Today, we know Edgar Allan Poe as one of the seminal authors of the Gothic genre, so it may surprise readers of “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” to learn that he made his living not as a writer of poems and tales, but as an editor for a number of magazines. His non-fiction, particularly his reviews and essays, garnered a grudging respect from the literary community—and earned him a few rivals, too, whose criticism of his work and character followed him to the grave.
His first non-fiction pieces appeared in 1835, in the Southern Literary Messenger. The magazine’s owner, Thomas W. White, hired him as an editor, a post that he retained for two years. The experience was evidently so formative that in 1840, three years after he vacated the editorship, he issued a prospectus for Penn Magazine, “which should retain some of the chief features of that Journal [the Messenger],” but which would allow him greater editorial freedom.
A lack of funds ultimately prevented Penn Magazine from coming to fruition; however, Poe continued to publish his non-fiction in such periodicals as the Saturday Evening Post and Graham’s Magazine. Around the same time, he was contracted by Godey’s Lady’s Book to produce profiles of New York intellectuals for a five-part series called “The Literati of New York City.” His work for Godey’s, in particular, suggests an outsider’s attempt to break into the “insiders only” literary world.
Poe’s reviews and essays gained him a reputation as a difficult critic and spawned several rivalries. Most notably, he found an adversary in the editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold, when he wrote an unenthusiastic review of Griswold’s The Poets and Poetry of America for The Boston Miscellany of Literature and Fashion.
The two battled back and forth for years, and after Poe’s death, Griswold published a cutting obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune under the pseudonym Ludwig. He claimed that “few [would] be grieved” by Poe’s passing, and that “the regrets for his death [would] be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art […] lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.” He was not finished: In 1850, he released “Memoir of an Author,” in which he accused Poe of recklessness, blackmail, and desertion of his military post. Griswold went so far as to falsify letters to corroborate his reports—all because of a negative review that he had received several years earlier.
Poe’s non-fiction, and the animosity that it sometimes engendered, heavily influenced his image. For nearly twenty-five years, the public’s knowledge of Poe was drawn from the fictitious “Memoir,” and it took many years after that still for his reputation to improve. Although we may not be as familiar with his reviews and notices as we are with his poems and tales, these pieces contributed, in one way or another, to much of the mythology surrounding Poe.
- The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. The Life and Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, 1997. http://www.eapoe.org/index.htm. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.
- The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore and Beyond: Selections from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection. Johns Hopkins University, 2017. http://exhibits.library.jhu.edu/exhibits/show/enigmatic-edgar. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.