Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America

By Terence Whalen | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
FABLES OF CIRCULATION
POE'S INFLUENCE ON THE MESSENGER

ALONGSIDE THE MYTH of Poe as a romantic outcast, there has always been a second story, one that tells of a brilliant but underpaid critic who had an uncanny knack for transforming dull magazines into hot properties. According to this account, Poe—still unknown and untested—took control of the struggling Southern Literary Messenger and singlehandedly made it into one of the most famous and lucrative magazines in the country. He did all this, the story continues, without much gratitude from Thomas Willis White, because the prudish proprietor was so busy being scandalized that he failed to appreciate Poe's unprecedented commercial achievement. Unable to reconcile their differences, the two men parted ways in the end, a separation which returned Poe to undeserved poverty and which condemned the Messenger to White's plodding and unprofitable control. This general interpretation of the Messenger has today attained universal acceptance, in part because it serves as a kind of tragic fable about the misunderstanding between genius and capitalism. What I shall do here is to trace the history and significance of the magazinist fable from its point of origin to the present. In the course of doing so, I shall present new evidence which challenges both entrepreneurial and romantic stories, thereby enabling the circulation of a less fabulous account of Poe and the industry of letters.

The point of this new account is not to show that Poe lied, but instead to explore how generations of critics have misunderstood the true conditions of literary business in antebellum America. In part, then, this chapter aims to sweep away some of the critical sediment which today obscures the historical context in which Poe dreamed about founding his own magazine. This publishing venture—first called Penn Magazine and later The Stylus—was for Poe a desperate and consuming passion; in 1847 he claimed that it was “the grand purpose of my life, from which I have never swerved for a moment” (Letters, 2:333). Though he never succeeded, Poe's constant struggle to become his own publisher reveals an astute grasp of the economic determinants of literature. Lacking sinecure, inheritance, or institutional support, a writer could rise above mere subsistence only by owning the text and the material commodity which enabled its circulation in the mass market. As one of Poe's correspondents prophesied, “you [n]ever have been, or ever will be, paid for your intellectual labor … until you establish a Magazine of your own” (Poe

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