April 20, 2011

Poe and Willis: good word in season

From his quaint cottage at Fordham, New York, Edgar Allan Poe wrote to editor and poet Nathaniel Parker Willis on April 20, 1849:

The poem which I enclose, and which I am so vain as to hope you will like, in some respects, has been just published in a paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It pays well as times go — unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices; for whatever I send it I feel I am consigning to the tomb of the Capulets. The verses... may I beg you to take out of the tomb, and bring them to light in the Home Journal?

Poe and Willis had been running in the same circle for years: both were editors, critics, and publishers in addition to writers themselves. Willis had founded the Home Journal, which exists today as Town and Country magazine. At the time of this letter, the final year of Poe's life, most of his new works were published in Boston's Flag of Our Union — a weekly newspaper which Poe (and others) considered trashy and certainly not high literature. In fact, Poe even suggested Willis not bother mentioning the Flag if republished. The poem, "For Annie," is now recognized as one of Poe's greatest.

About four years earlier, Willis had also republished another poem which Poe hoped would have wider circulation: in 1845, Willis republished "The Raven" in the New York Mirror. Willis's publication of that poem was the first to include Poe's name. Poe concluded his 1849 letter referencing that publication:  "I have not forgotten how a 'good word in season' from you made 'The Raven'" (emphasis mine). Poe died less than six months later.

The home where the letter was written, the Poe Cottage, is now run by the Bronx County Historical Society and is undergoing substantial repairs. A new visitor center is also being built. It will reopen to the public soon.

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