Text: Richard Tuerk, “John Sartain and E. A. Poe,” from Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:21-23


[page 21, column 1:]

John Sartain and E. A. Poe

University of California at Riverside

The relationship between John Sartain (1808-1897), English-born engraver and publisher, and E. A. Poe is fairly extensively documented. Especially important is Sartain’s defense of Poe after the latter’s death in connection with a charge of dishonesty involving Sartain’s purchase of “The Bells” for publication in Sartain’s Union Magazine. Although Sartain acknowledges that he did pay Poe three separate times for the poem, he points out that his doing so involved no dishonesty on Poe’s part; rather, Sartain himself considered the three versions of the poem that he received from Poe so markedly different that he gladly paid him separately for each one (1).

As publisher of the Union Magazine from late 1848 to 1852, Sartain was a powerful figure in the literary world. He published several Poe items, including “The Bells” and “The Poetic Principle” (2), as well as works by such well-known figures as Longfellow, Lowell, Bayard Taylor, Harriet Martineau, W. Gilmore Simms, N. P. Willis, and Alice and Phoebe Cary. In addition he published three items by the then little-known Henry Thoreau, including his important essay on “Ktaadn, and the Maine Woods.”

Sartain met Poe in 1840, when George P. Graham purchased the Gentleman’s Magazine from William E. Burton. Poe assisted with the editing of the magazine, and Sartain was engaged to engrave a plate a month for it. Their friendship lasted until Poe’s death (3). During Poe’s lifetime, Sartain aided and encouraged his friend in both his personal affairs and in his literary endeavors (4). Poe seems to have been grateful for his help, especially in connection with their last meeting, about which Sartain writes at length; alluding to this last meeting in a letter to Maria Clemm, written July 19, 1849, Poe writes: “To L ——— and to C——— B——— (and in some measure, also, to Mr. S———) I am indebted for more than life” (5). As his use of “Mr.” before Sartain’s initial indicates, Poe probably never considered their friendship intimate. Nonetheless, after Poe’s death, as I have noted, Sartain did defend his reputation, although he may also have overemphasized the importance of their relationship.

An essay on Poe by Sartain which has recently come to my attention is, as far as I can tell, unmentioned in any of the scholarly or critical works on Poe. It appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript for February 25, 1893. [column 2:] Although it seems to be a reprint of an article that appeared earlier in the Philadelphia Record, I have been unable to locate the original.

Like most of the things Sartain wrote about Poe, this one too deals extensively with their last meeting. For the most part, it treats the same material that Sartain treats in his essay in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine for 1889 and in his Reminiscences of a Very Old Man ( 1899), which tends to follow the Lippincott’s article almost word for word when dealing with Poe. The wording of the Boston Evening Transcript essay, however, is different from that of the other two works More important is Sartain’s allusion in the newspaper to some kind of blackmail that Griswold practiced on him. Griswold, Sartain writes, “was a notorious blackmailer, and I myself had to pay him money to prevent abusive notices of Sartain’s Magazine.” This information, missing from the other Sartain items, shows us that Sartain was fully aware that Griswold was capable of highly questionable acts toward literary men and that his animosity was not directed at Poe alone.

There are several less important differences among the three accounts. Although the section dealing with Poe in Sartain’s Reminiscences gives a fuller account of their relationship than does the newspaper or the Lippincott’s essay, in the newspaper alone Sartain says that Poe became one of his “dearest friends.” In the newspaper Sartain says that Poe concluded his explanation of his unsettled state by asking for a razor; in both other accounts the request comes after a pause during which Sartain says that he thought Poe might have contemplated suicide. Both the Lippincott’s and the Reminiscences accounts state that Poe’s discovery that he had been hallucinating came “On the second morning” after his arrival in Philadelphia, while the newspaper has it “Three days after.” Finally, whereas the Lippincott’s essay leaves out any account of Poe’s death, both the newspaper and the Reminiscences discuss it but differ on a minor detail: the former says that Poe was found “in a vacant lot,” the latter “upon a broad plank across some barrels on the sidewalk.” These and a few other slight differences may be the result of careless wording or, more likely, Sartain’s imperfect memory.

Because any contemporary item dealing with Poe and Sartain should be of interest to the literary scholar and the student of American cultural history, I give here the entire Boston Evening Transcript essay. That the editors of the newspaper in 1893 should think an item of this sort worth publishing is itself significant. Because it deals with hallucinations and spirits, the editors might have believed that it would interest a late nineteenth-century audience. Even so, the appearance of the article shows that, fifty-four [page 22:] years after his death, Poe himself was still considered “newsworthy” in the popular sense of the term, if only because of some of the more sensational stories associated with him.




His Hallucinations Described by John Sartain, the Venerable Artist.


“It was at the period of the transfer of Burton’s Magazine to Graham that I first met Poe, already of much fame as a poet. He became one of my dearest friends. His memory I cherish and honor. He made many enemies, and many harsh things have been said about him, but I never once saw him drunk, and I believe that in everything he was perfectly honest. To be sure, in his criticisms, especially those in the Stylus, he used ‘an iron pen,’ and no doubt, as has been said, ’sometimes mistook his vial of prussic acid for his ink bottle.’ But I believe he intended to be absolutely fair in all that he wrote.

“As an instance of how far he was above meaner motives, he actually appointed as his literary executor a clergyman whom he had once severely criticised, not seeming to realize that such a hauling over the coals could never be forgotten. As a result, his memory has suffered. That same clergyman, whose name is familiar to readers of Poe literature was a notorious blackmailer, and I myself had to pay him money to prevent abusive notices of Sartain’s Magazine.

“As for the charge that Poe was dishonest about his manuscripts, it has been said that he sold ‘The Bells” to me thrice over. Indeed, he did sell the poem to me three times, but in an honest way. It was accepted first as a poem of two stanzas. Not being published for some time, Poe thrice added to it, and otherwise altered it. Each time he deemed the poem worth more, and so did I, therefore paying him something extra in each case.

“The first instance of hallucination that I ever detected in Poe occurred about a month before his tragic death. I was at work, in my shirt sleeves, in my office on Sansom street, when Poe burst in upon me excitedly, and exclaimed, ‘I have come to you for refuge.’ I saw at a glance that he was suffering from some mental overstrain, and assured him of shelter. I then begged him to explain.

“’I was just on my way to New York on the train,’ he said to me, ‘when I heard whispering going on behind me. Owing to my marvellous power of hearing I was enabled to overhear what the conspirators were saying. Just imagine such a thing in this nineteenth century! They were plotting to murder me. I immediately left the train and hastened back here again. I must disguise myself in someway. I must shave off this mustache at once. Will you lend me a razor? ’

“Afraid to trust him with it, I told him I hadn’t any, but that I could remove his moustache [sic ] with the scissors. Taking him to the rear of the office I sheared away [column 2:] until he was absolutely barefaced. This satisfied him somewhat and I managed to calm him. That very evening, however, he prepared to leave the house. ‘Where are you going?’ I asked. ‘To the Schuylkill,’ he replied. ‘Then I am going along with you,’ I declared. He did not object, and together we walked to Chestnut street and took a ‘bus.

“A steep flight of steps used to lead up from the Schuylkill then, and ascending these we sat on a bench overlooking the stream. The night was black, without a star, and I felt somewhat nervous alone with Poe in the condition he was in. Going up in the ‘bus he said to me, ‘After my death see that my mother (Mrs. Clemm) gets that portrait of me from Osgood.’

“Now he began to talk the wildest nonsense, in the weird, dramatic style of his tales. He said he had been thrown into Moyamensing Prison for forging a check, and while there a white female form had appeared on the battlements and addressed him in whispers.

“ ‘If I had not heard what she said,’ he declared, ‘it would have been the end of me. But, owing to my marvellous hearing, I lost not a single word. Then another figure appeared and invited me to walk with him around the battlements. He conducted me to a caldron of liquid, and asked me if I wished a drink. I refused, for that was a trap. Do you know what would have happened if I had accepted? They would have lifted me over the caldron, and placed me in the liquid up to my lips, like Tantalus, and gone away and left me there.’

“By and by I suggested that we descend again and Poe assented. All the way down the steep steps I trembled lest he should remember his resolve of suicide, but I kept his mind from it and got him back safely. Three days after he went out again and returned in the same mood. ‘I lay on the earth with my nose in the grass,’ he said then, ‘and the smell revived me. I began at once to realize the falsity of my hallucinations.’

“A month later he left Washington to meet his bride. A storm deterred him from crossing at Havre de Grace and he returned to Baltimore. Behind him, in the car, even as in his hallucination, sat a number of suspicious-looking persons. When Poe passed down one of the streets they followed at his heels. Poe was well dressed and undoubtedly had money in his Pockets. The next morning he was found in a vacant lot, nearly dead. He was clad in shabby clothes and had evidently been drugged. When, later, beseeched at the hospital to drink a toddy, he put up his hand and waved it off—and thus he died.”



(1) See Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art, 5 (December 1849), 386-387, for Sartain’s first discussion in print of the changing form of “The Bells.” See also his “Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, 43 (March 1889), 411-415, especially 411-412; John Sartain, Reminiscences of a Very Old Man (1899; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1969), pp. 202-205; William Sartain, “Edgar Allan Poe—Some Facts Recalled,” Art World, 2 (July 1917), 321-323; and Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1941), pp. 563-564. My thanks to the University of California for Intramural Research Grant Number [page 23:] 1130 which helped support this work, and to Mr. John Bednorz and Professor George Knox who assisted me with it.

(2) For a list of Poe items in Sartain’s Union Magazine, see John W. Robertson, Bibliography of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1934; rpt. New York: Krause Reprint Company, 1969), I, 218-219.

(3) J. Sartain, “Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe,” pp. 412-413.

(4) In addition to the items cited above, see F. DeWolfe Miller, “The Basis for Poe’s ‘The Island of the Fay,’” American Literature, 14 (1942), 135-140, where Miller discusses the relationship between Sartain and Poe’s story.

(5) The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (New York: Gordian Press, Inc., 1966), 11, 455. On page 456, Ostrom identifies the other people mentioned in this sentence as George Lippard and Chauncey Burr.  


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