Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Death of the Broadway Journal / The Birth of The Stylus

On January 3, 1846, the final issue of the Broadway Journal was issued in New York. Edgar Poe had been its editor and sole proprietor for its final few issues after his partners, Bisco and Briggs, backed away from the project. It was the only journal that Poe ever owned, though it did not deter him from what was arguably the biggest goal in his life: producing his own journal, The Stylus.

Reasons for the failure of the Broadway Journal are manifold and the truth is that Poe inherited a journal which was already struggling in a periodical-saturated market. It's hard to blame him for its demise (though, feel free to argue by leaving a comment to this entry).

It is tempting, however, to speculate on Poe's skills as a publisher. First and foremost, Poe was not a businessperson and we certainly can't remember him as one (much of his business moves were guided by his personal adviser and mother-in-law Maria Clemm, and it would be an interesting debate to discuss whether she was a help or a hamper). Assuming Poe was able to bring in a partner to The Stylus, which isn't unlikely considering the many he courted to aid him in the endeavor (including Thomas Holley Chivers), I would argue that Poe would have brought a hefty journal into the world.

He seems to have proven himself in his many editorial roles. With Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia, for example, he often corresponded with contributors and potential contributors; he solicited for new material; he engaged in finding illustrations; he even helped contributors track down money that they were owed from his boss, George R. Graham, who very often was behind in paying his bills for one reason or another. Of course, as a critic, Poe had established himself as a substantial "name" bordering on celebrity status - his contributions of literary reviews alone would have driven many subscribers to his doorstep.

More than this, I like to believe that Poe was able to dig deep into all the nitty-gritty details of publisher. Presumably, he knew about illustrations and woodcuts and the like. He knew about ink, publishing machinery, distributing to subscribers, and setting type (a very basic knowledge would have been needed for him to write his hilarious story "X-ing a Paragrab"). Certainly, by the end of the Broadway Journal, he was a one-man show who must have been involved with all of these aspects.

It's certainly fun to think what The Stylus might have been, had it ever come to fruition. What really would have made its success such a challenge, however, was how high Poe was aiming. Purposely avoiding the tendency to cater to the mainstream "unwashed masses" of readers, The Stylus would have been high brow, to say the least. Poe's goal was nothing less than advancing the state of American letters to create a higher quality literary canon on this side of the pond. In a world where gift-books thrived, and the coming "feminine fifties" promoting sappy poetry about flowers and the like, The Stylus would have struggled to find an audience and, I think, would ultimately have disappeared as fast as the countless other journals that never thrived in the 19th century.

Why was The Stylus never born? My guess is that it would have been, had Poe not died in October 1849.

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