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Legacy 18.1 (2001) 101-106

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Legacy Profile

Elizabeth Fries Lummis Ellet (1818-1877)

Carol Mattingly
University of Louisville

[Excerpt from:The Women of the American Revolution]


More than a century-and-a-half ago, Elizabeth F. Ellet began the process that scholars continue today of recovering and recording the lives and contributions of women. One of the best-known writers of her day, Ellet published prolifically in a wide variety of genres. In part because she refused to follow expected roles for women, she became embroiled in public battles with prominent literary men, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus W. Griswold. Consequently, despite her pioneering work as a precursor of feminist scholarship, Ellet has been cited by twentieth-century literary critics primarily in negative terms. However, Ellet was a major participant in the nineteenth-century literary scene and continues to be acknowledged by historians for her valuable early methodology in recovering women's history.

Elizabeth Fries Lummis was born in Sodus Point, New York, in October 1818 to a well-to-do physician, William Nixon Lummis, and Sarah Maxwell Lummis. 1 Educated at a female seminary at Aurora, New York, Ellet began writing poetry in her early teens. Her first book, published when she was sixteen and entitled Poems, Translated and Original (1835), collected her own poems, many previously published, with some she had translated from French, Italian, German, and Spanish. The volume also included Ellet's tragedy in five acts, Teresa Contarini, which had a successful run in New York and some smaller cities.

At the age of seventeen, Ellet married and moved to South Carolina where her husband, William H. Ellet, accepted academic appointments at Columbia College and South Carolina College. Even before her marriage, Ellet had contributed to a number of periodicals, including [End Page 101] Knickerbocker, Ontario Repository, Lady's Book, and American Monthly. After moving to the South, she began publishing in regional publications such as Southern Literary Journal and Monthly Magazine and Southern Literary Messenger, but she continued her work for established national periodicals and contributed to prestigious new magazines and newspapers, most notably Democratic Review, New Yorker, Harper's, and Union Magazine. 2 Early contributions were primarily poetry and translations and criticism of Italian and German writers, making use of her early interest and fluency in languages.

In the late twentieth century, as scholars recovered and revalued the contributions of earlier women, one great irony was that most references to Elizabeth Ellet were based primarily on the words of her male rivals, Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Nearly all attention given Ellet depicts her as a villain in battles with these celebrated men, calling her a "trouble maker," "maligner," and "scandal maker" (Bayless); she was assumed to have taken action based on either "jealousy or a taste for scandal-mongering" (Moss). 3 The readiness with which these men's accounts have been accepted is surprising because Ellet had such highly respected companions in these conflicts--Margaret Fuller, Ann S. Stephens, and Anne C. Lynch (Botta). In addition, she had many longtime, highly esteemed friends, including Lydia Sigourney, Sarah Josepha Hale, and Jared Sparks, a noted historian whose advice she sought in writing The Women of the American Revolution.

Ellet's battle with Poe began amidst gossip about the Poe-Osgood liaison. Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood, both married to others, began an extended literary flirtation in the pages of the Broadway Journal, which Poe was editing at the time. 4 The couple also regularly attended events and social gatherings together. Ellet, professing concern for Osgood, claimed to have been shown incriminating letters from Osgood to Poe by Poe's wife Virginia. Her account was corroborated by the actions of Anne Lynch (Botta), author and hostess of New York's best known literary salon, and by Margaret Fuller, who, with Osgood's permission, visited the Poe household to retrieve the letters that might harm Osgood's reputation. Poe primarily blamed Ellet for this heightened attention to an already whispered scandal. 5 Thus began an animosity that included not only Poe's exclusion of Ellet...


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