Text: David K. Jackson, “Chapter 04,” Poe and The Southern Literary Messenger (1934), pp. 82-87 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 82:]



With the Messenger Poe’s hands had become indelibly stained with printers’ ink. He had found himself after an aimless wandering from one uncertain occupation to another. The writing of verse and tales was to become an avocation. Literary journalism was to be his vocation and forte.

Poe’s association with White and his friends on the editorial staff of The Southern Literary Messenger had an important influence on his later career, and the magazine, in turn, owed a great deal to Poe. Although he had not been given free play with the editing of the Southern periodical, he had brought national attention to it by his brilliant critical notices. He had thus increased the circulation of the journal so that White could have some financial stability and security in his crusade for Southern letters. The Messenger would become the chief vehicle for Southern writers. The names of William Gilmore Simms, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Timrod, Philip Pendleton Cooke, John Esten Cooke, James Barron Hope, John R. Thompson, James Russell Lowell, Henry T. Tuckerman, and Donald Grant Mitchell, and others, were to adorn its pages. White would have probably given up the project, had it not been for Poe’s timely appearance. Magazines had sprung up in the desert air of the South, only to die within a year or two for want of proper [page 83:] nourishment in the way of a sufficient number of paying subscribers. In the, face of almost countless magazine failures in the South and despite the discouragement of his closest Virginian friends, White had begun his pet project. To Heath, to Beverley Tucker, and to Lucian Minor, all men of literary ability, but not primarily magazinists, White’s debt was great. His second editorial assistant, Edward Vernon Sparhawk, exhibited signs of a journalist with his critiques in the manner of Poe and with his selection of original material for the magazine, but after a short term of three months he had left White for the more profitable business of running a newspaper in Petersburg, Virginia. Poe was White’s hope and main reliance in the almost hopeless task of publishing a truly Southern magazine.

Before filling the position as editor, Poe displayed signs of having studied the English journals. In his letters written in the spring of 1835 his advice to White was sound. He knew what types of stories and what literary forms appealed to the ever growing mass of readers of periodical literature. He had the gifts of a journalist and he realized the necessity for the terse and the well condensed. His supplements to the Messenger were high-powered advertisements, and the articles on autography and “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” were clever feature stories. He was one of the few who saw in his day the possibilities of magazine literature in America, and so it was with such a broad-visioned journalist as Poe that White published The Southern Literary Messenger: Devoted to Every Department of Literature and the Fine Arts. [page 84:]

Having been in desperate circumstances, Poe was only too glad to contribute to the Messenger and later to assist its owner in the editorial management. Both Kennedy, who introduced Poe to White, and White and the Messenger were Godsends. Not only was Poe poor financially, but also his health was beginning to break down, and he was cut off from any bequest from his foster-father, John Allan.

The magazine gave Poe employment, financial reward of a sort, and an opportunity to establish himself with a journal, a desire which he had in Baltimore. Southern conviviality, family matters such as the care of Mrs. Clemm and Virginia, White’s nervous temperament, the influence of friends and enemies whom he made by his contributions to the Messenger, the failure of Mrs. Clemm and White to operate a boarding house, perhaps all of these contributed to his erratic disposition and to the length of his service and probably determined the quantity and quality of his literary work.

The editorship of the Messenger was both an experiment and an experience for Poe, even though White cautiously guarded the policies of his editors. In this editorial position Poe possessed an opportunity to test and to find out what the reading public wanted and in doing so he gained invaluable experience. In the prospectus of The Penn Magazine he stated the aims of the proposed magazine, ideas which he had formulated under White:

. . . I found difficulty in stamping upon its [the Messenger’s] pages that individuality which I believe essential to the full success [page 85:] of all similar publications. In regard to their permanent influences, it appears to me that a continuous, definite character, and a marked certainty of purpose are desiderata of vital importance, and (I cannot help believing that these requisites are) only attainable when one mind alone has the general direction of the undertaking. . . . It shall be the first and chief purpose of the Magazine now proposed to become known as one where may be found at all times, and upon all subjects, an honest and a fearless opinion. It shall be a leading object to assert in precept, and to maintain in practice the rights, while in effect it demonstrates the advantages, of an absolutely independent criticism — a criticism self-sustained; guiding itself only by the purest rules of Art, analyzing and urging these rules as it applies them; holding itself aloof from all personal bias; acknowledging no fear save that of outraging the right; yielding no point either to the vanity of the author, or to the assumptions of antique prejudice, or to the involute and anonymous cant of the Quarterlies, or to the arrogance of those organized cliques which, hanging like nightmares upon American literature, manufacture, at the nod of our principal booksellers, a pseudo-public-opinion by wholesale.(1)

As editor of the Messenger, Poe gave particular attention to the state of American criticism. He lamented the fact that public opinion, like a pendulum, swung from one extreme to another and that what he called “censorship of the press” first cringed to foreign opinion and later assumed with hauteur a literary freedom:

Deeply lamenting this unjustified state of public feeling, it has been our constant endeavor, since assuming the Editorial duties of this Journal, to stem, with what little abilities we possess, a current so disastrously undermining the health and [page 86:] prosperity of our literature. We have seen our efforts applauded by men whose applauses we value.(2)

A minute and exhaustive study of the contents of the Messenger before Poe became editor will perhaps reveal imitations and sources of his work. Mention has already been made of “Extract from a Novel that Never Will Be Published,” “A Tale of a Nose,” “The Passage of the Beresina,” “The Fountain of Oblivion,” and “Estelle.” There are many other parallels, for Poe was writing what was already popular.

In another way the editorship of the magazine with its numerous tasks may have proved a hindrance to him in the output of his creative work. The poems which he first published in the Messenger were: “Scenes from an Unpublished Drama” (Politian), “Hymn” (“Catholic Hymn”) in “Morella,” “To Mary” (“To F — “ or “To One Departed”), “Lines ‘Written in an Album” (“To F — ”), “The Valley Nis” (“The Valley of Unrest”), “The Bridal Ballad,” and “Sonnet to Zante.” Poems which had already appeared in print, but which were republished in forms more or less revised, were: “The Coliseum,” “A Paean” (“Leonore [[Lenore]]”), “To Helen” (“Helen, thy beauty is to me”), “Sonnet — To Silence,” “Irene” (“The Sleeper”), “Israfel,” and “The City of Sin” (“The City in the Sea”). His lack of leisure, while he was editing the Messenger, may be partly the reason for the paucity of his productions. Eight of his tales were printed in the Messenger for the first time: “Berenice,” “Morella,” [page 87:] “Lion-izing,” “Hans Phaall,” “King Pest,” “Shadow — A Parable,” “Epimanes,” and “Arthur Gordon Pym.” “The Assignation,” “Bon-Bon,” “Loss of Breath,” “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “Metzengerstein,” “Duc De L’Omelette,” and “A Tale of Jerusalem” were reprinted from the Baltimore and Philadelphia periodicals.

On the pages of The Southern Literary Messenger Poe loomed upon the literary horizon of the early nineteenth century in America as the magazinist with but few, if any, equals. To the pages of the Southern periodical one must turn to find Poe, the young magazinist and a pioneer in literary criticism in America.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 85:]

1.  Va. Poe, XVII, 58-60. In this same prospectus Poe appealed to his many Southern friends, who had sustained him in the Messenger, where he had “but a very partial opportunity of completing my own plans.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 86:]

2.  I, 326-327 (April, 1836). [[Review of The Culprit Fay and Alnwick Castle.]]






[S:0 - PSM, 1934] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Poe and The Southern Literary Messenger (D. K. Jackson) (Chapter 04)