Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Letter 01,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. 23-29 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 23:]

DOINGS OF GOTHAM

LETTER I

New York,

May 14, 1844.

It will give me much pleasure, gentlemen, to comply with your suggestions and, by dint of a weekly epistle, keep you au fait to a certain portion of the doings of Gotham. And here if, in the beginning, for “certain” you read “uncertain,” you will the more readily arrive at my design. For, in fact, I must deal chiefly in gossip — in gossip, whose empire is unlimited, whose influence is universal, whose devotees are legion; — in gossip which is the true safety-valve of society — engrossing at least seven-eights of the whole waking existence of mankind. It has been never better defined than by Basil, who calls it “talk for talk’s sake “ nor more thoroughly comprehended than by Lady Wortley Montague, who made it a profession and a purpose. Although coextensive with the world, it is well known, however, to have neither beginning, middle, nor end. Thus, of the gossiper it was not acutely said that “he commences his discourse by jumping in medias res.” Herein it was Jeremy Taylor who deceived himself. For, clearly, your gossiper begins not at all. He is begun. He is already begun. He is always begun. In the matter of end he is indeterminate, and by these things shall you know him to be of the Caesars — porphyrogenitus — born in the purple — a gossiper of the “right vein” — of the true blood — of the blue blood — of the sangre azula. As for law, he is cognizant of but one, and that negative [page 24:] — the invariable absence of all. And, for his road, were it as straight as the Appia, and as broad as “that which leadeth to destruction,” nevertheless would he be malcontent without a frequent hop-skip-and-jump over the hedges, into the tempting pastures of digression beyond. Thus, although my avowed purpose be Gotham, I shall not be expected to give up the privilege of touching, when it suits me, de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis — upon everything and something besides.

We are not yet over the bustle of the first of May. “Keep Moving” have been the watchwords for the last fortnight. The man who, in New York, should be so bold as not to peregrinate on the first, would, beyond doubt, attain immortality as “The Great Unmoved” — a title applied by Horne, the author of “Orion,” to one of his heroes, Akinetos, the type of the spirt of Apathy.

Talking of Horne — I regard his epic as the noblest of modern days. An indisputably great man. You have, perhaps, seen his “New Spirit of the Age,” lately reprinted in this country by the Harpers. Of a host of the British literati he speaks frankly and fearlessly — as a man — and as a man who “does his own thinking.” For this there will be, doubtless, an attempt at proscription. Indeed it has already commenced. I quote from a letter of the poet’s now lying before me: — “If you have seen ‘The New Spirit of the Age’ you will readily understand that a great many critics here, and some authors, are far from pleased with me. The attacks and jeers in Magazines and Newspapers (though several have treated me very fairly) are nearly all written by friends of the angry parties, or influenced [page 25:] by them. Perhaps I may say a word on this point in the second edition now preparing.”

I have been roaming far and wide over this island of Mannahatta. Some portions of its interior have a certain air of rocky sterility which may impress some imaginations as simply dreary — to me it conveys the sublime. Trees are few; but some of the shrubbery is execeedingly [[exceedingly]] picturesque. Not less so are the prevalent shanties of the Irish squatters. I have one of these tabernacles (I use the term primitively) at present in the eye of my mind. It is, perhaps, nine feet by six, with a pigsty applied externally, by way both of portico and support. The whole fabric (which is of mud) has been erected in somewhat too obvious an imitation of the Tower of Pisa. A dozen rough planks, “pitched” together, form the roof. The door is a barrel on end. There is a garden, too; and this is encircled by a ditch at one point, a large stone at another, a bramble at a third. A dog and a cat are inevitable in these habitations; and, apparently, there are no dogs and no cats more entirely happy.

On the eastern or “Sound” face of Mannahatta (why do we persist in de-euphonizing the true names?) are some of the most picturesque sites for villas to be found within the limits of Christendom. These localities, however, are neglected — unimproved. The old mansions upon them (principally wooden) are suffered to remain unrepaired, and present a melancholy spectacle of decrepitude. In fact, these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already “mapped” through them, and they are no longer suburban residences, [page 26:] but “town-lots.” In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous facades of brown-stone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.

The fountain in the Park is in so much good, as it fulfils its design. That at the Bowling-Green is an absurdity — and is it for this reason that it has been pronounced sublime? The idea, you know, — the original conception was rusticity — Nature, in short. The water was designed to fall and flow naturally, over natural rocks. And how has this design been carried into execution? By piling some hundred nearly rectangular cubes of stone, into one nearly rectangular cube. The whole has much the air of a small country jail in a hard thunder shower.

For the present, vale et valete.

P.

Editors of the “Columbia Spy.”

NOTE ON THE FIRST LETTER

This was first published in the Columbia Spy for May 18, 1844, Poe’s authorship being announced by Bowen.

Poe begins his first letter with a long piece of rigmarole about gossip which seems to be made up of a number of those “shreds and patches” of learning of which he was so diligent a collector. I have not yet located his primary or secondary sources for many of the allusions in his opening paragraph, but anyone familiar with Poe’s text will find many of the remarks familiar enough. Several reappear in different combinations in the first of the series of papers Poe called Marginalia, the publication of which he began in the Democratic Review for November, 1844, and others in the second installment in the December number of the same magazine. Some of the persons he mentions, like Mary Wortley Montague, most celebrated of eighteenth century blue-stockings, and Jeremy Taylor, whose quaint style made him a favorite author with Charles Lamb and whose Holy Living and Holy Dying poor Keats, worshipper of style to [page 27:] the last, turned to for consolation as he lay dying, need no note. Basil was a Church Father — I know not where he defines gossip. The phrase “in medics res” is from the Ars Poetica of Horace and describes the approved manner of beginning an epic poem. Poe’s comment on the title Por-phyrogenitus assumed by the Byzantine emperors seems another reflection of his reading in the fifty-third chapter of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall whence he obtained no little of his article Literary Small Talk published in the Baltimore American Museum in January, 1839. For Gibbon placed at the head of that chapter a passage from Claudian which explained the meaning of the word porphyrogenitus. In the letter before us Poe uses the term in lightly humorous fashion — with cynical implication. But on another occasion in his poem of the Haunted Palace this majestic word forms a complete line of verse and with tragic grandeur strides — a symbol of the estate of mortal man “crowned with glory and honor” — but of how brief a date.

“Round about a throne where, sitting,

Porphyrogene!

In state his glory well befitting,

The ruler of the realm was seen.”

Poe mentions the “blue blood” once or twice elsewhere. The Via Appia or Appian way led from Rome to Brundisium. “That which leadth to destruction” is mentioned in Matthew VII, xiii. The Latin phrase which Poe himself has translated is said to have originated in an offer of the Admirable Crichton to dispute on any subject whatsoever.

Poe fell into correspondence with Richard “Hengist” Home, adventurer, poet of the spasmodic school, and friend of Mrs. Browning. Through Home Poe attempted unsuccessfully to find a publisher for his tale The Spectacles in Great Britain, and in a burst of enthusiasm Poe published in Graham’s Magazine for March, 1844, an encomiastic review of Orion which he had promised as early as the January number. While Poe in praising Horne went far beyond the limits of judicious criticism, the poem is not without merit and was recently republished by Mr. Eric Partridge at the Scholartis Press. The New Spirit of the Age had very recently appeared and I believe may have suggested the plan of the Literati papers to Poe. Home’s letter which Poe quotes from, if preserved, has not been published as far as I can discover. [page 28:]

Poe uses the poetic name for the island of Manhattan favored by Irving and later by Walt Whitman (who also applied the name to his niece). Tabernacle in the primitive sense means a light portable shelter or tent.

Macaulay’s schoolboy would have no trouble in remembering that the celebrated Tower of Pisa leans. It is hard for a New Yorker to realize how charming the north part of the island must have been in the old days, save by remembering the beauty of the less frequented parts of Central Park. The two chief fountains of old New York seem to have vied with those of Versailles in their capacity for rousing the interests and affections of the citizens. The fountain in City Hall Park inspired one of N. P. Willis’ pleasing, but overly sentimental poems; from which the following lines are much to our purpose.

The Fountain played right merrily,

And the world look’d bright and gay;

And a youth went by, with a restless eye, ...

And the Fountain play’d away.

Up rose the spray like a diamond throne,

And the drops like music rang —

And of those who marvell’d how it shone,

Was a proud man, left, in his shame, alone;

And he shut his teeth with a smother’d groan —

And the Fountain sweetly sang.

And a rainbow spann’d it changefully,

Like a bright ring broke in twain; ...

And all as gay, on another day,

The morning will have shone; ...

And the bard who sings will have pass’d away —

And the Fountain will play on!

Of the fountain at Bowling Green I take the following description from the New York Herald of July 6, 1843:

“The Bowling Green Fountain was placed in a basin 90 feet in diameter, and consisted of a mass of rude stones 17 feet high, weighing 350 tons, representing the rocks of a natural waterfall with three faces. In the centre of the rocks an iron pipe one foot in diameter delivered water to a jet which threw it in a plume 70 or 80 feet high, which was received, on falling, into a basin on top of the rocks, whence it spread laterally forming cascades. There were also 32 side jets d’eau and [page 29:] 16 bat wing gas lights placed at suitable distances around the outer edge were so inclined as to reflect light on the main jet as it rose. The contract for the fountain was held by Assistant Alderman Pettigrew, who was aided in the construction by Aaron P. Price, master-mason. The fountain was exhibited in operation July 4, 1843.”

It was this magnificent monument which so impressed the mummy Count Allamistakeo that he was forced to allow nothing like it had even been seen in Egypt or elsewhere, in Poe’s tale, Some Words with a Mummy.

Perhaps “portentous facadesis a misprint for “pretentious facades,” but we have concluded not to change it.


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Notes:

None.

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[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) (Letter 01)