Text: Dwight Thomas,“James F. Otis and ‘Autography’: A New Poe Correspondent,” Poe Studies, June 1975, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 8:12-15


[page 12, column 1, continued:]

James F. Otis and “Autography”:
A New Poe Correspondent

University of Pennsylvania

Shortly after Edgar Allan Poe’s death on October 7, 1849, most of his personal papers passed into the hands of the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold, his literary executor and first biographer. Griswold died in 1857; and in 1900 his widow presented the Boston Public Library with Poe’s papers, along with hundreds of other manuscripts collected by her husband during his busy career as editor and anthologist. The Griswold Collection includes fifteen autograph letters by Poe, as well as most of the letters written to him which he cared to preserve. His letters in the Collection were, of course, published in 1948 by John Ostrom; but those sent to him are not readily accessible outside of the Library’s Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts. Many remain unpublished, and others have been printed inaccurately or incompletely. At least one of these letters has not previously been identified as an item of Poe’s correspondence: Griswold MS 796, which has been known only as a two-page letter of James F. Otis, dated June 11, 1836, to an unnamed person.

The information available on the life of James Frederick Otis is meager, but it can be demonstrated that he would have been a likely Poe correspondent. He was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on August 18, 1808; and he was a scion of an illustrious New England family. One of his ancestors was James Otis (1725-1783), the orator and pamphleteer who led colonial opposition to the British Stamp Act; and his uncle was Harrison Gray Otis [column 2:] (1765-1848), the prominent Boston statesman. Like many other members of this family, James F. Otis was educated for the bar; but he did not remain in the legal profession. He possessed a talent for facile literary composition, and, while living in Portland, Maine, he embarked upon a career in journalism that was to last until his death in 1867. He was to be associated with the newspapers and magazines of many cities. In 1836 he was in Washington, writing for the Daily National Intelligencer, the capital city’s most influential newspaper. The lntelligencer’s chief function was to provide the nation with accurate and detailed reports of governmental activities, and Otis probably was employed as a Congressional reporter. He not only found time from this demanding occupation to contribute frequently to the Southern Literary Messenger, which was then under Poe’s editorship, but he also served this magazine in other ways. The Intelligencer consistently published long, laudatory reviews of the Messenger, one of which Otis has been identified as writing, and he may have written more(1).

Griswold MS 796 sheds additional light on Otis’ services both to Thomas Willis White, the Messenger’s proprietor, and to Edgar Allan Poe, its editor. Otis is clearly addressing someone associated with the magazine, because he mentions receiving a request from “our good friend T. W. White” for a “notice” — presumably a favorable review in the Intelligencer — and he asks his unnamed correspondent to tell White that “I’ll do something for you in the course of a week or two . . . .” But the letter would have held far more interest for the Messenger’s editor than for its proprietor: Otis enclosed the signatures of twelve literary celebrities, and Poe would have immediately recognized these as excellent materials for one of his “Autography” articles.(2) Three autographs — those of George Lunt, Prentiss Mellen, and Harrison Gray Otis — still remain fastened to the margins of Griswold MS 796; and traces of red letter-sealing wax reveal where others were attached. For six of these twelve writers, Otis tried to give in his text a facsimile of the enclosed autograph; his attempts are indicated here by capitalization:


June 11. 1836.

My dear Sir,

I have just come out of the House of Reps. after a session of Twenty Five Hours — jaded, tired, and nipped. So pray bear this in mind as, you peruse my letter in reply to yours, apologetical. I pray you think no more of that. As regards all my pieces to you I say with Pope

“ — pray take ‘em, —

I’m all submission: what you’d have ‘em, make ‘em!”

Indeed I’ll do something for you in the course of a week or two, but at present I am “used up.” —

Tell our good friend T. W. White so, an you please. — I actually could not get health, breath, or time, to do the notice he wrote about. — Shall write him soon. —

Also tell him, Evans relucts [sic] at having letters sent him when franked by distant correspondents, these people he does not know. I think this should not be. —

And now a word or two, autographical. I send you a collection.

The GEORGE LUNT is characteristic. He dwells in Newburyport, (Mass.) — is the author of “The Grave of Byron, and other Poems.” — a clever fellow, a lawyer, & Senator of Mass: about 30 years of age. [page 13:]

The WILLIS is all I can do for you. I have letters of his at my residence at home. —

JAMES BROOKS is something of a literary lion just now. This autograph is perfect. — Residence Portland Maine.

The G MELLEN is also good. He sometimes writes it as this GRENVILLE MELLEN. The enclosed is genuine. His home is Cambridge Mass.

I send you one of Noah & Stone, which I happened to have.

WILLIAM CUTTER is genuine. Resides in Portland Maine. A merchant. Educated man. Young. Fine poet.

P. MELLEN’s autograph is genuine. He was Chief Justice of Maine until last year, when he was legally disqualified from holding that office by reason of his having attained the age of 70. A fine writer: in the full vigor of his intellect. Portland. Maine.

Miss Gould’s is only genuine in the initials. — The rest I believe I added some years ago. — It is at your service. Newburyport. Mass.

Mrs. Stephens is editress of the Portland Magazine. Portland. Maine.

The Downing is also positively genuine. I will vouch for its being from the pen of the Veritable. — Downingville. Down Bast.

Harrison Gray Otis’s autograph may have some value with your readers. I need add nothing as to it. It is a fair specimen, & will be recognised all over the country.

Hoping this dozen will do you some good, and promising you my aid to obtain more, I remain Yours very truly,

[signature cut out] (3)

Two phrases occurring in Otis’ letter constitute reasonably conclusive evidence that it is an item of Poe’s correspondence. The first is: “my letter in reply to yours, apologetical.” Otis is answering someone who disapproved of one or more of his “pieces,” and the lines he quotes, incorrectly, from “An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” almost certainly indicate that he received a “rejection slip” from his correspondent. Alexander Pope had, of course, given an amateur poet “This saving counsel, ‘Keep your Piece nine years’” (v. 40); the novice replied, “The Piece you think is incorrect: why take it, / I’m all submission, what you’d have it, make it” (w. 45-46). In 1836 the task of rejecting or correcting manuscripts submitted to the Messenger fell to Poe, its editor, rather than to White or to any of his friends and advisors, such as Lucian Minor and Beverley Tucker(4).

A second phrase provides even stronger evidence. Otis tells his correspondent that his uncle’s autograph “may have some value with your readers.” These words suggest that this letter could have been addressed only to the magazine’s editor, and they indicate that the enclosed autographs were intended for possible publication. Of the twelve writers whose signatures were forwarded, only two — Prentiss Mellen and Harrison Gray Otis — were never discussed in “Autography”; both probably were excluded because they were primarily political celebrities rather than literary ones. But James Brooks had already been treated in the first article on “Autography,” which appeared in the Messenger in February 1836; and in the second installment, which was to appear in August 1836, Poe discussed six of these twelve authors. It is virtually certain that he was indebted to Griswold MS 796 for their autographs.

The August “Autography” was brief, occupying but four pages of the Messenger and including only fourteen writers. Poe did not need assistance to obtain seven of the autographs used, because these writers were, by July [column 2:] 1836, either contributors to the magazine, or correspondents of its editor or its proprietor. Thomas Roderic Dew, a professor at William and Mary College, was a frequent contributor; and contributions from four of the writers discussed — William Gilmore Simms, Francis Lieber, Lieutenant Alexander Slidell, Mrs. Sarah J. Hale — were to appear in the August issue. Before July 1836, Jared Sparks and Francis Lieber had each sent at least one letter to Poe; and in an editorial supplement to the July Messenger, he stated that the magazine had received letters of praise from Charles Anthon and Alexander Slidell. Although these two authors may have addressed their correspondence to White rather than to Poe, he definitely had access to their signatures(5).

The remaining seven autographs would not normally have been available in the Messenger office, but no less than six of these could have been obtained from Otis’ letter. There is no evidence that Grenville Mellen or Miss Hannah Flagg Gould ever contributed to the magazine or corresponded with its editor. Seba Smith (“Jack Downing”) did not contribute until 1839, after Poe’s departure. Brief articles by Nathaniel Parker Willis and Mordecai Manuel Noah were published in the magazine early in 183S, but these were reprinted from other journals.(6) No evidence of correspondence between Poe and Noah has been discovered, and no verifiable exchange of letters between Poe and Willis occurred before 1841. Even if the editor of the Messenger had access to another specimen of N. P. Willis’ autograph, he almost certainly used the one attached to Otis’ letter. In the August “Autography” he did not publish a facsimile of this writer’s usual signature: only the surname appeared. It is clear that Otis did not send a complete autograph, because in his text he reproduces the enclosed signature as “WILLIS,” stating that this fragment is “all I can do for you.”

Of the fourteen autographs published in the August installment, the one least likely to be found in the Messenger office would have been that of Colonel William Leete Stone, the editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser and Poe’s staunch enemy. On April 12, 1836, Stone had attacked him on the front page of the Commercial Advertiser, describing his reviews as “flippant, unjust, untenable and uncritical,” and adding that he was guilty of “blunders quite as gross as those on which it was his pleasure to descant.” The Messenger’s editor took his revenge in the June number, detailing the follies of Stone’s anonymous novel Ups and Downs in the Life of a Distressed Gentleman, and then exposing its authorship: “It is written, we believe, by Col. Stone of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and should have been printed among the quack advertisements, in a spare corner of his paper.” Poe must have been delighted to find this autograph enclosed in Otis’ letter, because it gave him the opportunity to satirize his adversary’s handwriting as well as his style. Stone, in turn, seems m have been annoyed and puzzled at finding his signature reproduced beneath a fictitious letter which parodied his excessively tautological prose. Poe later wrote that, of all the authors included in the two Messenger installments of “Autography,” only Colonel Stone took “the jeu-d’esprit . . . in serious dudgeon. . . . and we are ashamed to say that he committed [page 14:] himself by publishing in the Commercial an indignant denial of ever having indited such an epistle”(7).

Although Griswold MS 796 reveals how Poe obtained the autograph of one writer who would never have consented to provide a sample, it does not explain the appearance of Theodore Sedgwick Fay in the August “Autography.” Like Stone, Fay never contributed to, or corresponded with, the Messenger; and he also would have been reluctant to furnish his signature, since in December 1835 Poe had gained notoriety by dissecting his novel Norman Leslie. However, in his letter Otis does promise his correspondent assistance in obtaining more autographs; and he may have sent Fay’s autograph either at an earlier or a later date(8).

In November and December 1841, Poe published two lengthy installments of “Autography” in Graham’s Magazine; and he again discussed the seven writers named in Griswold MS 796 who had appeared in the Messenger. The November installment included Grenville Mellen, N. P. Willis, Miss Gould, and M. M. Noah; and in the following month Colonel Stone, James Brooks, and “Jack Downing” made their second appearance. For this December article Poe added four writers who had not been discussed previously, but whose autographs could have been obtained from the manuscript. The autograph of George Lunt is still attached; he was a contributor to Graham’s, and Poe presumably had another specimen. Although the autograph of Mrs. Ann S. Stephens has been removed, the signature he published might have come from some other letter. She was a titular editor of Graham’s, and samples of her correspondence should have been present in the magazine office. Poe was, however, probably indebted to this source for both the autograph and the biography of William Cutter, a minor poet who was almost unknown outside his native Maine(9).

Griswold MS 796 may have furnished still one more autograph — that of James F. Otis. He too was included in the December 1841 installment of “Autography”; and it is not unlikely that Poe himself mutilated this letter to obtain his signature, which would not have been a prize to tempt the scissors of collectors. In any case, Poe’s commentary should be considered; it suggests that, even if these two men had further correspondence, neither would have cared to preserve the other’s letters:

Mr. J. F. OTIS is well known as a writer for the Magazines; and has, at various times, been connected with many of the leading newspapers of the day — especially with those in New York and Washington. His prose and poetry are equally good; but he writes too much and too hurriedly to write invariably well. His taste is fine, and his judgment in literary matters is to be depended upon at all times when not interfered with by his personal antipathies or predilections.

His chirography is exceedingly illegible and, like his style, has every possible fault except that of the common-place.



(1)  The date of Otis’ birth is given by William A. Otis in A Genealogical end Historical Memoir of the Otis Family in America [column 2:] (Chicago: n.p., 1924), p. 206; and some information on his career may be found in his obituary in the New York Times, February 10, 1867, p. 6, colt 2. His association with the Daily National Intelligencer is revealed in the four-page supplement of favorable critical notices which Poe included in his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque: he quoted from the Intelligencer’s review of the February 1836 number of the Messenger, which the paper published on February 17 (p 3, colt 5), and he attributed the excerpt to “J. F. Otis.” Evidence that Otis may have been a Congressional reporter is provided by his statement in Griswold MS 796 that he had just come our of the House of Reps. after a session of Twenty Five Hours”: he was never a member of Congress.

The Intelligencer was edited by Joseph Gales, Jr., and William Winston Seaton; detailed information on rhese men and their newspaper is supplied by William E. Ames in A History of the National Intelligencer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972). Seaton, a native Virginian, was educated in Richmond and began his editorial career there. He seems to have been a friend of Thomas Willis White, and he may have written some of the reviews of the Messenger. Other supporters of the magazine were also called upon to furnish sympathetic critiques. On June 25, 1838, for example, White wrote Lucian Minor: “I shall make ready a copy of my July No. and send it along with this. — If you are well enough, and can find rime to write a notice of it, and will endorse it to me, I will get Seaton to put it in his Intelligencer.” See David K. Jackson, “Some Unpublished Letters of T. W. White to Lucian Minor,” Tyler’s Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 18 (1936), 43-44.

(2)  Poe published five installments: “Autography,” Southern Literary Messenger, 2 (February and August 1836), 205-212, 601-604 “A Chapter on Autography,” Graham’s Magazine, 19 (November and December 1841), 224-234, 273-28G; and “An Appendix of Autographs,” 20 (January 1842), 44-49. These are reprinted in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), XV, 139-261.

(3)  Published by courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library. The letter is briefly described in “The Correspondence of R. W. Griswold,” Boston Public Library Quarterly, 2 (1950), 80-81. It reveals no evidence of having been sent through the mail, and does not bear the name or the address of its intended recipient. It is written on one side of each of two sheets of thin white paper, unruled, eight by ten inches. On the back of the second sheet, the name “J. F. Otis” appears: like the letter itself, this is written in dark brown ink, now faded; and it seems to be in the writer’s hand. It is not a formal signature, but simply a brief exterior identification.

Although Otis’ closing signature, which was at the bottom of the second page, has been neatly excised, his authorship of this letter cannot be doubted. The distinctive script of Griswold MS 796 is reproduced on several other letters by Otis, which have been preserved with his signature intact. The Massachusetts Historical Society holds his letter to Harrison Gray Otis, written at Newburyport on July 6, 1830; and the Houghton Library of Harvard University has possession of one letter sent to Jared Sparks from Portland on March 12, 1834, and another sent to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from New Orleans on January 27, 1854. To avoid encumbering this transcription of his letter to Poe with numerous brackets, minor allowances have been made for his handwriting, which often approaches illegibility, and for the evident haste with which he wrote.

Ten of the twelve autographs which Otis enclosed belonged to New England literati with whom he almost certainly was acquainted. He identifies two of these writers as residents of Newburyport, his home, and four as residents of Portland, where he began his journalistic career. Although N. P. Willis is usually remembered as a New Yorker, he was born in Portland; and he gained his first literary fame as a Bostonian. Seba Smith edited the Portland Courier, a daily newspaper in which he published his popular epistles from “Major Jack Downing.” The two authors whom Otis might not have known were the New York editors Mordecai M. Noah and William L. Stone: he groups them together as “Noah & Stone” and comments only that he “happened to have” their autographs. With the exception of William [page 15:] Cutter, sketches of all the persons mentioned in this letter are given in the Dictionary of American Biography. A brief account of Cutter’s life and several of his poems may be found in George Bancroft Griffith’s The Poets of Maine (Pordand: Elwell, Pickard, & Co., 1888), pp. 66-68. The “Evans” whom Otis discusses might have been George Evans, a Maine lawyer who was a member of the House of Representatives; see DAB, VI, 199-200.

Poe’s letter to Otis, cited in Griswold MS 796, may be entered in John Ostrom’s “Revised Check List of Poe’s Correspondence” as CL 145a; the manuscript itself should be listed as CL 150a. Ostrom published no less than five Poe letters dated June 7, 1836; each requests a contribution for the August Messenger, which was envisioned as a special number featuring only articles from the nation’s best-known authors. Poe may have written Otis on the same day, seeking assistance for his own original contribution to this issue, which was to be an installment of “Autography.” See The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (1948; rpt. with a supplement, New York: Gordian Press, 1966), I, 93-96; II, 574-575, 676-677. Although Otis is not known to have written additional letters to Poe, he probably corresponded with T. W. White on other occasions. On December 24, 1835, for example, White wrote Lucian Minor that he had received “a most unexpected letter . . . this morning from J. F. Otis, Esq.” See Jackson, Tyler’s Quarterly, 17 (1936), 240-241.

(4)  Several letters provide strong evidence that Poe alone had responsibility for rejecting or correcting possible contributions: his letter to John Collins McCabe, March 3, 1836, in The Letters, 11, 674-675; and White’s letter to Scott, January 23, 1837, quoted in part by Arthur Hobson Quinn in Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941; rpt. New York: Cooper Square, 1969), p. 260. Rejection slips are the correspondence least likely to be preserved; but Poe’s letter to his friend McCabe, in which he praises the ability of this Richmond poet while politely refusing a particular poem, leaves the definite impression that he had occasion to write many during his editorship of the Messenger.

(5)  Those autographs that would have been available in the Messenger office as a matter of course can be determined by consulting Ostrom’s edition of The Letters and his “Fourth Supplement to The Letters of Poe,” American Literature, 45 (1974), 513-536, and David K. Jackson’s Poe and The Southern Literary Messenger ( 1934; rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1970), and his Contributors and Contributions to The Southern Literary Messenger, 1834-1864 (Charlottesville, Va.: Historical Publishing Co., 1936). For Poe’s acknowledgment of letters from Slidell and Anthon, see the Messenger, 2 (July 1836), 517.

(6)  The articles by Willis in the first volume of the Messenger are obviously reprints. Although Noah’s “Fashionable Parties and Late Hours,” which appeared in March 1835, is nor identified as a reprint either in the magazine or in Jackson’s Contributors and Contributions, it had been published previously in both the New York Mirror and the New York Evening Star. See the Mirror, 12 (February 21, 1835), 271.

(7)  Sidney P. Moss discusses the relationship between these two editors in Poe’s Literary Battles (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1963). Moss reprints Stone’s strictures from the Commercial Advertiser (pp. 45-46); Poe mentions his unfavorable reaction to the August “Autography” at the beginning of the first installment in Graham’s Magazine. See “A Chapter on Autography,” 19 (November 1841), 224; Works, XV, 177.

(8)  Otis may also have furnished autographs for the February 1836, installment of “Autography.” When reviewing this number of the Messenger, he noted: “Of almost all the autographs we can speak on our own authority, and are able to pronounce them capital.” See the Intelligencer, February 17, p. 3, colt 5.

(9)  Mrs. Stephens’ editorship was announced in Graham’s Magazine, 19 (December 1841), 303. Lunt is identified as a contributor in 1841 and 1842 by J. Albert Robbins in “The History of Graham’s Magazine,” Diss. Pennsylvania 1947, p. 342. According to Robbins, no contribution by William Cutter was ever published in the magazine; see “A List of Authors Contributing Signed and Attributable Literature,” pp. 316-362.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1975]