Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Three More Early Notices of Pym and the Snowden Connection,” Poe Studies, December 1975, Vol. VIII, No. 2, 8:32-35


[page 32, column:]

Three More Early Notices of Pym and the
Snowden Connection

Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, Emeritus

To be added to the sixteen contemporary notices and reviews of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which I presented in 1974 (1), are three more, one in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger of Philadelphia and two in New York City publications: the newspaper the Sunday Morning News and the popular magazine Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion. They all help to demonstrate the critical attention paid to Poe’s novel and also his shrewdness in employing a long descriptive title. The magazine notice may also throw a ray of light on Poe’s unexplained animus toward the Companion, a periodical that later was to publish two of his important tales.

The review in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger not only is perceptive and lively in itself but has the added interest of filling out our knowledge of Poe’s literary relations with a publisher who, soon after his death, defended him against charges of intemperance on the basis of reminiscences dating back twenty years to the time of this review (2). Charles W. Alexander, the publisher and editor, was one of the most ingenious, resourceful, and energetic of the persons involved in Philadelphia journalism from 1821 into the 1850’s. He was intimately connected with the Saturday Evening Post, the Casket, the Gentleman’s Magazine, the Daily Chronicle, and other periodicals. Through William Burton, he knew Poe as editor of the magazine which eventually became Graham’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and he engaged him as the contributor of a series of articles appearing in the Weekly Messenger from December 18, 1839, to May 6, 1840. The best account of Alexander, who deserves a much fuller treatment than has yet been offered, is in the introduction by Clarence S. Brigham to the reprint of Poe’s numerous short essays on cryptography and other topics (3).

There are grounds for believing that Alexander met Poe soon after his remove from New York City to Philadelphia during the summer of 1838; for one thing, Poe’s old Baltimore friend, Lambert A. Wilmer, under the guise of “Horace in Philadelphia,” a name derived from the Smiths’ celebrated Horace in London, addressed a poem welcoming Poe back to “the field of letters,” printed in the Saturday Evening Post of August 11, 1838 (4). The date is significant since it was the August 22 Weekly Messenger that offered the review, which is also the most unequivocal about Poe’s authorship of the book. The bantering tone is friendly and good-natured, very different from the savage note of outrage at the nautical errors and extravagant events found in Burton’s article in the September issue of his Gentleman’s Magazine. While Poe did not allude to this review in Alexander’s journal in any extant letters, he was proud of the fine words lavished by “Professor” Frost on his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in the December 18, 1839, issue of the Weekly Messenger. [page 35:]

He pointed attention to Frost’s encomium in the Saturday Museum biography, of March 4, 1843, and mentioned it in two letters to Snodgrass (5). Poe was kind enough to identify the author of the 1839 review, but we cannot assume Frost’s responsibility for the Pym review. It may have been written by Alexander himself, although a close analysis of the style of Alexander’s letter to Clarke scarcely supports that theory (6).

The review itself will be given verbatim save that the long, descriptive title of Poe’s book will be omitted. Its inclusion at the head of the review obviated the need for a summary and rendered it easier for the writer to make pertinent but general comments on the tone, realism, and motive of the narrative (7). The text alone is presented from the Weekly Messenger of August 22, 1838 (p. 2):

Think of that, Master Brook! What say you, reader [,] to that for a tide page? We assure you the book, if possible, is more marvellous still. Captain Riley’s narrative was a tame affair, compared with it. “Incredible [”] forsooth! The author should have said impossible. What will our nautical friends say to the feat of running a sloop with a jib, when her mast has been carried away in a gale of wind? What will the government say to the discoveries near the south pole? Will they not recal [sic] the southern exploring expedition, which is rendered wholly unnecessary by Pym’s discoveries? What will the Nantucket folks say to the miracle of a vessel being fitted out from that port, which had never been heard of there, by a mercantile house that never had an existence any where?

To be serious, this is a very clever extravaganza, after the manner of De Foe, understood to be written by Mr. Poe, of Virginia It indicates great talent and vivacity, and will be perused with amusement by every class of readers.

The jocose opening refers to “Master Brook,” the name assumed by Ford when offering Falstaff gold to seduce his own wife for him in Merry Wives of Windsor (II, ii). By implication this is one of the earliest comments on the deceptiveness of the author’s approach as well as of the trend of the events in the story. The “marvellous . . . narrative” of Captain James Riley was a best seller of the day (1817, with numerous reprints), which was probably one of Poe’s sources for aspects of Pym. A portion of the tide, when compared with the full title of Poe’s book, will show a likely borrowing of terminology: An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the Month of August, 1815, with an Account of the Sufferings of her Surviving Officers and Crew, Who Were Enslaved by the Wandering Arabs. . . . It was Riley’s “incredible” details of starvation that entered into the description of Augustus’ famished state. As for the nautically “impossible” features of Pym — the reviewer, good-naturedly, preludes the indignant comment of Burton on the same subject — sailing along with a jib attached to a mast no longer there (8). He indicates the topicality of the book, published just before the August start of the long-delayed Wilkes expedition to the South Seas. He mocks the fantastic combined name of Lloyd and Vredenburgh, the firm which sends out Captain Barnard’s whaler from Nantucket (9). He accurately identifies Robinson Crusoe as one major source for Poe’s method, language, and even episodes. He detects the real author through the specious and evasive explanatory “Preface” and final “Note” and finds traces of “great talent” in a book which Poe himself termed “silly” in his letter to Burton (10). [column 2:]

Turning now to the New York reviews, we find that the Sunday Morning News was an early Sabbath-day weekly, noted in journalistic history for its use of woodcuts. It was founded by Samuel Jencks Smith in 1834, sold in 1838 or 1839, and finally bought by Russell Jarvis of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, the owner at its demise in 1843 (11). One of its sub-editors was George G. Foster, who certainly knew Poe much better than any of his biographers indicate, since Poe thought of sharing the editorship of his dream-magazine with Foster in 1842 (12). Later Poe was the frequent target of his satire in two humor magazines of the 1840’s: the Yankee Doodle and the John Donkey (13). The notice of Pym again shows the great aid furnished by the epitomizing title, for the paragraph consists solely of the title, plus this sentence: “We cannot pretend to subscribe to the truth of all the wonders therein related but the lovers of the marvellous will have a fine treat for a summer’s day in its perusal” (14). In addition to the News and the Companion and the Messenger, the journals exploiting Poe’s material in the title were Waldie’s, the New-Yorker, and the New York Review (15). The title, in fact, is somewhat misleading about the order of events in the book and about the “Adventures and Discoveries” near if not at the Pole — comprising proof that the reviewers were often casual or indifferent in their reading (16).

The significance of the brief review in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion is greater than its content at first reveals, for this was one of the popular “namby-pamby” magazines, as Poe called the genre more than once, which catered chiefly to women in the fashion plates, music, and sentimentality (17). From its inception in 1834, Snowden’s clearly aimed to rival Godey’s — and later Grabam’s — until the termination in 1844. The full title shows the nature of its appeal: The Ladies’ Companion; A Monthly Magazine Embracing Every Department of Literature, Embellished with Original Engravings and Music Arranged for the Piano Forte, Harp and Guitar. At the time of the publication of the Pym notice, Snowden’s assistant was Mrs. Ann S. Stephens; she was later to irk Poe as one of the associate editors of Graham’s who stayed on after his departure and contributed to the deterioration of the magazine. He clearly refers to her, perhaps a bit unfairly, in a letter to William E. Burton on June 1, 1840: “Neither has anything been said of my name upon your tide page. . . . Snowden pays his editresses $2 per week each for their names solely” (Ostrom, p. 131). The fact is that the ninth volume, containing the Pym reviews, starts with a tale “Attack of the Boa Constrictor” by Mrs. Stephens and also includes her tedious serial story in six installments, “Mary Derwent, a Tale of the Early Settlers.” Snowden editorially informs us that his “associate” had received a 3200 prize for it (p. 50). The notice of Poe’s book sounds like the work of Mrs. Stephens in its gossipy tone, its flaccid style, and its inconsistently presented details (18):

Narrative of Arthur Jordon [sic] Pym. Harper and Brothers. — There seems to be some diversity of opinion as to the real authorship of this work. It should be a matter of perfect indifference to the public, who the author is; the book has been written and is published, and that, certainly, is knowledge enough. I. shows but poor taste that the writer of a book must be known before it can be appreciated. Pym’s narrative is peculiarly amusing, although it borders on the marvellous. The work comprises the details of a mutiny and atrocious butchery on board the American [page 34:] brig Grampus, on her way to the South Seas, with an account of the re-capture of the vessel by the survivors — their shipwreck and subsequent horrible sufferings from famine — their deliverance by means of a British schooner — the brief cruise of the latter vessel in the Antarctic ocean — her capture and the massacre of her crew among a group of islands, together with the increditable [sic] adventures and discoveries to which that distressing calamity gave rise. From the above synopsis it will be perceived that the work bears somewhat of a questionable character, but notwithstanding it is most interesting.

It may be worthy of mention that this review was the first of six for that issue, others being of books by Dickens, Jane Austen, Cooper, and John Stephens, the traveler. Could the writer have surmised that the author was Poe, former editor of the Messenger, who had become embroiled with Lewis Gaylord Clark and his Knickerbocker clique? There seems to be a hint of this in the opening words about the “real authorship” and in the phrase “peculiarly amusing,” which might be more appropriately attached to Poe’s acknowledged tales of the 1830’s. The carelessness displayed in the “Jordon” and the use of “increditable” for “incredible” may be a symptom merely of poor typography and proof-reading, not indifference to Poe’s merit. Again, we find the reviewer taking it on faith, from the title, that the work concerns the “marvellous” and therefore. as a true narrative has a “questionable character.” In toto, the brief notice might produce more reservation than enthusiasm in the feminine readers of the Companion. Perhaps, it appeared too lukewarm to be certain to read this paragraph in a popular monthly. Nor could he have failed to notice that the magazine did not review his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque late in 1839.

The ladies of America continued patronizing the Companion at this period, raising its list from a claimed 5,000 in 1838 (p. 50) to 22,500 in 1840 (19). In 1842, Poe was perhaps not reluctant to have his “Landscape Garden” appear in the October issue of Snowden’s journal, but it was full of “blunders” which horrified its author.20 Yet his penury drove him again to the same publishing outlet, after he had vainly offered, simultaneously, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” to Joseph Snodgrass of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for $40 and to George Roberts of the Boston Notion for $50 (Ostrom, pp. 199-203). The Ladies’ Companion, in the three installments of the printing, persisted in its typographical blundering. despite Poe’s specific admonition to editor Hamilton.21 It may be inferred that Poe was now utterly disgusted with the management of the journal. He must have agreed fully with the diatribe against it published the next month in the New World of Park Benjamin by his cousin, Charles I.anman.22 This represents only one stage in a continuing bitter verbal war between Snowden and Benjamin involving issues of puffing and the publication of Longfellow’s “Excelsior,” dating back to August 1842.23 By January 1844, Snowden was calling Poe’s friend Benjamin “this reptile, a literary Scaraboeus” (XX, 155).

Poe was certainly closely following the polemics in these and other journals. He was pleased to use gossip about Snowden’s efforts in 1844 to sell the Companion as copy for passages in his contributions or “‘letters” to The Columbus Spy of Pottsville, Pennsylvania (24). In his letter of May 27, he called the monthly the “ne plus ultra of ill-taste, impudence, and vulgar humbuggery” (p. 42). [column 2:] On June 4, he observed that nothing is “more mawkish, more silly, more unmeaning, more flat” than the title, fit only for a “milliner’s apprentice” (p. 52). In his last letter — of June 27 — he promised to give an account of the latest issue of the Companion (p. 76). Even under its new management, the magazine lasted only until October 1844, and Poe’s allusions to it apparently stopped entirely in his public and private utterances.

We can merely infer the causes of Poe’s antagonism to a magazine that did, after all, review his novel and publish two of his major tales. Undoubtedly the poor general level of the contributions and of the presentation had much to do with it; Poe was frequency bitter about having to resort to vulgar and low-priced publications, such as the Flag of Our Union and the Companion. It would be biographically interesting to trace the episodes in the entire relationship with Snowden that led to Poe’s invidious remarks ending the connection formed six years earlier by the Pym review.



(1) “Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and the Contemporary Reviewers,” Studies is American Fiction, 2 (1974), 37-56. My thanks are owed to the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the CUNY Research Foundation for time and aid needed to complete this study.

(2) For his letter to T. C. Clarke of October 20, 1850, see A. H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), pp. 296-297.

(3) Brigham, Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1942), pp. 9-11. See also his obituary notice in the New York Times, October 1, 1866, p. 2.

(4) T. O. Mabbott, Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Volume I, Poems (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969), p. 549.

(5) John W. Ostrom, The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1948; rpt. New York: Gordian Press, 1966),1, 115-116, 125. 1 am grateful to the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a facsimile copy of the March 4 issue of the Saturday Museum, the only one surviving.

(6) The letter, to be sure, was written twelve years later and in a much more serious vein. Alexander must have had assistants quite capable of writing this brief, jocose review. I am greatly obliged to Dwight Thomas, who was graciously able to supply me with these two reviews transcribed from the microfilmed two-year file of the Weekly Messenger in the Ohio Historical Society collection. I had postulated the Pym review’s presence in “Pym and the Contemporary Reviewers,” p. 43. To Mr. Thomas I am also indebted for an illuminating obituary notice of Riley in The United States Gazette (Philadelphia) of April 10, 1840.

(7) Three typographical errors in the presentation of the title should be noted: “survivors” for “survivers,” “deliverance,” and “Jane Grey” for “Jane Guy.” The review of Poe’s Tales is also carelessly printed.

(8) For a reprint of Burton’s review, see “Pym and the Contemporary Reviewers,” pp. 39-41.

(9) In Chapter 11 of Pym, Poe links the firm to the celebrated Enderby Brothers whaling-ship firm of England, locating it in Liverpool first, and inconsistently but more correctly in London, in Chapter XVI (paragraph 9) .

(10) Ostrom, Letters, I, 130. While Poe may have written this without complete candor, the Duyckinck brothers reported that Poe “did not appear in his conversation to pride himself much upon it,” The Cyclopaedia of American Literature (Philadelphia: William Ritter Co., 1877), 11, 403.

(11) There is very little information about the minor newspapers of this period in the only surveys apparently available: Louis H. Fox, “New York Newspapers, 1820-1850. A Bibliography,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 21 (1927), 102; and [page 35:] Frederic Hudson, Journalism in the United States, from 1690 to 1872 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1873), pp. 337-339.

(12) Ostrom, The Letters, I, 212. See also Foster’s intimate reference to Poe’s correction of a line in Shelley’s “Indian Serenade,” in his preface to The Poetical Works of . . . Shelley (Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co., 1852; 2nd ed. of 1845 volume), p. 12.

(13) For the latter, see Frank L. Mott, A History of American Magazines (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), I, 780-783. See also Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Major Crisis (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 101, 159, and 206, and the obituary notice of Foster in the New-York Times of April 17, 1856.

(14) News, IV, no. 13 (August 5, 1838), p. 2, col. 5. For the full title see the text of the Ladies’ Companion, given below.

(15) See “Pym and the Contemporary Reviewers,” for these and other texts of reviews.

(16) It would be worthwhile to check on further attention to Poe in later issues of the Sunday Morning News, devoted to “general news and literature,” in the unique file of the New York Public Library.

(17) See my study, “Poe as Probable Author of ‘Harper’s Ferry,’” American Literature, 40 (1968), 164-178, especially p. 174.

(18) Ladies’ Companion, 9 (September 1838), 250.

(19) See Mott, American Magazines, I, 352, and 626-628. He notes that many of the subscribers were delinquent in payments, hence the need to sell the journal, mentioned below.

(20) Ladies’ Companion, 17 (October 1842), 324-327. See Poe’s letter of October 3, 1842, to Robert Hamilton, then editor of the Companion, in its sole printing in A Descriptive Catalogue of . . . Poe Manuscripts, ed. J. J. Moldenhauer (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1973), p. 55.

(21) For the collations of the three parts, of November and December 1842 and February 1843, with Poe’s reprint in the Broadway Journal, see James A. Harrison, The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), V, 313316. Not all the items, of course, are errors, as in several proper names.

(22) See Mott, I, 626.

(23) For the complicated affair, see Merle M. Hoover, Park Benjamin (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1948), pp. 130-132.

(24) For these articles, reprinted with comments by Thomas O. Mabbott, see Doings of Gotham (Portsville, Penn.: Jacob E. Spannuth, collector and publisher, 1929). Page numbers in the text refer to this volume.


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