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Edgar Allan Poe's Literary History

by Sherwin Cody

As assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, Poe achieved great literary success. In this paper he began those spirited criticisms of the writers of the day, which attracted attention everywhere. He also published numerous stories. Poetry was almost completely abandoned for prose.

The circulation of the magazine increased by the thousands, and there could be no doubt that its success was due chiefly to Poe. At first his salary was ten dollars a week; later, it was raised to fifteen dollars, and was to have been raised to twenty, but Poe suddenly resigned his position. Precisely why he did this is not known.

Experiences similar to that with the Southern Literary Messenger were repeated many times afterward, during his literary career. Just as he was getting well settled at his work, he would have some difficulty with the proprietor, or commit some indiscretion, and then he must find some other place. In those days, when a great New York daily paper like Bryant's Evening Post could be bought for from $5,000 to $10,000, there was not much money to be made in publishing or in literature. To make money, Poe should have been a business man, and he was not so in any sense. Many another literary man, even in our own times, has had similar misfortunes, even without those faults of character and that fatality for falling out with everything and everybody which distinguished Poe.

From Richmond, Poe went with his family to New York, where Mrs. Clemm supported the household by keeping boarders. Poe himself spent the winter chiefly in writing "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," a tale of the sea, which was first published by Messrs. Harper and Brothers.

From New York he went to Philadelphia, where he wrote various magazine articles and stories, and did part of the work of preparing a school textbook on "Conchology." He soon became associate editor of The Gentleman's Magazine with its proprietor Burton. The following year, 1840, his first volume of stories was published, under the title, "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque." The volume was not a popular success. An edition of seven hundred and fifty copies was barely disposed of, and all that Poe received was twenty copies for distribution among his friends.

His connection with Burton's magazine did not last above a year. Burton had been a comic actor, and offered prizes which Poe says he never intended to pay. Poe's remarks on this transaction caused the rupture.

Poe had already been thinking about starting a periodical of his own, and now he sent out the prospectus of The Penn Magazine. To found a magazine which should be better and higher in literary art than any other in America was his lifelong ambition. He tried again and again to do this, first with The Penn Magazine, and later with a periodical to be called The Stylus. He never succeeded, however.

George R. Graham, proprietor of the Saturday Evening Post, now bought The Gentleman's Magazine, united it with a periodical of his own called The Casket, and named the new ventureGraham's Magazine. Of this Poe soon became the editor.

After Poe's death, Mr. Graham published an article in which he said that, while he was in Philadelphia, Poe seemed to think only of the happiness and welfare of his family. There were but two things for which he cared to have money—to give them comforts and to start a magazine of his own. He never spent any money on himself. Everything was intrusted to Mrs. Clemm, who managed all his household affairs. His love for his wife was a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty, which he felt was fading before his eyes. "I have seen him," says Mr. Graham, "hovering around her when she was ill, with all the fond fear and tender anxiety of a mother for her first-born—her slightest cough causing him a shudder, a heart chill, that was visible. I rode out one summer evening with them, and the remembrance of his watchful eyes, eagerly bent upon the slightest change of hue in that loved face, haunts me yet as the memory of a sad strain. It was this hourly anticipation of her loss which made him a sad and thoughtful man, and lent a mournful melody to his undying song."

At last he left Philadelphia and returned to New York, where he remained for the rest of his life. This is the childlike way he writes to his mother-in-law concerning the journey:

"My Dear Muddy,

"We have just this minute done breakfast, and I now sit down to write you about everything. * * * In the first place, we arrived safe at Walnut St. wharf. The driver wanted to make me pay a dollar, but I wouldn't. Then I had to pay a boy a levy to put the trunks in the baggage car.

"In the meantime I took Sis [Virginia] in the Depot Hotel. * * * We went in the cars to Amboy, * * * and then took the steamboat the rest of the way. Sissy coughed none at all. I left her on board the boat. * * * Then I went up Greenwich St. and soon found a boarding house. * * * I made a bargain in a few minutes and then got a hack and went for Sis. * * * When we got to the house we had to wait about half an hour before the room was ready. The house is old and looks buggy, * * * the cheapest board I ever knew, taking into consideration the central situation and the living. I wish Kate [Catterina, the cat] could see it—she would faint."

They had a little cottage at Fordham, in the country just out of New York. It was a very humble place, but the scenery about it was beautiful. Poe himself became ill, and his dear Virginia was dying of consumption. They were so poor that friends had to help them. One of these friends wrote:

"There was no clothing on the bed, which was only straw, but a snow-white counterpane and sheets. The weather was cold and the sick lady had the dreadful chills that accompany the hectic fever of consumption. She lay on the bed wrapped in her husband's great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom."

On one Saturday in January, 1847, Virginia died. Her husband, wrapped in the military cloak that had once covered her, followed the body to the tomb in the family vault of the Valentines, relatives of the family.

Book: Shattered Sighs