Today is my late father's birthday. Born in 1910, he would be 118. His sense of humor was, in some respects, not unlike my own in the 19th century, as humorist Mathew Franklin Whittier. Of all of Dad's little recitations, one of my favorites was the following poem:
My girlfriend's name is Bunny.
Her nose is kinda runny.
People think it's funny,
But it's not.
First of all, I stand corrected as regards the poem, "Al Aaraaf," inasmuch as it appears in 1829, in a book published by Edgar Allan Poe entitled "Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems." That being the case, my initial impression was correct, that it is not in Mathew Franklin Whittier's style. Nor had he lost his first wife at this time, so this is not his work. I still do not, however, believe for a minute that Poe wrote this poem. And there is a very interesting history regarding the presentation, in Boston, which "B." (as I believe, MFW) says he attended, writing for the Boston "Weekly Museum" in 1849 (which I shared in yesterday's entry). On the web page for the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, where "Al Aaraaf" is presented, an explanatory note reads:
The details of this reading are somewhat complicated. Essentially, Poe had been requested to recite a poem at the Boston Lyceum on October 16, 1845. Although he was paid $50 to present a new poem, he was apparently unable to compose one of appropriate merit in the allotted time. Instead, he recited "Al Aaraaf," renamed as "The Messenger Star of Tycho Brahe." The response, as Poe probably expected, was mixed. Afterward, he claimed that the whole thing was a hoax to test the cultural integrity of the "Frogpondians." He further claimed that the poem read had been written when he was only 10 years old. The title page was perhaps altered as substantiation.
Nevermind "perhaps," he has been caught red-handed in a subterfuge. That means he has the type of character to plagiarize works. This one was stolen from somebody, which is why he chose to read it--because he knew his own works were substandard. He would never have been able to compose one of appropriate merit, no matter how long he had. That is also why he went on to read "The Raven" at the same event.
I refer you to the story of the legal dispute between Margaret D.H. Keane, who painted the large-eyed waifs, and her husband, who claimed they were his. In a court demonstration, he was completely unable to paint one, excusing himself on the basis of a sore shoulder--whereas his wife completed one in her typical style, in 53 minutes.
This is what I'm saying--that Poe was really that much of a con artist. Now we will proceed with this morning's entry...
Yesterday, I zeroed in on a letter to the editor of the Boston "Weekly Museum," signed "B.," from Westbrook, Maine (very near where I live, today). I want to tie "B." more firmly to Mathew Franklin Whittier, and in order to do that, we have to trace his appearance in the New York "Evening Mirror," and then in the Boston "Chronotype."
In the "Evening Mirror"--generally, a meat-and-potatoes daily, with a little bit of poetry or literature thrown in occasionally--appears a chatty, newsy letter, ostensibly from London, signed "B." You can read it in the original, here. This is a parody created by Mathew, to point up the fraud that was being perpetrated by the New York "Herald" at the time, of making up their own foreign correspondence. If the editor of the "Mirror" wasn't in on it, this would have been something of a practical joke, as well. He gives himself, and his purpose, away at the end of the letter. This is the first instance of "B." that I have found. I am assuming it is Mathew, because it fits with his modus operandi, and it is written in his style. I've already shared, in a recent entry, the more blatant caricature that Mathew subsequently published in the "Evening Mirror," under the signature, "Ferdinand Mendez Pinto."
Mathew had been writing under a variation of his own initials, as "X.F.W.," for about a year, from New York City to the editor of the "Chronotype," Elizur Wright. These two were fully sympatico. But the pseudonym was too easily-deciphered by their pro-slavery enemies. So when Mathew begins writing of attending anti-slavery conventions, and seeing the leaders of that movement, like Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglas, and William Lloyd Garrison speak, he must adopt another letter-writing persona. He launches a new, unsigned series entitled "Gossip from Gotham," the first of which is subtitled "By a Bostonian in New York," in the March 31, 1849 edition. The content of this first installment is entirely innocuous, being the news of the city. The second letter, in the April 14, 1849 edition, reports on a charity event benefitting homeless children, featuring talks by Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker abolitionist, and Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, also an abolitionist. But no mention is made, in the letter, of their anti-slavery work.
The third letter in the series, dated April 21, 1849 and appearing in the April 28, 1849 edition, is titled a bit differently: "Gossip from New York." Presumably it is by the same author. Among other speakers he tells us he has seen, are Frederick Douglas, and he mentions that this isn't his first time. He writes:
The commencement of his speech was modest and conciliatory, delivered for the most part, in an under tone, and expressing the embarrassment he felt in addressing an audience composed of two races. After a rapid, but comlete and conclusive argument, on the absurdity of confounding personality with property, he announced his main subject, "The Great Men of the United States, as indicating the standard of public morality." After reviewing the career of Gen. Taylor--expatiating on the services by which he had won the Presidency--and denouncing his position and character as, in the highest degree, favorable to slavery, he proceeded to discuss the political merits of Henry Clay. The topic was evidently a favorite one with the speaker, and he handled it with a force, and unction, that showed he was completely at home in it, and that his burning words flew out like hot coals of fire, from an excited, deeply indignant soul. Clay's letter to the people of Kentucky he characterized as a master piece of inconsistency. "It was," said he, "very eloquent, but very sophistical--filled with the most pious sentiments and the most nefarious principles--exhibiting the most tender love of humanity, and the most bitter hatred of the negro."--This did not seem to be precisely to the taste of all the audience; I noticed several leave their seats and make for the door about this time. One young gentleman, in particular, with a msot conspicuous cravat, passed near me, muttering, "I wish I had the black devil in my power, I would cut his throat from ear to ear," and while they may cause a fastidious taste to revolt they so clearly spring from an intense perception of wrong, a burning recollection of personal injury, that one can hardly condemn their employment, however much he may regret their necessity.
In this same edition of April 28, 1849, is a letter dated April 17, 1849, signed "B." This author is in Pittsburgh, having traveled from New York City. He tells us that he left "Saturday morning," which would be the morning of the 14th, and arrived in Pittsburgh (spelled "Pittsburg") "last night," on the 16th--a 2-1/2 day trip. Supposedly, he is on his way to St. Louis with the "Ophir Mining and Trading Company." However, if this is the same writer as "Gossip from New York," he would have had to return to New York that evening, the 17th, arriving by the morning of the 20th. That's because the writer of "Gossip from New York" mentions reading a morning paper on the 20th. Keep in mind, for the moment, that it's just possible.
Now, the following month, in the Boston "Chronotype" of May 12, 1849, comes a "B."-signed poem written in Mathew's preferred style (I don't know the technical names for poetic styles) entitled "Hang the Black Rascal"--a scathing satire. "B." has mentioned that he is a New Englander; but now we know he is also very strongly anti-slavery, that he can write in Mathew's typical poetic style, and that he has the same satirical humor. A couple of stanzas from the opening of the poem will suffice:
Hang him up—he's black and sooty,
Hang a nigger when you can;
'Tis a pious, Christian duty,
Thus to show your love to man.
"Blood for blood"—sure every bright man—
Every Christian man will say—
(But we needn't hang a white man,
Let his crime be what it may.)
Let the white folks do the killing—
Murder to their hearts' content;
If convicted, we are willing
To commute their punishment.
But if blacks, by wrong imbruted,
Dare to do this dreadful thing,—
No! we'd not have them "communited,"—
Let the hated rascals swing.
Note in particular this stanza:
Put the scaffold on the Common,
Where the multitude can meet;
All the schools and ladies summon,
Let them all enjoy the treat.
What's the use of being "private"?
Hanging is a righteous cause;
Men should witness what you drive at,
When you execute the laws.
One of the meetings that Mathew attends, in New York, is held by a society against capital punishment. When he was working as the junior editor for the New York "Constellation," in 1831, he wrote an unsigned satire on the practice of bringing children to witness public hangings:
Mrs. Noman.—Oh! I never was so shocked in all my born days!
Mrs. Trueby.—Shocked! at what?
Mrs. Nom.—At the hangin. I've been over to Ellis's Island to see Gibbs and Wansley stretched up. Oh heavens! what a shockin sight it was!
Mrs. True.—Why do you go to see a sight so shocking?
Mrs. Nom.—Oh, I always go to all the hangins, and take my children along with me. I think it's my duty to bring 'em up in the way they should go.
Mrs. True.—And so you take them to the gallows!
Mrs. Nom.—Yes, Mrs. Trueby, I do think it's the most effectual way to keep 'em from iniquity—dont you?
Mrs. True.—On the contrary, it seems to me the most likely way to ruin them. It corrupts their morals and hardens their hearts.
Mrs. Nom.—How can you say so! For my part, I think it's the only way to make 'em honest; and that the more people they see hanged, the better they'll be. I would'nt miss of havin 'em go for nothing in the world. I always go myself, when there's a hangin-bee within a hundred miles.
Pittsburgh was a major hub for the Underground Railroad, having several stop-overs. My guess is that Mathew was there, for one day, having some connection with that work. Pretending to be en route to St. Louis was a deliberate ruse to avoid suspicion.
This is the history of what I believe to be Mathew Franklin Whittier's use of the signature, "B.," in these three newspapers--the New York "Evening Mirror" in 1847, and the Boston "Chronotype," and then the Boston "Weekly Museum," in 1849. There may be others I've missed.* But where might Mathew have gotten "B." from? Most of his signatures carried a hidden meaning. Only when he was extremely concerned about the consequences of being identified, might he adopt a signature that was entirely unrelated, and hence untraceable. In other words, Mathew used signatures the way we use passwords, today.
I believe it might have been short for "Blifkins." In the Dec. 6, 1851 edition of the Boston "Carpet-Bag," is a poem by "Mr. K.K. Blifkins," entitled "Reuben and Phoebe: A Pathetic Ballad." It is typical of Mathew's poetic parodies, which nonetheless reveal, in disguised form, something about his relationship with his true love, Abby, who at this time had died 10 years earlier. Here, Mathew appears to be lampooning a style of poetry, probably just then in fashion, which makes the last line of each stanza too long. Here, he has exaggerated the trend for effect, as the opening stanzas will illustrate:
In Manchester a maiden dwelt,
Her name was Phoebe Brown,
Her cheeks were red, her hair was black,
And she was considered by good judges to be by all odds the best-looking girl in town.
Her age was nearly seventeen,
Her eyes were sparkling bright,
A very lovely girl she was,
And for about a year and a half there had been a young man paying attention to her by the name of Reuben Wright.
The embedded autobiography of the poem, is simply that the father won't give them permission to marry, and there is a fight:
Old Brown then took a deadly aim
Towards young Rueben's head,
But oh! It was a bleeding shame,
He made a mistake, and shot his only daughter, and had the unspeakable anguish of seeing her drop right down stone dead.
Then anguish filled young Reuben's heart,
And vengeance crazed his brain,
He drew an awful jack-knife out
And plunged it into Old Brown about fifty or sixty times, so that it's very doubtful about his ever coming to again.
The briny drops from Reuben's eyes
In torrents pour-ed down,
He yielded up the ghost and died,
And in this melancholy and heart-rending manner terminates the history of Reuben and Phoebe, and likewise old Captain Brown.
This is all symbolic, of course. Abby's father apparently had refused permission, and his continued opposition, even after they named their first-born son after him (first and middle name), caused them to live in poverty, until Abby died from consumption. This, in turn, destroyed Mathew, emotionally.
The point is that all of these pieces are precisely consistent with literally hundreds of Mathew's works, that I've gathered over the past nine years or so.
Now, around 1858, B.P. Shillaber, the former editor of the "Carpet-Bag," begins publishing little stories about an unhappily-married man, called "Blifkins the Martyr." Later, he would compile them as one section of a book entitled "Partingtonian Patchwork," which he signed only as the editor, not as the author. These stories include poems, some of which were evidentally written by Mathew. The two men had collaborated on work before, as when Mathew wrote the faux biography of Shillaber's character, "Mrs. Partington." So it appears that "Blifkins"--a name originally created by Mathew--was, in fact, based on Mathew's unfortunate, family-arranged second marriage to Jane Vaughn. These must have been stories that Mathew told Shillaber in private; and he must have had Mathew's permission to make a sort of mild lampoon of them, occasionally inserting Mathew's own poetry. He had done something similar in the "Carpet-Bag," with two characters: "The Sensitive Man," and "Philanthropos," both of which were likewise mild lampoons of these two different aspects of Mathew's character.
It is in "Blifkins the Martyr"--given that this was actually disguised biography of Mathew--that we see some of the strongest evidence that he was the real author of "The Raven," as previously discussed.
All that to say that I think "B.," in all these instances, was Mathew--and that it was short for "Blifkins," a name Mathew had adopted for himself. It appears first, as we have seen, in 1847 in the New York "Mirror," and this was just about the time that Mathew was giving up on that marriage, and turning his attention back to Abby, in the spirit world (as evidenced by his poetry and one of the "X.F.W." letters).
That's a long paper trail. I don't know how many readers may have followed me to this point. But when "B." starts writing letters from Westbrook, Maine (which was really a suburb of Portland, where his ex-wife and children lived), his letters are precisely, 100% consistent with Mathew, on all counts--including, as said previously, his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of poetry. I will here link to another of "B.'s" Westbrook letters, to give you some idea. (Note the "Kaleidoscope" letter, from Philadelphia, is also Mathew's.)
It's no joke, by the way, to create one of these blog entries. It is now almost 7:00 a.m., and I was up at about 2:30 this morning. And I'm not done, yet. Mathew, also, must have put in these kinds of hours, working on a piece which appeared one day in the newspaper, and was wrapping fish the next.
Do you see the reference to the Margaret Fuller, in B's Westbrook letter? Mathew wrote a scathing satire on her, as part of a lampoon of his own short-lived affair with a pseudo-intellectual (or so I gather). Abby, his first wife, had been brilliant and sincerely spiritual. Mathew could never find another like her, though occasionally he seems to have tried. He only found these pseudo-intellectuals, who took him for a ride. Let me find it, and I'll link to that, as well. This appeared in the Boston "Weekly Museum" of 1852, shortly before it was bought out by entertainer Ossian Dodge (the same who claimed Mathew's "Quails" letters). I own a physical copy of this one.
Here it is, under the heading "Fashionable Correspondence." This is the third and last of letter of that series. The young woman he styles as "Sally Sage" was, apparently, a huge fan of Margaret Fuller. There are symbolic references in there which I deconstructed in my book, but I'd be getting too far afield to go into them, here. Suffice it to say that Mathew was the sworn enemy of pseudo-intellectuals, including Fuller and Edgar Allan Poe, because he was, since childhood, a victim of neurotic hypocrisy in his family. As an adult, therefore, he attacked hypocrisy via sarcasm, with a view to exposing it, everywhere he encountered it.
I have done my best to trace the progression of Mathew's use of this pseudonym, "B." If I have been successful, I already showed, yesterday, that "B." attacked Edgar Allan Poe under cover of defending and even praising him. And that he "rescued" his own two poems, "Al Aaraaf" and "The Raven," from the sweeping damnation another writer had made of Poe's work, that they all breathed Hell. But other than that, he has let Poe go down into the realm of tragic geniuses, such as the world has known for centuries.
I think even that was too generous. Poe's own works are fumbling fakes. His good work isn't his. He was an erudite-sounding phony, who attacked others, in his self-assigned role as a literary critic, in order to wrest the high ground from his detractors. Or so it appears, to me.
My only business with Poe, is to take Mathew's work back from him. Other than that, I have no more interest in Poe than I have in Stephen King.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*There is one more clue, but it's open to interpretation. Resuming his travelogue letters as "J.O.B." for the Portland "Transcript" in 1857, instead of being a student taking a break from his studies, as he was the previous year, suddenly he is a married man with children, escorting his family from the country, to live in Detroit. He refers to his wife, naturally, as "Mrs. B.," even though the pseudonym is obviously a reference to the Biblical name. Here, what is probably happening is that he and his second wife are actually long-separated, but he is moving the family from Portland to Detroit. The character pretends that, since they didn't like Detroit, they are all going further West; but in reality, I think he just escorted them up to her extended family in St. John, or she proceeded there with the children, while he attended an anti-slavery convention in the area.
Music opening this page: "The Inspector," by Wally Badarou, from the album, "Echos"