- Poe, Longfellow, and Velvet
In his “Annals,” Mabbott writes about the “Little Longfellow War” (as Poe himself called it on at least one occasion), stating, “Willis said Poe believed that ‘Longfellow is asleep on velvet; it will do him good to rouse him. His friends will come out and fight his battle’” (The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1:557). This colorful statement has been widely repeated, presumably with the intention of softening Poe’s rather harsh public attitude toward the very likeable Longfellow, and seeking to impose a more benign tone on Poe’s frequently high-pitched tirades against plagiarism. Unfortunately, going back to the original source reveals a fundamental problem with this interpretation. Mabbott cites in a footnote his source as “The Prose Works of N. P. Willis (1845), p. 768” (1:557n16). Although he specifically credits this 1845 printing, that book is merely a collection of reprints. Willis’s article originally appeared as “Longfellow’s Waif ” in the Evening Mirror (New York) of February 5, 1845 (vol. 1, no. 103, p. 2, cols. 2–3), reprinted in the Weekly Mirror of February 8, 1845 (vol. 1, no. 18, p. 287, col. 1). It subsequently appeared in Dashes at Life with a Free Pencil, 1845 (part 4: Ephemera, p. 194), and many later collections, including the one cited by Mabbott, with varying page numbers depending on the specific edition.
It is important to properly understand the context in which Willis makes the remarks quoted by Mabbott. Immediately after a brief quotation from Poe’s article about Longfellow’s tendency to “continually imitate (is that the word?),” Willis comments:
Notwithstanding the haste with which it passed through our attention (for we did not see it in proof) the question of admission was submitted to a principle in our mind; and, in admitting it, we did, by Longfellow, as we would have him do by us. It was a literary charge, by a pen that never records an opinion without some supposed good reason, and only injurious to Longfellow, (to our belief) while circulating, un-replied-to, in conversation-dom. In the second while we reasoned upon it, we went to Cambridge and saw the poet’s face, frank and scholar-like, glowing among the busts and pictures in his beautiful library, and (with, perhaps, a little mischief in remembering how we have always been the football and he the nosegay of our contemporaries) we returned to our printing-office arguing thus:—Our critical friend believes this, though we do [End Page 235] not; Longfellow is asleep on velvet; it will do him good to rouse him; his friends will come out and fight his battle; the charge, (which to us would be a comparative pat on the back) will be openly disproved, and the acquittal of course leaves his fame brighter than before—the injurious whisper, in Conversation-dom killed into the bargain!
The ambiguity comes from Willis’s use of “this” in “Our critical friend believes this, though we do not,” followed by a semi-colon. Mabbott apparently read “this” as referring to what followed, but reading the sentence in the greater sequence of ideas, it seems clear that “this” refers to the previously mentioned “literary charge” of imitation made by Poe against Longfellow, and published in “haste.” What follows Willis’s statement, then, reflects his own thinking, his own internal argument about whether to print Poe’s article. Thus, Mabbott has taken what Willis says he himself thought and reassigned it as a statement actually uttered by Poe, effectively putting Willis’s words in Poe’s mouth. [End Page 236]
Jeffrey A. Savoye is Secretary–Treasurer and Webmaster of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. He is the coeditor, along with Burton R. Pollin, of the revised edition of The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (2008). He has published numerous reviews and articles related to the life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe. He is Honorary Member of the Poe Studies Association and has received both the James Gargano and the Patrick Quinn Awards.