The most detailed descriptions we have of Poe's three visits to Lowell, Massachusetts in 1848 and 1849 come from a handful of contemporary letters written by "Annie" Richmond's brother, Amos Bardwell Heywood. These letters, which were written to an Annie Sawyer, first saw the light of day in 1942, when a daughter of Sawyer's donated them to the Lowell Historical Society. (So far as I know, no one has even made an effort to verify the letters were genuinely written by Heywood, but Poe scholars, in their usual touchingly trustful fashion, accept them without question.)
Assuming these letters--the only recorded comments by Heywood about Poe that we have--are authentic, they indeed provide an interesting sidelight on Poe's Lowell trips and his relationship with Mrs. Richmond--although not quite in the way one might think. Our other main source about Poe's relations with Lowell and the Richmond/Heywood family come, of course, from the letters Poe allegedly wrote "Annie." With the exception of a couple of items of unknown provenance and dubious authenticity, these letters exist only as copies that Mrs. Richmond herself made for John H. Ingram in the 1870s. (It should be noted that the two letters Poe supposedly wrote "Annie's" sister Sarah are also mere copies.) We will never know what was in the actual letters "Annie" may have received from Poe, because she never showed them to Ingram or anyone else. This air of secrecy about her documents, (so oddly reminiscent of the tactics of Sarah Helen Whitman,) must cast doubt upon the trustworthiness of Richmond's testimony. The "Poe letters" "Annie" wrote out for Ingram describe the poet as being nearly as infatuated with her relatives as he was with herself. Sarah and Bardwell Heywood are repeatedly referred to--in the most nauseatingly groveling way possible--as among the dearest, most treasured friends he had.
In contrast, the Heywood letters are very similar to the reminiscences written by his other sister, Sarah Heywood (which I briefly described here.) "Annie's" siblings described Poe as a figure who aroused considerable fascination and intellectual admiration in them both. However, they also saw him as a remote, rather mysterious figure whom they scarcely knew, even as an acquaintance--precisely the way you would expect them to describe a literary celebrity who made only three very brief visits to their town. Certainly, neither sibling showed any awareness that Poe was wildly, hopelessly in love with their sister. In other words, their attitude towards Poe directly contradicts the evidence provided by the "Annie" letters.
Heywood's first reference to Poe (one brief comment in a letter from August 1848,) actually deals with Poe's relations with another woman entirely--Heywood's neighbor Jane Locke. In another letter written two months later, he offered some clarification of his earlier remark. According to this letter, Mrs. Locke confided to Heywood that Poe--who had corresponded with her for some months--had gotten the impression that she was a wealthy widow. Heywood hinted that the poet had been considering marriage--until he finally met her in person, during his first visit to Lowell that July, and discovered that she was an unattractive middle-aged woman with little money, plus a husband and several children. Why Mrs. Locke would choose to make Heywood her confidante in this extremely personal contretemps is a mystery. It is also unclear how this story squares with "Annie's" claim to Ingram that Mrs. Locke visited Poe at Fordham before his arrival at Lowell.
In this same letter, Heywood discussed the lecture Poe delivered during his visit, as well as two calls he made at Mrs. Richmond's home. He described Poe as treating the household to the story of his life. Heywood wrote:
"He was the offspring of a runaway match, and when very young was taken and adopted by a very rich uncle who, having no children, wished to make Edgar his son. He (Edgar) accordingly assumed his uncle's name--Poe. Soon, however, his adopted mother died, and his father married a young lady who saw in Edgar her only impediment to her being the sole heir to an immense fortune. She began to quarrel with him and finally succeeded in driving him away. In his father's will, who died soon after, he was cut off with a shilling. He now went to live with an aunt who had a beautiful daughter named Virginia. A great intimacy sprang up between them and they came to look upon each other as brother and sister. Notice that was the kind of affection--a brotherly and sisterly affection, and nothing more or less. Numerous friends, however, thought a marriage between them would for several reasons be desirable. At last he yielded to the solicitations of friends and married her at the early age of 13, he being 21 or 22. Although he loved her with an undivided heart he could not think of her as his wife, or as any other than his sister, and indeed he did not for two years assume the position of husband, still occupying his own chamber by himself. During part of this time he was traveling alone in Europe. His wife was spared to him several years, but at length consumption fastened upon the lovely flower and it gradually faded away. Since that almost overwhelming affliction he has continued to live with her mother in New York. He spoke of his wife in a most eloquent and touching manner, the tears running down his cheeks in torrents. Spoke of her as beautiful beyond description, as lovely beyond conception..."
If this letter gave an accurate account of Poe's soliloquy, it is clear the visiting poet was up to his usual hoaxing. Anyone familiar with Poe's singular notions of autobiography will recognize the similarities to his yarns about battling for Greek independence, undergoing imprisonment in St. Petersburg, Russia, and being the grandson of Benedict Arnold. Many of his biographers have taken seriously these claims that he and Virginia saw each other merely as "brother and sister," ignoring the fact that his own August 1835 letter to her and Mrs. Clemm alone demolishes this scenario. In any case--assuming Poe truly entertained himself by spouting this nonsense to his new-found acquaintances--if one trusts that information, one must also accept that he was raised by his "uncle," who gave him the name, "Poe," that "numerous friends," for who knows what reason, earnestly solicited him to marry Virginia, that he married at age 21 or 22, that his parents eloped, that he had been "driven" away from his boyhood home by the new Mrs. Allan, and that he spent part of his early married life traveling alone through Europe. And that he chose to relay all these intimate details to people he had just met. (Here, one must sympathize with William Bittner's perplexed observation that "I cannot see Poe discussing the secrets of his marriage bed with anyone.")
Personally, I have an easier time picturing him fighting for the Greeks.
Heywood also added the detail that "my sister"--Mrs. Richmond, presumably, although that is not specified--had recently visited Maria Clemm at Fordham. He gave no details about this call, other than that his sister was told that Virginia had been "almost an angel on earth." (Heywood does not state if Poe was at his home during this visit, so we do not know if he, or Maria Clemm, or both, thus described Poe's late wife.) Assuming this story is true--Mrs. Richmond herself never said anything about ever being at Fordham--it is of some interest. At least one of Poe's biographers has noted that this anecdote gives the impression that during this visit, an effort was made to throw some cold water upon Mrs. Richmond's obvious interest in Poe.
Elsewhere in this same letter, Heywood--a member of the local choir--recorded how offended he had been when Poe asserted to him that men had no business singing. Only the female sex, the visitor declared, could create true vocal harmony. (Heywood groused, "I had a strong inclination to throw the glass in his face!")
In fact, throughout Heywood's letters is the sense not only that he did not know Poe well at all, but that what he saw rather irritated him. In a later letter, he commented on his dislike of Poe's critical reviews. "I came near hating him before I saw him, he is such an inveterate fault finder...It seems to be the predominating trait of his character." Even while acknowledging the beauties of the local scenery, Heywood grumbled, Poe could not resist pointing out what he perceived as flaws in the landscape.When describing Poe's last visit to Lowell, in the spring of 1849, Heywood told an anecdote concerning Poe and a young woman who taught at the local school where Heywood was the principal. He told Miss Sawyer that Poe had paid a brief visit to the school while he was in town, and instantly fell in love with this female assistant. (Her name is not given, but she is believed to be an Eliza J. Butterfield.) According to this letter, Poe made a second call on the school specifically to see the woman, so Heywood left them in a room alone, speculating that the poet wished to propose marriage. (To a virtual stranger?) He did not know what happened between the lady and their odd visitor, only that her cheek had "an uncommon flush" when they emerged, implying that whatever had happened deeply disconcerted her. Heywood made no further mention of Poe and his new-found inamorata, leaving a decided air of mystery about the episode.
Now, even by the standards of Poe biography, this is one strange little story. Although many biographers suggest Poe may have become emotionally troubled in his final months, by all accounts he remained politely troubled. To the very end, every woman who had dealings with him commented on the extreme graciousness and civility of his manner towards them. In other words, whatever else he may have been, he was just never a man to make women blush--particularly respectable young ladies he had met only once. Heywood's tale of throwing Poe and this hapless young teacher together, so that the visiting poet could force some sort of highly embarrassing--and clearly, on the lady's part, undesired--attentions to her, simply is not credible. (It is also odd that, if this incident actually happened, we have nothing about it from the young woman herself. If someone as famous as Edgar Allan Poe had truly made a pass at her, surely she would have told everyone she met about it until the end of her days.) Assuming the letter is genuine, Heywood allowed his obvious desire to impress his correspondent to get the better of him. In any case, this unpleasant little tale of antebellum sexual harassment demonstrated that he had no conception that Poe was supposedly infatuated with Heywood's own sister! ***
Heywood had little else to say about Poe. In two letters written soon after the poet's death, he expressed surprise at their visitor's premature end, but said nothing to indicate he--or his sisters--felt any sense of personal loss. He mentioned that Mrs. Clemm was currently visiting them, and that "From her we have gathered much in relation to his domestic nature which is quite interesting and often amusing."
Heywood's way of eulogizing Poe was by offering a prediction that his fame as a writer would not endure: "...he has written nothing that will embalm his memory in the heart of the present age.
***A footnote: We have a letter that Poe purportedly wrote Mrs. Richmond, dated June 16, 1849, which indicated that, when departing from Lowell for the last time, he asked to be remembered to a "Miss B," who is presumed to be Eliza Butterfield, A.B. Heywood's co-worker. This document has a strange history. Ingram published this same letter, but lacking the reference to "Miss B." We do not have the transcript of this letter which he must have received from Mrs. Richmond, so we do not know exactly what text she sent him of this particular communication. What is believed to be the original manuscript of this letter, which has other passages not published by Ingram, is currently in the University of Texas at Austin. The MS. only came to light in 1906, when it went up for sale at auction. Its prior history is uncertain.
The letter's murky provenance is itself suspicious, (especially as it's assumed that Mrs. Richmond destroyed all of Poe's letters to her sometime before her death in 1898,) but the text itself is problematic. One of the passages which does not appear in the published version of the letter has Poe telling Mrs. Richmond of "how sad I felt about parting with dear Sarah so coldly as I was forced to do..."
The comment refers to Poe's spring 1849 visit to Lowell, made shortly before the date of this letter. One of the difficulties in accepting this line as one genuinely written by Poe arises from Sarah Heywood herself. The Poe reminiscences she provided to Ingram and William Gill in the 1870s stated that the last time she saw Poe was during his Lowell stay in the fall of 1848. If so, in the following spring she obviously could not have parted from him "coldly," or in any other fashion.
There is another version of Sarah Heywood's Poe recollections, also at Austin. It is a typed transcript, undated but evidently written around 1900. This account, which differs in many details from her earlier story, is vague about the last time she saw Poe, describing it merely as "a few months before his death," which could refer to his spring 1849 visit. (Of course, as I said in an earlier post, by 1909 she was describing seeing the poet a few days before he died.)
Sarah Heywood's memories of Poe obviously became very confused over the years (which is not surprising, as all her recollections indicate she scarcely saw anything of the man--when she died in 1913, her obituary described her as having met Poe once.) It is logical, however, to treat her earliest account--the one published by Gill and Ingram--as the most reliable. If so, that undermines the authenticity of the manuscript of the "Miss B" letter.
More and more, I find myself thinking that the ideal biographer for Poe would have been Charles Fort.
I'm actually at least half-serious about that. Anyone deeply interested in Poe should read Fort's works--"The Book of the Damned" in particular. Fort's cosmology is similar to Poe's in certain ways--there are passages in his books that almost echo "Eureka." Also, his descriptions of how scientists have constructed an artificial "reality," with any "data" that conflicts with this "reality" being either ignored or distorted--that is to say, "damned"--is strikingly reminiscent of how Poe "scholarship" has been built. Anyone studying Poe's true history in depth comes across "damned data" at nearly every turn.
And for all of you who have finally come to the end of this post and understandably concluded that I have, at long last, gone well and truly off the deep end by starting off with analyzing the letters of an obscure Massachusetts schoolteacher and winding up with Charles Fort, I can only offer a quote from "Lo!":
"We shall pick up an existence by its frogs.
Wise men have tried other ways. They have tried to understand our state of being, by grasping at its stars, or its arts, or its economics. But, if there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere."
(Images of 1840s-era Lowell courtesy Lowell Historical Society.)
Monday, July 26, 2010
Thursday, July 22, 2010
In analyzing the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and "Annie" Richmond, one little-known, but interesting fact stands out: Among her circle, she was known to be what we now would call a "literary groupie." Prominent writers were the pop stars of that era, and Mrs. Richmond revelled in the reflected intellectual glamour she felt she gained from their company. One gets the suspicion that if she had never met Poe, she would have been equally happy to become close to anyone of equal renown.
As a matter of fact, there is an extremely strange message Mrs. Richmond wrote Mrs. Clemm in 1854. (Now in Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library.) It is one long, rambling, incoherent love letter about Nathaniel P. Willis, one of the most commercially popular American writers of his time. "Annie" did not know Willis, but she was aware that Mrs. Clemm did, and she was clearly angling for Poe's aunt to arrange an introduction. (It is an amusing irony that several people who knew both Poe and Willis--including Charles F. Briggs, Marie Shew Houghton, and James Russell Lowell--asserted that Poe thought little of Willis' writings and despised him personally.)
In her usual breathless, hyper-emotional style, Mrs. Richmond wailed, "how I do pity Mr. Willis, & I am sure, I love him more than ever--oh how I wish I were his sister, & I would love him so dearly..." She goes on to call Willis "one of my idols, for you know Muddie, I always told you, that I longed to see Mr. Willis more than any other human being...he who has ever touched the most sacred & the deepest recesses in my heart...I do, pray for him, & to pray Heaven to send him comfort, & to surround him with gentle and loving spirits, such as he knows so well, how to appreciate & enjoy...Why I almost worship him, his name is connected, with my earliest & sweetest remembrances, & I learned to love him, as soon as I learned to read..."
Nowadays, letters like this about celebrities usually get the writer slapped with a restraining order.
******For years prior to her death in 1878, Sarah Helen Whitman sent extracts from the letters she claimed to have received from Poe to many of her correspondents. Mrs. Whitman believed--with complete sincerity, so far as anyone could tell--that these rather horrifying letters illustrated not only the nobility of Poe's nature, but his profound bond with herself. (It is a completely un-amusing irony that these letters--as well as the similar missives provided by Annie Richmond--have instead usually been used as proof that Poe was going mad in his last years.)
The recipients of these extracts were generally either too polite or too sycophantic to contradict her. There was, however, at least one exception. In 1872, she sent the poet Richard Henry Stoddard, who had written what she felt was an unsatisfactory magazine article about Poe, copies of some of her precious letters. Whitman claimed the letters would cause Stoddard to see Poe in a more sympathetic light.She made a grave miscalculation. Whitman passed on to Stoddard the notorious letter that depicted Poe, as part of his wooing, declaring to her that when he married Virginia, he knew he was sacrificing his own happiness. After reading this letter, Stoddard told her frankly that he found the implied assertion that Poe had not loved his wife very disturbing, and he hoped the dead poet had not been truthful. Stoddard had had no real acquaintance with Poe, but he knew many people who had, and he stated in print that all of them, including Poe's enemies, testified that whatever his faults may have been, Poe's obvious love for Virginia was a true "bright spot in his character." Stoddard made it quite clear that he believed this letter simply lied about Poe's marriage.
Whitman's reaction to this negative feedback was interesting. She went completely to pieces. Among her papers in the University of Indiana's Lilly Library is an unfinished rough draft of her response to Stoddard. Its sheer incoherence is testimony to her inability to handle any challenge to her carefully crafted illusions.
"I am sorry," she wrote, "that you condemn him for what he said to me of his marriage. He did not say that he did not love her but that he married exclusively for her happiness. Assuredly he loved & very dearly her but doubtlessly he [the following section in bold was crossed out] was as a sister & a child rather doubtless felt that she could not enrich his life with felt there could be little reciprocity of thought or life between them. Again, it was not in his first letter that he said this but it was in defending himself against some implied charge a passage contained in my letter which had deeply pained & wounded him & for which he [word illegible] & he had no sooner said it than condemned himself for the admission."
What comes out most clearly from this letter--aside from her obvious agitation--is that Whitman really did not know what Poe's true relationship with his wife had been. Or perhaps she did not want to know. As was so often the case when discussing Poe, she retreated into contradiction and unfounded theorizing. One has to wonder if she ever really knew the first thing about him.
Whatever she eventually actually sent Stoddard in defense of these letters had little effect. After her death, Stoddard published an article where he expressed his disgust with the "Poe letters" he had read. He reiterated that the letters were remarkably insincere, dishonest, and strained, and it astounded him that Mrs. Whitman appeared to put a near-religious faith in them.
For her part, Mrs. Whitman never forgave Stoddard's disparaging remarks. Several years later, she sent copies of these same letters to John Henry Ingram (it appears, however, that Stoddard's reaction taught her to omit the passage referring to Poe's marriage.) She told Ingram haughtily that she was sure he would appreciate them, unlike Stoddard, who, she seethed, had dismissed them as "very curious, very curious, indeed." Her correspondence with Ingram is peppered throughout with complaints against Stoddard, all clearly stemming from her continual resentment over his failure to duly applaud her relationship with Poe. (Ingram, for his part, avoided directly commenting on these "Poe letters." In his biography of Poe, he could only gingerly--or rather, queasily--describe these epistles as "idiosyncratic." Worse still, from Whitman's point of view, Ingram wound up asserting--in print--his conviction that Poe had never really loved "Helen.")
**A footnote: Kenneth Silverman's "Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance"--a book I always pick up whenever I need a good laugh--published portions of this draft letter of Whitman's quoted above. However, in his usual muddled fashion, Silverman rather vaguely depicted these lines as Mrs. Whitman directly quoting remarks Poe supposedly made to her. In other words, Silverman led his readers to assume that Whitman's baseless speculations about Poe's feelings for Virginia were actually statements from Poe's own mouth. This is a fine example of why the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore commented that Silverman's book "...has been much derided in academic Poe circles..." and that it "suffers badly from a deep bias against Poe, a silly preoccupation with discredited psycho-analytical approaches, a convenient oversimplification of the subject matter and an inadequate identification in the text of its rather selective sources. Read it if you must, but take what it offers with large doses of skepticism."
Amen to that.
Monday, July 19, 2010
"I do like Mrs. H[oughton] so much for herself & not only for her goodness to Poe, but your suggestion as to that copy of a letter upset me greatly--yet it was right, & I am so grateful to you for pointing it out, not but what later on, when I came to weigh matters for publication, I must come to the conclusion I see you have. In fact, I wrote, & asked Mrs. H. whether she had not made some mistakes--which I pointed out--in her copy, & her answer confirms my & your views. Fear not--I print nothing that I am not sure about & trust that I shall have the joy of seeing you, & talking over all things, before I commence the biography for publication. Mrs. H. I'm sure loved Poe as a friend & would & will firmly stand for him & for me & she is a woman it would be difficult to put down, but she--I'm sure--is under a cloud. I fear, however, that having told me all she can remember of Poe she is drifting into the genus imaginative. Her reminiscences are so startling & so apt to satisfy one's needs that I cannot help being sceptical."
-Poe biographer John H. Ingram, writing to Sarah Helen Whitman about Marie Louise Shew Houghton, letter dated June 2, 1875
A word of explanation: Mrs. Houghton--who had been anxious to impress upon Ingram what a benefactress she had been to the Poe household from 1847-48--sent him what she claimed were copies of letters she had received from Poe. Ingram passed these copies on to Mrs. Whitman, who emphatically warned him that they sounded nothing like Poe, and that Ingram would be making a serious mistake if he published them as verbatim transcripts. (She pointed in particular to this nightmarish wail.)
Ingram, as the above quote showed, fully agreed that the letters were untrustworthy--as, indeed, they were--but, unaccountably, he nonetheless later incorporated them in his biography of Poe.
In short, these words of Ingram's prove that he knew Mrs. Houghton was passing bogus Poe letters to him, that she was "under a cloud" (i.e. barking mad,) and that, having exhausted the little Poe information that she had, she was now resorting to wild fantasy in her recollections of the poet. He claimed to have grown to like her through her letters (Ingram, who lived in England, never met Mrs. Houghton--or, indeed, most of his sources--in person,) but still had to acknowledge her utter lack of credibility.
But yet, Ingram not only published this obviously disturbed woman's ravings as authentic history, but all Poe biographers ever since have copied these same fraudulent and patently bizarre materials furnished by Mrs. Houghton--without the slightest hesitation! Why? Even John Carl Miller, the editor of Ingram's correspondence, described Houghton's reminiscences as "shot through with inaccuracies, myths, half-remembered facts mixed with hearsay and caution," and added that "There is just enough truth in some of these stories to make them acceptable, but not enough to allow proof to back them up." The question is this: If so much of what Mrs. Houghton said about Poe must be distrusted or simply discarded, why should we accept anything she said, particularly since the letters themselves are--as Ingram had to concede--the work of someone who, by that time of her life at least, was far from rational? Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus--"False in one, false in all."
Soon after I began researching Poe's life, I became increasingly puzzled, then exasperated, and finally dumbfounded as I constantly stumbled upon bits of information that utterly contradicted the "conventional wisdom" of his history, and I realized that Poe "scholars" have overlooked, distorted, or simply buried these biographical anomalies. This quote of Ingram's is a fine example, but there are countless others--many of which I have (no doubt futilely) written about on this ultra-obscure little blog over the past year. Poe's biographers appear to be so fixated on the revelation that Rufus Griswold lied about Poe, that they are blinded to the fact that very many other people did, as well.
Surely I cannot be the only one ever to notice all these things? How and why have they been burked?
There are times when studying Poe biography puts me in mind of the Harlan Ellison story: "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."
Monday, July 12, 2010
"Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform."Whatever the true story may have been, the Briggs/Bisco deadlock was ended--and the downfall of Edgar Poe well and truly set in motion--when Briggs presumably left the "Journal." He allowed his erstwhile partner to continue publication, with his own name removed from the masthead. Bisco and Poe signed an agreement on July 14 making Poe sole editor. The contract also gave him half the profits and an "absolute lien" on the "Journal." However, as the original Briggs/Bisco contract had never been abrogated--and never would be--this agreement Poe entered into must have been legally worthless. It would be interesting to know when Poe discovered this--if he ever did--and if this had something to do with the "lies" Briggs claimed Poe was spreading about him at around this time. One also has to wonder what Bisco was thinking. Even if Poe did not know the terms of Bisco's first contract with Briggs, Bisco himself certainly did. Why did he even want to continue so troublesome a publication, particularly when he knew perfectly well Briggs could pull the plug on his enterprise on a whim? The only logical inference is that he and Briggs had a private mutual understanding, of which Poe knew nothing.
In any case, Briggs certainly acted as though he still had the upper hand. He huffed and puffed about taking Poe and Bisco to court in order to halt publication of the "Journal," but these threats proved to be empty. In spite of his claim that he could "displace" Poe and Bisco whenever he chose, Briggs actually seemed suspiciously pleased to allow Poe to dig himself deeper into that hole called the "Broadway Journal."
The apparent lack of capital, as anyone could have predicted, made the paper's continued existence increasingly unlikely. Because the original contract permitted Bisco to demand payments from his partners within three days, Poe, having replaced Briggs as the putative partner, made attempts to acquire personal loans for the magazine. The relatively small sums he acquired in this manner were hardly enough to keep the "Journal" afloat. His efforts saddled him with additional debts and gave his enemies the opportunity to brand him as a shameless borrower and sponger. By October, Bisco suddenly announced his decision to abandon the magazine altogether. Through what Poe dryly described as "a series of maneuvers almost incomprehensible to myself," he thus became sole editor and owner of the "Journal." He had finally achieved his long-cherished dream of owning his own magazine, but with the tragic irony that characterized his entire life, it was hopelessly dysfunctional financially and--he privately believed--contemptible artistically. Adding to his difficulties was the fact that, when Briggs left the "Journal," he was allowed to simply abandon his moiety, but when Bisco jumped ship, he insisted that Poe pay him off.
Although Poe wrote in the "Journal" that he was counting on the aid of "friends" to sustain the magazine, whatever promises he had been given for financial assistance failed to materialize. Early in December, Poe threw up his hands. He transferred half his interest in the "Journal" to Thomas H. Lane, who handled the magazine's liquidation. (Poe later characterized Lane to George Eveleth as "the person to whom I transferred the Journal and in whose hands it perished.")
The true and complete history of the "Broadway Journal" can never be known, because everyone involved, including Poe, had his own individual reasons for not wishing it to be known. However, enough evidence remains on record to show the "objects" for which the "Broadway Journal" was established. That "series of almost incomprehensible maneuvers" which left Poe as sole editor and owner was all part of a complex legal scheme which wound up entrapping and neutralizing Poe as a force in the literary world. (The fact that this crisis in his professional affairs was practically simultaneous with the equally disastrous personal crisis involving Elizabeth Ellet's letters may or may not be coincidental.) When Poe was lured into the magazine, he felt justified in believing that his name and the quality of his contributions would increase circulation and advertising, and thus put the "Journal" on firm footing. In fact, an honest endeavor would undoubtedly have proved successful. The joint venture was set up in a way that ensured failure for the last man standing, and Poe was designated as that man. The "Boston Transcript," a newspaper which had close ties to Poe's worst enemies, commemorated their common opponent's downfall with a mocking elegy referring gleefully to the empty promises from Poe's "friends" which had lured him into the whole disaster. It revealed as much of the truth as they dared:
"To trust in friends is but so so,
Especially when cash is low;
The Broadway Journal's proved 'no go'--
Friends would not pay the pen of Poe."
Saturday, July 3, 2010
"For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known..."The means of blowing away at least some of the fog that shrouds the history of the "Broadway Journal" lies in the succession of very curious business contracts made amongst its proprietors, which reveal a series of maneuvers that would have embarrassed Bernie Madoff. Key to the whole strange story is the original contract between the founders of the "Broadway Journal," Briggs and a shadowy real estate dealer named John Bisco. If one believes their story, the planned publication lacked even a minimal amount of capital, utilizing instead a Rube Goldberg-like joint-stock improvisation, where all the partners worked for little or no hard cash. The paper originally had seven partners; later, its only way of staying afloat at all was supposedly by luring in additional "shareholders" (i.e. "suckers.")
Now, if Quinn saw the difficulty of believing that Poe could imagine that the magazine could survive without initial capital, surely Bisco and Briggs knew such an enterprise was untenable, as well. The two founders of the "Journal" liked to keep their personal business affairs shrouded in mystery, but they must have had a private source of funds from somewhere, or their magazine could not have been initiated at all.
Briggs and Bisco's original agreement had them sharing equally in both ownership and profits, with Briggs taking control of the magazine's editorial department and Bisco acting as publisher. Either partner's expenditures would be paid only in cash, and were to be partly reimbursed by the other partner. It was also agreed that "Neither partner shall dispose of his interest in the publication without the consent of the other." While all this protected the pair from any serious financial loss, it also eliminated any possibility for the "Journal" to be reorganized or recapitalized. Bizarrely, Briggs and Bisco seemed to be guaranteeing the ultimate collapse of their magazine.
Briggs had to hire professional writers for a publication that was incapable of paying them. In February 1845, he offered Poe, who was then, thanks to "The Raven" at the apex of his celebrity, a "work and share" contract. In return for providing the cachet of his name, and a certain amount of written contributions, Bisco promised Poe one-third of the profits. Briggs, as Poe himself later noted somewhat resentfully, kept sole editorial control of the paper until his departure that July.
How Bisco and Briggs actually defined and divided profits was and still is their own secret. Doubtless, that is exactly what Bisco intended. However, as the original contract between Bisco and Briggs was never annulled, it seems most likely that the pair each took half of the profits, and left subsequent so-called "partners" holding the bag.
Very soon, Poe realized he was putting in an enormous amount of work on the paper with little or no reward, either financial or artistic. By June, he was hoping to quit New York City altogether, "as the sole means of recruiting my health and spirits." He hoped to find someone willing to buy his "interest" in the "Journal," but, of course, he found it impossible to sell the unsaleable. He could not leave the "Journal" without buying out his partners, which was a practical impossibility. He was, in a word, trapped.
By this time, Briggs also claimed he wanted to be free of the essentially unworkable foundations of the "Journal." He told Lowell that without any capital on hand, his only option was to jettison both Poe and Bisco and start fresh with a different partner to act as publisher/financial angel. He claimed that a publisher and book dealer named J. Smith Homans had agreed to buy out Bisco and, for the first time, bring conventional capital to the increasingly shaky publication. Poe, whose personal relations with Briggs had by then hopelessly deteriorated, would be cast aside. Bisco, however, according to Briggs, derailed his plan (on the advice of unnamed "evil advisers,") by insisting on selling his share of the "Journal" for more than was called for in their original agreement.
This claim of Briggs', like practically everything he said about the "Journal," makes little sense. If the magazine was as badly off as he said, why wouldn't Bisco be eager to unload his worthless share of it for whatever he could get? And why would a successful, and presumably savvy, businessman like Homans want to invest his money in a failing literary weekly, particularly if Briggs truly aimed to rid it of Poe, the magazine's only real asset?
In September of that year, William Fairman, a traveling representative for the "Journal," wrote Bisco that "Mr. Poe has a great many friends and is held in the highest estimation both by those who know him as a man and as a writer. My only hopes is [sic] among his friends." Fairman also informed Bisco of the strange distribution problems plaguing the "Journal"--in many cities it either came too late or never came at all. Fairman thought the "Journal's" prospects were good, thanks to Poe, but that Bisco's method of individually canvassing for subscribers was outdated. "I do not think any person can make it for his interest to travel and solicit subscribers." Now, the person responsible for the "Journal's" distribution and subscription methods was Bisco himself, and he apparently ignored Fairman's warnings--which only gave advice that Bisco, who had acted as publisher for other periodicals, should have already known. It gives the impression that Bisco was strangely unconcerned with making the "Journal" a success.
In Part Three: The man that was used up.
(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)