Sunday, April 09, 2006

Letters From Washington City

Being Remarks delivered by host Adam Mazmanian at the Inaugural Episode of the F.W. Thomas Performances, Mon. Apr. 10, 2006

I.

Thank you all for coming. Welcome to the Inaugural Episode of the F.W. Thomas Performances.

We are here to enjoy presentations fictive, factual, artistic and thesbian prepared by several fine local artists.

We are here because, as the good people at Dcist point out, “Literary Readings are the New Pink.”

And we are here to meet Frederick W. Thomas, the 19th century novelist, songwriter, attorney, correspondent, government clerk, bon vivant and hanger-on, for whom this series is named.

Hobbled from early childhood due to a series of improbable roughhousing mishaps, F.W. Thomas had little outside schooling, and was taught reading and sums by the aunt who raised him Baltimore. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his lack of formal schooling, at age 17 he elected to study law. The year was 1825.

He never had much use for practicing law. He got the writing bug after what he describes as “a poetical satire of some fops about town” so enraged the targets of Thomas' wit, that they ransacked the printer's office.

In his twenties, Thomas achieved a measure of fame as an author. His first book, a satire of Baltimore society called “Clinton Bradshaw; or, The adventures of a lawyer ...” sold well and his 1831 song, “T'is said that Absence conquers Love” was among the most popular of its day.

He was also in-demand as a lecturer. Thomas owes his sojourn here in “Washington City” as it was then known, to his well-attended speeches on behalf of Whig presidential candidate, General William Henry Harrison in the 1840 election.

And it was in the course of stumping for Harrison that F.W. Thomas came to meet his literary hero, Edgar Allen Poe. It is through their five-year correspondence, and not through any accomplishment of his own, that Thomas' name is passed on in the annals of literary history.

The pair became fast friends after meeting in Philadelphia in 1840. The tone of their early letters shows Thomas as the eager supplicant, and Poe, the crusty, cynical master: Thomas once wrote to Poe, “Frankly, I like your approval of my little efforts better than any other critic's whatsoever...”

So Thomas could not have been pleased with Poe's withering assessment of Thomas' second novel: “Having gained a name,” Poe complained, “you write to maintain it, and the effort becomes apparent.”

It is not impossible, given subsequent events, that this criticism wounded Thomas more deeply than he chose to admit in his letters.

II.

Poe's critical tone finds a more obsequious register when discussing the one topic of perpetual interest to all writers: money. All the more so when Thomas begins dropping hints that his influence with the new administration could lead to a Washington sinecure for Poe.

By all accounts, F.W Thomas was a hale and well-liked fellow, quick with a quip or a winning anecdote. So well liked, that the death of President Harrison, after thirty-two days in office, did little to still Thomas' political rise.

He befriended the sons of incoming President John Tyler, and began angling for a government post, and when he landed one, he commenced attempts to procure one for Poe.

Poe had every reason to put his faith in Thomas. Thomas landed a position as a personal aide to the Treasury Secretary, and positions were opening at a hasty clip as a faction of renegade, pro-labor Democrats known derisively as the Locofocos were being purged from the bureaucracy.
“How would you like to be an office holder here at fifteen-hundred dollars per year payable monthly by Uncle Sam who, however slack he may be to his general creditors, pays his officials with due punctuality. How would you like it? You stroll to your office a little after nine in the morning leisurely, and you stroll from it a little after two in the afternoon homeward to dinner, and return no more that day. If during office hours you have anything to do it is an agreeable relaxation from the monstrous laziness of the day.”
Poe's response was immediate and emphatic. “I am really serious about the office,” he wrote. However, he didn't appear to entirely trust Thomas' efforts on his behalf, writing, “It is not impossible that you could effect my object by merely showing this letter yourself personally to the President...”

Thomas, for all his second-rateness in matters literary, was proving to be a first-class manipulator, if his dealings with Poe are evidence. He took advantage of Poe's notoriety in the then-popular avocation of cryptography to arrange the publication of amateur ciphers devised by senior Treasury Department employees. He got Poe to recommend to several magazine editors, essays penned by Thomas in praise of speeches by President Tyler. He even engaged Poe's efforts in finding a publisher for a new song.

Thomas' good nature and winning ways saw him through the resignation of his his new patron, Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing, who quit in protest of Tyler's bank policy.

“I think that the President and family have kind feelings toward me,” Thomas wrote, “And I shall put my trust there if anything happens—I have just received an invitation to dinner there today.”

And what did Thomas talk about at dinner? As it happens, Poe himself. “You, my dear Poe, have a very high reputation here among the literati,” Thomas wrote, “And more than once in 'dining out' I have discussed you and made conversational capital out of you.”

III.

For Poe, the matter of landing a government job took a dire turn in January 1842, when his wife was stricken with an sudden and severe attack of tuberculosis. He delivered this news to Thomas in a letter that also included a demand that one or more of President Tyler's sons invest in a magazine Poe wished to launch. The letter concluded: “Will you bear in mind what I said about R. Tyler? God bless you. Edgar A. Poe.”

While Thomas couldn't direct funding to Poe's new venture, he did suggest a new angle on seeking government employment: an inspector's post at the Philadelphia Custom House.

In response to this suggestion, Poe wrote, “You have shown yourself, from the first hour of our acquaintance, that rara avis in terris – a true friend.”

Four months passed from the date of that letter without a reply from Thomas.

After months of frenetic worrying, his wife still ailing and his literary output stalled, Poe decided it it was time to force the issue. On November 16, 1842, Poe called on Mr. Smith, head of the Philadelphia Custom House, to learn if any of the employees standing in his way had been fired in the past couple of days.

“I am instructed to make no more removals,” said Mr. Smith.

Poe angrily said that Mr Rob Tyler had given instructions that Poe be appointed.

Smith: “From whom did you say?”

Poe: “From Mr. Robert Tyler.”

Smith: “From Robert Tyler! Ahem! I have received orders from President Tyler to make no more appointments and shall make none.”

Poe tried to finesse his humiliation:
“Now, my dear Thomas, this insult is not to me, so much as to your friend, Mr. Robert Tyler, who was so kind as to promise, and who requested my appointment. It seems to me that the only way to serve me now, is to lay the matter once again before Mr. T. and, if possible through him, to procure a few lines from the President, directing Mr. Smith to give me the place.” Poe added, “You can have no idea of the low ruffians and boobies, men, too, without a shadow of political influence or caste, who have received office over my head.”
Just short of three years had passed in Tyler's administration, and still Thomas had not landed a job for his favorite critic. He had flattered his way out of the chore of writing a biographical sketch of Poe for publication and was affecting a more preoccupied tone in his letters.

It was time for Poe to visit Washington City and settle the matter himself.

This, too, went rather badly.

Here is Poe's letter to Thomas on the subject:
“My dear friend. Forgive me my petulance and don't believe I think all I said. Believe me I am very grateful to you for your many attentions and forbearances and the time will never come when I shall forget either them or you. Remember me most kindly to Dr. Lacye – also to the Don, whose mustachios I do admire after all, and who has about the finest figure I ever beheld.... Please express my regret to Mr. Fuller for making such a fool of myself in his house and say to him that I should not have got half so drunk on his excellent Port wine but for the rummy coffee with which I was forced to wash it down. I would be glad, too, if you would take an opportunity of saying to Mr. Rob Tyler that if he can look over matters and get me the Inspectorship, I will join the Washingtonians forthwith... I think it would be a feather in Mr. Tyler's cap to save from the perils of mint julep -- and 'Port wines' – a young man of whom all the world thinks so well and who thinks so remarkably well of himself.”
IV.

John Tyler was the first to ascend to the presidency upon the death of his predecessor. He was the first president to marry in office – having met his second wife, Julia Gardner, at an otherwise ill-fated ceremony on the U.S.S. Princeton where a malfunctioning gun misfired, killing the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy and Julia Gardner's father. He was also the first sitting president not to be renominated by his party.

There would be no job for Poe.

Thomas left no published memoirs, so it is not known whether he failed Poe out of inability, indifference, happenstance or ill-will. He died in 1866, fittingly during a brief sojourn in Washington City.

His association with Poe had dwindled to nearly nothing by the last days of the Tyler administration, although Poe, in the months before his own death in 1849, attempted to rekindle their correspondence.

In the years following his government service., F.W. Thomas devoted himself to lecturing and writing songs and magazine articles and public speaking We celebrate him today as the patron saint of the novelist-bureaucrat; of every lawyer who jots down screenplay notes and bills the hours; of every ambitious arriviste who parlays a few acquaintanceships into access at the highest levels; of the fawning, well-connected friend whose every promise will become manifest....soon.