Text: Various, “Marginalia,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1969, Vol. II, No. 3, 2:55-56


[page 25, column 2:]


This column is devoted to brief notes, comments, queries. We wish to provide here an outlet for such items as source notes which do not require the extended argument and proof that customarily attends them, and for items of very special or peculiar interest which otherwise might not appear. Contributions to this column should be one paragraph in form, not to exceed in length a page and a half of typescript, with all bibliographical citations enclosed in brackets. 

The Hidden Jew in Poe’s “Autography”

Poe conceals a “cryptographic” riddle in his early comic article “Autography,” first printed in The Southern Literary Messenger in February, 1836. To my knowledge it has gone undetected to date. The solution to the riddle suggests that the writer to SLM’s editorial offices, the signature collector, Joseph Miller (author of “Joe Miller’s Jests” and possessor of a name with a [page 56:] variable middle initial that progresses letter by letter through the alphabet — Joseph A. Miller, Joseph B. Miller, Joseph C. Miller, and so on), is a Jew. When Poe establishes the comic frame for his signature collection through a dialogue with Miller, the latter corrects the supposition that he is British:

“You are in error,” interrupted he — interrupted Joseph I. Miller — “we are British, but not particularly British. You should know that the Miller family are indigenous every where, and have little connection with either time or place. This is a riddle which you may be able to read hereafter. At present let it pass, and listen to me. . . . .” [Works, ed. J. A. Harrison, XV, 140 ]

The universality of the answer to the riddle is suggested in this passage. The clues are found in the body of the article which prints, in order, twenty-four fictitious replies to Joseph A. through Joseph Z. Miller, omitting the initials “J” and “U” from the alphabetical sequence [XV, 152, 160]. This phonetic spelling of Jew explains the implications of the quoted paragraph; and the name Joseph, connected with one tradition of the Wandering Jew, likewise reinforces the Jewishness Poe suggests by Miller’s lack of nationality and fixity. The burlesque intent is further reinforced by the same omissions of “J.U.” in the introduction [140, 143]. Poe takes comic advantage of making Joe Miller a Jew within the body of the text: in Letter II, Lydia Sigourney comments on a pamphlet by Miller that it abounds in “purely Christian opinions” [XV, 145]; using Jewish dietary prohibitions against pork as he did four years earlier in his satire on historical novels “A Tale of Jerusalem” (1832), Poe has Miller authoring a “Treatise on Pigs” on which Washington Irving declines to comment in Letter XI [XV, 153]; in another variation on this motif in the August supplement Miller remarks of one writer’s [Mordecai Noah, Letter XXXV] penmanship that the letters always end with “a little twirl, like the tail of a pig” [XV, 172]; and in Letter XXX Miller has William Gilmore Simms comment that Miller is “in error about the family connection.” This last reference is also contained in the August sequel, which adds fourteen new autograph letters but, for the third time, omits “J.U.” in Miller’s alphabetical middle initials [XV, 169, 172]. The humor that results is of questionable taste, and Poe conceals the fact of the omitted letters in the introduction to his 1841 revision of the article in the introduction to “A Chapter on Autography” [XV, 176].

Alexander Hammond, University of California, Los Angeles  

Poe’s “Turkish Fig-Pedler”

The mottoes which precede Poe’s tales offer subtle insight into the stories themselves. The heading of his “How to Write a Blackwood Article” has especially intrigued me, it reads “In the name of the Prophet — figs!” and is identified by Poe as the “Cry of a Turkish fig-pedler. ” Its general satiric commentary on the story is obvious, but what was its source and what might its specific satiric innuendo have been? In casual reading I have recently encountered two instances of the phrase. In 1831, Sir Walter Scott is reported to have greeted an acquaintance just returned from Turkey as follows: “I thought you were living like a Mussulman among the infidel Turks! In the name of the Prophet, figs! I hope you have made a fortune by figs?” [quoted in Charles MacFarlane, Reminiscences of a Literary Life, 1917, pp. 26-27]. Years later Lord Asquith-and-Oxford used a somewhat altered version; he is supposed to have remarked “about the proceedings of a certain society that, when he read the agenda in all their pompous and meaningless array, he was reminded of the itinerant vender of vegetable matter perambulating the streets of Baghdad and crying loudly, ‘In the name of Allah, figs! ’” [from a letter by “Simeon Stylites” on behalf of “a crusade for better and fresher swear words,” quoted in The Christian Century, 1951, p. 41]. Apparently, then, this phrase was in fairly general usage in British life. Did Poe’s knowledge of it go back to his youthful British sojourn? Were there contemporary published British or American anecdotes which Poe might have known? Was it a popular slang expression — a phonic euphemism perhaps, by means of which Poe was subtly offering a not-so-subtle comment on the Blackwood style?

Ben Harris McClary, Wesleyan College  


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:


[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]