Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 1205-1210 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 1205:]


This bitter piece has in it enough of fictional narrative to justify inclusion among the Tales and Sketches. It appeared unsigned in the Broadway Journal of February 15, 1845, but was acknowledged by the penciled initial “P” in the file of the paper that Poe gave to Mrs. Whitman in 1848. Griswold overlooked it, but Ingram collected it in 1875.

The presence of an autobiographical element is mentioned by Woodberry and by Miss Phillips.* Poe had indeed probably been victimized in a prize contest in his youth; and T. W. White paid him (before Poe became his editor) only after publication; but both Graham and Godey always paid Poe on receipt of his manuscripts.

The Philadelphia Sun, February 19, 1845, commented on “Some Secrets” as too harsh. A reply, obviously by Poe, in the Broadway Journal of February 22 was as follows:

The editor of the Philadelphia Sun has misunderstood our remarks on the Magazines; we certainly bear them no ill will, and do not see how they can possibly interfere with our own circulation. We thought that we paid them a very high compliment in saying that they were the best, almost the only patrons of our native writers. We are extremely happy to learn that Graham paid Cooper fifteen hundred dollars in seventeen months, and that Godey keeps almost as many ladies in his pay as the Grand Turk; but we have heard of writers, whose articles are certainly equal to any thing of Cooper's that we have seen in Graham, to whom that munificent publisher pays nothing.

James Fenimore Cooper was paid highly by Graham, and for inferior work. There is a veiled reference in “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob” to Cooper's “Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief,” which Cooper himself never republished as a book, although later editors have done so.

In the Broadway Journal of March 1, 1845, there was another comment, headed “Graham's Magazine,” and presumably by Briggs: [page 1206:]

We have ample reason to believe that we did the publisher of Graham's Magazine an injustice last week in respect to his paying contributors. We are assured that he has uniformly paid liberally where pay has been asked, and that during the last three or four years he has paid more to American authors than any other publisher in the country.

Of course, Poe, who had edited Graham's, disapproved of the authors who did not ask for payment.


(A) Broadway Journal, February 15, 1845 (1:103-104); (B) Works edited by J. H. Ingram (1875), III, 508-511.

The original publication (A), which is the only authorized text, is followed. The sketch was omitted by Griswold. Ingram's example in collecting it — its first appearance in a book — was followed by Stedman and Woodberry, Works (1894-95), IX, 344-349; and Harrison, Complete Works (1902), XIV, 160-163.


The want of an International Copy-Right Law, by rendering it nearly impossible to obtain anything from the booksellers in the way of remuneration for literary labor, has had the effect of forcing many of our very best writers into the service of the Magazines and Reviews, which with a pertinacity that does them credit, keep up in a certain or uncertain degree the good old saying, that even in the thankless field of Letters the laborer is worthy of his hire.(1) How — by dint of what dogged instinct of the honest and proper, these journals have contrived to persist in their paying practices, in the very teeth of the opposition got up by the Fosters and Leonard Scotts,(2) who furnish for eight dollars any four of the British periodicals for a year, is a point we have had much difficulty in settling to our satisfaction, and we have been forced to settle it, at last, upon no more reasonable ground than that of a still lingering esprit de patrie. That Magazines can live, and not only live but thrive, and not only thrive but afford to disburse money for original contributions, are facts which can only be solved, under the circumstances, by the really fanciful but still agreeable supposition, that there is somewhere still existing an ember not altogether quenched [page 1207:] among the fires of good feeling for letters and literary men, that once animated the American bosom.

It would not do (perhaps this is the idea) to let our poor devil authors absolutely starve, while we grow fat, in a literary sense, on the good things of which we unblushingly pick the pocket of all Europe: it would not be exactly the thing comme il faut,(3) to permit a positive atrocity of this kind: and hence we have Magazines, and hence we have a portion of the public who subscribe to these Magazines (through sheer pity), and hence we have Magazine publishers (who sometimes take upon themselves the duplicate title of “editor and proprietor,”) — publishers, we say, who, under certain conditions of good conduct, occasional puffs, and decent subserviency at all times, make it a point of conscience to encourage the poor devil author(4) with a dollar or two, more or less as he behaves himself properly and abstains from the indecent habit of turning up his nose.

We hope, however, that we are not so prejudiced or so vindictive as to insinuate that what certainly does look like illiberality on the part of them (the Magazine publishers) is really an illiberality chargeable to them. In fact, it will be seen at once, that what we have said has a tendency directly the reverse of any such accusation. These publishers pay something — other publishers nothing at all. Here certainly is a difference — although a mathematician might contend that the difference might be infinitesimally small. Still, these Magazine editors and proprietors pay (that is the word), and with your true poor-devil author the smallest favors are sure to be thankfully received. No: the illiberality lies at the door of the demagogue-ridden public, who suffer their anointed delegates (or perhaps anointed — which is it?)(5) to insult the common sense of them (the public) by making orations in our national halls on the beauty and conveniency of robbing the Literary Europe on the highway, and on the gross absurdity in especial of admitting so unprincipled a principle, that a man has any right and title either to his own brains or the flimsy material that he chooses to spin out of them, like a confounded caterpillar as he is. If anything of this gossamer character stands in need of protection, why we have our hands full at once with the silk-worms and the morus multicaulis.(6) [page 1208:]

But if we cannot, under the circumstances, complain of the absolute illiberality of the Magazine publishers (since pay they do), there is at least one particular in which we have against them good grounds of accusation. Why (since pay they must) do they not pay with a good grace, and promptly. Were we in an ill humor at this moment, we could a tale unfold which would erect the hair on the head of Shylock.(7) A young author, struggling with Despair itself in the shape of a ghastly poverty, which has no alleviation — no sympathy from an every-day world, that cannot understand his necessities, and that would pretend not to understand them if it comprehended them ever so well — this young author is politely requested to compose an article, for which he will “be handsomely paid.” Enraptured, he neglects perhaps for a month the sole employment which affords him the chance of a livelihood, and having starved through the month (he and his family) completes at length the month of starvation and the article, and despatches the latter (with a broad hint about the former) to the pursy “editor” and bottle-nosed “proprietor” who has condescended to honor him (the poor devil) with his patronage. A month (starving still), and no reply. Another month — still none. Two months more — still none. A second letter, modestly hinting that the article may not have reached its destination — still no reply. At the expiration of six additional months, personal application is made at the “editor and proprietor” 's office. Call again. The poor devil goes out, and does not fail to call again. Still call again; — and call again is the word for three or four months more. His patience exhausted, the article is demanded. No — he can’t have it — (the truth is, it was too good to be given up so easily) — “it is in print,” and “contributions of this character are never paid for (it is a rule we have) under six months after publication. Call in six months after the issue of your affair, and your money is ready for you — for we are business men, ourselves — prompt.” With this the poor devil is satisfied, and makes up his mind that the “editor and proprietor” is a gentleman, and that of course he (the poor devil) will wait as requested. And it is supposable that he would have waited if he could — but Death in the meantime would not. He dies, and by the good luck of his decease (which came by starvation) the fat “editor and proprietor” [page 1209:] is fatter henceforward and for ever to the amount of five and twenty dollars, very cleverly saved, to be spent generously in canvas-backs and champagne.(8)

There are two things which we hope the reader will not do, as he runs over this article: first, we hope that he will not believe that we write from any personal experience of our own, for we have only the reports of actual sufferers to depend upon, and second, that he will not make any personal application of our remarks to any Magazine publisher now living, it being well known that they are all as remarkable for their generosity and urbanity, as for their intelligence, and appreciation of Genius.

[page 1209, continued:]


Title:  Poe has in mind some of the words of the Ghost in Hamlet, I, v, quoted in n. 7 below.

1.  See St. Luke 10:7, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

2.  Theodore Foster published New York reprints of British magazines; some of his reprints were reviewed in the Southern Literary Messenger, April and December 1835, Leonard Scott & Co. of 112 Fulton Street printed similar piracies in 1845.

3.  “As it should be.” Poe also used this common French phrase in “The Duc de l’Omelette.”

4.  Poe referred to “poor devil authors” in a review of A Continuation of the Memoirs of Charles Mathews in Burton's, January 1840; in “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob,” and again in the late sketch “A Reviewer Reviewed.”

5.  See Macbeth, I, iii, 6, “Aroint thee, witch.”

6.  The Morus multicaulis is one of the mulberries upon the leaves of which silkworms are fed. For several years there had been a feverish speculative interest in the culture of silkworms in the United States. A large part of the Annual Report of the American Institute of New York for 1844 was devoted to meetings, discussions, and papers dealing with the silkworm industry.

7.  Compare the speech of the Ghost in Hamlet, I, v, 13-20:

“But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

... [would make] ...

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand on end,

Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.” [page 1210:]

Shylock, however, is usually played in a long wig; it would be hard to make his hair stand on end. (Compare the motto for “A Tale of Jerusalem.“)

8.  Poe, amusingly enough, was to assume the title Editor and Proprietor in the Broadway Journal of October 25, 1845.





[S:1 - TOM3T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House)