Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Poe’s ‘Diddling’: More on the Dating and the Aim,” Poe Studies, June 1976, Vol. IX, No. 1, 9:11-13


[page 11, column 1, continued:]

Poe’s “Diddling”: More on the
Dating and the Aim

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

How reassuring and useful it would be to assign, precisely and finally, eleven tales of Poe to the eleven “authors” of “The Folio Club.” The development of Poe’s mastery of the form, his growing sense of burlesque and literary parody, his personal tastes in literature and his relationships with contemporary figures, various aspects of his private life and attitudes about social questions — all would be greatly illuminated. Understandably, Alexander Hammond has applied himself to this unsolved and, I believe, unsolvable problem in two recent studies in Poe Studies (1). Since both seriously question my own ideas about one of the “problem” tales, a few words attempting to support my position may fairly be in order. The tale is “Raising the Wind; or, Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences,” published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier of October 14, 1843, but assigned by Mr. Hammond and, earlier, by Claude Richard, to “Mr. Snap,” the “President” of “The Folio Club” (2). Both wish to show “a close relationship between the tale and [John] Neal’s literary career” (“Reconstruction’ p. 26). I must contest this relationship as well as explain my basic thesis, that the writing of the [column 2:] story preceded the publication by only months rather than ten years.

In the postscript footnote to my previous study of the tale (3), I listed five reasons for rejecting Mr. Richard’s interpretation of John Neal as the “diddler” in this allegedly early tale which are still valid, I believe, but the new material on the dating in the second of Mr. Hammond’s articles, partly addressed to my text, requires a brief discussion. His first article, unlike Mr. Richard’s, granted the view — Killis Campbell’s and mine — that the source of the title was Kenney’s 1803 farce, Railing the Wind, which, as he mentions, was frequently produced before 1833. “Of its eight Baltimore stagings between 1829 and 1833, there are at least four that he could have attended with ample time afterwards to compose Mr. Snap’s tale” (“Reconstruction,” p. 26). Indeed, if we follow the chronicles of the drama in New York and Philadelphia, we shall find numerous performances of that play in both cities while Poe was living there. For example, Odell’s Annual of the New York Stage for 1837-1838 shows several opportunities for Poe to see it and become aware of it while he lived in that city (4). In Mr. Hammond’s second article my “faulty” judgment in assigning the composition to 1843 is underscored through the recently published letter, dated August 26, 1843, concerning an “article” sent to Ezra Holden and inferred to be “Diddling” (5). It is indeed possible that Poe was referring to this unnamed tale as “being longer &, I think, better” than “The Black Cat” which he had recently sold,(6) although few of today’s readers would favor his choice. In my study I hedged a bit on the matter of dating the tale exactly in saying, about the September 1843 first performance of the farce that season in Philadelphia, “This probably led to his quickly penning the narrative essay,” and I called it “perhaps the theatrical occasion which led to his writing the story” (pp. 107- 108). Surely the billboard and newspaper announcements preceding the production could have suggested, weeks or months beforehand, the title and Jeremy Diddler the main character (as well as the content) to Poe, probably familiar with this well-known farce; the August 26 dare of the letter may merely indicate that the tale was written a bit earlier that year. Mr. Hammond’s pushing backwards the writing to 1832 works equally well for all the years up to the latter half of 1843. I must add, in passing, that Mr. Hammond’s statement, “Several of the Folio Club tales were retained ‘for years’ before appearing in print” (“Notes,” p. 38), compares a ten or eleven-year period with a maximum of four. Even “Siope” was sent out for publication in 1835, according to Poe’s letter of September 11, 1835,(7) and Poe’s need, as a fledgling author, for a publishing outlet is adequate reason for this and other delays. This Mr. Hammond well states for other tales (8).

The basic issue, however, is why John Neal is held to be the target of satire. As I read the tale, the text excludes the possibility. Here is the first paragraph in the Saturday Courier printing (9):

Since the world began there have been two Jeremys. The one wrote a Jeremiad about usury, and was called Jeremy Bentham. He has been much admired by Mr. John Neal, and was a great man in a small way. The other gave name to the most important of the Exact Sciences, and was entitled Jeremy Diddler. He was a great man in a great way — I may say, indeed, in the very greatest of ways. [page 12:]

In the 1845 Broadway Journal printing of this paragraph Poe dropped the words “was entitled Jeremy Diddler. He”; this, I fear, misled Mr. Richard, who cites but ignores the original text, since he interprets “the other” as John Neal. All the same, it makes little sense to name the subject of your satire in one sentence and then speak about “the other” in the next sentence as the one about whom you are writing. The “exact science” demonstrated “greatly” by Poe’s character is “diddling” and the phrase can have no logical reference to the height of John Neal — a “great man in a great way “ — as Mr. Richard asserts (p. 98) . As for the earlier references to Neal, we must remember that he was by no means obscure nor was his relationship with Bentham unknown. Poe did not find any merit in Jeremy Bentham, but he was under no compulsion to detest the American who had associated with him and praised him.

The main question is why Poe should satirize John Neal at all, either early or mid-stream in his career. By choosing a few phrases from the “Autography” alone, Mr. Richard tries to show Poe as hostile to and contemptuous of Neal, who was in reality one of Poe’s most constant and loyal friends. Here is his letter to Neal of June 4, 1840:

As you gave me the first jog in my literary career, you are in a measure bound to protect me & keep me rolling. I therefore now ask you to aid me with your influence, in whatever manner your experience shall suggest.

It strikes me that I never write you except to ask a favor, but my friend Thomas will assure you that I bear you always in mind — holding you in the highest respect and esteem. (Ostrom, 1, 137)

Does this sound as though he had written or would write Neal into his cruel portrait of a trickster, using mean devices to steal from women and children as well as tradesmen? A good discussion of the amicable relations and similarity of thought of Poe and Neal was recently published in this journal (10). Consulting my own Poe reference aid, I find nineteen passages referring to Neal, many of them fairly lengthy (11). How few of them deprecate Neal, probably the man about whom Poe printed more words of kindness and pleasantness than about any other American writer! Even more to this point are his statements after 1840, during the years 1842-1843, when he was supposed to have resurrected a so-called canard against Neal for publication in a Philadlephia weekly that would quickly reach Neal’s eyes. Surely Neal never so interpreted this story, if we may judge from the phrases of glowing encomium that he published in 1850, defending Poe against Griswold’s attacks in his edition of the works. Here are samples from that article, unfortunately never reprinted in its entirety (12):

I believe Edgar A. Poe to have been greatly misunderstood, and greatly misrepresented, for many years before he vanished from our midst. . . . I hold that he was a creature of wonderful power; concentrated, keen, finished and brilliant. . . . of a just and generous temper. . . . a very honest fellow, and very sincere. . . . the unearthly brightness that broke forth, in flashes, every time he lifted the wings of his boyhood, like a seraph. . . .

Neal does speak of Poe’s bitterness toward the end of his life, but certainly exempts him from such a charge as a young writer. There are no grounds for believing in any [column 2:] rooted antipathy that would have led Poe first to direct a satire against Neal and secondly to publish it ten years later, especially when he needed every bit of good favor and influence that he could gather.

There are other reasons for doubting the early writing of the tale, and these are tacitly or openly admitted by both Mr. Richard and Mr. Hammond. If it were written before the beginning of 1832 (Richard, p. 98), why does it contain a reference to “Dick Turpin” of Ainsworth’s 1834 novel Rookwood, which Poe certainly knew and mentioned in 1841, although denying that he had read it when it came out? What a strange insertion into an abandoned and overlooked tale is this sentence: “Dick Turpin would have made a good diddler” (Harrison, V, 212)! A second set of “revisions” is assumed perforce by Mt. Richard; Poe’s motto to the first printing, “Hey, diddle diddle, / The cat and the fiddle,” is said to be “From an Epic by ‘Flaccus.’”’3 Later Poe compares a diddler to a banker, “as Homer to Flaccus.” “Flaccus” was Thomas Ward, whose volume of poems Poe thoroughly “used up” or censured in Graham’s Magazine of March 1843 (Harrison, XI, 160174). The “epic” in question was presumably “The Great Descender” (that is, Sam Patch of Niagara Falls fame) in Ward’s volume Passaic, a Group of Poems touching that river. . . . Poe’s elaboration of the themes and “niaiseries” of the book demonstrates and preludes his “Diddling” view, that the book is a “diddle” or fraud perpetrated upon the readers. It is most difficult to accept Mr. Richard’s claim that Ward “exploited the same themes as Neal” — hence Poe’s 1843 additions to the text.

Mr. Hammond too grants that Poe continued to alter his tale, although not offering it for publication, for he supposes that a Latin phrase was lifted from the 1839 installment of an essay by De Quincey (“Reconstruction,” p. 27) . He also speaks of Poe’s “mature references to Boston as the Frogpond” in the “Hogs, Frogs, Bogs and Co.” passage. It is true that only after 1840 did Poe thus castigate Boston and its Transcendental writers.’4 We should note that all references to the Frogpond begin with that of February 1840 in “Peter Pendulum” or “The Business Man,” in many ways a companion piece to “Diddling.” Incidentally, John Neal was not a Bostonian and could never be allied with the Transcendentalists. The important point is that both commentators conceive that Poe persisted in revising his unpublished sketch or, at least, finally revised it before submitting it to the Saturday Courier in 1843.

I must therefore “spell out” the fifth point made in my previous discussion of the tale: “The failure of the poverty-stricken Poe ever to retain for years or months a publishable piece.” Poe joined Graham’s Magazine for the production of the April 1841 issue (see Quinn, p. 310). While there is some doubt about the financial arrangements that he made with Graham, we know that he was to contribute one tale a month (Quinn, p. 312), in addition to writing the reviews and reading the last proofs. Hard indeed was Poe pressed to maintain this schedule during his full year of editorship. “The salary, moreover, did not pay me for the labour which I was forced to bestow,” he wrote on May 25, 1842 (Ostrom, I, 197). Later Graham himself, commenting on Poe’s “purchasing some rather expensive luxuries for his house,” remarks, “He was nervous to the degree of misery until he had, by extra articles, covered [page 13:] what he considered an imprudent indebtedness” (15). Quinn aptly notes “his desperate need for money” when he offered “Marie Roget” to two different magazines on June 4, 1842 (p. 386). Finally, note Quinn’s apposite remark: “It must have been dire want which made him appear to dun his friend [Lowell] in September” of 1843 (p. 386). All of this adds up to a tale of woe and want during that year when Poe, without a regular salary, made that unfortunate journey to Washington in search of a government post and watched the progress of Virginia’s consumptio4 which could be alleviated by purchased comforts. Can we believe that Poe would leave a publishable piece in his bureau drawers until the happy thought struck him, late in 1843, of sending it to one of the many publishing outlets that he well knew? Moreover, in 1842, Poe was preparing a new edition of his tales, the “Phantasy-Pieces,” including the twenty-five tales in Tales of the Grotesque and Arahesque ( 1839) and eleven others published subsequently in magazines. There is no need to discuss why he wrote in and then crossed out, in the Table of Contents, the titles of two which appeared late in 1842; the question is why did he not include “Raising the Wind” if it were in existence at the time?’6

There is a last consideration which it would be tedious and fruitless to elaborate here: the many differences in form and style setting this off from his Folio Club tales. The sentences of “Diddling” are clipped, laconic, wry in flavor and tone, and aphoristic. An even more distinct difference is that the narrative element is almost totally missing; Poe says, “I shall content myself with a compendious account . . .” (Harrison, V, 213) and, toward the end, “There would be none [that is, no end] to this essay, were I even to hint at half the variations, or inflections, of which this science is susceptible. I must bring this paper, perforce, to a conclusion . . .” (Harrison, V, 220-221). Poe’s advice is relevant to my paper too, since my major points have been stated and, in part, restated. If any data appear more positive than those already brought forth for redating this tale or for accommodating it to the scheme of the Folio Club, I shall be happy to withdraw these objections. There is still no reason to deny the mid-career composition and non-Neal target or aim of “Raising the Wind.”



(1) “A Reconstruction of Poe’s 1833 Tales of the Folio Club,” 5 (1972), 25-32, and “Further Notes on Poe’s Folio Club Tales,” 8 (1975), 38-42; hereafter these will be designated as “Reconstruction” and “Notes” in the text.

(2) “Poe and the Yankee Hero: An Interpretation of ‘Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences,’” Mississippi Quarterly, 21 (1968), 93-103. For the “Club” and its members, see The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1902), II, xxxviii. Future references to Poe’s works will be designated “Harrison.”

(3) “Poe’s ‘Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences’: The Sources of Title and Tale,” Southern Literary Journal, 2 (1969), 106-111.

(4) Annals (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1928), IV, 213, [column 2:] 244, and 247, gives three sets of performances which Poe could have seen or read about in 1837-1838; in addition, there are dozens of others attesting to the perennial popularity of Kenney’s farce.

(5) See John W. Ostrom, “Fourth Supplement to The Letters of Poe,” American Literature, 45 (1974), 513-536, specifically 521522.

(6) There are, incidentally, peculiarities about that letter, recently purchased by the University of Texas at Austin, that make me wonder about its authenticity. Why does Poe misspell (as “Patterson”) the name of Charles J. Peterson, his associate on Graham’s Magazine and a well-known figure in journalism who is said to have given him money for “The Black Car” some weeks ago”? Why is Peterson linked to the Post, which he left in 1842? Why does he open his letter to Ezra Holden with “My Dr Holden,” which looks at first glance like “Dr. Holden.” Although Poe often abbreviated “dear” he never wrote it with a false capitalization and an abbreviation (the spurious letter to John Kirk Townsend, of March 9, 1843, has a similarly strange opening: “Dr. Sir.”). Why is this letter fortuitously hand-delivered (like the letter that I exposed in “A Spurious Poe Letter to A. N. Howard,” Poe Studies, 6 [1973], 27-28)? Why is there no confirmation of the “three-week trip to Richmond”? Why does Poe misjudge and misstate so abominably the worth of this story? Why does Poe put the day of the week into the letter — an instance not found in another 1843 letter and in almost none of those in the first of the two volumes of his letters? In telephone conversation and by mail Mr. Ostrom has shared my wonder over the trip to Richmond, the spelling of Peterson’s name, the error about his being on the Post when it bought “The Black Cat,” and the wording of the postscript, which does not have the tone or ring of Poe.

(7) John W. Ostrom, The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948), 1, 73-74. Future references to this text will be designated “Ostrom.”

(8) For example, “Notes,” 38, 40.

(9) Unfortunately, Harrison did not know of the 1843 printing and used the altered version from the Broadway Journal of 1845. It was included by John Grier Varner in Edgar Allan Poe and The Philadelphia Saturday Courier ( Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia, 1933), pp. 67-85.

(10) Benjamin Lease, “John Neal and Edgar Allan Poe,” Poe Studies, 7 (1974), 38-41.

(11) Pollin, Dictionary of Names and Titles in Poe’s Collected Works (New York: Da Capo Press, 1968), p. 67.

(12) While sometimes considered a long, three-column review of Griswold’s edition of Poe’s works, this article by John Neal in the Portland Daily Advertiser, 20, No. 99 (April 26, 1850) [2l, was really conceived as a defense and obituary notice, as shown by the short, two-paragraph preliminary article, printed under “Edgar A. Poe” (by “J. N.”) on March 19, 1850. The long article, with Neal’s personal reminiscences and a letter from Poe, will appear, I trust, in the forthcoming “critical heritage” volume being prepared for Poe by Ian Walker of Manchester University. We are both greatly indebted for these two articles to John E. Reilly and the American Antiquarian Society. Fragments of the April 26 article appear in George Woodberry, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909), 11, 451-452, and in Arthur H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), pp. 667-668.

(13) Richard, pp. 104-105; Varner, p. 67.

(14) See my study on “The Psyche Zenobia,” in Papers on Poe, ed. Richard P. Veler (Springfield, Ohio: Chantry Music Press, 1972), pp. 93, 102, n. 4, for the widespread carelessness prevailing about the date when Margaret Fuller as a Transcendentalist entered Poe’s texts.

(15) Quinn, p. 343, here quotes Graham’s article in Graham’s Magazine of March 1850.

(16) For a reproduction of the Table of Contents and discussion see Quinn, pp. 337-340.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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