Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Letter 03,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. 39-45 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 39:]

LETTER III

New York,

May 27, 1844.

The city is brimful of all kinds of legitimate liveliness — the life of money-making, and the life of pleasure; — but political excitement seems, for the moment, to pause — I presume by way of getting breath, and new vigor, for the approaching Presidential contest; while all apprehension of danger from the mob-disorder which so lately beset Philadelphia, is fairly at an end. A crisis, however, was very nearly at hand, and was averted principally, I think, by the firmness and prudence of the new authorities.

You may remember the futile attempt made a short time since, in the city of Brotherly Love, to close the Rum Palaces, and Rum Hovels, on the Sabbath. The point has been carried here by Mr. Harper — at least so far as a point of this character can be carried at all. As to the direct benefits accruing to the community at large, by the closing of these hot-houses of iniquity on Sunday — or at a1 times, indeed — as to this, I say, no one can entertain a doubt. But it appears to me that municipal, or any other regulations for the purpose, are in palpable violation of the Constitution. To declare a thing immoral, and therefore inexpedient, at all times, is one thing — to declare it immoral on Sunday, and therefore to forbid it on that particular day, is quite another. Why not equally forbid it on Saturday, which is the Sabbath of the Jew? In particularizing Sunday, we legislate for the protection and convenience of a sect; and although this sect are the majority, this fact can by no means justify the violation [page 40:] of a great principle — the perfect freedom of con-science — the entire separation of Church and State. Were every individual in America known to be in favor of any “Sunday” enactment, even Congress would have no authority to enact it, and it might be violated with impunity. Nothing short of a change in the Constitution could effect what even the whole people, in the case I have supposed, should desire.

When you visit Gotham, you should ride out the Fifth Avenue, as far as the distributing reservoir, near Forty-third Street, I believe. The prospect from the walk around the reservoir is particularly beautiful. You can see, from this elevation, the north reservoir at Yorkville; the whole city to the Battery; with a large portion of the harbor, and long reaches of the Hudson and East rivers. Perhaps even a finer view, however, is to be obtained from the summit of the white, light-house-looking shot-tower which stands on the East river, at Fifty-fifth Street, or thereabouts.

A day or two since I procured a light skiff, and with the aid of a pair of sculls (as they here term short oars, or paddles) made my way around Black-well’s Island, on a voyage of discovery and exploration. The chief interest of the adventure lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque. The houses are, without exception, frame, and antique. Nothing very modern has been attempted — a necessary result of the subdivision of the whole island into streets and town-lots. I could not look on the magnificent cliffs, and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for their inevitable doom — inevitable and swift. In twenty years, or thirty at [page 41:] farthest, we shall see here nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.

Trinity Church is making rapid strides to completion. When finished, it will be unequalled in America, for richness, elegance, and general beauty. I suppose you know that the property of this Church is some fifteen millions, but that, at present, its income is narrow (about seventy thousand dollars, I believe) on account of the long leases at which most of its estates are held. They are now, however, generally expiring.

Doctor F. L. Hawks, I see, has been chosen a Bishop in Jackson, Mississippi. He was one of the original editors of the “New York Review,” with Professors Anthon and Henry. The Doctor is a most amiable man, but by no means fit to edit a Review. His writings, like his sermons, are excessively fluent, but little more. They are never profound. He wrote, once, an attack upon Jefferson, which was responded to by Judge Beverly Tucker, of Virginia, in a style which must have been anything but soothing to the feelings of the Bishop.

The Magazines, here, are “dragging their slow lengths along.” Of the “Knickerbocker” I hear little, and see less. The “Columbian,” edited by Inman, crows most lustily; whether for good cause, or not, I really am not in condition to say. Mr. Inman, however, is undeniably a man of talent. You know he is, or was, the factotum of the Harpers — decided, generally, upon MSS offered for publication — read their proofs, now and then — wrote occasional puffs — and did other little “chores” of that nature. The “Ladies’ Companion” has been sold by Snowden to a club of young literati. Any [page 42:] change in the editorship would not have failed to benefit the prosperity of the journal — which was, in my opinion, the ne plus ultra of ill-taste, impudence, and vulgar humbuggery. Burgess, Stringer & Co. have been issuing for some time past, what they call “The Magazine for the Million.” I believe they circulate some five thousand copies of it, and with a good name upon its cover, as editor, and some little additional out-lay, I think it might be made an exceedingly profitable affair.

You may remember a Mr. William Wallace, “the Kentucky Poet,” as he was fond of having himself entitled, and who was a frequent visiter at the office of “Graham’s Magazine,” about two years ago. This is the Wallace whom O’Connell somewhat cavalierly checked, in the outset of a speech commenced by Mr. W., at a repeal meeting in Dublin, some six or seven months since. The Kentucky poet, being that odious viper, a poor man and friendless, was in exceedingly bad odor with the small literati of this country; and they lost no time in chuckling over what they styled his “insult,” and endeavored to believe his degradation. The tables, however, have been lately turned, and I am sincerely rejoiced to perceive it. O’Connell, at a recent meeting, has made Wallace the most ample apology, and speaks of him in terms of the most cordial approbation and friendship. I myself know the young poet well — and a poet he truly is. He is also richly eloquent, and when age has somewhat sobered down his enthusiasm, he will make an orator of the highest order. As a man he is everything that is noble.

The Gothamites, not yet having made sufficient fools of themselves in their fete-ing and festival-ing [page 43:] of Dickens, are already on the qui vine to receive Bulwer in a similar manner. If I mistake not, however, the author of “The Last Days of Pompeii” will not be willing “to play Punch and Judy” for the amusement of an American rabble. His character, apart from his book-reputation, is little understood in this country, where he is regarded very much in the light of a mere dandy, a roue, and a misanthrope. He has many high qualities — among which generosity and indomitable energy are conspicuous. It is much in his favor that, although born to independence, he has not suffered his talents to be buried in indolence, or pleasure. He never went to any public school; — this is not generally known. He graduated at Cambridge; but owes his education chiefly to himself. He once made the tour of England and Scotland, on foot, and of France on horseback; these things smack little of the dandy. His first publication was a poem, at three and twenty.

When I spoke of Bulwer’s probably refusing to do, what Dickens made no scruple of doing, I by no means intended a disparagement of the latter. Dickens is a man of far higher genius than Bulwer. Bulwer is thoughtful, analytic, industrials, artis-tical; and therefore will write the better book upon the whole; but Dickens, at times, rises to an unpremeditated elevation altogether beyond the flight — beyond the ability — perhaps even beyond the appreciation, of his cotemporary. Dickens, with care and education, might have written “The Last of the Barons”; but nothing short of a miracle could have galvanized Bulwer into the conception of the concluding portion of the “Curiosity Shop.”

P. [page 44:]

NOTE ON THE THIRD LETTER

This first was published in the Columbia Spy, June 1, 1844.

The “Native Americans,” foes of Roman Catholics and foreigners in general, were at this time very active, and occupied much the position that the Klu Klux Klan has held among us in reecnt years. Rioting in Philadelphia was very bad in 1844, the worst disturbances occuring during several days following the Fourth of July.

I have already quoted a brief note on Harper and his Sunday activities in my notes to Letter I. Poe’s discussion of Sabbatarianism in general shows his calmly logical attitude toward religious questions.

Most of what Poe describes of New York has faded away — but Trinity Church still stands amid the skyscrapers, and still holds rich estates. Blackwell’s Island has exchanged its historic name for the colorless Welfare Island.

Poe was himself a contributor to the New York Review in 1837, and has given brief sketches of Anthon and Henry in his papers on Autography. Hawkes’s controversy with Tucker I have not happened to see. The latter was associated with the Southern Literary Messenger for many years, and wrote a novel prophesying the Civil War.

Poe begins his account of the magazines with a familiar quotation from Pope’s Essay on Criticism. His relations with the Knickerbocker Magazine and Clarke its editor were uniformily unfriendly, as with the North American Review — he never contributed to either of them, although at one time or another he succeeded in selling something to almost every other really important magazine of the time, and many unimportant ones. The Columbian of New York printed some of the tales — it was a little more live than some others, but I should hardly call it first rate. Poe had earlier contributed The Landscape Garden and The Mystery of Marie Roget to Snowden’s — an extremely wishy-washy affair (a poor imitation of Godey’s Lady’s Book) which ended a fairly long if not glorious career about this time, when the young literati did not buy it as Poe later relates.

“The Magazine for the Million” was a small weekly affair, twenty-four pages to the issue. It began February 17, 1844, edited by Robert Athow West. T. L. Nichols, a journalist who sometimes raised a stir (and is named in Letter II) seems to have been a contributor. I give so much information [page 45:] because the periodical is very rare, only the first eleven numbers being accessible to me. Incidentally, while Poe is fond of the word “literati,” it is not a certain mark of his style, for Willis popularized it. Poe’s praise of William Wallace was excessive; his rhetorical poems would be otherwise completely forgotten, like his association with the struggle for the dissolution of the Union of England and Ireland. Of his squabble with the great repeal leader, O’Connell, no account seems to have got into the lives of that statesman accessible to me. And I have not yet happened to run across any of the newspaper accounts which Poe must have seen. The language of Poe’s letter to Bowen, however, suggests that Bowen himself would remember visitors to the Graham’s Magazine office in 1842 and that the acquaintance of Bowen and Poe was of that long standing. This is significant as perhaps explaining the origin of Poe’s friendship with the editors of the Spy.

One need hardly annotate Dickens’ visit to America. I do not find any record that Bulwer did come to America at the time and his first poem, Ismael, appeared when he was only eighteen. Poe’s comparison of the two men he reworked in Marginalia published in the Democratic Review of December, 1844 — he had already said much the same thing in Graham’s for May, 1841, and on the whole the world has inclined to agree with Poe’s decision.


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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 03)