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English, Thomas Dunn (1819-1902)

Editor, Journalist, Lawyer, Playwright, Poet, Politician

Born in 1819 into an old Quaker family near Philadelphia, Thomas Dunn English attended schooling in Philadelphia and New Jersey. He took his degree at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where he completed a thesis on phrenology and gained his M.D. in 1839. Even as English continued on to a law degree, completed in 1842, he began writing for the Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and was president of a political club. English would continue this multifaceted career throughout his life. Around 1844, he edited the short-lived Aurora and published a poem, “The Gallows Goers,” which was “widely circulated in the campaign against capital punishment.” English went on to edit the Aristidean, where he was introduced to contributors Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman (Schreiber).

English is remembered for his bitter feud with Poe, whose initial friendship with English was severed by a falling out. Their contentious relationship became public after Poe satirized a number of writers, including English, in a series of papers called “The Literati of New York” which appeared in Godey’s Lady Book in 1846. English, “believing himself ill-treated and his writings unjustly abused,” struck back in the pages of the Evening Mirror by charging Poe with forgery. His response “entirely overlooked libel laws,” and Poe responded with a successful, though publicly unpopular, lawsuit (Hemstreet 161-4). Emerging from the fracas with Poe in 1848, English undertook the publication of a weekly satirical sheet, John Donkey, which skewered Poe, Greeley, and others in the literary world. Although the publication was said to reach a readership of twelve thousand, libel suits from the defamed writers led to its swift downfall (Schreiber).

Though English was identified in Charles Pfaff’s obituary as one of the “Knights of the Round Table” at Pfaff’s, he denied his association with the group, or even having heard of it ("In and about the City" 2). English evidently did not have a high regard for Bohemia, writing of Thomas Butler Gunn, “He was a correct, upright, and decorous gentleman, anything but a Bohemian, as the term is generally understood.” English did, however, move in some of the same literary and theatrical circles as Whitman, Willis, Brougham, Keene, and the major players of the day-- Sothern, Wallack, and Booth (English "That Club" 202).

A poet as well as a satirist and playwright, English published several books, including American Ballads (1880) and The Boy’s Book of Battle Lyrics (1885). He also penned over twenty plays over his lifetime, including The Mormons, or Life at Salt Lake, which was produced at Burton’s Theatre in 1858 (Schrieber). His “Ben Bolt” poem appeared in the September 2, 1843 edition of the New Mirror, a publication edited by G.P. Morris and Pfaff’s frequenter N.P. Willis. The poem proved popular with composers as well as readers, inspiring at least twenty-six musical versions. Hemsted called the piece the “best known of his achievements” (162).

In the political realm, English was once appointed weigher of the port of New York and became Mayor of Lawnsville, Virginia, where he also practiced law in Virginia in the early 1850s. He served on the New Jersey legislature from 1863-64, a stint which inspired him to try to resurrect a political magazine The Old Guard (Schrieber). Thomas Butler Gunn notes that he was pro-slavery and sympathized politically with Chauncey Burr, an intimate friend of Poe’s (16.99; 16.169). English also later edited the Newark Sunday Call, but remained interested in politics and secured a Democratic Congressional seat in 1890 (Schrieber).

English died at his home in Newark in 1902, nearly blind from his literary exertions. He was survived by his wife, Annie Maxwell Meade, and four children, who took it upon themselves to perpetuate his legacy (Schreiber). His daughter Alice edited a collection of his poems The Select Poems of Dr. Thomas Dunn English (1894) while his daughter Florence English Noll edited his Fairy Stories and Wonder Tales (1897), and his son-in-law Arthur H. Noll collected English’s scattered periodical pieces and published them in 1904.