Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott, “Introduction,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. xv-xx (This material is protected by copyright)


[page xv:]


Poe was primarily a poet. His greatest popularity came for his work as a writer of short stories. But his means of livelihood was always journalism. Like most of the members of his profession, he was exceedingly versatile — and like the best journalists he gave the best that was in him to whatever task was at hand.

Those of us who examine Poe’s career may sometimes regret the way part of his time was spent. Great as were his talents for the positions of editor and book-reviewer, his temperament was not such as to fit him for the steady, even work of the executive, and his temper made his work as a book-reviewer unduly kind or savage, except when he dealt with the works of people he did not know, or whose doctrines did not offend him. I do not mean that his reviews, carefully read, fail to convey a true enough impression; but that they are unfair to the eyes of a casual reader, few thoughtful persons will deny.

Even while Poe was alive someone suggested that the country could make no better investment than a small annual pension to that poet. But since that was not to be expected in America — and since, even in our own day, the man of letters must look to teaching or to newspaper work for the necessities of life, one often wishes that a more suitable activity had been found for the poet than that of magazinist. Somehow one cannot imagine him teaching. But one may well think what a feature-writer he would have been for a live newspaper. Well, feature-writing was hardly a developed art — and the man [page xvi:] who perfected the technique of the short story could hardly be expected to develop another art to its culmination. But for a few weeks at least Poe did have his fling at the kind of “feature” most popular in his day — the news letter of travel.

For his own fame — and for the prominence of the articles collected in this volume — it is perhaps unfortunate that Poe wrote for an almost forgotten newspaper in the town of Columbia, Pennsylvania — the Columbia Spy. The paper was not then obscure — it occupied a position perhaps comparable to that of the Springfield Republican in our day; though journalistic conditions have so changed in eighty years that any comparison must be a bad one. But the circumstances of the publication did lead to the loss of the letters in the years that followed, and except for one letter, most of this material is entirely new even to special students. Yet the very fact of the publication in Columbia made it possible for Poe to choose an entertaining subject — New York.

At last we are able to see his work as a collector of news and gossip — to see him at work as a predecessor of the “colyumist” — and to read the news of the town where he lived and wandered, somewhat censoriously observant, while he meditated The Raven! Here are his freshest impressions of what was then, as now, perhaps the most interesting city in America. Through whose eyes would we rather see New York? Irving has shown us the little sleepy town of the early century — Whitman, the metropolis just before and after the Civil War — Poe gives us a sketch of it in a period of growth between these two. [page xvii:] Poe of course did not set out in any systematic way to write a guidebook, a novel, or a series of poems describing the city. His purpose was simply to present a few vivid sketches of the chief sights of the town — interspersed with bits of gossip. These last were mostly literary, but occasionally dealt with some news event, such as a murder. His tone is largely, I think, intended to be like that of the most popular light journalist of the day, N. P. Willis. The title Poe chose is one that might have won the sympathetic approval of the author of Pencillings by the Way, and the writer of a column headed Slipshodities had certainly surpassed it in grotesquerie. But Poe probably believed that he wrote for an audience less sophisticated than that of Willis, and also for an audience from whom he had little personal favor to hope or malice to fear. And he wrote with a freedom unusual even for him, of the foibles and absurdities which met- his eye. The tone is not infrequently satirical — and the flavor is at times so bitter that it recalls what Poe once wrote F. W. Thomas — that living alone made him “like a wolf, savage.” This savage tone the antiquarian may lament, and the student of the increased crudity of the second half of the century find surprising. But the artistic and civic taste of our ancestors of 1844 was not good, even if it was to grow worse; and most readers will find more to laugh at in these sketches than in most of the more deliberately planned and less successfully humorous portion of Poe’s tales. The occasional references to Poe himself in the third person will surprise nobody who knows his way, his anonymous articles were often (like Lord Byron’s conversation) about himself. If [page xviii:] this was not modest, we should not complain, since the world agrees that the topic is an interesting one. So much for the introduction — a page or two may well be given to authentication. The fact is, MSS in Poe’s familiar hand, of at least three of the letters to the Columbia Spy, have reached us, and hence his connection with the paper has long been known.

These letters were evidently portions of a series, and all that remained was to locate a file of the paper. This I had long sought to do. So had Mr. Spannuth. So had other people. But early in 1927 I wrote Mr. Spannuth asking what success he had had, and upon his replying “none at all,” I wrote again, expressing more hopefulness of success than perhaps I really felt, and the result was, he made one more trial. The result of that trial was success — the discovery of a complete file of the Columbia Spy for the period it was edited by Bowen and Gossler, to whom Poe had addressed the MS letters known!

To explain Poe’s connection with the paper the most useful thing is probably to print in full all the editorial references made to him in the columns of the Spy, in the order of their publication — the dates of publication being given in every case. It may be added that Poe, always frugal in literary affairs, extracted enough good sentences and ideas from his Spy papers for insertion in the Marginalia of his later years to authenticate almost every paper attributed to him, were further authentication needed.

In preparing the text we have followed the spelling and punctuation of the original newspapers, but obvious misprints are corrected, since it seems rather the duty of an editor to present his author’s text as [page xix:] the author intended it to be, than to reproduce nonsense, which can only be understood after several readings, even though any intelligent person could guess, after a little thought, what was meant.

In the case of work attributed to Poe, all the evidence at present before us, for and against his authorship, is candidly, and as far as is humanly possible, impartially presented. Of the sixteen articles seven are signed by Poe with his initial and fully acknowledged by the editor of the Columbia Spy, another is preserved in Poe’s handwriting, another is acknowledged by Poe’s own slightly veiled reference to his authorship. Three more articles are attributed to him by Bowen, one directly, two by implication. Two unsigned articles are presented on strong internal evidence, a poem on internal and external evidence stronger than that usually presented in such cases, but admittedly not conclusive; and one brief paragraph is “g-iVen because it may be Poe’s, though nobody can be sure of it. Of all these articles only one has been hitherto completely accessible in book form.

The annotation is selective, but I hope sufficient. For instance, the outstanding verbal parallels in other writings of Poe have been noticed, but I do not claim completeness in this respect. And while I have endeavored to annotate most of the passages which I think of interest to the special student of Poe, or difficult to understand, yet I have not verified every statement of Poe’s, nor illuminated every minor name mentioned by him. My chief excuse is that to do this requires keeping a text by one for several years, with ready access to the files of early [page xx:] newspapers, and constant proximity to very large libraries, and during the year since the material was discovered I have had only occasional opportunities to visit large libraries. But perhaps I should be tedious could I answer here all the questions I admit exist in my own mind.

The form of annotation — a single long descriptive note for each article, is frankly experimental — an expansion of the method used by my friend Mrs. Mary Newton Stannard, in her excellent edition of the Letters of Poe in the Valentine Museum. References to Poe’s critical and miscellaneous writings usually have been made to include the date and magazine where an article first appeared. In this way, the reader can find the article if it has already been collected in Harrison’s Virginia edition of Poe. And the references will also serve as a guide to the fuller projected Columbia University Press edition of Poe, where I hope to arrange the non-imaginative prose by place and date of publication.

In preparing any scholarly work one places himself under a debt to many other scholars, librarians and friends. Principally, however, one wishes to thank those who have gone to special trouble to help one with particular work — in this case I would thank Mr. C. S. Brigham of the American Antiquarian Society, for help in locating newspapers; Mr. Edmund L. Pearson for references to certain historic crimes. Dr. Nelson F. Adkins discussed most of my notes with me; Mrs. Maurine [[Maureen]] Cobb Mabbott discussed them all and copied them out. Mr. George E. Spannuth (the son of my co-editor) deserves special thanks for his careful preparation [page xx:] of the typescript of the Poe texts from the Columbia Spy. The articles from the Public Ledger are printed from photostatic copies of the original papers in the New York Public Library; the article from Graham’s Magazine, June, 1844, from the pages of Mr. J. E. Spannuth’s own copy of that issue.


August 26, 1929.



In addition to the material collected in this book, see this list for a more comprehensive bibliography of Poe’s contributions to the Spy.


[S:0 - SPM29, 1929] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (J. Spannuth and T. O. Mabbott) (Introduction)