Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Introduction,” The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan PoeVol. V: SLM (1997), pp. 1-2 (This material is protected by copyright)


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The Messenger: Introduction

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In May of 1834,Thomas Willis White, a printer in Richmond, Virginia, issued a prospectus for a literary magazine. It was to be called The Southern Literary Messenger, and it would “be devoted to every department of Literature and the Fine Arts” (Poe Log, p. 139). As White clearly knew, this was an ambitious promise and a highly risky venture. Southerners often subscribed to Northern and British journals, but they were listless supporters of local periodicals. Moreover, he himself was not highly qualified for the task of conducting a literary journal. Born in 1788 in Yorktown, Virginia, he had not been educated beyond what he had managed to learn while a printer’s apprentice. But he did possess a shrewd intelligence and a determined devotion to his craft, and by his thirty-sixth year he had established his own shop in Richmond. Aware of his intellectual shortcomings, White would rely for editorial direction largely on prominent friends who would serve without remuneration.

The first to act in this capacity was James Ewell Heath, a politician who held various state offices and who volunteered his services until the journal became well established. The initial issue of the Messenger appeared in August 1834 and was prefaced by a brief notice from White’s hand. Introducing a series of testimonials which he had solicited from prominent figures in both North and South, he urged that their words “ought to stimulate the pride and genius of the South.” The list of names was impressive; Washington Irving, James Kirke Paulding, James Fenimore Cooper, John Pendleton Kennedy, and John Quincy Adams all wished the new [column 2:] journal success. In an editorial note which followed, Heath, surveying the state of Southern literature, exhorted his readers to fund a venture which would work “towards the creation of a new era in the annals of this blessed Old Dominion. It may possibly be the means of effecting a salutary reform in public taste and individual habits; of overcoming that tendency to mental repose and luxurious indulgence supposed to be peculiar to southern latitudes; and of awakening a spirit of inquiry and a zeal for improvement, which cannot fail ultimately to exalt and adorn society.”

In many ways, the Messenger was to fulfill this initial promise. It would attract to its pages such well known Southern literati as William Gilmore Simms, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Timrod, John Esten Cooke, and John R. Thompson. Later, it would reach into the North for works by nationally recognized writers like Lydia H. Sigourney, James Russell Lowell, and others.

Through years of illness and personal losses, White managed to keep his cherished creation afloat until his death in January 1843. Rather surprisingly in this region of unsuccessful journalistic enterprises, the Messenger went on to outlive its founder by twenty-one years. Still based in Richmond, it became increasingly a patriotic organ promoting “Southern rights” as well as Southern literature. As the region’s leading, if not always comfortably financed, journal it contrived to hang on as late as July 1864 — when the Confederacy, which it supported, was heading toward its own demise. [page 2:]

For some months during its first three years, the editorial direction of the Messenger was entrusted to a young man who had at one time called Richmond his home — Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s life up to this point had been largely a series of failed hopes. Born in 1809, he had lost both parents in 1811 and had been taken into the home of John Allan, a merchant of Richmond. Allan provided what schooling Poe was to receive — at home, in England and, briefly, at the University of Virginia — but the two often quarreled and in 1827 Poe decamped to Boston. He served in the U.S. Army, attended and was discharged from West Point, published three volumes of poems, but in the early 1830s he was living in obscurity. By 1833 he had completed eleven “Tales of the Folio Club,” his first ventures in fiction, and a few of these had been published. In this same year he was residing in Baltimore with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter Virginia, whom he would later marry.

His one success of the period was to lead to his connection with the Messenger. He had submitted several stories in a contest held by a Baltimore periodical and had won first prize with “MS. Found in a Bottle.” One of the judges was John Pendleton Kennedy, a prominent Baltimore lawyer, politician, and author, who befriended the young man and gave him clothes, cash, and advice. [column 2:]

It was Kennedy, an acquaintance of White, who now encouraged Poe to write as often as he could for the Messenger, since his prospects remained dim. He had failed to get employment as a teacher and, upon John Allan’s death in March 1834, he received no legacy. Moreover, he had not succeeded in finding a publisher for his “Tales of the Folio Club,” despite Kennedy’s good offices. But in March 1835 the Messenger accepted Poe’s first submission, the horrific tale “Berenice” (texts and notes in Mabbott 2: 207-21). By the next month Poe and White were in correspondence about his contribution. White had strong objections to the sensational subject of the story, a criticism with which Poe partly agreed, though he went on to argue for this class of fiction as a regular attraction in many successful magazines (Letters 1: 57-59). Aware of the conservatism of his region, White would always be afraid of being guilty of bad taste and of indulging in unnecessary controversy. This was the first but not the last complaint that he would bring against the man and his work.

But in the face of their continuing differences over editorial policy, Poe managed, from March 1835 until he was finally fired in January 1837, to have a hand in every issue of White’s new journal — and his efforts would help to bring it to prominence in both South and North.






[S:0 - BRP5S, 1997] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (B. R. Pollin) (Introduction)