April 16, 1846

Edgar Allan Poe Details His Literary Life and Says “The Raven” and “The Valdemar Case” Are His Best Things

Autograph Letter Signed
2 pages
SMC 458

Once, long, long ago, when there were only 26 states in the U.S., and 17 million people living there: newspaper circulation was estimated to be, annually, 148 million copies. Which meant that it was statistically possible, for every man, woman and child across 1,749,462 square miles, to subscribe to - say, in 1840 -  eight papers. This figure does not include magazines, either; of which an innumerable quantity were produced weekly and monthly. In an era, then, without of course telephones, or radio, television, motion pictures, or (barely) photographs, reading was essentially, the media. It was also, being plethoric, cheap. Which is how the inventor of the both the detective story and science fiction, came to write this letter about the business of writing for periodical literature - a pretty grisly affair, he declares, inasmuch as  they "pay by mere whim - apparent popularity -or their own opinion of merit. Real merit," he adds  acidly, "is rather no recommendation." To that end Poe lists recent pieces of his own,  to whom they were sent,  how much he was paid, and speculates by name how other "American litterateurs" fared in the marketplace.  Almost lost in this recital of, essentially, woe, is the mention of his masterpiece, The Raven - "my latest & I think my best things - 'The Raven' (for instance), 'The Valdemar Case' ['The Facts in the Caseof M. Valdemar'] etc.." Here Poe, sick, financially-stressed, and beginning that slide which would end with his pathetic death three years later, writes to  his fellow author and poet, Phillip Pendleton Cooke, about the ins-and-out of writing in America:


I fully agree with you (and a little to boot) about Minor [either Lucian Minor, the writer and one time editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, or Benjamin Blake Minor, the current editor of the same]. He is the King of Donkey-dom. Your "Power of the Bards" is glorious. I have sent it to Colton [George Hooker Colton, who had in 1845 just founded the American Review], who will be delighted with it - I mean Colton of the "American Review." Not being yet able to leave my room I sent, also, your "Turkey-Hunter" to Porter [William T. Porter, editor of the newspaper Spirit of the Times], with a note, speaking of you as I have always spoken. I enclose you his reply. I retain the MSS. Tell me what I shall do with them. You ask for information about the usual pay of the Magazines. A definite answer is impossible. They graduate their pay by mere whim - apparent popularity -or their own opinion of merit. Real merit is rather no recommendation. For my last two contributions to "Graham" [George Rex Graham of Graham's Magazine] - 5 pp. of "Marginalia" and 4 pp "Philosophy of Composition" (have you seen this latter?) I received $50 - about 8 per page. I furnish Godey [Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book] regular papers (one each month) at $5 per page. The $5 Magazines do not pay quite so well and are by no means so prompt. Colton gives me $3 per page and the Dem. Review $2 - but I seldom send anything to the latter. "Arthur's Magazine" gave me, not long ago, $10 a page for a paper "The Sphynx" - but the pay is no pay for the degradation. What others get from the Magazines I can scarcely say - although I know that Willis [author and poet Nathaniel Parker Willis] and Longfellow [poet Henry Wadsworth Longefllow]have been liberally paid - liberally as times go & as publishers think. When your book comes out, I fancy that it will make a stir in England - and enable you to do well in letters - pecuniarily well. You will yet have Fame & get it easily. Money follows at its heels, as a matter of course. Griswold [Rufus Wilmot Griswold, editor at Graham's Magazine] is quite right about the externals of your book. Never commit yourself as a pamphleteer. - I am now writing for Godey a series of articles called "The N. Y. City Literati". They will run through the year & include personal descriptions, as well as frank opinions of literary merit. Pending the issue of this series, I am getting ready similar papers to include American litterateurs generally - and, by the beginning of December, I hope to put to press (here and in England) a volume embracing all the articles under the common head "The Living Literati of the U S."- or something similar. Of course I wish to say something of yourself. What shall I quote? "Rosalie Lee" I have not. Would it put you to much trouble to copy it for me? Give me, also, (if you think it right) some account of your literary projects - purposes etc. - The volume is to be prefaced by some general remarks on our Literature and pre-prefaced by the Memoir of myself, by Lowell, which appeared in Graham's Mag. for February 1845. This Memoir, however, is defective, inasmuch as it says nothing of my latest & I think my best things - "The Raven" (for instance), "The Valdemar Case" ["The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"], etc. May I ask of you the great favor to add a P.S. to Lowell's [James Russell Lowell, writer and editor] article - bringing up affairs as you well know how. I ask this of you - what I would ask of no other man - because I fancy that you appreciate me - estimate my merits & demerits at a just value. If you are willing to oblige me - speak frankly above all - speak of my faults, too, as forcibly as you can. The length of the P.S. I leave to yourself.


P.S. I cannot lay my hand on Porter's note. The substance of it, however, was - that he had read the article with great pleasure but as the "present publisher of the Spirit of the T" could not pay,he was forced reluctantly to return the M.S.


Poe, although having become a household name with the publication of "The Raven" the year before, yet could barely scrape out a living. In this he was not unlike another great writer of that golden era which literary critic F.O. Matthiessen famously labeled the "American Renaissance." Herman Melville, too, had to fight for every penny or, as evidenced in a famous letter to his English publisher describing “a  romance of adventure” based on a couple years of his whaling experiences, every pound. That letter, dated June 27, 1850, - also in the Shapell Manuscript Collection -  is eerily similar in that here too, the announcement of a major literary landmark, Moby Dick, is presented, like Poe's "The Raven", as a mean fight for money. The truth of the matter is that publishers paid very little, and the great mid-19th century flowering of American literature, sprang from a soil liberal only in the ordure of wretched parsimony.


A happy coincidence, perhaps - in light of the Shapell Manuscript Collection's emphasis on Abraham Lincoln - is that Lincoln enjoyed reading Poe. His favorites of Poe's works were, oddly, the two mentioned here:  "The Raven and 'The Facts in the Caseof M. Valdemar'

Autograph Letter Signed (“Edgar A. Poe”), 2 pages, quarto, New York, April 16 ’42 [1846]. To Phillip Pendleton Cooke.

Used with the permission of Shapell legacy partnership.

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