Text: Bruce. I. Weiner, “The Most Noble of Professions: Poe and the Poverty of Authorship,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1987


­ [title page:]

Poe and the Poverty of Authorship


Professor of English
St. Lawrence University
Canton, New York

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In February 1849, the final year of his life, Edgar Allan Poe welcomed his friend, Frederick W. Thomas, back to the profession of letters. Thomas had served eight years as a government clerk and was assuming control of a newspaper in Louisville. Poe took occasion to reaffirm his own commitment to literature:

Depend upon it, after all, Thomas, Literature is the most noble of professions. In fact, it is about the only one fit for a man. For my own part, there is no seducing me from the path. I shall be a littérateur, at least, all my life; nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California. Talking of gold, and of the temptations at present held out to “poor-devil authors”, did it ever strike you that all which is really valuable to a man of letters — to a poet in especial — is absolutely unpurchaseable? Love, fame, the dominion of the intellect, the consciousness of power, the thrilling sense of beauty, the free air of Heaven, exercise of body & mind, with the physical and moral health which result — these and such as these are really all that a poet cares for: — then answer me this — why should he go to California (O, 2:426-427)?(1)

Poe’s experience as a professional author should have supplied the answer. Literature was an even more risky business than prospecting for gold. He knew that even before Thomas accepted a government appointment in 1841. Poe congratulated him then and tried to ride his coattails to Washington. “I would be glad to get almost any appointment,” Poe pleaded, “even a $500 one — so that I have something independent of letters for subsistence. To coin one’s brain into silver, at the nod of a master, is to my thinking, the hardest task in the world” (O, 1:172). His taskmaster at the time was George Graham, who became known for treating authors liberally and whose magazine Poe was editing with some success. Poe felt, however, that Graham was not rewarding him enough and was reneging on promises to enter partnership (O, 1:205). Poe earned more money in 1841 than in any other year of his professional career, but it barely lifted him above the equivalent of our national poverty level.(2)

Therefore, it is difficult to explain Poe’s enthusiasm for the profession of letters at the start of 1849. His situation had not improved since 1841 but had grown much worse. We know that his strength was returning after a long period of physical and emotional ­[page 4:] collapse, brought on by his literary battles in 1845 and 1846 and the death of his wife in 1847, but his prospects must have seemed dim. His last steady literary employment was with the Broadway Journal in 1846, which failed under his ownership and direction. He continued to write and publish a good deal after that, but his earnings from 1846 to 1849 have been estimated at less than $800.(3) A poet may be inspired by the free air of Heaven, but it will not pay his bills. As Poe’s letter to Thomas makes clear, moreover, he really had no intention of exercising body and mind in such a rarefied atmosphere. He asks Thomas to “come down” in the newspaper on his old enemy, the Boston literary establishment, and warns that he will soon “come out of the bush” himself and settle some old scores (O, 2:427-428). Noble profession indeed!

To use his phrase, Poe was a “poor-devil author.” He cherished all that the poet values, but his literary life was dominated by editorial drudgery, low pay, lack of appreciation, and vicious literary warfare. He was victimized by the growing commercialization of literature and culture. Until Poe’s time, literature was largely an avocation of leisured gentleman and educated professionals — ministers, lawyers, and doctors. Books were expensive to manufacture and difficult to distribute, and, like artisans’ goods, were produced for local markets — that is, for a small audience of friends and patrons. The spread of literacy, the concentration of population in urban centers, creating larger markets for consumer goods, and better methods of producing and distributing books transformed literature into a commodity capable of generating profit for enterprising publishers and authors. Thus the modern profession of authorship was born. The marketplace could be impersonal and capricious, however; authors were liberated from their dependence upon patrons, but they had to contend with business-minded publishers and popular tastes. For American writers in Poe’s day, the marketplace was particularly treacherous because no international copyright law existed. This lack of protection meant that American publishers could reprint foreign books without sharing the profits with the authors. Naturally they were reluctant to take the risk of publishing an American writer. “Literature is at sad discount,” Poe wrote Thomas in 1842, still seeking a government appointment. “There is really nothing to be done in this ­[page 5:] way. Without an international copyright law, American authors may as well cut their throats” (O, 1:210).(4)

In suggesting to Thomas that “all which is really valuable to the man of letters . . . is absolutely unpurchaseable,” Poe was compensating for his actual situation. For him, value was determined by the marketplace. His assertion to the contrary was typical, Raymond Williams argues, of Romantic artists in general. Drawn increasingly into the marketplace, where they became like other producers of consumer goods, Romantic writers conceived of art as representing a superior reality and of themselves as specially endowed people, geniuses who create rather than tradesmen who manufacture. They attacked the public taste and the standard of popularity by which their art was judged and defined culture in opposition to commerce. Their hostility, however, does not mean that they were uninvolved or unaffected by the marketplace. As Williams points out, the popular idea that Romantic artists were indifferent to commerce and politics and devoted to eternal beauty does not square with the facts. Their idealization must be viewed as a reaction to life lived in a commercial world they felt was hostile to the imagination.(5) Poe was perhaps the most extreme example in America of the paradox Williams identifies. No other writer in America yearned more for the ideal poetic life and no other writer was more involved in the literary marketplace. Still the idea persists that Poe’s romantic idealism insulated him from the literary marketplace, or, alternatively, that his efforts at reform set him above it. Poe was profoundly influenced by the forces of commercialization he tried to resist. Here I hope to shed some further light on the extent to which his conception of himself as a writer and his literary principles and practice were affected by the marketplace.

The influence of the marketplace is evident in Poe’s association of the man of letters, and “the poet in especial,” with “poor-devil authors.” Long before 1849 poverty had become for Poe a condition of authorship. The muses never sing so well, he wrote in 1843, as when they are penniless (T:992).(6) Poverty, however, is hardly conducive to the health of the man of letters Poe celebrates in his letter to Thomas. He requires a leisure to exercise body and mind that the poor-devil author does not possess. Attempting to compensate for his poor-devil status, Poe aspired to a fading literary ­[page 6:] order of gentleman-amateurs who dominated the field of letters in America before the rise of professional authorship. These were wealthy or professional men who pursued literature as an avocation. They scorned the association of literature and commerce and sought to cultivate a “republic of letters” that would govern a crass, commercial society. Gradually, however, the commercialization of literature eroded their authority. Only in Boston, Lewis Simpson observes, did there develop distinct economies of business and profitless literary pursuit which allowed gentleman-amateurs to thrive well into the nineteenth century. In Philadelphia and New York, they were eliminated by “a rising literary market” that made literature a commodity “in a trade as bustling and inhumane as that in Wall Street or on the Boston Exchange.”(7)

The kind of patronage that Boston afforded to its men of letters accounts in part for Poe’s animosity toward them, for he had to make his way in Philadelphia and New York, disadvantaged from the start. An orphaned child of itinerant actors, he was raised by a merchant who never legally adopted him and who was hostile to his literary ambition. His career grew out of economic necessity, begun in effect when his guardian disinherited him. His early poverty only exacerbated a desire for the fellowship and status of gentlemen authors. Writing in 1829 to John Neal, a well-known author who had favorably reviewed his poetry, Poe identified himself as amateur man of letters:

I am young — not yet twenty — am a poet — if deep worship of all beauty can make me one — and wish to be so in the common meaning of the word. . . . I am and have been from my childhood, an idler. It cannot therefore be said that / ‘I left a calling for this idle trade / ’A duty broke — a father disobeyed — / for I have no father — nor mother (O, 1:32).

By Poe’s time the characterization of poetry as an idle — that is, noncommercial — trade had become a cliché. It had ceased to have the force of romantic rebellion and become a defensive gesture, by which writers acknowledged their inferior status in a commercial culture. One thinks of Irving’s genial persona, the idle amateur, “Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” Irving and Neal had already accommodated themselves to the marketplace by 1829 and Poe, in sending his letter to Neal with proofsheets of a forthcoming volume of ­[page 7:] poems, indicated that he was already beginning to realize the importance of commercial promotion.(8)

The failure of Poe’s first three books of poetry forced him to tailor his aspirations to the more commercial world of magazine publishing, although he never abandoned the ideal of the gentleman-poet. In the preface to his final volume of poems, published in 1845, he would admit:

Events not to be controlled have prevented me from making, at any time, any serious effort in what, under happier circumstances, would have been the field of my choice. With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion; and the passions should be held in reverence; they must not — they cannot at will be excited with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.(9)

Poe’s circumstances, however, made him dependent upon the paltry compensations of mankind, and his poverty aggravated him because it denied him the social standing of gentlemen authors. Four years before he pleaded with Thomas to get him a government position, Poe wrote to James Kirke Paulding, well-known author and Secretary of the Navy:

Could I obtain the most unimportant Clerkship in your gift — any thing, by sea or land — to relieve me from the miserable life of literary drudgery to which I, now, with a breaking heart, submit, and for which neither my temper nor my abilities have fitted me, I would never again repine at any dispensation from God. I feel that I could then, (having something beyond mere literature as a profession) quickly elevate myself to the station in society which is my due (O, 2:681).

Poe had no choice except to be deferential to men like Paulding, but as he associated more and more with poor-devil authors his animosity toward leisured men of letters grew. He was miffed, for example, when Rufus Griswold characterized Thomas Ward in an anthology of American poetry as a gentleman of elegant leisure, as if that qualified him as a poet. “What there is in ‘elegant leisure,’ ” Poe asserted in a review of Ward’s poetry in 1843, “so much at war with the divine afflatus, it is not very difficult, but quite unnecessary, to say. The fact has been long apparent. Never sing the Nine so well as when penniless” (T:992). In subtitling this ­[page 8:] review, “Our Amateur Poets,” Poe struck an ironic blow for professional authorship. He made a more overt assault on gentlemen-amateurs in his “Marginalia” for 1845 when he addressed questions of international copyright. Poe admitted, “We get more reading for less money than if the international law existed,” but the effect, he argued, is to injure our national literature “by repressing the efforts of our men of genius; for genius, as a general rule, is poor in worldly goods and cannot write for nothing. Our genius being thus repressed, we are written at only by our ‘gentleman of elegant leisure,’ and mere gentleman of elegant leisure have been noted, time out of mind, for the insipidity of their productions” (T:1374).

Poe linked poverty and genius again the following year in a notorious series of papers on “The Literati of New York City.” His introduction attacks another aspect of the marketplace that tended to repress poor-devil professionals: the conspiracy of influential authors and publishers to solicit favorable reviews of their books in order to boost reputations and sales. His purpose in writing about the literati of New York, Poe claims, is to point out the discrepancy between reputations which are “manufactured” in the marketplace and the opinion of men of letters like himself. Poe seems to be assuming the attitude of the gentleman-amateur. True genius, he says, has nothing to do with the chicanery of the marketplace. In comparing the cases of Hawthorne and Longfellow, however, to illustrate the difference between a true genius and a manufactured one, Poe identifies with the poor-devil author. Hawthorne, an “extraordinary genius” in Poe’s opinion, is neglected by the press and public because he is neither a rich man nor a quack. Longfellow, on the other hand, may not be a quack himself, but he controls “a whole legion of quacks” ready to promote his work in the marketplace because of “his social and literary position as a man of property and a professor at Harvard.” What is the popular opinion of him? “Of course, that he is a poetical phenomenon, as entirely without fault as is the luxurious paper upon which his poems are invariably borne to the public eye” (T:1119-1120).

The famous war that Poe fought over the question of Longfellow’s plagiarism was, in an important sense, a class struggle. He ­[page 9:] attacked Longfellow repeatedly and at the risk of his own reputation not only because, as a romantic poet, he abhorred imitation but also because he resented the advantage Longfellow appeared to have over less privileged authors. To the argument advanced by “Outis,” Longfellow’s unchosen champion in this battle, that a poet as famous as Longfellow would not likely plagiarize, Poe responded that such an author is just as likely to be arrogant in his thievery:

[He] pilfers from some poverty-stricken, and therefore neglected man of genius, on the reasonable supposition that this neglected man of genius will very soon cut his throat, or die of starvation, (the sooner the better, no doubt,) and that in the mean time he will be too busy in keeping the wolf from the door to look after the purloiners of his property — and too poor, and too cowed, and for these reasons too contemptible, under any circumstances, to dare accuse of so base a thing as theft, the wealthy and triumphant gentleman of elegant leisure who has only done the vagabond too much honor in knocking him down and robbing him upon the highway (T:720).

Poe’s quarrel was not so much with Longfellow finally as with the general conditions of authorship which oppressed him. If he made too much of Longfellow’s plagiarism, it was because he felt disenfranchised by market forces that favored wealthy and influential men of letters.

More and more, however, during the latter part of his career, Poe protested his condition in terms that suggest his acceptance of the commercial basis of professional authorship. In two articles on authors’ pay in America written for the New York Evening Mirror in 1844, he argued the cause of literature by analogy to other commodities in the marketplace. The problem that an author of books faced, according to Poe, was the same that a watchmaker would face if the retailer of his product were pocketing fifty to eighty per cent of the profits. Poe attacked the problem of pay for periodical writing in the same way: “What a butcher would think of veal, as a marketable commodity, if everybody had an ambition to raise calves to give away, is very near the conclusion that a merely business man would arrive at, in inquiring into the saleableness of fugitive literature.” In other words, not only did the supply of periodical writing outrun demand, but authors, especially the amateurs, ­[page 10:] were willing to let their work go for nothing simply for the pleasure of seeing themselves in print. The result, Poe shrewdly observed, was that value shifted from literature as commodity to the space in which it was printed. Hardly anyone pays for articles, he complained: “The favor, on the contrary, of giving room and circulation to another man’s ideas, is growing into a saleable commodity, — the editor . . . charging rent for his columns instead of hiring a tenant.”(10)

Poe’s thrust in these articles was not to divorce literature from commerce but to improve its commercial value. For the professional writer, he acknowledged, literature is a commodity.(11) Nevertheless, he continued to grow bitter about the consequences for rent-paying writers. In 1845, the year of “The Raven” and his greatest success, Poe tried to explain why authors, who loved to breathe the free air of heaven, were suffocating in the “magazine prison-house.” Poe placed the blame again on the lack of an international copyright law, which, “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” (T:1036). Given the circumstances, he wonders how these periodicals pay for contributions at all and, with bitter irony, attributes it to the pitying patronage of editors:

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 pockets of all Europe . . . 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 . . . make it a point of conscience to encourage the poor devil author with a dollar or two, more or less as he behaves himself properly and abstains from the indecent habit of turning up his nose (T:1036-1037).

But if they are going to pay, Poe complains, why can they not pay promptly? He punctuates his point by telling a tale of a young author who, lured by the promise of the magazines, starves to death waiting to be paid by a fat “editor and proprietor.” ­[page 11:]

Poe’s protest anticipates the proletarian literature of the 1930’s. In his view, authors are not simply underpaid professionals but common laborers oppressed by their capitalistic bosses. These bosses, however, are less to blame than politicians, who, failing to pass an international copyright law, deny authors their rights of property and therefore the capital to do profitable business with booksellers (T:1037). Thus authors are driven to the magazines, an even more depressed marketplace, where they command little more than pity.

The further irony of “Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House” is that it appeared in the Broadway Journal, atop whose masthead Poe’s name would soon appear with the title, “editor and proprietor.” Poe realized early that he would not succeed as a magazinist unless he controlled the product of his labor. His career-long ambition to establish a magazine of his own sprang from this conviction. Seeking support for his proposed Penn Magazine, he wrote a relative in 1840:

I believe you know that my connexion with the Southern Messenger was merely that of editor. I had no proprietary interest in it, and my movements were therefore much impeded. The situation was disagreeable to me in every respect. The drudgery was excessive; the salary was contemptible. In fact I soon found that whatever reputation I might personally gain, this reputation would be all. I stood no chance of bettering my pecuniary condition, while my best energies were wasted in the service of an illiterate and vulgar, although well-meaning man, who had neither the capacity to appreciate my labors, nor the will to reward them (O. 1:141).

Similar experience as editor of Burton’s and Graham’s magazines did not dampen Poe’s enthusiasm for periodical literature, no doubt because he experienced even less success as an author of books. His letters soliciting support for the Penn Magazine touted periodical literature as the “tendency of the age.” “The brief, the terse, the condensed, and the easily circulated will take place of the diffuse, the ponderous, and inaccessible” (O, 1:162). This “is by no means to be regarded,” he argued elsewhere, “as indicating . . . a downward tendency in American taste or in American letters. It is but a sign of the times,” in which men must think more rapidly about more information (T:1377). Poe’s plans for the Penn Magazine ­[page 12:] and later the Stylus, however, suggest the [[that]] he was ambivalent about the nature and status of periodicals. Seeing that the real tendency of the age was towards cheaper and more popular literature and commercial promotion of books, he dedicated his magazine to highbrow tastes and to an independent criticism that would counteract the influence of “organized cliques, which . . . manufacture, at the nod of our principal booksellers, a pseudo-public-opinion by wholesale” (T:1025). As Lewis Simpson observes, Poe’s ideal magazine was intended to establish literary order in America, an order that he identified with a literary elite.”(12) He proposed to enlist only “the loftiest talent” for his magazine, men of “caste” who had standing in both the literary and social worlds (T:1034; O, 1:152, 154). Poe’s effort to reform the magazine prison-house, however, only served to point out to him how thoroughly he was confined to it. He tried everything to get the magazine started but his ideals could not substitute for capital.

Nowhere is Poe’s dilemma as a magazinist more dramatically displayed than in a letter he wrote in 1844 to Charles Anthon, professor of classical languages at Columbia University. The several false starts and many interlineations in the draft of this letter that survives suggest the desperate state of Poe’s situation. He had made two unsuccessful efforts in 1840 and 1843 to launch his own magazine and in 1844, having moved his family to New York in hope of improving his prospects, could find employment only as sub-editor on the New York Sunday Times and Evening Mirror. Presuming on a very slight acquaintance, Poe asks Anthon to use his influence with Harper and Brothers, a well-known publishing house, to get a collection of his tales published. Poe justifies the audacity of the request by claiming the purest of motives. He does not desire any remuneration from the publishers, only the opportunity to establish a reputation that might enable him to launch his magazine. To this end, he claims, he has dedicated his career, “bearing not only willingly but cheerfully sad poverty & the thousand consequent ills and contumelies which the condition of the mere Magazinist entails upon him in America” (O, 1:270). Chief among these is the difficulty of establishing a reputation because his work is scattered in various periodicals. Thus, paradoxically, he must publish a book in order to win a reputation that will serve ­[page 13:] in lieu of capital to start a magazine. He is driven to the magazines in the first place, however, because he cannot get a book published, at least not one that will earn him any money or reputation. Indeed he claims not to have published any books, meaning perhaps that Anthon is not likely to regard his volumes of “light literature” as books. A poor-devil author begging a favor of a man of caste, Poe was squeezed, as one scholar put it, between the book and magazine economies of the 1840’s.(13) The magazines seemed to offer him the best opportunity for a professional career, but books continued to have greater prestige.

Poe’s quest for a reputation suggests another consequence of the commercialization of literature. In the marketplace, value shifts from the art product to the producer. The reputation of the author rather than his literary merit sells the work. Byron’s exploits, Irving’s pseudonym, and even Scott’s anonymity as “the great Unknown” became trademarks that consumers bought regardless of the quality of the product. A reputation was even more important for the magazinist, whose scattered appearance in ephemeral periodicals, as Poe complained to Anthon, was not likely to make a lasting impression on the public. Poe attributed the success of the most famous magazinist in his day, Nathaniel Parker Willis, to his talent for keeping constantly in the public eye:

At an early age Mr. Willis seems to have arrived at an understanding that, in a republic such as ours, the mere man of letters must ever be a cipher, and endeavoured, accordingly, to unite the éclat of the Littérateur with that of the man of fashion or of society. He “pushed himself,” went much into the world, made friends with the gentler sex, “delivered” poetical addresses, wrote “scriptural” poems, traveled, sought the intimacy of noted women, and got into quarrels with notorious men.

Willis probably “acted only in accordance with his physical temperament; but be this as it may, his personal greatly advanced, if it did not altogether establish, his literary fame” (T:1124). Although he did not have Willis’ opportunities to mix in high society, Poe “pushed himself” before the public too, adopting the caustic manner of British critics, delivering lectures and poetical addresses, courting the intimacy of literary ladies, and quarrelling with rival journalists. His histrionics were partly an expression of his temperament, ­[page 14:] but he clearly tried to cultivate the kind of notoriety that would make his work marketable.(14) A reputation, however, was difficult to manufacture, especially if you were poor, and even harder to manage. Hawthorne could not understand why, after twenty years of writing, he was forced to seek government employment, “for nobody’s scribblings seem to be more acceptable to the public than mine; and yet I shall find it a tough match to gain a respectable support by my pen.”(15) Others like Irving and Melville were imprisoned by their fame. Readers wanted more of the genial Geoffrey Crayon and the “man who lived among the cannibals.”(16) Reputations, like works of art, became commodities in the marketplace, the property of the public rather than the author. The effect was to further disenfranchise authors, to leave them even less control over the product of their labor and to alienate them from their audience.

Popularity was becoming the standard of value for the professional writer, and Poe’s response to it was a mixture of resistance and accommodation. The poet in him deplored the confusion of popularity with artistic merit. The magazinist, who had to appeal to a mass reading audience, sought to reconcile popular tastes and artistic principles. As a reviewer of many popular novelists and poets, Poe’s favorite strategy was to challenge the standard of popularity. For example, in beginning a review in 1842 of Charles Lever’s very popular novel, Charles O’Malley, The Irish Dragoon, Poe writes:

We shall not insult our readers by supposing any one of them unaware of the fact, that a book may be even exceedingly popular without any legitimate literary merit. . . . The truth is, that the popularity of a book is prima facie evidence . . . of the book’s demerit — inasmuch as it shows that the author has dealt largely, if not altogether, in matters which are susceptible of appreciation by the mass of mankind — by uneducated thought, by uncultivated taste, by unrefined and unguided passion (T:312).

A writer of fiction is wise, Poe admits, to broaden his appeal by including such matter “as will give general currency to his composition,” but that writer betrays his genius in the process. Even Dickens, Poe claims, does “grievous wrong to his own genius — in appealing to the popular judgment at all. As a matter of pecuniary ­[page 15:] policy alone, is any such appeal defensible.” As a genius, Mr. Dicken’s business is not with “the rabble” but with the “more noble mind” (T:313-314).

Poe never relinquished the idea that art has nothing to do ultimately with commerce, but the marketplace forced him to become more and more pragmatic, shifting his view from the ultimate aim of art to the necessity of cultivating “the rabble.”(17) Dickens was on Poe’s mind in reviewing Lever’s novel because, a month earlier, he had argued in a review of Barnaby Rudge that a work of fiction “can fully suit, at the same time, the critical and popular tastes” (T:226). He attacked the opinion of critics who equate merit with popularity that artistic theory has little to do with practice. Even popular success, Poe maintained, must be attributed to critical principles well applied. But his review of the novel suggests how difficult it was for him to reconcile critical principles and popularity, for he focused largely on Dickens’ violation of the critical requirement of a well-made plot. Dickens errs, first of all, by choosing to write a mystery, which, though it whets our curiosity, dulls the interest of many points that would be interesting if we knew the solution, and second of all, by failing to sustain the mystery to the end.

Poe attributed Dickens’ extraordinary popularity finally to a “natural” rather than conscious art. The difference between him and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, another popular British novelist, is that Bulwer proceeds by “excessive care and patient reflection . . . producing books which might be mistaken by ninety-nine readers out of a hundred for the genuine inspirations of genius.” Dickens’ art, “although elaborate and great, seems only a happy modification of Nature.” He composes “evidently without effort” works “which have rendered him the idol of the people, while defying and enchanting the critics. Mr. Bulwer, through art, has almost created a genius. Mr. Dickens, through genius, has perfected a standard from which Art itself will derive its essence, its rules” (T:214). This natural art Poe tended to identify with a realism of characterization and incident, the very thing that made the novel from its inception a popular genre. Even in the drama, Poe argued in 1845, plot is too often overdone. “In its intense artificiality it may even be conceived injurious in a certain degree (unless constructed ­[page 16:] with consummate skill) to that real life-likeness which is the soul of the drama of character” (T:367). The standard surfaced again in Poe’s final review of Hawthorne in 1847, where he attributed what little popularity Hawthorne had to a kind of composition called the “natural.” “It is but the result of writing with the understanding, or with the instinct, that the tone, in composition, should be that which, at any given point or upon any given topic, would be the tone of the great mass of humanity” (T:581-582).

The Hawthorne review demonstrates that Poe could still produce quality criticism late in his career, but the conditions of authorship were taking their toll. Except for his stint with the Broadway Journal in 1845 through 1846, Poe had little significant editorial employment after leaving Graham’s Magazine. His opportunities for reviewing were fewer and his need to fill magazine space with miscellaneous prose even greater. Two projects that occupied Poe late in his career, the “Literati of New York City” and the “Marginalia,” illustrate the impoverishment of his critical practice. Poe seems to have conceived of the “Literati” papers as part of a general critical study of American Literature (O, 2:314), but he began to serialize them in Godey’s Lady’s Book in May, 1846, no doubt in need of money. Six monthly installments at five dollars a page, the standard rate in Godey’s, netted him approximately $172, more than half his total earnings for the year.(18) His pose as an independent critic and member of “private literary society” in the introduction belies the circumstances under which he wrote. He did not have the leisure for research and thoughtful criticism of so many writers and that was not likely his real intention. He was capitalizing, as he had done before, on a familiar magazine feature, literary biography, often illustrated by portraits or autographs.(19) This time he was trying to stir up some controversy and he succeeded — less on account of his caustic comments than the thin skins of his targets. One of Poe’s enemies among the New York literati, Hiram Fuller, was more penetrating in response: “We hope that Mr. Poe gets well paid for his ‘honest opinions,’ for we are sure that a man must be sadly in want of money who resorts to such methods of raising it.”(20) Poe claimed defensively in a letter that he was forced to discontinue the series because “people insisted on considering them elaborate criticism when I had no other ­[page 17:] design than critical gossip” (O, 2:332). In the same letter he renewed his plan to develop the series into a book on American literature, one that would bring him greater remuneration and fame, but the book never got written.

It was put aside apparently in favor of the “Marginalia,” five installments of which appeared in consecutive months in Graham’s Magazine after the “Literati” ended. Once again Poe was writing out of a need for steady income. The “Marginalia” were ideally suited to the purpose, consisting of short passages of critical opinion that Poe claimed to be drawing from the margins of books he had read. Most of them, however, merely paraphrased a source or repeated an observation he had made in a previous review. Erudition of this sort was also a familiar magazine feature, used often to fill up space and to create an impression of authority and expertise. It gave journalism the look of classical learning.(21) Several well-known magazines were devoted to the dissemination of “useful and entertaining knowledge,” most of it culled from other magazines and books. Early in his career Poe published a series of erudite paragraphs, entitled “Pinakidia.” In 1844, he published the first installment of “Marginalia,” continuing them sporadically until 1846, when economic need caused him to resort to the genre more frequently until his death. Even more so than in the “Literati” papers, Poe’s pretense in the “Marginalia” belies their commercial purpose. They are presumably the desultory observations of a leisured man of letters, more deliberate than literary chit-chat, Poe claims, but still in essence “nonsense” (T:1309-1311). If only the poor-devil author had leisure to pursue such an idle trade. There are keen statements of paradox in the “Marginalia,” but many passages have the ring of small change, the result of Poe’s coining his brain into silver.

Poe’s creative output suffered too because of his need to fill up magazine pages as steadily as he could. He would have had to have written ten to fifteen tales, nearly one-fifth of his total output of fiction, to earn as much money in 1846 as he did with the “Literati” series. He produced only three tales that year. Poe’s creative impulse, like his critical principles, took a pragmatic turn under the influence of market forces. Early on in his career, he defended his sensational tales against an editor’s criticism by arguing: “To ­[page 18:] be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity” (O, 1:58). To prove his assertion, Poe pointed to the popular fiction in Blackwood’s and the London New Monthly Magazine. The kinds of accommodation Poe made to the magazines have received considerable study.(22) Here I want to comment briefly instead on Poe’s treatment in fiction of the theme of money. For as his circumstances grew worse he began to indulge in a fantasy of found wealth. One of his great successes was “The Gold-Bug,” published in 1843, which concerns the discovery of Captain Kidd’s legendary buried treasure by an eccentric protagonist, William Legrand. Poe recognized the value of money as theme for fiction when he reviewed Samuel Warren’s popular novel, Ten Thousand a Year, in 1841. The appeal of that book, Poe observed, can be referred to the “pecuniary nature of its theme. From beginning to end it is an affair of pounds, shillings, and pence — a topic which comes home at least as immediately to the bosoms and business of mankind, as any which could be selected” (T:349). Yet Warren failed to unite the popular and critical tastes; Poe found the novel “shamefully ill-written.” His purpose in writing the “The Gold-Bug” was to show that a popular subject can conform to critical rules; at least, that is the purpose he attributed to himself in reviewing his Tales of 1845:

The intent of the author was evidently to write a popular tale: money, and the finding of money being chosen as the most popular thesis. In this he endeavoured to carry out his idea of the perfection of plot. . . . We pronounce that he has perfectly succeeded in his perfect aim. There is a marked peculiarity, by-the-by, in it, which is this. The bug, which gives title to the story, is used only in the way of mystification. . . . Its purpose is to seduce the reader into the idea of supernatural machinery, and keeping him so mystified until the last moment. The ingenuity of the story cannot be surpassed (T:869).

Thus Poe does with money and mystery what Warren and Dickens failed to do.

In spite of the self-promotion in this review, Poe was rightfully proud of the success of “The Gold-Bug,” an artfully constructed tale that has achieved lasting popularity. Yet he was bitter about the mercenary motive that drove his art. Writing to Thomas ­[page 19:] again in 1845, Poe claimed to be working harder than ever and still making no money: “The Devil himself was never so poor” (O, 1:286). Poe could not help but turn his writing to commercial ends. “ ‘The Raven’ has had a great ‘run’,” he tells Thomas, “but I wrote it for the express purpose of running — just as I did the ‘Gold-Bug’, you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow” (O, 1:287). The statement sends us back to “The Gold-Bug” to read it not simply as an artful story of buried treasure but as a commentary on Poe’s poverty. As such it seems a fantasy of escape, by which Poe enjoys, and allows us to enjoy, a vicarious experience of found wealth. Poe’s protagonist, William Legrand, is a version of the gentleman-amateur. Like his counterpart, Auguste Dupin, in Poe’s other detective tales, he practices his art of analysis as an avocation, scorning the world of commerce in spite of misfortunes which have reduced him to poverty. Just like Dupin, however, in “The Purloined Letter,” who produces the missing article for a reward of fifty thousand francs, Legrand transforms idle, imaginative labor into great wealth.

The note that Legrand sends to his friend, the narrator of the tale, expressing “cause for great anxiety” recalls the letter that brings the narrator to his friend’s aid in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Legrand, however, only appears to be like Roderick Usher, feigning madness to mystify the narrator for his own amusement. Indeed the death’s-head image of Usher’s mansion, which suggests the real state of his physical and psychological impoverishment and collapse, becomes in “The Gold-Bug” the means to wealth and well-being. Legrand finds the treasure by means of a scrap of parchment, on which appears a skull and a secret message. Decoded, the message directs Legrand to a promontory called the Devil’s seat and to the discovery, by means of a spyglass, of a skull nailed to the branch of a tree. A bullet dropped through the left eye of the “death’s-head” marks the guiding point to the treasure. “I presume, “says Legrand, “the fancy of the skull — of letting fall a bullet through the skull’s-eye, was suggested to Kidd by the piratical flag. No doubt he felt a kind of poetical consistency in recovering his money through this ominous insignium.”(23) Thus in solving the mystery, Legrand overturns the traditional association of money with evil, of filthy lucre with the devil, ­[page 20:] and achieves a kind of triumph over death. The “Devil’s seat” is the vantage point which allows him to share Captain Kidd’s “poetical” vision. The misfortunate gentleman-amateur is not only confirmed in his avocation but extravagantly rewarded for it too.

Now let me end where I began, with the poor-devil author tempted by the California gold rush. The tale that Poe wrote in 1849 which refers to the gold rush, “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” is another version of his fantasy of found wealth. A lesser tale than “The Gold-Bug,” it is in some ways a more complex commentary on Poe’s poverty. It concerns a scientist, Von Kempelen, who discovers the means of transmuting lead into gold. His discovery, however, is withheld from us by a narrator who seems interested in telling us everything about Von Kempelen except what counts. Poe clearly intended the tale as a hoax, hoping that the surprising revelation of Von Kempelen’s discovery at the end would provide a “very temporary check to the gold-fever . . . and create a stir to some purpose” (O, 2:433). We learn of the discovery finally when the narrator tells of Von Kempelen’s arrest on suspicion of counterfeiting. The surprise works ironically to sanction rather than debunk Von Kempelen’s creative genius, for although he is identified as a criminal, his alchemy subverts the legitimacy of gold as a standard of value. He is motivated by financial necessity, but his discovery transcends his need for money. The gold he produces is not only real gold but “gold far finer than any employed in coinage — gold, in fact, absolutely pure, virgin, without the slightest appreciable alloy!”(24) By comparison, the narrator’s counterfeiting seems mercenary and mundane. He delays and distorts the truth to create a sensation and capitalize on Von Kempelen’s notoriety.

Poe’s dilemma as a professional author is reflected in the narrative strategy and conflicting values of this tale. In a real sense the narrator is Poe, perpetrating a hoax and stretching an article to make it pay. Impoverished, Poe often wrote expressly to make money. Yet he was ambivalent about the kind of writing he had to do in order to make a living. “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” he hoped, would create a stir and generate some income, but he also wrote it to protest the commercial values constraining imagination in America.(25) Von Kempelen, not the narrator, emerges as ­[page 21:] Poe’s preferred alter ego, a genius who, forced to use his imagination for financial gain, sabotages the gold standard against which his work and life are measured and discovers a higher, purer standard of value.

­[page 22:]


1.  Citations from “O” in parenthesis refer to The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom, 2 vols. (1948; rpt. New York: Gordian Press, 1966).

2.  John Ward Ostrom, “Edgar A. Poe: His Income as a Literary Entrepreneur,” Poe Studies, 15 (June 1982), 1.

3.  Ostrom, “Poe: His Income as a Literary Entrepreneur,” pp. 5-6.

4.  My discussion of literary economics in antebellum America relies upon William Charvat’s Literary Publishing in America, 1790-1850 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959) and The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870: The Papers of William Charvat, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968); Lewis P. Simpson’s The Man of Letters in New England and the South: Essays on the History of the Literary Vocation in America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973); and Michael T. Gilmore’s American Romanticism and the Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

5.  Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 30-48.

6.  Citations from “T” in parentheses refer to Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: The Library of America, 1984).

7.  The Man of Letters in New England and the South, p. 59.

8.  Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), p. 153.

9.  Quinn, Poe: A Critical Biography, pp. 481-482.

10.  I cite reprinted versions of these articles in the New York Weekly Mirror, l (12 October 1844), 15 and 1 (19 October 1844), 28.

11.  Similar articles deploring amateurism in literature and the failure of professional authors to receive fair market value for the products of their labor appeared in influential periodicals in Poe’s day. See Gilmore, American Romanticism and the Marketplace, pp. 54-57.

12.  The Man of Letters in New England and the South, pp. 133-139.

13.  Charvat, The Profession of Authorship in America, p. 86.

14.  See Michael Allen, Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), chs. 3 and 4.

15.  The Letters, 1813-1843, vol. 15 of the Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Thomas Woodson et al. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984), [[p.]] 688.

16.  The Letters of Herman Melville, eds. Merril R. Davis and William H. Gilman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 130. Hostile responses to the efforts of Melville and Irving to depart from popular practices dramatically altered their literary careers. See Charvat, The Profession of Authorship in America, ch.12 and William L. Hedges, Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), pp. 192-194, 236-238. ­[page 23:]

17.  Robert Jacobs notes the pragmatic turn that Poe’s criticism took in 1842, but he attributes it to Poe’s tendency to overstate his case against the romantic idea that genius is incompatible with artistic skill rather than his recognition of the need to accommodate popular tastes. Poe: Journalist & Critic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), pp. 296, 315-325, 435-436.

18.  Ostrom, “Poe: His Income as Literary Entrepreneur,” p. 5.

19.  Previously in the Southern Literary Messenger for 1836 and Graham’s Magazine for 1841-1842, Poe published series of “Autography,” brief critical comments on American literati based on a reading of their handwriting. In 1843 he proposed for the Stylus a series of portraits of American writers, with critical sketches (O, 1:232). The “furor biographicus” in American magazines, Evert Duyckinck observed in 1845, was intended to promote literary nationalism but encouraged mediocrity in American letters. American Whig Review, I (February 1845), 148-149. Compelled by financial necessity to exploit the fad, Poe tried to make the “Literati” series pay by making it more controversial. Much of the controversy, however, was intended to reform the abuses Duyckinck identified in the literary marketplace.

20.  Quoted in Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles, p. 225.

21.  See Allen, Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, ch. 5.

22.  See Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965), ch. 1; Allen, Poe and the British Magazine Tradition; Stuart Levine, Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman (Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1972); Benjamin F. Fisher, “Blackwood Articles à la Poe: How to Make a False Start Pay,” Revue des Langues Vivantes, 39 (1973), 418-432; and Bruce I. Weiner, “Poe’s Subversion of Verisimilitude,” The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe’s Satiric Hoaxing, ed. Dennis W. Eddings (Port Washington, NY: Associated Faculty Press, 1983), pp. 112-123.

23.  Tales and Sketches, 1843-1849, vol. 3 of the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 843.

24.  Tales and Sketches, 1843-1849, p. 1363.

25.  Poe’s attack on the materialism of American culture is illuminated by J. A. Leo Lemay, “Poe’s ‘The Business Man’: Its Contexts and Satire of Franklin’s Autobiography,” Poe Studies, 15 (December 1982), 29-37.



This lecture was delivered at the Sixty-fourth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 5, 1986. The lecture was presented in the Wheeler Auditorium of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

© 1987 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - MNP, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Most Noble of Professions (B. I. Weiner, 1986)