Text: J. W. Ostrom, B. R. Pollin, and J. A. Savoye, “Introduction,” The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: 1824-1845 (2008), pp. xxiii-xxxiii (This material is protected by copyright)


[page xxiii, unnumbered:]


This revised edition of The Letters aims to fulfill the need for an updated, more definitively authentic text of the letters of Edgar Allan Poe. In doing so, it does not pretend to contain all of the letters Poe wrote, for some that may be extant are still unlocated, and many others are regrettably gone forever. It does incorporate those holographs that are currently known and accessible directly or photographically, and offers the best available texts of lost or inaccessible manuscripts that survive now only in printed form or in transcription.

The original collection, printed in 1948, presented the texts of 339 letters written by Poe — most as full letters, but a few as fragments of varying length. As well as offering corrected or improved texts of existing items, the supplement of the reprinted edition added 30 new letters, some printed for the first time, bringing the total to 369 letters. The present edition increases this number to 422 letters. Although it is still true that not all letters written by Poe have been made available to scholars, the number of surviving items that have never been printed appears to be very small. Of course, many of his manuscript letters have changed hands privately among individual collectors, and some are currently unlocated. Nevertheless, most of these have been previously examined, recorded, and printed. Since the original edition of 1948, and especially since the reprint in 1966, fewer and fewer Poe letters have appeared in the marketplace, particularly examples with significant content, and it is an especially rare occurrence when a wholly unknown letter surfaces. Of the letters known to have been written by Poe but which still remain untranscribed, most must be presumed lost. What light these might have thrown on our understanding of Poe may be debated; they were often little more than a fulfillment of an autograph request, minor business notes written in his capacity as editor, and perfunctory cover letters for his own contributions to miscellaneous periodicals. Surely the greatest loss is the unknown number of letters exchanged between Poe and various women of his acquaintance, as most of these letters were destroyed shortly after his death by his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm. [page xxiv:]

Comments on Formatting

Letters in this edition are numbered in sequence, with the date, the name of Poe’s correspondent, and the locations from which the letter was written and to which it was sent. For reference, the appropriate number in the Check List is also given. As much as possible, numbers originally designated by Ostrom have been retained. In a few cases, it has been necessary to move or reassign numbers for the sake of maintaining a chronological order, and these are noted for the relevant entries. Whenever a letter has been relocated, a cross reference entry has been left in the original position to direct the reader appropriately. Letters added to the edition after the initial assignment of numbers have a single alphabetic character, such as letter LTR-51a.

Texts printed herein have been taken from original autograph manuscripts, facsimiles, or photocopies; from printed versions in books, magazines, newspapers, and auction catalogs; and from reasonably accurate typescripts or handwritten transcripts. In no instance has any other source been used if the original manuscript was extant and available. In those letters printed from holograph, facsimile, or photocopy, Poe’s original pagination has been preserved, indicated by bracketed figures. All doubtful readings in photographic reproductions of original letters have been collated with accessible holographs. The paraph (a small flourish), usually used by Poe under his own signature and under the name of his correspondent, has been omitted, or merely mentioned in the description; and careted interpolations in the original manuscript have been inserted in their structural position in the sentence. When it can be read, cancelled material has been left in place, designated by suitable markings. In printing the letters, no attempt has been made to indicate the exact spacing of the heading, salutation, or indentations of paragraphs of the original. Instead, a standardized format has been adopted.

For this revised edition, all new letters have been inserted in their appropriate sequence, and many of the letters previously printed have been re-read based on newly available manuscripts, or to resolve [page xxv:] apparent or potential problems in the existing text. An example of a re-reading that greatly improves a text is letter LTR-142, where a portion of the earlier form is almost unintelligible. Following Woodberry, Ostrom gives: “A good magazine, of the true stamp, would do wonders in the way of a general revivification of letters, or the law. We must have — both if possible.” The new text, based on the manuscript, reads: “A good Magazine, of the true stamp, would do wonders in the way of a general revivification of letters — but this, or the law, we must have — both if possible.”

The emphasis of the present editors has been on producing not only an accurate but a readable text. Hyphenation of words across lines and pages has been eliminated; while hyphens intended to affix prefixes or suffixes, or to form compound words, have been retained. Ostrom’s use of daggers to mark text that was from differing sources has been replaced with a description in the source notes. Poe’s punctuation and spelling, often following traditional English forms (such as “colour,” “connexion,” and “defence”), or of the period (such as “Shakspeare”), have been retained; and errors which seem to be from the manuscript have been allowed to stand, marked with “[sic]” to differentiate them from typographical errors. Poe, however, has been granted the benefit of the doubt on questionable matters, such as minor spelling issues, the use of periods versus commas, and the placement of apostrophes and quotation marks, especially when transcripts are used. Mrs. Shew, for example, while faithful to her friendship with Poe long after his death, was notoriously inaccurate in her own spelling. Regrettably, there is often no choice other than to rely on her transcripts for several of Poe’s letters, but there seems no editorial reason to attribute her failings to Poe. These errors have generally been corrected in the letter text, with a comment in the source note, as warranted.

Poe’s letters often contain marks or notations that are difficult to reproduce in printed form. Where Poe has underlined text, it is given as italics, except where such underlining is merely a formality. The interpretation of such marks is often problematic and has bedeviled editors straining to record faithfully what Poe wrote. Concerning [page xxvi:] Poe’s use of superscripts, for example, it appears to have been his habit to put a mark under a superscript, either a short line or a dot. This mark is neither a period nor for italics, but merely to indicate a shortened form of the word. This broadly practiced convention is one found in numerous letters of other writers of the period, and more strictly used in the bill from Bransby’s Manor House School, where Poe was a student, 1818-1819. (The bill is reproduced by Stanard in Edgar Allan Poe Letters Till Now Unpublished, p. 319.) Although less frequently indulged in during his final years, Poe continued to follow this habit, often implicitly reserved for more formal letters or important correspondents. The thirty-one of Poe’s letters, covering May 1826-April 1833, all with clear facsimiles in Stanard’s edition, afford a convenient record of the extent to which Ostrom’s text differs in this regard from Poe’s early manuscripts. Unavailable, and perhaps unwarranted, is the time necessary to continue this procedure for all the far-flung and hundreds of Poe letter manuscripts, but some of the less frequent traces in later letters are indicated.

Each letter is followed by two types of explanatory comment: first, textual and editorial (marked “Notes”); second, bibliographical (marked “Source”). In the editorial notes, comments generally follow the sequence of topics as presented in the text of the letter. For the first item between Poe and a correspondent, biographical information on the correspondent, when known, is given. Cross references to other letters and to the Check List have been used liberally to direct the reader to related information with a minimum of repetition. When relevant, discussions about the use of certain words, spellings, or other linguistic matters are grouped at the end of the note. Poe’s use, or misuse, of such phrases as “I remain upon my oars” and “lay on my oars” (letters LTR-82 and LTR-109a), “Richard ... is himself again” (letter LTR-182), and “land o’ the leal” (letter LTR-142) — and of foreign words — often justifies special explanation. Similarly, every effort has been made to trace literary references, allusions, and quotations (sometimes liberally adapted for his own purposes). Some attention has also been paid to Poe’s word coinages, more fully dealt with in B. R. Pollin’s Poe, Creator of Words (see the bibliography). [page xxvii:]

In each bibliographical note appears the source used for printing the text for that item: holograph, facsimile, photocopy, transcript, or notation in an auction catalog. The number of pages of manuscript is given when known. If necessary, an explanation for the dating of a letter is provided, especially in the event of a corrected, speculative, or approximate date. Matters pertaining to an extant envelope or cover, and comment on the addressee, are given where advisable. Also detailed are irregularities of a known manuscript or of the text used, including any collations made, as well as arguments for and against questionable letters. Finally, an indication is given for the letter or letters that Poe is answering, with reference to their place on the Check List (except where integral to the substance of the letter and therefore given in the editorial note). In previous editions of The Letters, the bibliographical notes were collected at the end of all the letters, but in so doing, much interesting material failed to catch the eyes of readers who did not know where to look for it. (In the present edition, some of this material has been moved to Appendix A.)

Mail Service in Early Nineteenth-Century America

The United States Post Office was officially established by the Continental Congress in 1775, with Benjamin Franklin serving as the first Postmaster General. Much of the service it provided, however, was very different from how it operates today. Until 1847, there were no postage stamps. Instead, letters were simply cancelled with a circular postmark showing that the appropriate charge had been paid, as well as the month, day, and city of origin. Although postage stamps were available during the last two years of his life, Poe is not known to have used them. As late as 1855, letters could be sent postage due, making the receiver responsible for payment. Stamped envelopes did not appear until 1852. Prior to that date, a letter was generally written on one or more sheets of paper, then folded and sealed with wax. The address was written on the blank back of the outside of this packet. For all but a handful of customers, letters were sent from a post office and had to be picked up from the receiving post office. For this reason, a [page xxviii:] letter simply addressed to “Mr. Edgar A. Poe” and sent to the appropriate local office, might reach its destination even without a street address. If, however, someone lived so far away from the post office that it was inconvenient to get there, a letter might sit for days or weeks, especially if its arrival was not anticipated. (In this regard, see the note to LTR-332.) Mailboxes did not appear until 1858.

Obviously, there were substantial limitations to the service, and a number of competitors emerged to fill the demand. One of these was Harnden’s, more fully Harnden’s Express, founded by William Frederick Harnden (1812-1845) in 1839. Harnden’s was chiefly created as a delivery service for parcels between eastern cities (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Albany), and it prospered until it was absorbed by the Adams Express Company in 1854. In addition to being less expensive than the US Postal system, it was apparently more secure for valuable or bulky mail, and its frequently faster delivery was to a specific address, not to the general post office of the locality where the recipient had to call for it. The Post Office Museum of New York City reports that government mail delivery to residences or offices began in 1863, in part to avoid the public display of women’s shock and grief upon receiving news of the war-related deaths of their cherished relatives. Poe preferred Harnden’s when entrusting the delivery of manuscripts — see letters LTR-151, LTR-176a, LTR-225, LTR-236, LTR-237. Two letters from Lowell to Poe show that at least one other writer shared this tendency (see Check List entries CL-461a and CL-489). Poe also relied on the service for financial transactions across state lines — see the promissory notes to L. A. Godey (PN-6, PN-7, and PN-8). In letter LTR-193, Poe takes advantage of a delivery network between book publishers and dealers.

Poe’s Signature

There are almost a dozen variations of Poe’s signature, sometimes betraying differences in his feelings about the correspondent, his expected response, his sense of the letter’s importance, or other [page xxix:] motives not always apparent. His customary signature is “Edgar A. Poe,” often with a paraph (but without an actual period for the initial). He uses his last name alone twenty-three times, “E. A. Poe” thirty-five times, and simply his initials eleven times, with nothing more than his last initial being used only once. He uses “Edgar” thirteen times, “Edgar Allan Poe” ten, “Eddy” eight, and “Eddie” only once. He never signs himself “Edgar Poe.” (Mrs. Clemm, in particular, made a practice of cutting Poe’s signature from the letters in her possession and giving them to friends, sometimes in exchange for financial aid. Several others have been clipped by autograph collectors. In the case of letters known only through transcripts or quoted excerpts, the signature is not always noted. If these signatures could be collated, it would almost certainly be necessary to adjust the tallies just given.)

Of particular interest is Poe’s occasional use of his full name, an issue worthy of special comment and analysis. Poe first used all three names in letters LTR-37, LTR-38, and LTR-39, all written after Poe’s last known correspondence with his foster father, John Allan, with the latter two following Allan’s death in 1834. The next letter we have with that signature is LTR-147, his first to James Russell Lowell. In letter LTR-184, Poe invokes it again, presumably as a demonstration of importance and indignation in his outraged, though misguided, response to the charges of William Duane, Jr. Only five more letters are so signed: LTR-292, LTR-292a, LTR-299, LTR-300, and LTR-322. In Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, Kenneth Silverman specifically remarks about the first notes written by Poe after Allan’s death, characterizing them as “brooding on the forbidden name” (p. 126). His total of three, however, including an unspecified one (presumably letter LTR-37), should have been ten, as just listed. (Probably about 1843, Poe also printed his full name on the handwritten title page of his Phantasy Pieces, an intended revised edition of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Incidentally, in writing her 1846 acrostic valentine to her husband, Virginia also uses his full name.) These additional examples, beginning before Allan’s death and spread over a period of sixteen years, suggest a different and perhaps a more conscious rationale for this signature variation. [page xxx:]

Financial Value of Poe Letters

With original Poe letters for sale becoming scarcer each year, the question is often asked, “What is a Poe letter worth?” In many instances, the asked price cannot be taken as the actual selling price, but records of sales through the years give a representative picture. In 1896 one letter brought only $20; in 1929 it sold for $1,200. A Poe to P. P. Cooke letter sold in 1901 for $210; the same letter in 1929 brought a reported $19,500, at that time a record price for an American literary letter. In 1931 two letters were purchased privately by the same collector for $4,400 and $5,500 respectively. In the early 1930s two very short letters, significant primarily because they carried Poe’s full signature, sold together for about $200. In 1949 a Paris dealer offered them to a private collector for $10,000, which was refused. Eight years later a New York dealer went to Paris, bought them, and subsequently advertised them in the New York Times for $5,000. They were ultimately sold to the same collector who had turned down the Paris offer. About 1966, a Poe to Washington Irving letter brought a reported price of £2000 in England. More recently, two letters from Poe to A. M. Ide, Jr. were sold at auction for $36,000 and $38,000.

On the basis of a representative selection of letters sold at prominent auction galleries (excluding a few single, high-priced items), an average price before 1900 seems to have been about $50; between 1900-1930, about $250; between 1930-1940, about $400; between 1940-1950, about $600; between 1950-1970, with fewer letters available, nearly $2,500. Since 1980, original Poe manuscripts have appeared on the market with far less frequency, fetching prices of more than $20,000 even for fairly modest examples, and a few particularly nice letters reaching $50,000.

Other than the famous letters of Poe to Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, purchased with other memorabilia in the early 1930s for $50,000, probably the most important recorded series is composed of Poe’s letters to Mrs. Annie L. Richmond. Of the eleven (possibly twelve) extant, only three (possibly four) are known to exist in manuscript; the [page xxxi:] remaining manuscripts are probably lost. Perhaps the most prized item in the whole Poe correspondence would be the original of Poe’s letter to his wife Virginia, June 12, 1846 (LTR-232), which exists only in printed form. The original has never come to light since Ingram used it for his biography of Poe nearly a century ago (if, indeed, he actually had anything more than a transcript). In addition to one sentence directed to Virginia before they were married (included in letter LTR-48, addressed to Mrs. Clemm), Poe is said to have written her many notes, but none are extant either in manuscript or in print.

Poe’s First and Last Letters

Children of all times seem to have considered the writing of letters to be an undesirable chore, even children who might eventually seek fame in the field of literature. The cost of paper, pens, and ink, along with the general inconvenience of mailing letters in the first part of the nineteenth century must have made such letters very rare indeed. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the earliest letters we have by Poe are two from 1824, when he was fifteen. These letters (LTR-1 and LTR-2) were written for a formal purpose, and we are fortunate that they were preserved among official papers in the Library of Virginia. We do, however, have one earlier record of a contribution by Poe to a letter. Writing on September 21, 1815, to his business partner Charles Ellis, John Allan includes the charming note: “Edgar says Pa say something for me, say I was not afraid coming across the sea” (MS at Library of Congress, Ellis-Allan papers, see The Poe Log, p. 26). Within a few years, Poe would certainly have been able to write his own letters, and in a correspondence of August 14, 1817, John Allan comments to George Dubourg, “Enclosed is a letter for Edgar, who, if he writes at all, must direct to his Mama, as I do not think she will return with me, as finding her health much improved, she wishes to give the waters a trial of greater duration” (The Poe Log, p. 34). As suggested by this instruction, there may well have been other letters written by Poe from school to Mr. and Mrs. Allan, but we have no certain record of these and regrettably none appear to have survived. [page xxxii:]

Poe’s last letters all date from the period of his fateful trip to Richmond in 1849. He is not known to have written any letters after leaving Richmond, about September 26, further darkening the cloud over his final days. When the first edition of The Letters was printed in 1948, Poe’s last known letter was the one of September 18, 1849 to Mrs. Sarah A. Lewis (LTR-333). By the time of the edition of 1966, one other item of the same date had come to light, his only known letter to Mrs. Marguerite St. Leon Loud (LTR-334). Although these are the last surviving letters, three others appear to have been written and sent, including letters of uncertain dates to Mrs. Clemm and Mrs. Shelton (see Check List entries CL-827c, CL-827d, and CL-827f). So, what was probably Poe’s last letter? Susan Archer Talley reports (in her article on “The Last Days of Edgar A. Poe,” Scribner’s Magazine, March 1878, 15:714) a note of September 26, 1849 (Check List entry CL-827d), just before he left Richmond. Sadly, that letter, supposedly sent to Miss Talley via Poe’s sister, Rosalie, was destroyed during the Civil War along with a requested copy of “For Annie.”

Importance of Poe’s Letters

It has been said that one does not grow very close to Poe through a reading of his letters. Disappointment will surely be the result if there is an expectation that Poe had left an extensive set of documents that would solve all the riddles we find when trying to understand this elusive man who has captured our imaginations. Many of his letters, to be sure, are quite pedestrian, and few are literary gems. Individually, the letters often show Poe creating a kind of fiction for his correspondent, posing for his audience and misleading to serve his own purposes. When read carefully, however, and in the context of what we know about his life from other sources, these letters do provide valuable insights, and sometimes we see a startling glimpse of Poe with his mask lowered. Taken as a whole, the letters speak of love and hate, hope and despair, successes and struggles, friendships nurtured and lost, grand dreams and repeated frustrations. As we read, a series of leitmotifs emerges, including Poe’s troubles trying to make [page xxxiii:] a living through his chosen profession, his desperate pleas for money and favors, the search for a sanctuary in the face of unyielding difficulties, his yearning to leave a mark on the literary world, his emotional dependence on various women, and especially the influence of Virginia Clemm Poe’s lingering illness and ultimate death. We may become more knowledgeable about Poe through biographies and critical works, but, in the final analysis, it is the melancholy diapason of the letters that haunts us.

* * *

Note: In general, the present editors have looked on Ostrom as a third collaborator, and every effort has been made to respect both the overall structure and the spirit of his earlier editions. The introduction to this revised edition, for example, adapts and reuses material from Ostrom’s “Preface” to the 1948 edition and his “Foreword” to the 1966 edition. In retaining Ostrom’s original chapter titles, one point perhaps warrants clarification for readers who are unfamiliar with German. “Weissnichtwo,” used in the title of Chapter III, literally means “I do not know where to go,” in this case indicating Poe’s dilemma following the loss of his position at the Southern Literary Messenger.






[S:0 - CLT08, 2008] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (Ostrom, Pollin and Savoye) (Introduction)