Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 04,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), Vol. II, pp. 68-80


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[page 68:]

CHAPTER IV.

SEPTEMBER, 1840-1841.

THE POE-SNODGRASS CORRESPONDENCE.(1)

[New York Herald, March 27, 1881.]

THESE epistles, in their original shape, are almost worn out, having seemingly been exposed to the action of water. They are written upon foolscap, folded, sealed with wafers and have their address upon the back, the envelope not having come into vogue at that time. Poe’s handwriting is very plain and uncharacteristic, and he forms every letter in a way which would make him a treasure in any newspaper office in the country and would induce city editors to condone a thousand minor offences on his part; but neither the text nor the signature has any of that flourish which appears in Poe’s articles in Godey’s Lady’s Book, in one part of which, in a seemingly incidental way, he altogether demolishes Snodgrass by superimposing his own signature to the doctor’s. The one is so small, mean and ineffective; the other so big, bold, round and manly, that Poe made the contrast stronger in this way between him and Snodgrass than if [page 69:] he had written a volume on the subject. There is none of this, however, in the correspondence, which is businesslike throughout.

The value of these letters seems to consist in the fact that they disclose Poe’s honesty of character in the most undeniable light. The poorest of our authors and journalists, he is constantly striving to become the proprietor of a magazine. Not for his own emolument, however, or with the idea of increasing his income, but always and with the single idea of divorcing his work of criticism from all and every sordid consideration. He wants to he free, not to put money in his pocket, but in order to make criticism free. He wants to have opinions of his own to express and not those of his publishers. This trait alone in Edgar Allan Poe’s character should entitle him to a monument in Central Park.

The first letter, dated September 11, 1839, and written from Philadelphia during the period when Poe was editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, was in acknowledgment of an article in the St. Louis Bulletin which Snodgrass had sent to the editor. He says in regard to this: —

“I was the more gratified, as the reception of the paper convinced me that you, of whom I have always thought highly, had no share in the feelings of ill will toward me, which are somewhat prevalent (God only knows why) in Baltimore.”

After something more of this sort, which it does not seem needful to quote, Poe goes on in a way which appears to reveal his exigent honesty: —

“I have now,” he writes, “a great favor to ask, and think I may depend upon your friendship, it is to write a notice (such as you think rightly just, no more) of the September number of the Gentleman’s Magazine, embodying in your article the passage concerning myself from the St. Louis Bulletin in any manner which your good taste may suggest. . . .

“If you will do me this great favor depend upon any similar good office from me I upon demand.” [page 70:]

In this letter and in others of the series Poe discloses the worst — the suspicious, mistrustful and invidious — side of his character, in the manner in which he speaks of his cousin Mr. Neilson Poe at that time editor of a Baltimore daily paper, and now Chief Judge of the Orphan’s Court.(1) It seems to have been Poe’s rule of conduct to interpret everything which was not active and energetic friendship on his behalf as being prompted by envy and jealousy. The article in the Missouri paper to which Poe refers speaks of the general tone and character of the Southern Literary Messenger as imparting lustre to our periodical literature. It says: —

“Let it never be forgotten, however, that the first impetus to the favor of literary men which it received was given by the glowing pen of Edgar A. Poe, now assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and although since he has left it has well maintained its claims to respectability, yet there are few writers in this country — take Neal, Irving and Willis away and we would say none — who can compete successfully in many respects with Poe. With an acuteness of observation, a vigorous and effective style, and an independence that defies control, he unites a fervid fancy and a most beautiful enthusiasm. His is a high destiny.”

This letter of Poe’s has two postscripts, one of which is in reference to newspaper praises of his “Fall of the House of Usher.” In the other he writes: — “I have made a profitable engagement with Blackwood’s Magazine, and my forthcoming tales are promised a very commendatory review in that journal from the pen of Professor Wilson. Keep this a secret, if you please, for the present.” This profitable engagement with Blackwood’s will be found explained further in this correspondence, and it does not seem altogether likely that even so enthusiastic an editor as Professor Wilson would pledge Blackwood’s to a highly commendatory notice in advance of a volume which he had not seen. [page 71:]

Poe’s next letter to Snodgrass is dated October 7, 1839, and is also written from Philadelphia. In this his enmity to Mr. Neilson Poe crops out in epithets such as, it must be said to his credit, our poet very seldom indulges. It is not worth while to repeat the language, of which the injustice is transparent. At the same time Poe is profuse in his acknowledgment of some friendly acts toward him on the part of Snodgrass. “I sincerely thank you,” he writes, “for the interest you have taken in my well-doing. The friendship of a man of talent, who is at the same time a man of honorable feeling, is especially valuable in these days of double dealing. I hope I shall always deserve your good opinion.” “My book,” Poe adds, “will be out in the beginning of Nov.” This was the volume of tales published by Lea & Blanchard, “Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque,” which, while it secured a succès d‘estime, put no money in the pockets of either author or publisher.

The third letter, which is headed “Philadelphia, 12, 1839” and directed to “Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass,” bears the postmark of December 13. It accompanied a copy of Poe’s volume, apparently just out. “In the same package,” writes poor Poe, “is a copy for Mr. Carey, of the American, which I must beg you to deliver to him, with my respects. I have not the pleasure of knowing him personally, but entertain a high opinion of his talents. Please write his full name in his copy I with the author’s respects.’ I forget his praenomen.” Was Grub street ever more forcibly illustrated since Goldsmith wore his “peach blossom velvet coat” out at elbows?

In the next letter (Philadelphia, December 19, 1839), after mentioning again the fact that he had recently sent on two copies of the “Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque,” he enters into some explanations in regard to premiums advertised by Burton for matter for his magazine. Poe’s reasons for leaving this magazine have been grossly and infamously perverted by Griswold. The present letters enable the writer to show that the reason [page 72:] for Poe’s leaving originated in his disgust at Burton’s, “prize list” and the freedom with which he expressed his dislike for that sort of “humbug.” “Touching the premiums,” says Poe in this letter, “the advertisement respecting them was written by Mr. Burton, and it is not, I think, as explicit as it might be.” [This letter, by the way, is the worst preserved and the most defective of the entire series.] The object of Poe’s letter seems to be, while preserving his loyalty to his publisher, to save Snodgrass from the labor of writing articles in competition for prejudged prizes. “The truth is,” he says to Snodgrass, “I object, in toto, to the whole scheme, but merely follow the B. J. make-up upon all such matters of business.”

Apparently Dr. Snodgrass had been sending some rather extensive instalments of poetry to Mr. Poe — at any rate he explains that “if you look over our columns you will see that we only put in poetry in the odds and ends of our pages; that is, to fill out a vacancy left at the foot of a prose article, so that the length of a poem often determines its insertion. Yours could not be bro‘t to fit in, and was obliged to be left out.” Poe seems to be anxious in this letter to find out what the Baltimore papers have to say of his book. As to the Philadelphia papers, their encomiums suit him exactly. “They have given me,” he writes to Dr. Snodgrass, “the very highest possible praise. I c‘d desire nothing farther.” . . . In Alexander’s Messenger, says Poe, “is a notice by Professor Frost, which I forward you, to-day, with this. . . . The Star and the Evening Post have both capital notices. There is also a promise of one in the New World — Benjamin’s paper — which I am anxious to see, for, praise or blame, I have a high opinion of that man’s ability.” This is evidence that, in spite of the large quantity of it which he himself furnished, Poe understood criticism, was vulnerable to it, and was anxious about what just and competent critics should say of his performance. [page 73:]

At this date Dr. Snodgrass appears to have been editor of a Baltimore weekly. He seems to have suggested to Poe that in a spirit of reciprocity he would like a notice. Unfortunately, however, Dr. Nathan C. Brooks,(1) who is now president of a female college in our city and is one of our oldest surviving literary gentlemen, was publishing the Amaranth or something of a similar sort, and Poe writes. — “I am obliged to decline saying anything of the Museum in the Gent’s Mag. However, I feel anxious to oblige yourself, and to express my own views, you will understand me when I say that I have no proprietary interest in the Magazine and that Mr. Burton is a warm friend of Brooks — verb. sat sap.

“I have heard,” writes Poe in this letter, “that an attempt is to be made by some one of capital in Baltimore to get up a magazine. Have you heard anything of it? If you hear will you be kind enough to let me know all about it by return mail, if you can spare the time to oblige me? I am particularly desirous of understanding how the matter stands — who are the parties,” &c.

It is evident from this letter that Poe was already anxious to sever his connection with Burton. It is also apparent that, while fully loyal to his employer, he wished to indicate to his friend Snodgrass that he would waste his time in preparing articles for competition for premiums which were not actually and bonâ fide to be paid.

The letter succeeding this is dated June 17. In it Poe says: —

“My Dear Snodgrass, — Yours of the 12th was duly received, but I have found it impossible to answer it before, owing to an unusual press of business which has positively not left me a moment to myself. Touching your essay, Burton not only lies but deliberately and wilfully lies; for the last time but one that I saw him I called his attention to the MS., which was then at the top of a pile of other MSS. sent for premiums, in a [page 74:] drawer of the office desk. I saw the essay in the same position, and I am perfectly sure it is there still. You know it is a peculiar-looking MS., and I could not mistake it. In saying it was not in his possession his sole design was to vex you, and through you myself. Were I in your place I would take some summary method of dealing with the scoundrel, whose infamous conduct in regard to this whole premium scheme merits and shall receive exposure. I am firmly convinced that it was never his intention to pay $1 of the money offered, and, indeed, his plain intimations to that effect, made to me personally and directly, were the immediate reason of my cutting the connection as abruptly as I did. [Every reader, whether he credits this absolutely or not, should compare it with Griswold’s account of the supposed transaction.] If you could in any way spare the time,” adds Poe, “to come on to Philadelphia, I think I could put you in the way of detecting this villain in his rascality. I would go down with you to the office, open the drawer in his presence, and take the MS. from beneath his very nose. I think this would be a good deed done, and would act as a caution to such literary swindlers in future. Will you come on? Write immediately in reply.”

Poe adds to this letter, which was written after he had severed his connection with Mr. Burton and his magazine, that

“Mr. Carey’s book on slavery was received by me not very long ago, and in last month’s number I wrote at some length a criticism upon it, in which I endeavored to do justice to the author, whose talents I highly admire. But this critique, as well as some six or seven others, were refused admittance into the magazine by Mr. Burton upon his receiving any letter of resignation.”

Says the poet in concluding this letter: —

“Herewith you have my prospectus. You will see that I have given myself sufficient time for preparation. I have every hope of success. As yet I have done nothing [page 75:] more than send a few prospectuses to the Philadelphia editors, as it is rather early to strike — six months in anticipation. My object at present is merely to call attention to the contemplated design. In the meantime be assured that I am not idle, and that if there is any impossibility about the matter, it is the impossibility of not succeeding. The world is fond of novelty, and, in being absolutely honest, I shall be utterly novel. If you would show the prospectus to Mr. Carey or any other editorial friend when you have done with it I would be obliged to you.

Snodgrass seems to have asked Poe in regard to the fortunes of his volume, “Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque,” published during the previous winter. Says Poe in reply: —

“Touching my Tales you will scarcely believe me when I tell you that I am ignorant of their fate and have never spoken to the publishers concerning them since the day of their issue. I have cause to think, however, that the edition was exhausted almost immediately. It was only six weeks since that I had the opportunity I wished of sending a copy to Professor Wilson, so as to be sure of its reaching him directly. Of course I must wait some time yet for a notice — if any there is to be.

“Yours most truly,  
“E. A. POE.”

It will be instructive to compare what Poe says in the last sentence of this letter with what he said on the subject of Blackwood’s Magazine, in the postscript to the first letter of this series, quoted above.

The letter succeeding this one is dated January 17, 1841. Poe’s first sentence is worth quoting on account of its revelation of character. “Your letters are always welcome,” he writes to Snodgrass, “albeit ‘few and far between.’ What an infamous tautology is that, by the bye, for visits that are few must be far between.) And your last letter was especially so.” [page 76:]

“You write,” continues Poe, “to know my prospects with the Penn.” [This was the Penn Monthly, which Poe cherished the idea of for some time, and he was certainly a good — projector.”] 1s They are glorious, notwithstanding the world of difficulty under which I labored and labor. My illness (from which I have now entirely recovered) has been, for various reasons, a benefit to my scheme rather than a disadvantage, and, upon the whole, if I do not eminently succeed in this enterprise the fault will be entirely my own. Still, I am using every exertion to insure success, and, among other manœuvres, I have cut down the bridges behind me. I must now do or die- I mean in a literary sense.”

Dr. Snodgrass seems to have been liberal in his tenders of literary aid to Poe and to the Penn Monthly. Poe’s way of “toning down” his contributors without giving them offence is not only diplomatic in the highest degree, but illustrates an amiable and genteel character. He writes to Snodgrass: —

“I shall be delighted to receive any prose article from your pen. As for poetry I am overstocked with it. I am particularly anxious for a paper on the ‘International Copyright Laws,’ or on the subject of the laws of libel in regard to literary publications. I believe these topics are altogether in your line,” writes Poe, “Your friend, David Hoffman, Esq. [a neglected Baltimore author, by the way, who was author of the ‘Memoirs of Kartaphiles, the Wandering Jew,’ otherwise known to German writers as ‘Ahasuerus ’] has been so kind as to promise me his aid, and perhaps he would not be unwilling to send me something on one or other of the heads in question. Will you oblige me [this is underscored in the original] by speaking to him upon this subject? Above all things,” he adds, “it is necessary that whatever be done, I if done, be done quickly,’ for I am about to put the first sheet to press immediately and the others will follow in rapid succession.

“In regard to my plans, &c., the prospectus will inform [page 77:] you in some measure. I am resolved upon a good outward appearance — clear type, fine paper, &c. — double columns, I think, and brevier, with the poetry running across the page in a single column; no steel engravings, but now and then a superior woodcut in illustration of the text. Thick covers. In the literary way, I shall endeavor gradually, if I cannot effect the purpose at once, to give the magazine a reputation for the having no article but from the best pens — a somewhat negative merit, you will say. — In criticism I will be bold, and sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me. I shall aim at originality in the body of the work more than at any other especial quality. I have one or two articles of my own in statu pupillari that would make you stare, at least, on account of the utter oddity of their conception. To carry out the conception is a difficulty which — may be overcome.”

This sentence, almost the only one in which he speaks of his method of working, would seem to deserve to be treasured. Poe’s brain teemed with projects and “conceptions.” The difficulty of carrying them out was something which he never dreamed of asking any one to share with him. “Eureka” was possibly one of these “conceptions.” Was not “Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” another?

“I have not seen the January Southern Literary Messenger,” he says, “but ‘Quotidiana’ is a very good title. ‘Quod Libetica’ is also good and even more inclusive than the other. I am fond of such articles as these, and in good hands they may be made very interesting.”

“Mr. Burton,” says Poe, returning abruptly from these literary recreations to business, “that illustrious graduate of St. John’s College, Cambridge,’ is going to the devil with the worst grace in the world, but with a velocity truly astounding. The press here, in a body, have given him the cut direct. So be it. Suum cuique. We have said enough about this genius. [page 78:]

“Mr. Graham is a very gentlemanly personage. I will see him to-morrow and speak to him in regard to your essay, although, to prevent detection Burton may have destroyed it.

“And now, my dear Snodgrass, will you do me a favor? I have heard some mention of a new magazine to be established in Baltimore by a Virginian and a practical printer. I am anxious to know all the details of the project. Can you produce and send me (by return mail) a prospectus? If you cannot get one, will you write me all about it — the gentleman’s name, &c., &c., &c. I have underscored the word ‘anxious’ because I really mean what I say, and because about a fortnight ago I made to the Hon. N. C. Brooks, A. M., a request just such as I now make to yourself. He did not reply, and I, expecting of course the treatment which one gentleman naturally expects from another, have been put to the greatest inconvenience by the daily but fruitless expectation.

“Very truly and respectfully yours,  
“EDGAR A. POE.

“DR. J. E. SNODGRASS.”

Rather singularly this letter of Poe, in which he shows so much anxiety to know about the contemplated magazine in Baltimore and so much needless umbrage at Professor Brooks’ dilatoriness in giving him the facts about the enterprise, is not only full of details about his projected Penn Monthly, but is actually backed by a printed “prospectus” of that poet’s dream. . . .

His next letter to Snodgrass was written on July 12, 1841, and says: —

“My Dear Snodgrass, — I have this moment received yours of the 20th, and am really glad to find that you have not quite given me up. A letter from you now is a novelty indeed.”

After some business and technical explanations (Snodgrass had another article in Poe’s hands), Poe says of the “strange liberties” occasionally taken by “our proof [page 79:] reader” — all of us have been put in peril of our souls by this sort of fiendishness — that “in our forthcoming number he has substituted (I see) a small for a capital R in Rozinante.” He adds: —

“You say that some of your ‘monumental’ writers ‘feel small.’ Is not that, for them, a natural feeling? I never had much opinion of Arthur. What little merit he has is negative. McJilton I like much better. He has written one or two very good things. As a man also I like him much better. Do you know, by the bye, that W. G. Clarke (Willis Gaylord Clarke, founder of the Knickerbocker Magazine), reproved [sic] in his Gazette, for speaking too favorably of McJilton?

“You flatter me about the ‘Maelström.’ It was finished in a morning [?] and therefore its conclusion is imperfect. Upon the whole, it is neither as good, nor has it been half so popular as s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ I have a paper in the August number which will please you. Among the reviews for August I have one which will at least surprise you. It is a long notice of a satire by a quondam Baltimorean, L. A. Wilmer. You must get this satire and read it. It is really good-good in the old fashioned Dryden style. It blazes away, too, to the right and left, sparing not. I have made it the text from which to preach a fire and fury sermon upon critical independence and the general literary humbuggery of the day. I have introduced in this sermon some portion of a review formerly written by me for the Pittsburg Examiner, a monthly journal, which died in the first throes of its existence. It was edited by E. Burke Fisher — than whom a greater scamp never walked. He wrote to me offering $4 per page for criticisms, promising to put them in as contributions, not editorially. The first thing I saw was one of my articles under the editorial head, so altered that I hardly recognized it, and interlarded with all manner of bad English and ridiculous opinions of his own. I believe, however, that the number in which it appeared, being the last kick of the nag, was never circulated.” [page 80:]

The next letter, and the last of this collection, is headed “Philadelphia, September 19, 1841.” In this letter Poe gives himself some trouble to explain to “My dear Snodgrass” that a misadventure of one of the latter’s articles was fully understood by him. Then he goes on to say: — “you are mistaken about The Dial. I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me. I am not aware that it ever mentioned my name or alluded to me either directly or indirectly. My slaps at it were only ‘in a general way.’ ” The remainder of the letter is devoted to contemporary literary news, in the course of which Poe mentions that Mr. George R. Graham may possibly join him in the Penn Monthly. He also returns to his dream of a magazine in Baltimore, edited by himself and published by some capitalist. Here this interesting correspondence ends.

NOTE. — Dr. Wm. Hand Browne, of Baltimore, who furnished these copies of the Poe-Snodgrass correspondence to Mr. Spencer, assures the editor that they are accurate and that the omitted parts are unimportant or purely personal. — ED.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 68:]

1.  Dr. Snodgrass was a Virginian who was co-editing the Baltimore Saturday Visiter in 1833 when Poe made it famous by his contribution of “A MS. found in a Bottle.”

Dr. Snodgrass, who was present at Poe’s death in 1849 and published “The Facts of Poe’s Death and Burial” in 1867, died in 1880. Poe’s letters to him were copied, and printed by Mr. Edward Spencer of Baltimore, from whose communication of them to the The New York Herald, March 27, 1881, we are permitted by the courtesy of The Herald to reprint them.

The comments interspersed among the letters are Mr. Spencer’s.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 70:]

1.  Judge Poe has since died. — ED.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 73:]

1.  Mr. Brooks has since died. — ED.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - LLEAP, 1903] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 04)