Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Letter 02,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. 31-37 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 31:]


New York,

May 21, 1844.

In the way of mere news there is nothing — nothing, at least, which I could reconcile it to my conscience to make matter of record.

The city is thronged with strangers, and everything wears an aspect of intense life. Business has experienced a thorough revival, and “all goes merry as a marriage bell.” Notwithstanding the Croton water, or “the Crot’n,” as the Gothamites have it, the streets are, with rare exception, insufferably dirty. The exceptions are to be found in Bond Street, Waverly Place, and some others of the upper, more retired, and more fashionable quarters. These surpass in purity the cleanest districts of Philadelphia; but, in general, there is no comparison between the two cities. I believe that New York is “scav-engered,” to use an English verb, by contract, at an annual expense of $50,000. If this is really the case, there must be either great stupidity, or ignorance, somewhere — or at all events some partisan chicanery. Contractors might pay roundly foi the privilege of cleaning the streets, receiving the sweepings for their perquisite, and find themselves great gainers by the arrangement. In any large city, a company of market gardeners would be induced to accept a contract of this character.

Mr. Harper has commenced his reign with vigor, and will, no doubt, make an efficient Mayor. Of course, there has been, and will be, the usual proscription, notwithstanding the usual promises. The anticipation, or rather the certainty of removal from office, has given rise to some high-handed, and at the [page 32:] same time ludicrous instances of the sauve qui peut principle. Entire districts, for example, are left, for weeks, in outer darkness, at night; the lamp-lighting functionaries flatly refusing to light up; preferring to appropriate the oil to their own private and personal emolument, and thus have a penny in pocket, with which to console themselves for that dismissal which is inevitable. Three-quarters of a mile on the Third Avenue, one of the most important and most thronged thoroughfares, have been thus left in darkness visible for the last fortnight or more. When the question is asked — “cannot these scoundrels be made to suffer for their high-handed peculations?” — the reply is invariably — “oh, no — to be sure not — the thing is expected, and will only be laughed at as an excellent practical joke. The comers-in to office will be in too high glee to be severe, and as for the turned-out, it is no longer any business of theirs.”

I presume you have seen, by the papers, that some person has been so good as to publish what he calls “The Life and Writings of James Gordon Bennett.” Mr. Bennett, calling the book “an infamous and atrocious libel,” charges Mr. Moses Y. Beach of the “Sun” with its perpetration, and announces his intention to sue. Mr. Beach denies the parentage, and Mr. T. L. Nichols avows it. Mr. N. was, for a year, associated with Mr. Bennett in the conduct of the “Herald,” and is a man of much talent. He declares that the brochure in question is chiefly a rifacimento of Mr. Bennett’s own articles extracted from the “Herald” itself. I have not seen the production, nor shall I see it. It is said to be very severe.

The arrival of the Brittannia at Boston, on Saturday, just as the western train was leaving the city, [page 33:] rendered nugatory the various “express” arrangements in contemplation, and thus put an end to diverse excellent quarrels in prospectu. One, especially, of ominous aspect, had been gradually gathering itself into shape, between Beach, on the one hand, and Messieurs Bennett and Greeley, in copartnership, on the other.

Talking of “expresses” — the “Balloon- Hoax” made a far more intense sensation than anything of that character since the “Moon-Story” of Locke. On the morning (Saturday) of its announcement, the whole square surrounding the “Sun” building was literally besieged, blocked up — ingress and egress being alike impossible, from a period soon after sunrise until about two o’clock P. M. In Saturday’s regular issue, it was stated that the news had been just received, and that an “Extra” was then in preparation, which would be ready at ten. It was not delivered, however, until nearly noon. In the meantime I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as the few first copies made their way into the street, they were bought up, at almost any price, from thk news-boys, who made a profitable speculation beyond doubt. I saw a half-dollar given, in one instance, for a single paper, and a shilling was a frequent price. I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy. It was excessively amusing, however, to hear the comments of those who had read the “Extra.” Of course there was great discrepancy of opinion as regards the authenticity of the story; but I observed that the more intelligent believed, while the rabble, for the most part, rejected the whole with disdain. Twenty years ago credulity was the characteristic [page 34:] trait of the mob, incredulity the distinctive feature of the philosophic; now the case is exactly conversed. The wise are disinclined to disbelief — and justly so. The only grounds, in this instance, for doubt, with those who knew anything of Natural Philosophy, were the publication of the marvel in the suspected “Sun” (the organ of the Moon-Hoax) and the great difficulty of running an Express from Charleston, in advance of the mail. As for internal evidence of falsehood, there is, positively, none — while the more generally accredited fable of Locke would not bear even momentary examination by the scientific. There is nothing put forth in the Balloon-Story which is not in full keeping with the known facts of aeronautic experience — which might not really have occurred. An expedition of the kind has been long contemplated, and this jell d’esprit will, beyond doubt give the intention a new impulse. For my own part, I shall not be in the least surprised to learn, in the course of next month, or the next, that a balloon has made the actual voyage so elaborately described by the hoaxer. The trip might be made in even less time than seventy-five hours — which give only about forty miles to the hour.

The publishing world is very busy here, just now, and it has become a truism that “everything sells.” The “Mirror” still thrives, and will, in the end, be a fortune to its very worthy proprietors. The popularity of General Morris is, perhaps, a little on the wane; but that of Mr. Willis is gradually increasing. He is well constituted for dazzling the masses — with brilliant, agreeable talents — no profundity — no genius. A more estimable man, in his private relations, never existed. [page 35:]

The Magazines for June are already out. “Graham,” I see, has a portrait of Judge Conrad, the author of “Aylmere,” which is no portrait at all — altogether too baby-ish — character-less. The biography (by a friend of yours) does no more than justice.



This first appeared in the Columbia Spy, May 25, 1844.

Poe’s second letter, despite its opening disclaimer, is really very newsy. The quotation about the marriage bell is from Byron’s Childe Harold (III, xxi) but of course even in the forties had become a mere commonplace of speech. New York was then as now extremely proud of its water supply (though it no longer comes solely from the Croton reservoir), and by frequent usage New Yorkers clipped the second syllable of the proper name that was in every mouth. The curious practicality of the poet, gazing upon the wasted fertilizer in the street, and figuring how much could be saved by proper care, is amusing enough, but Poe had an interest in everything, as the journalist of his day usually did and might have cited classical precedents in Hercules and Vespasian.

The Native Americans, who violently opposed all foreigners and especially Roman Catholics, seem to have had no higher ideals of conduct than the other political parties they/opposed. Reform, religiosity, petty injustice and graft walked hand in hand; but in New York less violence occurred than was shortly caused by these patriots in Philadelphia.

I found at the American Antiquarian Society a copy of the pamphlet called The Life and Writings of James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, New York: Sold by the principal booksellers throughout the United States, 1844. It is an octavo of 64 pages with paper covers decorated with cartoons, and the motto “Out of thine own mouth will I condemn thee, thou unjust steward.” The price was a New York shilling, twelve and a half cents, and the booklet is extremely nasty. A good many tasteless, and absurd remarks were gathered by the author from the columns of Bennett’s paper, but the comments added were far from innocent or, to my mind, justified, and one does not wonder [page 36:] the book was rigidly suppressed. Nichols was a minor journalist of some reputation as a “reformer,” and firebrand.

Of course in the days before the telegraph, and cable, news from Europe came very slowly, and the arrival of a steamer, like the Cunarder Brittania (first of that still flourishing company’s transatlantic fleet) was an event. Dispatches would be set ashore at the first port of call, and sent the quickest way to other cities. An express, by horsemen, would commonly be run from Boston to New York, and the messengers of rival papers would run a race — but when the steamer came just before a daily train started, all the news was sent most quickly that way, and journalists could not hope for any kind of a scoop.

Poe’s account of the publication of his own Balloon Hoax is extremely interesting. From my own reading in various papers I have the impression that fewer people were fooled than Poe could have wished. It is true, however, that Green, the aeronaut, and others did plan a transatlantic voyage at the time and Poe must have taken the hint as he so often did from the newspapers. The original extra, a separate single sheet, is perhaps the rarest of Poe first editions, though its claim to rank as a separate edition might be disputed as a few paragraphs not by Poe are inserted to fill up the page. The only accessible copy is at the American Antiquarian Society, but another was sold about 1910. An amusing comment on the broadside I take from the New York American, April 15, 1844: “The express which has hardly outstripped the regular mail, must also have brought along a woodcut of the balloon, as the Sun has the picture as well as the story — one as good as the other.” This woodcut was copied in the New York Sun, October 19, 1910, where it is unfortunately upside down and has been reproduced (still upside down) in Phillips’ Edgar Allan Poe, the Man.

General George P. Morris, genial author of “Woodman, Spare That Tree” and many other songs, was for many years the devoted friend and partner of Nathaniel Parker Willis. Willis needs no note; he was the epitome of the period. Poe himself tried to catch his style in these letters of the Columbia Spy — and the quaint old humorous question and answer “Who is your favorite poet. — Will is!” is eloquent of a popular taste we no longer understand. Though the long friendship of Morris and Willis (better men than writers both) be as familiar as that of Damon and Pythias; a bibliographical [page 37:] record of their partnership, with its occasional brief but not unfriendly divisions, is not a simple matter. They had long conducted the New York Mirror. In 1843 they began the New Mirror, to which Poe refers — a handsome weekly magazine. In October, 1844, they established the Evening Mirror, on which Poe was employed. Poe’s estimate here of Willis is a thumbnail sketch that sums up the man completely. He was one of the few friends with whom Poe did not quarrel.

The article on Judge Conrad is important for just one reason — the friend of Bowen’s who wrote it was Poe himself. It contains a good many phrases, and selects for special praise much the same group of poems chosen by Poe in his article on Conrad in the Autography, Graham’s, 1841. It is an example of Poe’s custom of acknowledging unsigned articles pretty plainly, when he had an opportunity.





[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 02)