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.
English's "Letter to the Editor of the Literary World" is his attempt to disassociate himself with the Bohemians at Pfaff's. English states, "I was not a member of such an association, nor have I been connected with any social club in New York -- except, for a short time, with the Author's; nor was I ever in Pfaaf's, or Pfaff's, in my life. I am not quite sure where it was" (202).
English dissociates himself from Sothern, Clark, Butler, and Mackenzie. This letter was written as a response to "Our New York Letter," published in The Literary World 20 February 1886.[pages:202]
Gunn describes a visit to English "Returned to Fort Lee by a woody road and visited Dunn English, whom we found in the bosom of his family. He showed us pictures, took a brief stroll with us, to point out historic localities and dismissed us by the 5 o'clock boat, which was heavilyfreighted with passengers. Among them we found our Coitville hostess, Mrs. Brough, and her two guests" (6).
Gunn notes having a beer with English, "Writing a bit. To the "World" office in accordance with a note from Stedman. He wanted me to come in the afternoon to see Marble. To "Courier" Office previously – lager with Dunn English, to Post-Office, "Nick-nax" &c." (204).[pages:6, 204]
Gunn describes a conversation between English and Smith, "To the "Courier" Office, found Smith and Dunn English, both talking North and South and Civil War. English was proclaiming his pro-slavery sentiments, d__ning the "Tribune" and declaring his readiness to assist in hanging Dana. Smith, though a democrat" (98-100).
English tells his side of the row, "I don't expect he'll take it. Dunn English came up, talked about the Chauncey Burr row and gave his version of it. Burr is a friend of his; they sympathize politically. English made the affair to be a rowdy interference with Burr; said he had incurred the enmity of the Websters by "letting on" about "free love" and 14th street; that the head of the family is a policy-lottery dealer; which is true enough on Boweryem's admission. English attributed the "Tribune" account to the Websters. I fancy little Boweryem has what small right there is on his side in the matter; though he acted from glory and cockiness. Left English in Spruce Street;" (169-170).
Gunn describes a visit to Dunn English, "I went to Fort Lee, to visit Dunn English, who now occupies the house formerly tenanted by the Webster's. A ramble with him, returning to hear M.S.S. read and dinner. Other acquaintances of his appeared subsequently, and Boweryem, whom I returned to New York with, by the 6 o'clock boat" (202).[pages:98-100, 169-170, 202]
This text identifies the following pseudonym: John Donkey (50).[pages:50]
He is described as one of the subjects of Poe's harsh literary criticisms that were published in Godey's Lady's Book. English, "one of the criticized, believing himself ill-treated and his writings unjustly abused, sought vindication. His answer entirely overlooked the libel laws and he was promptly sued for damages by Poe" (161-2). English was twenty-four at the time of this incident.
According to Hemstreet, "a few years before, in 1843, [he] had been asked by N.P. Willis to write a poem for the New Mirror. The poem was written and sent to Willis with the suggestion that he either print it or tear it up as he thought best. Willis printed it, and though the writer became known as a poet, author, physician, lawyer, and statesman, the best known of his achievements were these verses of Ben Bolt (162).
Hemstreet mentions that much of the furniture that was in Poe's rooms in Poe's home in New York was purchased with the money won in the suit against English (163-4).[pages:161-162, 163-164]
The obituary identifies him as one of the "Knights of the Round Table" of the "lions of Bohemia."[pages:2]
English and Briggs were mentioned by Stoddard as Poe's Bohemian friends in "one of the first references, however indirect, to Poe as a Bohemian by any of his contemporaries" (3).
English, described by Parry as "the ancient author of 'Ben Bolt,' the song prominently figuring in Trilby" was celebrated in 1894 and 1895 when the theatrical version "bogus Bohemian" serial from Harper's was a hit. Evidently, he "was discovered by alert reporters to be in the slumbers of New Jersey. He was brought to New York and feted and toasted amid great gatherings" (105).[pages:3,105]
The biography discusses English's ongoing disputes with Poe as well as his journalistic and political careers.
Mentioned in reference to the Bohemian Club, which may be a post-Pfaff's group of journalists, even though they are described here as frequenting "Pfaaf's" [sic]. See Thomas Dunn English's "That Club at Pfaaf's [sic]."[pages:64]
From 1852 to 1857, English lived in Virginia, which would become the inspiration for "Long Grazier" and other poems describing that region.[pages:358, 359]
When discussing "The Literati" identified by Poe and the ties and animosties that existed among them, Winter recalls the days when English was living and writing. Winter also remembers having seen him during those days (296).[pages:296]
Thomas Dunn English
SOURCE: The Bookman. Jun. 1902: 306.
The Vault at Pfaff's
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