A discussion of Mrs. Mowatt's likely inspiration for the character T. Tennison Twinkle of her much-celebrated play "Fashion"

 

Was Poe Mowatt's "Twinkle"?

An internet search for connections between Edgar Allan Poe and Anna Cora Mowatt will bring up James M. Hutchisson's article "Poe, Anna Cora Mowatt, and T. Tennyson Twinkle" in which the author posits that Poe may have been the inspiration for the fictional poet in Mowatt's Broadway hit "Fashion."



Although the author makes many good points, I am not convinced. I think the focusing lens of history makes Poe seem a more likely candidate than he would have been at the time. When asked to name an American poet of the 1840’s, Poe’s is among the only names that may come up in a modern person’s mind (if any come up at all.) However at that time, poetry had a status more in line with popular music. Writing poems to fill magazines and the Victorian equivalent of coffee table books was a lucrative business. A fashionable New Yorker of the 1840’s when asked to name their favorite poet might be able to reel off a dozen names without ever thinking to mention Poe.

The work he became famous for, “The Raven,” was published January 29, 1845. “Fashion” opened March 24, 1845. Poe had published other poems before “The Raven,” but was primarily known as a literary critic before that time.  “Fashion” and the character of T. Tennyson Twinkle would have had to have been rather quickly revised to capture a portrait of this new literary star.

Young Poe
 
Poe as a young man
 

If Mowatt wanted to base the character of Twinkle on a real person (which she always publically said she didn’t), she had other candidates closer to home, in my opinion. Her friend, Epes Sargent, was a very successful poet. His poetry had a somewhat florid narrative style that could be compared to Tennyson’s. Sargent, like Twinkle, was a creature of fashion who supplemented his income by living off the benevolence of his wealthy admirers.  It was Sargent who teased and goaded Mowatt into writing “Fashion” in the first place.  As pay-back, she may have rewarded him with a gently mocking portrait in the form of Twinkle. The poet and the man have several overlapping characteristics. You don’t have to take my word for this, though. Here’s a description by an unbiased contemporary observer – Mr. Edgar Allan Poe:


 
Epes Sargent
Epes Sargent

EPES SARGENT.

Mr. Sargent is well known to the public as the author of “Velasco, a Tragedy,” “The Light of the Light-house, with other Poems,” one or two short nouvelettes, and numerous contributions to the periodicals. He was also the editor of “Sargent’s Magazine,” a monthly work, which had the misfortune of falling between two stools, never having been able to make up its mind whether to be popular with the three or dignified with the five dollar journals. It was a “happy medium” between the two classes, and met the fate of all happy media in dying, as well through lack of foes as of friends. In medio tutissimus ibis is the worst advice in the world for the editor of a magazine. Its observance proved the downfall of Mr. Lowell and his really meritorious “Pioneer.”

“Velasco” has received some words of commendation from the author of “Ion,” and I am ashamed to say, owes most of its home appreciation to this circumstance. Mr. Talfourd’s play has, itself, little truly dramatic, with much picturesque and more poetical value; its author, nevertheless, is better entitled to respect as a dramatist than as a critic of dramas. “Velasco,” compared with American tragedies generally, is a good tragedy — indeed, an excellent one, but, positively considered, its merits are very inconsiderable. It has many of the traits of Mrs. Mowatt’s “Fashion,” to which, in its mode of construction, its scenic effects, and several other points, it bears as close a resemblance as, in the nature of things, it could very well bear.  It is by no means improbable, however, that Mrs. Mowatt received some assistance from Mr. Sargent in the composition of her comedy, or at least was guided by his advice in many particulars of technicality.

“Shells and Sea Weeds,” a series of brief poems, recording the incidents of a voyage to Cuba, is, I think, the best work in verse of its author, and evinces a fine fancy, with keen appreciation of the beautiful in natural scenery. Mr. Sargent is fond of sea pieces, and paints them with skill, flooding them with that warmth and geniality which are their character and their due. “A Life on the Ocean Wave” has attained great popularity, but is by no means so good as the less lyrical compositions, “A Calm,” “The Gale,” “Tropical Weather,” and “A Night Storm at Sea.”

“The Light of the Light-house” is a spirited poem, with many musical and fanciful passages, well expressed. For example —

“But, oh, Aurora’s crimson light,
That makes the watch-fire dim,
Is not a more transporting sight
Than Ellen is to him.
He pineth not for fields and brooks,
Wild flowers and singing birds,
For summer smileth in her looks
And singeth in her words.”

There is something of the Dibdin spirit throughout the poem, and, indeed, throughout all the sea poems of Mr. Sargent — a little too much of it, perhaps.

His prose is not quite so meritorious as his poetry. He writes “easily,” and is apt at burlesque and sarcasm — both rather broad than original. Mr. Sargent has an excellent memory for good hits and no little dexterity in their application. To those who meddle little with books, some of his satirical papers must appear brilliant. In a word, he is one of the most prominent members of a very extensive American family — the men of industry, talent and tact.

In stature he is short — not more than five feet five — but well proportioned. His face is a fine one; the features regular and expressive. His demeanor is very gentlemanly. Unmarried, and about thirty years of age.1


As Poe attests, like "Fashion's" Twinkle, Sargent was a short, dapper, witty poet with a sharp tongue well-known to Anna Cora Mowatt and a familar figure in parlors of the fashionable set of New York's "knickerbockerocracy" of the 1840's.

NOTES

1. Edgar Allan Poe. The Literati of New York City. VolIV. Godey's Lady's Book, August 1846, 33. p. 78 col.2



In which Mr. Poe of Baltimore, renowned theater and literary critic, makes clear and well-known his admiration of Mrs. Mowatt's presence and performances.                                                                             Being a recounting of both of Mr. Poe's reviews of the inaugural run of "Fashion", with commentary on the ideas and unique style of that remarkable man                                                                             In which Mr. Poe still admired her beauty and acting, but is less generous on her writings.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Favorite                                     Poe's Evolving Views on “Fashion”                                     Poe's Portrait of Mowatt


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For more in-depth information and analysis
 of
Mowatt's life and career, read
The Lady Actress:
Recovering the Lost Legacy of a Victorian American Superstar

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