Text: Unknown (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Puffing,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. 103-109 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 103:]

Unsigned Articles in the “Columbia Spy” attributed to Poe


We have frequently been astonished at the extensive and extravagant manner in which many of the country newspapers lavish their praise upon any and every work emanating from the Presses of our large cities. Puffing has become a science, and “celebrated men” and “distinguished writers” are manufactured in the shortest time imaginable. It has, however, of late been carried to such excess, that there is little virtue embraced in “puffing.” No matter what may be the character of the work, they (the country papers) will, generally, unhesitatingly recommend it to the public — and many individuals, no doubt, belonging to that “Democratic circle,” have sorely regretted the influence of the Press in such matters. We propose giving an illustration, to show the extent to which this system of puffing is carried, and how grossly unjust it is to the public and to newspaper publishers themselves.

“The United States Saturday Post” is published at $2.00 per annum. It is a large paper — a very large paper — but this is all. The paper itself is uninteresting — the news-items being invariably two weeks behind country papers. Taken on a whole it is not worth its subscription: being filled weekly with original nothings, and namby-pamby love-tales, continued from one paper to another. The publishers of this journal semi-annually put forth a flaming prospectus, full of large promises and capital letters, showing the great usefulness of the paper and urging upon every one to subscribe and [page 104:] pay for it in advance! At the bottom is a polite note, to the effect: “Editors copying the above will be entitled to an exchange.” The prospectus usually occupies a column of a paper of the size of the Spy. For the same space, an advertiser would be charged $12. Now, is not this cool impudence?

The publisher of “Alexander's Express Messenger and Philadelphia Weekly Prices Current” — (the name is sufficient to make it out humbug) has had the impudence to send us a paper containing the prospectus, with the same reasonable and gentlemanly request at the bottom! “Editors copying the above will be entitled to an exchange!” Out with you!

“Neal's Saturday Gazette,” another of these catch-pennies, has lately sprung forth, like a great wakening light, and we find our country brethren endeavoring to make out the editor a Great Man, and his journal the best in the land. It is hard to oppose popular opinion; it would be useless to oppose it in the case of Mr. Neal, for he is unquestionably small potatoes, and this single fact is sufficient to gain the affections of most of the country presses! But he is the author of the Charcoal Sketches — his personal and political friends of the Philadelphia press pronounce the papers an extraordinary achievement! The Sketches are gravely reviewed and the critic detects a peculiar “under-current of humor” (which no one else can find); his “friendly eye could see no faults,” and the name of the author is placed with that of Dickens, and dubbed the “American Boz.” This was sufficient. The Sketcher is removed from his obscure position as editor of a political paper, and [page 105:] placed at the head of this grand and imposing humbug. Another series of Sketches is announced — another flourish of trumpets — and lo! the country press, with scarcely an exception, hail him in his new position, as the most successful and popular writer of the day! A- hem! Could a greater absurdity be committed?

We have sought in vain for the sharp wit, the “under-current of humor,” the moral, the finish of Mr. Neal's writings. Why, there is scarcely a contributor to “Graham” that does not excel him in every quality which should distinguish an entertaining and accomplished writer of fiction. Mr. Arthur has written more, and better, and with infinitely more benefit to the reader, than Mr. Neal may ever accomplish, if he were to attain an hundredth year.

The Gazette is on a par with the Post, and the interests of the two establishments are without doubt mutual. It is intended to attract the fancy of the reader by its mechanical arrangements, rather than by anything of intrinsic value. The “Charcoal-Sketcher” has commenced another series of papers under that sublime cognomen, and serves them up in weekly parts in the Gazette. We have seen a fragment of the new series in several of our exchanges, entitled “Peleg W. Ponder, etc.” It is a short production, but a fair sample of the “Sketches.” There is no wit, or point, or pith in the article. We observe that the author has used the precaution (and, for ourselves, we thank him for it) to secure copyrights for these articles, so that the public cannot get at them through any other channel than the Gazette itself! [page 106:]

But not satisfied with copying prospectuses, and laboring directly against their own interests, the conductors of our country papers must needs follow it up with an extravagant “puff”; and thus they deprive themselves of that support which is rightfully their own.

One-half of the milk-and-water literati of the present day obtain a name and a reputation by another species of puffing — carried out in the cities. The puffs of the city journals are in many instances paid for, or obtained through motives of friend-ship — and on other grounds — but seldom on account of ability or talent. We fear country editors are often times influenced by such notices, instead of trusting to their own judgements.

It must not be inferred from the above, that we are averse to awarding praise when deserved. On the contrary, we are ever ready and willing to notice everything deserving of a notice, whether emanating from the city or country. But we have always been opposed to the wholesale system of puffing, adopted by the majority of country editors. We trust they will hereafter discountenance this practice, and look to their own interests.


In an article under this caption, we last week pointed out: the ruinous effects of the policy pursued by certain of our country editors, of praising indiscriminately individuals connected with newspapers and periodicals in Philadelphia and other cities. We proved conclusively, we think, the evil resulting to country editors from an undue indulgence [page 107:] in the habit; that it militates against the standing of the country presses; that it lessens their influence at home and abroad; that it cripples their enterprise, and utterly unqualifies them to bear up under the heavy competition, which, through the puffing of steam presses, the puffing of their own allies, and the continual and unceasing puffing of country editors, the city press are enabled to bring down upon us! We stated, too, that it is an evil by which many of the people have suffered, and of which they have just cause to complain. As long as country editors continue to recommend such papers as we mentioned last week to their friends, in preference to their own — as long as they continue to fill up their papers with prospectuses of papers inferior to their own — as long as they allow their journals to be the instruments of these literary hum-bugs, — so long will country papers be kept in their present condition. But if they resolve at once to remove this prop, whereby all these humbugs are supported — they must fall, and the conductors of country papers will receive that patronage which rightfully belongs to them. This is the only obstacle which has cramped the enterprise of country publishers — and it is the easiest thing in the world to remove it. We are satisfied that there is as much enterprise, tact, talent and ability employed on country papers as there is on those of the cities; but as long as this evil lies in the way, it would be useless to invest any considerable amount of capital in any enterprise — and particularly in the publication of newspapers.

We are gratified that our remarks of last week have been appreciated by many of our cotemporaries, [page 108:] both in and out of the city. We are gratified — because we spoke nothing but the truth — and advocated that which of right belongs to the success of country establishments.

Our esteemed cotemporary of the United States Gazette is the only one, we believe, that has objected to our remarks, and he has done so in a very indirect manner. He, no doubt, is aware of the benefits to be derived from newspaper puffing; and we are, therefore, not surprised at the manner in which he has been pleased to view our remarks. Instead of considering the evil complained of, however, he accuses us of “venting a little spleen” upon the writings of Joseph C. Neal, Esq., author of those extremely witty, extraordinary and astonishing papers, entitled “Charcoal Sketches”; and for the purpose of disqualifying our remarks, he quotes another editorial of ours, having no bearing whatever on the question, — calls out all his scholastic learning and eruditeness, and detects, what he terms, “a queer collocation of words to express ideas as singular.” Wonderful discovery! We are gratified, however, that the reading of the second article mollified the pain which, he says, he experienced in perusing the first. Had this not been the case, we doubt not but that that pain would have lost to the community one of the most distinguished members of the corps editorial!


These articles appeared, unsigned in the Columbia Spy of November 23 and November 30, 1844. They are in Poe's manner, and since his connection with Bowen was of long standing, it is hard to believe them the work of another hand. If, as Mr. Hervey Allen believes, Poe was in Philadelphia [page 109:] at the time on a visit, he might easily have seen a reply in the United States Gazette in time to reply to it in turn — indeed that was probably feasible even for a writer in New York. Of course some one may say, this was Bowen imitating Poe — “which nobody can deny” since both parties are dead. But usually Bowen did not write a particularly Poesque style, and it would be strange if he did it only in these two articles. The chief person attacked — Joseph C. Neal, was in little favor with either Poe or Bowen. I have not yet noticed absolute repetitions of phrases in these articles from acknowleged [[acknowledged]] work of Poe. But when one considers Poe's connection with the paper, his attitude toward Neal and the periodical press of his day, the promise of “other contributions” made earlier by Bowen, one can hardly believe the papers the work of anyone save Poe. He had just written The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, a bitter satire on puffing of the monthly magazines, and his references to newspaper opinion, manufactured on demand, are widespread through the volumes of his critical writings.



Ultimately Thomas Ollive Mabbott rejected both of these short pieces on puffing, removing them from the canon of Poe's writings.

Ultimately, Mabbott strongly rejected both of these short pieces on puffing. He stated his opinion in the two drafts for an introduction for his own edition of the Doings of Gotham.


[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) (Puffing)