Monday, June 28, 2010

The Strange Life and Death of the "Broadway Journal" (Part One)

"There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told."
-"The Man of the Crowd"

Edgar Allan Poe and the Broadway JournalJanuary 3, 1846 marked the final issue of the "Broadway Journal," a small literary weekly that had been alive for only a year. The magazine carried a farewell message from its owner/editor, Edgar Allan Poe:

"Unexpected arrangements demanding my whole attention, and the objects being fulfilled, so far as regards myself personally, for which 'The Broadway Journal' was established, I now, as its Editor, bid farewell--as cordially to foes as to friends."

This enigmatic obituary notice has puzzled Poe's biographers ever since. What "unexpected arrangements" did he have? What were these fulfilled "objects" for which the "Journal" was established? So far as anyone has been able to tell, the magazine brought Poe less than nothing. As George Woodberry grumbled, "What other objects Poe achieved, except the republication of much that he had previously written in prose and verse, it is hard to see." As for his business investment in the magazine, Heyward Erlich commented, "nowhere is his role on the 'Broadway Journal' elevated above mystery and even obscurity."

It seems to have escaped all notice that Poe's valedictory becomes intelligible only when interpreted as an example of his characteristic sardonic humor. Poe's year-long involvement with the "Broadway Journal" left him in debt, physically worn from overwork, mentally exhausted from nervous tension, dogged by controversy, and surrounded by enemies, old and new. He never found steady magazine work again. He was, in short, publicly presented to the world as someone now depleted and isolated.

And that was precisely the intention.

Any attempts to fully chronicle the dark and complicated life story of the "Broadway Journal" are fatally hampered by the fact that the bulk of our information about the magazine and Poe's role in it come from its co-founder, Charles F. Briggs--largely through letters to his close friend James Russell Lowell. Briggs was a secretive, deliberately enigmatic sort--in "The Literati of New York City," published after the "Journal's" demise, Poe characterized him as someone who had "a passion for being mysterious. His most intimate friends seem to know nothing of his movements, and it is folly to expect from him a direct answer about anything." (In a later revision of his sketch of Briggs, Poe described Briggs' pseudonym " "Ferdinand Mendoza Pinto"--the name of a Renaissance-era adventurer who gained a legendary reputation as a liar--simply as "apt.") This view is borne out by Briggs' letters to Lowell, where his references to Poe and the "Journal" come off as self-serving, self-defensive, and illogical. This was not a man to rely upon as a witness.

Poe's own recorded remarks about the "Broadway Journal" are scant and somewhat contradictory, when they aren't simply mysterious. When addressing potential investors in the magazine, he unsurprisingly attempted a sanguine air about its prospects. To other correspondents, however, he sounded increasingly disgusted with the "Journal" and everyone connected with it. After an involvement of only weeks, he began writing longingly of his desire to bury himself in the remote countryside and devote his energies to writing books--if he could only find someone to take his share of the "Journal" off his hands. Later in the year, his attitude becomes increasingly dissatisfied, then caustic. By December, he was telling Fitz-Greene Halleck: "On the part of one or two persons who are much imbittered against me, there is a deliberate attempt now being made to involve me in ruin, by destroying 'The Broadway Journal.' I could easily frustrate them, but for my total want of money, and of the necessary time in which to procure it: the knowledge of this has given my enemies the opportunities desired."

Poe biographer Arthur Quinn, writing about the demise of the "Journal," commented bemusedly, "...the main cause of the failure was the lack of capital. The advertisements in the 'Journal" seem to be ample, and in fact increased from two to four pages after Poe had complete possession of the paper. No satisfactory figures concerning its circulation are available, but there were agents in twenty-three cities according to the last issue. Then as now, a magazine must lose money at first, if it is to win eventually, and Poe could not afford to lose even for a few months. That he did not know this seems inexplicable."

"Inexplicable?" It was impossible! Clearly, something more than the usual birth struggles of a new publication were being carried out behind the scenes. But what?

In Part Two: A descent into the maelstrom.