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Poe as Naughty Boy: Celebrity Feuds in the 19th Century

poe as mohawk

What do One Direction and Edgar Allan Poe have in common? The answer does not involve great hair or an ardent fan base, but an argument—two arguments, rather. One took place over the course of several months in 1845, the other over a period of hours in May of 2015. On May 30th of this year, the world suddenly learned that there was a DJ named Naughty Boy, and that this DJ had lived up to his pseudonym by insulting One Direction member Louis Tomlinson. We heard about it the same way we hear about everything: on social media. The insult had been tweeted, ensuring that everyone possessed of a social media account (and morbid curiosity) was treated to yet another celebrity Twitter war.

While social media sites such as Twitter have become the new platform for celebrity feuds, they are not the first. Nor are this century’s celebrities the first to indulge their appetite for argument.

In 1845, Edgar Allan Poe became embroiled in a celebrity feud of his own. His opponent? None other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Plagiarism was the theme, and fat jokes were banned. The battlefield can be thought of as an ancient relative of Twitter—newspaper columns. The contrast between the two combatants could not have been more striking. On one side, we see Poe—the shabby, struggling editor of a magazine with just a handful of published poems and short stories to his name. On the other side, Longfellow—the wealthy, distinguished author and professor at Harvard. Poe was light-years away from Longfellow’s world of leather-bound books and Harvard halls, and he knew it. Perhaps this was one of the reasons he began his beef with “The Professor” (his bitter nickname for Longfellow) in the first place.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe

Yet, although personal resentment might have influenced Poe, the fact of the matter is that Poe loved a good fight. His brutality as a critic had earned him the nickname of the “Tomahawk Man,” but until 1845, he had not blatantly denounced a figure as beloved and respected as Longfellow.

And just how does one go about accusing one of the country’s foremost authors of plagiarism? As Poe discovered, it’s really quite easy when you happen to be the editor of a literary magazine with a column to fill and circulation to boost. In the winter of 1845, Poe ended his review of Longfellow’s The Waif with this remark:

“We conclude our notes on the “Waif,” with the observation that, although full of beauties, it is infected with a moral taint — or is this a mere freak of our own fancy? We shall be pleased if it be so; — but there does appear, in this exquisite little volume, a very careful avoidance of all American poets who may be supposed especially to interfere with the claims of Mr. Longfellow. These men Mr. Longfellow can continuously imitate ( is that the word?) and yet never even incidentally commend.”

The response to the accusation was immediate, and seemed to come from all corners of the literary East Coast. Longfellow’s “coterie,” as Poe dubbed them, fell over themselves responding in various newspapers to his foul indictment of their beloved Longfellow. Longfellow himself haughtily refrained from acknowledging Poe’s insults publicly, but we do find this little rhyme in the diary he was keeping at the time: “In Hexameter sings serenely a Harvard professor / In Pentameter him damns censorious Poe.”

Sadly for Longfellow, censorious Poe was far from damned. He was not the only person who thought American poets imitative and Longfellow overrated. He continued in his quest for literary justice. At the height of what was becoming known as the “Little Longfellow War,” Poe was invited to the New York Historical Society to deliver his “Lecture on the Poets of America.” We can only hope the New York Historical Society knew what it was doing when it invited Poe, because the “lecture” turned out to be much more like a celebrity roast, only without Dean Martin and without the laughs. Longfellow was, of course, the main target of the evening. One paper described it as a “decapitation,” while another applauded Poe for making “unmitigated war upon the prevailing Puffery, and dragg[ing] several popular idols from their pedestals.”

Before the dust had settled from this latest attack, another combatant made his appearance.  In a column submitted to a New York literary journal, a mysterious writer using the pseudonym “Outis” (Greek for “nobody”) attempted to silence Poe’s accusations once and for all. To this day, scholars are unable to establish the identity of Outis, although some evidence suggests that he might have been an invention of Lawrence Lebree (the editor of the New York paper Rover). Out of the many articles in defense of Longfellow during this season, Outis’ alone succeeded in finding a chink in Poe’s armor. Copying a technique that Poe himself had used in his early accusations of Longfellow, Outis printed excerpts of “The Raven” alongside an anonymous poem entitled “The Bird of the Dream.” The goal was to allow the readers to detect the similarities for themselves. Just in case they missed a few, Outis then proceeded to point out no less than 18 similarities between “The Raven” and “The Bird of the Dream.”

To the delight of Longfellow’s supporters, Poe’s response to Outis was ungraceful and revealed the extent of his embarrassment. One editor snickered “a Joker will rarely ever receive one in return good-naturedly; and this is the extent true of Mr. Poe.” Over the course of four lengthy responses, Poe struggled to defend his works and regain his dignity. Although he successfully disproved Outis’ claim that he had plagiarized “The Raven,” he found himself unable to continue in his accusations of Longfellow. Following his response to Outis, Poe waved the white flag by revoking his (many) statements accusing Longfellow of plagiarism. Even then, however, he stubbornly held to his view that Longfellow’s imitative style did not deserve the praise it continued to receive.

With that, Poe’s involvement in the Little Longfellow war came to an awkward close. His writing in years following contained very few references to “The Professor”, and in the end it was Longfellow himself who had the last word. Following Poe’s untimely death, he wrote to a friend, “My works seemed to give him much trouble, first and last; but Mr. Poe is dead and gone, and I am alive and still writing–and that is the end of the matter.”