Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Letter 04,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. 47-57 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 47:]


New York,

June 4, 1844.

The foot-race, yesterday, at the Beacon Course, attracted a wonderful share of the public attention. — Eleven thousand persons are said to have been present, and several of our morning papers issued Extras, to satisfy the general curiosity, at a late hour in the afternoon. You have already heard that Stannard was the winner, and that he did not accomplish the ten miles within the hour; being one hour, four minutes, and thirty seconds, on the road. He walked the last two or three hundred yards, however; his sole antagonist (towards the end of the race) having fallen, shortly after completing his ninth mile. There can be no doubt that Stannard could have run the ten miles within the time stipulated (as he did, easily, in 1835), and thus have secured five hundred, in place of three hundred dollars. He was, no doubt, influenced, in holding back, by the hope of a future bet. I myself did not see the contest; feeling little interest in feats of merely physical strength, or agility, when performed by rational beings. The speed of a horse is sublime — that of a man absurd. I always find myself fancying how very readily he could be beaten by an ass. In the same way, when Herr Kline curvets upon a rope, I say to myself “how any ordinary baboon would turn up its nose at his antics!” Touching the actual feat now in question — ten miles within the hour — I have not only accomplished it myself, but firmly believe that there are at least one thousand men, in our western districts, who could perform, with proper training, twelve, with all ease. The true reason why “ten [page 48:] miles within the hour” is considered a marvel, is to be found in the fact (not generally understood) that the most active men — those in the highest physical condition — are seldom to be met with among “the lower classes” of society — among those who alone ever contend, in public, for the honors of the athletae.

One of the truest curiosities of Gotham is the great raree-show of Messieurs Tiffany, Young, and Ellis, Broadway, at the corner of Warren. They are very tasteful and industrious importers of the various fancy manufactures of France, England, Germany, and China. Their warehouses are, beyond doubt, the most richly filled of any in America; forming one immense knicknackatory of virtu. The perfumery department is especially rare. I notice, also, particularly, a beautiful assortment of Swiss osier-work; chess-men — some sets costing five hundred dollars; paintings on rice-paper, in books and sheets; tile for fencing ornamental grounds; fine old bronzes and curiosities from the ancient temples; fillogram articles, in great variety; a vast display of bizarre fans; ranging, in price, from sixpence to seventy-five dollars; solid carved ebony and “landscape-marble” chairs, tables, sofas, &c.; apparatus for stamping initials on paper; Berlin iron and “artistique” candle-sticks, taper-stands, perfume-burners, et cetera, et cetera.

There is little political excitement; or else it lies “too deep for tears” — too profound for ordinary observation. “Polk Houses,” “Polk Oyster Cellars,” and “Polk hats, gloves, and walking- canes,” are already contending with their rivals of Clay. One poor hotel- keeper had half-painted the sign of a “Wright Restaurant”; but the next mail convinced [page 49:] him that Wright was wrong, and so he plastered it over with “Dallas.”

Mr. Harper has failed, I am truly happy to say, in an attempt to stop the running of the Harlaem rail-road cars upon Sunday. There are loud complaints, on the part of the “original Natives,” that the new authorities have made nearly all the appointments from the ranks of the Whigs. There can be no doubt that patriotism (well paid) is a capital thing.

I learn that the “twelve quarto volumes,” embracing a full account of the Exploring Expedition, are very shortly to be given to the public. Never before was so great an outcry in the case of so little wool; never before was so great a tumult for so little accomplished. Let Mr. Wilkes say what he will, the Expedition was a failure. This is the gentleman who picked up, on an iceberg at sea, a few morsels of rock, and brought them home (wrapped in Cotton) as specimens of an Antarctic Continent — after the fashion of the skolastikos in Hierocles. By the examination of these specimens, a committee, appointed by Mr. W., will determine the soil, climate, extent, geological condition, population, governmental policy, religion, and literature of the nevi, country, which is to be entitled “Wilkesland,” after its illustrious discoverer. Why does not some enterprising maker of wooden nutmegs get on board a flat-boat, with a hand or two, and explore this Continent, of which so much has been sillily said, and about which so little has been satisfactorily done? The great error lies in the vastness of the expeditions — altogether disproportioned to the end in view. Celerity is the main point in explorations of [page 50:] high latitudes; and celerity never yet attended the movements of squadrons, especially when encumbered with “men of science.” Let some Yankee open the way (as, assuredly, some Yankee yet will), and let men of science follow his footsteps, and geologize at their leisure. It is a great pity, and a “burning shame,” that the control of this important enterprise was not given to its originator, Reynolds. He is, in every respect, as thoroughly qualified as Commander Wilkes is not. A more disgraceful — a more unprincipled — a more outrageous system of chicanery, never was put in operation, before the open eyes of an intelligent community, than that by means of which Mr. Wilkes was made to occupy the position, and usurp the undeniable rights of Mr. Reynolds.

I have been making vain endeavors to ascertain the dimensions (by which I mean the astronomical powers) of the Frauenhofer telescope, lately arrived. The papers, with the “Army and Navy Chronicle,” give the merely physical length and breadth, with the length and breadth of the boxes in which it came. Do you see anything more definite? What has become of the telescope, an account of which Mr. Paine furnished, some years ago, to the “Worcester Palladium”? The tube, of Russia iron, was said to be four feet in diameter, and forty-eight feet long — the concave mirror at the power-end forty-six inches in diameter — the lenses six inches and a quarter. Mr. P. stated that “owing to the form and combination of the lenses,” his instrument would have “a magnifying power of eleven thousand.” By “magnifying” power, I presume he meant space-penetrating — but it has been hitherto supposed that, for good optical reasons, the space-penetrating [page 51:] power of a telescope must be limited to about one thousand, eight hundred. By and by, however, all telescopes must be thrown into the shade by the prodigious instrument of Lord Russell, the speculum of which is to be six feet in diameter — or is — for I believe the telescope is now completed. If the difficulties attending the diffusion of light are overcome (difficulties hitherto considered insurmountable) Lord Russell may see, in the moon, any buildings as large as the Capitol. It is, perhaps, a fantastic, but it is, nevertheless, a perfectly philosophical idea, that, by the aid of his telescope, he might see as far, and as well, as would an imaginary giant, the ball of whose eye should be precisely six feet in diameter, or eighteen feet round. The space-penetrating power is exactly proportioned to the area of the lens. Ceteris paribus, persons with large eyes see better and farther than persons with small ones.

The uproar which is made about Seatsfield — “the great Seatsfield” — is merely one other laughable, or disgusting instance of our subserviency to foreign opinion. His sketches are undoubtedly clever; but there are now, in America, some dozen of my own personal acquaintances who daily put forth, unnoticed, as good compositions, if not, indeed, far better. Seatsfield might have written and printed here, ad infinitum, without getting his head above the mob of authors, even were his works what the toadies of everything foreign tell us they are, but what they positively are not. A German critic, however, of no very great merit or eminence, in a big book of no very particular importance, informs us that we have a great author among us without knowing it. That is enough. The man is immortal; — he is “the great [page 52:] Seatsfield,” henceforth and forever. Now only imagine some of our third or fourth-rate dabblers in criticism, gravely informing the Dutch, for example, that their epic poet, Cats, is a fine genius. They — even they — would not be so besotted as to believe Americans better judges of Dutch than the Dutchmen themselves. They would reply, possibly, that Americans know nothing at all about Cats, nor cats about poetry.

I mentioned, in my last, that the “Lady's Companion” had been sold by Snowden to a club of young literati. This, I find, is not precisely the fact nor am I, socially speaking, quite at liberty to say what is. The “Companion,” however, had better be dropped at once. Why, the very name of the thing is sufficient to damn it. Could any title possibly have been invented, more mawkish, more silly, more unmeaning, more flat? Who but a milliner's apprentice would even let into the house such a thing as a “Lady's Companion”?

The “Magazine for the Million” has been merged in the “Rover.”



We observe, in one or two of our exchange papers, some comments expressive of surprise at an opinion broached in one of the letters of our New York correspondent, touching the accuracy, or rather the inaccuracy of the details, in the celebrated “Moon-Hoax” of Locke. We are aware that the general idea is in favor of the accuracy of the narrative — its philosophical accuracy, we mean. The success of the hoax is usually attributed to its correctness, and the consequent difficulty of detecting a flaw. But we rather think it attributable to the circumstance of [page 53:] this hoax being first in the field, or nearly so. It took the people by surprise, and there was no good reason (apart from internal evidence) for disbelief. It was therefore believed, although abounding in gross errors, which should have caused it to be discredited at once; while, on the other hand, the “Balloon-Story,” which had no error, and which related nothing that might not really have happened, was discredited on account of the frequent previous deceptions, of similar character, perpetrated by the “Sun.”

The “Moon-Hoax,” we say, was full of philosophical blunders; and these were pointed out distinctly by Mr. Poe, in the Southern Literary Messenger, at the time of the jeu d’esprit's appearance. In the first place, Mr. Locke gives his lens a space-penetrating power of 42,000, and speaks of seeing, with it, small flowers, such as the Papaver Rheas, the eyes of birds, and other minute objects. Now if we wish to ascertain how near, apparently, a lens will bring any distant object, we have but to divide the distance by the magnifying power. The moon's distance is, in round numbers, 240,000 miles. Dividing this by 42,000, we get 5 miles and five-sevenths, as the/ apparent distance. But, at this distance, not even the largest animals could be seen at all.

Again; in speaking of a hairy veil, over the eyes of a species of bison, Mr. L. says : — It occurred to the acute mind of Dr. Herschell that this was a providential contrivance to protect the eyes of the animal from the great extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are subjected. But, unfortunately, these inhabitants have no darkness at all; in the sun's absence, they [page 54:] have a light from the earth, equal to that of thirteen full moons.

Again; the points of the compass are in inextricable confusion — the hoaxer seeming to be ignorant that, on a lunar map, the east is to the left, etc., etc.

Again; Mr. L. speaks of seas and lakes in the moon; but it is positively demonstrated that no such bodies of water exist there. In examining the boundary between light and darkness, in a crescent or gibbous moon, where this boundary crosses any of the dark places (formerly supposed to be water) the line of division is found to be rough and jagged; but were these dark places water, or liquid the line would be, evidently, even.

Again; the description of the wings of the man-bats is a literal copy from “Peter Wilkins.”

Again; the hoaxer says: — “What a prodigious influence must our thirteen-times larger globe have exercised upon the satellite, when an embryo in the womb of time!” Now here, the earth, in the sense intended, is not only thirteen, but forty-nine times larger than the moon.

And once again (for we have not space to pursue these innumerable errors); Mr. Locke describes particularly the whole appearance of man-bats and other living objects supposed to be seen. He speaks of seeing their entire bodies; but is it not clearly demonstrable that he could only have perceived the diameter of their heads? They would have appeared, to the observer, as flies upon a ceiling, heels up and head down; but no mention of this fact is made at all; although it would have been the first phenomenon which (from its oddness) would [page 55:] have arrested the attention of a real spectator. The fact is, that, however rich the fancy displayed in this ingenious fiction, it was sadly deficient in the execution of its details — in vraisemblance, and analogical truth. That the public were misled by it, even for an instant, merely proves the prevalent ignorance of Astronomy.


This letter appeared first in the Columbia Spy for June 8, 1844. The manuscript seems to have survived, though in badly damaged condition, and the letter was reprinted from it in the New York Times, January 14, 1912. In the Spy the account of Locke's errors in the Moon Hoax is published separately — it had been marked “Editorial” in the manuscript. This confirms the truth of Bowen's statement that Poe would contribute a weekly Correspondence “besides other matters.” We have here printed the notice of Locke along with the letter — Poe's speaking of himself in the third person will be understood as the result of the officially editorial character of that part of the letter. Incidentally, according to the Times, the letter contained a third brief note which Bowen did not publish — in pencil Poe wrote: —

“My Dear Mr. Bowen:

I would take it as a very great favor if you could mail me an X by return mail if possible.

Yours truly,


A race with special issues of the newspapers to report its result has a strangely modern air, but Poe's reaction is very stoical. His boasts of his own prowess are not empty — he made a celebrated swim in the James River, and it was in a leaping contest at Fordham with Colton, editor of the American Whig Review, that he spoiled his shoes and so, unwittingly, forced the embarrassed editor to accept Ulalume.

Tiffany's still does business, now at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street, one of the most famous stores in the world.

The phrase “too deep for tears” is of course from Wordsworth, a poet whose theory of poetry Poe inveighed against, but whom he quoted rather more often than is generally supposed. [page 56:]

Among the ephemeral titles of honor bestowed upon styles and places whenever a new celebrity arises, it is curious that a few survive in memory — the Polk bonnet is one. The bad pun “rivals of (Henry) Clay” should not be overlooked, for the poet was an incorrigible punster. Poe's experiences during the Tyler regime, when he vainly sought a government job, confirmed his dislike of politics in general and republican governments in particular. His references to them are, I think, without exception cynical thereafter. Harper has already been referred to in the notes to Letter I.

In the controversy between Reynolds who planned the South Polar expedition and Wilkes who finally commanded it, Poe early took the side of Reynolds, and lost no opportunity to express his opinion.

The story of the “skolastikos” relates that a certain pedant, having a house to sell, brought a brick as a sample — this is the ninth of the Asteia or Jests of the Greek Hierocles, all of whose jokes seem to be about skolastikoi. Though Poe tells only this one story, and in a manner that suggests he knew nothing of the others, he tells his Greek jest often enough to make it a kind of earmark of his authorship. He must have particularly enjoyed quoting it to Professor Anthon in a letter he addressed him in June, 1844, but he had used it in a review of Lord Brougham in Graham's, March, 1842.

Poe was intensely interested in astronomy, from the time he wrote Al Aaraaf in 1829 to 1848 when Eureka appeared, and this collection of information about telescopes is a very minor instance.

Seatsfield was a German author who wrote of the American scene after living in this country. The papers in 1844 were full of him — and he was accused of plagiarism widely. As he was after all merely a popularizer these accusations were probably well founded but absurd. There is a short note about the German author in the Spy of July 31, which may be by Poe, and will be found among the papers attributed to him in our volume.

Poe had already in a review of Park's Pantology, in Graham's for March, 1842, made fun of the “capital Dutch epics” of Jacob Cats (1577-1660) whose name is a barrier to his reputation among punsters. Of Dutch literature, who but the Dutch can speak?

The Rover was a weekly (“weakly” is right, Poe would have said) paper run by Seba Smith. Smith was the author of a series of humorous letters signed Major Jack Downing [page 57:] at which Poe laughed less heartily than at Powhatan, an Indian poem, from the same pen. Seba was also the husband of Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, whom Poe liked. My friend, Dr. Mary A. Wyman, has written a book on this literary couple.

“The Editorial” on Locke's famous Moon Hoax of 1835 is made up of material for the most part used in Poe's terminal note to his tale of Hans Phaal, and in his paper Richard Adams Locke in the Literati.





[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 04)