an Irishman carrying a beam on his shoulder had accidentally struck him.
During Poe’s lifetime, Thomas Dunn English ridiculed the author in the novels Walter Woolfe, or the Doom of the Drinker and 1844, or the Power of S.F., in which the character Marmaduke Hammerhead, the drunken author of “The Black Crow,” was based on Poe. English also attacked Poe in the press, and Poe even sued a magazine for libel (and won) after it printed some of English’s unfounded accusations. Even the lawsuit did not stop English from publicly ridiculing Poe, and the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for December is English’s short-lived magazine The John-Donkey, which regularly printed jokes at Poe’s expense.
The first issue, dated January 1, 1848 contains the following notice alluding to Poe’s drinking.
A week later, in the January 8 issue, English responded to a Pennsylvania magazine that had written a positive notice of Poe.
The January 29 issue contained “Sophia Maria,” a parody of Poe’s new poem “Ulalume.”
The February 5 issue of the Saturday Evening Post calls “Sophia Maria” “a capital parody on a poem recently published in the [American Review], and supposed to have been written by E. A. Poe — at least it is decidedly Poe-ish.”
In the February 5 issue of the John-Donkey, English jokes about the announcement that Poe will be delivering a lecture about the universe.
Contrary to English’s opinion, Poe’s lecture on the universe received favorable reviews. The Morning Express for February 4 reported, “The conclusion of this brilliant effort was greeted with warm applause by the audience, who had listened with enchained attention throughout.”
In the April 15 issue, English announces that Poe is planning a new version of The Literati of New York City, a popular series of opinions on New York authors. In The Literati Poe praises some of the writers, including Frances Osgood, while ridiculing others, including English. In the July 1846 installment, Poe points out English’s deficiencies as the editor of The Aristidean:
No spectacle can be more pitiable than that of a man without the commonest school education busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind on topics of polite literature. The absurdity in such cases does not lie merely in the ignorance displayed by the would-be instructor, but in the transparency of the shifts by which he endeavours to keep this ignorance concealed…he was not, I say, laughed at so much for his excusable deficiencies in English grammar (although an editor should certainly be able to write his own name) as that, in the hope of disguising such deficiency, he was perpetually lamenting the “typographical blunders” that “in the most unaccountable manner” would creep into his work. Nobody was so stupid as to suppose for a moment that there existed in New York a single proof-reader — or even a single printer’s devil — who would have permitted such errors to escape. By the excuses offered, therefore, the errors were only the more obviously nailed to the counter as Mr. English’s own.
In the same article, Poe pokes fun at English’s poetry, writing, “The inexcusable sin of Mr. E. is imitation — if this be not too mild a term. Barry Cornwall and others of the bizarre school are his especial favorites. He has taken, too, most unwarrantable liberties, in the way of downright plagiarism, from a Philadelphian poet whose high merits have not been properly appreciated — Mr. Henry B. Hirst.”
This is English’s April 1848 response to learning that Poe is planning a new series of similar articles:
English was sure he would be featured if the article were to be printed. Fortunately for him, the new series, Literary America, did not appear until after Poe’s death. The entry about English was given the name “Thomas Dunn Brown” although much of the entry was taken from earlier entry for English printed in The Literati. Among the additions to the Literary America entry was the following passage:
Mr Brown had, for the motto on his magazine cover, the words of Richelieu,
–Men call me cruel;
I am not: –I am just.
Here the two monosyllables “an ass” should have been appended. They were no doubt omitted through “one of those d——d typographical blunders” which, through life, have been at once the bane and the antidote of Mr Brown.
Poe’s most enduring response to English’s attacks was the short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” which ridicules English while making reference to English’s novel 1844, or The Power of S.F.
Although Poe was a favorite target, The John-Donkey also took aim at other literary and political figures of the day. Here is a notice about Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold.
Here is a review of some female poets.
This is one of the political cartoons to appear in the magazine.
The John-Donkey ceased publication after about a year. Thomas Dunn English lived until 1902. In his later years, his interests turned to politics. He served on the New Jersey General Assembly in 1863 and 1864 and was elected to Congress from 1891 until 1895. He chaired the Committee on Alcoholic Liquor Traffic during the Fifty-Third Congress.
English harbored a dislike of Poe for years after the author’s 1849 death, and English supplied the critic E.C. Stedman with negatively biased information about Poe. (Here is a letter from English to Stedman in the Poe Museum’s collection.) English also responded to Poe’s biographers who he thought either were either overlooking Poe’s faults or libeling Poe’s biographer Rufus Griswold. In 1896, English wrote for the Independent the series Reminiscences of Poe, a supposedly frank account of his relationship with the poet. According to English, he finally wrote the series, nearly fifty years after Poe’s death, to defend himself against the attacks on his and Griswold’s character made by Poe’s biographers. The series opens with English’s own attacks on Poe’s biographers William Gill, John Henry Ingram, and George Woodberry. English continues by portraying Poe as a drunk, a liar, and a cheat. He also hints at an affair between Poe and the poet Frances Osgood.
On one point, however, English actually defends Poe’s reputation against the rumors surrounding him. In response to accusations about Poe’s use of drugs, English writes, “Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him (before 1846) I should both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it during his frequent visits to my rooms, my visits at his house, and our meetings elsewhere — I saw no signs of it and believe the charge to be a baseless slander.”
As an editor and author, Thomas Dunn English helped shape the public’s perception of Poe as a drunken scoundrel. Even though Poe himself discredited English by successfully suing his for libel, English’s image of Poe is still widely accepted as fact. This Poe myth English, Griswold, and others created has long concealed the truth about Poe’s life and character. The Poe Museum’s issues of The John-Donkey document these literary rivalries so that today’s biographers can paint a more complete picture of the genesis of the Poe myth and the literary feuds that promoted it.