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Gardette, Charles Desmarais (1830-1884)

Essayist, Journalist, Poet, Short Story Writer

Charles Desmarais Gardette was born in Philadelphia in 1830 to an aristocratic family and received his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1851 (Rawson). Soon moving from medicine to journalism, he published in the Evening Journal and Record of Philadelphia, as well as the Evening Post of New York. His work includes fiction, poetry, and essays. Like some of his compatriots at Pfaff’s, including Aldrich, Nast, Shanly, and Arnold, Gardette tried his hand at writing for children, publishing the didactic Johnnie Dodge, or, The Freaks and Fortunes of an Idle Boy in 1868. Gardette was considered a young man of the New York Press (“The Young Men” 4), and was among the first to contribute to Atlantic Monthly (“Literary Matters”). While most of his works are forgotten today, he was evidently well regarded during his time. Winter lists Gardette amongst "names that shine, with more or less lustre, in the scroll of American poets.” (292)

While multiple sources place Gardette at Pfaff’s, there is some dispute over his level of involvement there. Lalor describes him as a “tangential figure” to the bohemian scene at Pfaff’s (364), which is supported by Rawson’s characterization of him as “only an occasional comet in the brilliant sky of the Pfaffian zodiac” (n.p.). In contrast, he has been listed as one of the “Pfaffian regulars” (Stansell 114) and amongst “the best know [sic] writers who frequented that cozy corner [Pfaff's]" (G. J. M. 9). “Though small in size he was noted for a large convivial nature,” and would habitually pick up the tab for everyone at his table. Winter writes that Gardette was “conspicuous there [Pfaff's], for daintiness of person, elegance of attire, and blithe animal spirits" (65).

Gardette was likely known to Whitman through Clapp, who at the time was editor of the Saturday Press. Perhaps at Clapp’s request, Gardette wrote a number of parodies of Walt Whitman for the Saturday Press under the name "Saerasmid," an anagram of his middle name. These poems were published in 1860 and appear to be part of Clapp’s larger effort to keep the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass in the spotlight on Whitman’s behalf (Clark 260-262). Stansell writes that Whitman, who enjoyed the gossip at Pffaff’s, once scribbled down a story of Gardette’s concerning George Lippard.

Described by Reynolds as a “Poe(esque) tale writer,” Gardette may best be remembered for his involvement in a minor literary hoax regarding his imitation of Poe’s style (377). Following a discussion with friends over whether or not it would be possible to write an imitation of Poe’s distinctive style, Gardette composed "The Fire-Fiend" and sent it to Harper’s Magazine, from where it was sent it to Henry Clapp of the Saturday Press. Though Gardette did not know Clapp at the time, the poem appeared in the Press on November 19, 1859. Gardette’s brief note of introduction to the piece states that it was an early Poe manuscript written "while experimenting toward the production of that wondrous mechanism ‘THE RAVEN.’"

The hoax would confound critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Amidst accusations of plagiary on Poe’s part, Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie, editor of the Philadelphia Press, published an editorial titled “Poe’s Raven: Whence came it?” on September 30, 1864 for the purpose of “vindicating Poe from the charge of plagiary.” In a later letter to Gardette, Mackenzie characterized Gardette as one who "dabbles" in literature and had been disseminating Poe’s early, unworthy manuscript for "several years" in the hope that his name would be associated with the great poet. Gardette and Mackenzie exchanged a volley of letters debating the truth of the accusations, the collection of which Gardette published as "The Whole Truth in the Question of "The Fire Fiend" (1864). He clarifies that the poem was "written as a hoax, published as a hoax, with an editorial remark sufficiently indicating the fact to any reader of fair perspicacity;...I feel no hesitation in pronouncing it, and in believing that my readers will pronounce it, to have been a venial and harmless literary joke, instead of an ’unjustifiable fraud,’ ’forgery,’ and a ’great wrong,’ as it is solemnly declared to be by DR. R. SHELTON MACKENZIE!" (Gardette, The Whole Truth 23-24) The aftermath of the debate included a mention of the "Fire-Fiend" affair by Henry Clapp in "Curiosities of Criticism" (Saturday Press, 1866), and the release of Gardette’s book of poetry, The Fire-Fiend and Other Poems.

Gardette was later attached to the U.S. delegation in Paris for five years and continued writing. One of his short stories, "The Burleigh Legacy: A Tale of an Amateur ’Detective’" (Beadle’s Monthly, 1866) bears "features we would call echoes of a Sherlockian story, had it been published after 1887" (D. Richards 8).