Anna Cora Mowatt and the Real Twinkle

Compared to the vast behemoths that are popular and academic knowledge about Poe and Dickens, Mowatt scholarship is so tiny and fragile that I hesitate to weaken or break any links I find between our heroine and these two mighty Victorian motherships of interest and enthusiasm. However, then I think about Frances Sargent Osgood…

Fanny Osgood was eight years older than Mowatt. At the time Anna Cora was arriving on the scene, Osgood was already an established literary figure. She was widely published. Her poetry was sought after by editors for inclusion in magazines, newspapers, and the ever-popular gift-books. More importantly, Osgood was a builder of literary infrastructure. She used her own popularity and enthusiasm to support and promote other up-and-coming poets in whom she saw exceptional talent. One of those poets, as everyone who is familiar with the Poe canon will recognize, was Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. However, since we look at history sometimes through the wrong end of a telescope, because Poe is a literary colossus now, some people assume he was also one when the two of them met. Thus in Poe-world, Frances Osgood has become “Fluttery Fanny,” not a hard-working, respected poet who champions a socially awkward literary critic who becomes an over-night sensation when he finally puts his money where his big mouth is and produces “The Raven.” Instead Osgood is a silly Victorian verse-writer, swooning and fan-girling over the marvelous Poe, because… who wouldn’t?

Perhaps it is a good thing that the moth of Mowatt’s biography did not fly too close to the brighter lights of other literary luminaries of her age. She, like Frances Osgood, might have been subsumed by them entirely.

With this in mind, let me edge Mowatt a bit further from Poe.

On my website, I have already poured a certain amount of cold water on the idea that Mowatt might have used Poe as the model for the character of T. Tennyson Twinkle in her comedy “Fashion.” The primary reason for me was and still is timing. As I said, before the publication of “The Raven” in late January of 1845, Poe was not primarily known as a poet. He was literary critic and author who had published a few poems early in his career. Most of his poetry was published under pen names.

“Fashion” opened March 24, 1845. In order for Poe to be Twinkle, Mowatt would have had to make a last minute revision to the script to include an overnight literary sensation. That’s not Twinkle’s character. The poet in “Fashion” is a drawing-room fixture. This sort of comfortable acceptance of the norms of polite society certainly does not seem to have been Poe’s style.
As a critic, Poe seemed to pride himself on cultivating an aggressive, take-no-prisoners, hard-ass style that spared the rod to no one. He seemed to court controversy with glee. His “Literati of New York” culled from his columns in the “Broadway Journal” is full of jaw-droppingly mean observations about generally admired figures that seem calculated to get a rise out of his peers.

Socially, he seems to have been less discrete than was acceptable for the times in conducting his relationships with married and unmarried women. It is difficult now to tell if these relationships were actual sexual liaisons, or just infatuations and intense flirtations that were allowed to become scandals because he was too publicly open about his attractions. Exacerbating his problems with women was the fact that Poe seemed to have poor conflict management skills. Socially difficult situations with him often escalated into conflicts, heated confrontations, and even violence.

None of these characteristics are in line with the character of T. Tennyson Twinkle, who is a consummate player of the parlor room, timing his entrances and exits with exquisite tact. They do, however, support my candidate for the poet’s model, Epes Sargent. He was a life-long friend to Mowatt. She wrote the play “Fashion” at his suggestion. Indeed he almost dared her into writing the play, saying she was particularly suited to composing comedies since she was, “.. nothing if not critical” and that “– besides you will have a fresh channel for the sarcastic ebullitions with which you so constantly indulge us.”1

Sargent was an established and accomplished poet in 1845. He was also a creature of the drawing rooms of the elite of New York’s Knickerbockerocracy who would eventually wed an heiress in 1848 as Twinkle is desperately attempting to do in the play.

In Twinkle’s first appearance, he spies Mrs. Tiffany reading and exclaims, “The “New Monthly Vernal Galaxy.” Reading my verses by all that’s charming! Sensible woman! I won’t interrupt her.”2 Poe titled his publication, The Broadway Journal. Sargent called his, Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine of Literature, Fashion, and the Fine Arts. The first volume (January to June 1843) contained a total of nine of his poems and three songs for which he had written lyrics as well as miscellaneous short stories and articles.

Sargent may have also been the author of several anonymous poems included. Some of these unsourced poems were “impromptus,” or short verses, written rapidly to capture the emotional impact of a moment as quickly as possible. The subtitle to Anna Cora Mowatt’s contribution to this genre reveals that it was composed on the back of a greeting card at the doorstep at a friend’s house upon discovering the friend was not at home. The short poem is a reflection on absent presence and the lingering sweetness of female friendships.

Impromptus certainly would have appealed to T. Tennyson Twinkle, who boasted not only of the quality but of the velocity of his compositions.

There’s also the name of the character. “Twinkle” doesn’t have a lot of resonance with Poe’s work or personality. By contrast, Sargent included a chatty feature called “The White Room” with every issue of Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine. In it, he would preview upcoming features, discuss the present issue, and introduce letters to the editor. In some of these entries, the editor has dialogues with imaginary visitors to his very elegant office furnished entirely in tasteful white. One of these alter-egos is named “Mr. Sparkle” and voices opinions very much in harmony with the editor, such as the following:

“My taste is satisfied fully in this specimen of your periodical. Give me the light, the joyous, the effervescent, rather than the stupid, the prosy, and the axiomatic. Stolidity is too often taken for solidity by the dunces. If a thing is unreadable, they set it down as appealing to a high and refined literary taste. A clear, lucid, plain old Saxon style is to their understanding significant of commonplaces. Twist it into obscure involutions, break it into parentheses, and put in a few ridiculously compounded words that may be found in Carlyle but not in the dictionary, and they will set down the writer as a genius, “decidedly on of their set.” Inasmuch as he is unintelligible, he supposed to be giving utterance to something very unutterable and of course very original.”3

Mr. Sparkle is also a great fan of poetry and says of a verse quoted by Sargent from young Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Beautiful and stirring, like the peal from a trumpet! The man who could write verses like those can never write anything that is not worth reading and remembering.”4 Editor and guest then commiserate over the fact that one of their favorite poets seems to have turned to writing fiction because as Sargent says, “..the public will pay for good prose, and not for good poetry; and Willis is under the necessity, by no means singular, of pleasing to live, if he would live to please.”5 These are sentiments that I’m sure Mowatt’s Mr. Twinkle would heave a deep sigh of agreement to as well.

It is almost certain that Mowatt was aware of the character of Mr. Sparkle because he is the one who prompts the editor that “The lady writers must not be forgotten.”6 In the next paragraph, Sargent launches into a laudatory review of her story, “An Inconvenient Acquaintance,” that she wrote under the pen name of Helen Berkeley, that compares her skills favorably to those of Jane Austen. That is the sort of review that – even though written by a friend – a writer saves and commits to memory to be taken out and reviewed on the days when the world is unkind and one is awash in rejection letters.

The article by James M. Hutchisson suggesting a connection between Poe and T. Tennyson Twinkle is from the 1990’s. Therefore, I’ve had a long time to chew over my objections to that author’s thesis and wonder what Mowatt could have seen in a writer who everyone else nicknames “The Raven” that could inspire her to dub her version of him “Twinkle.” Epes Sargent has been steadily developing in my estimation as a better candidate for the role for some time now. I had my doubts, though. There are other candidates. Perhaps T. Twinkle was entirely imaginary. He did not have to be based on a real person at all. Most of Mowatt’s characters were based – at least in part – on people she encountered, though. However, when I went looking for a stash of Helen Berkeley short stories in pages of Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine and uncovered the “White Room” editorials in which Sargent and a version of himself that he named “Sparkle” chat admiringly about his friends and complain about the pretentiousness of the Transcendentalists (many of whom were also his friends) – Reader, my doubts disappeared.

For me –Sparkle is Twinkle, evermore!

1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years Upon the Stage. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. Page 202.
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fashion. London, 1850. Act 1, Scene 1, page 7.
3. Sargent, Epes. “The White Room.” Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine, 1843, Volume 1, no. 2. Page 91
4. Ibid. Page 93.
5. Ibid. Page 94.
6. Ibid. Page 95.