Thursday, January 29, 2009

Once upon a midnight dreary...

"The Raven" was likely already in print when the Evening Mirror published it on January 29, 1845. The American Review was authorized to print it in its February issue, which was likely already out by January 29. The American Review, however, did not print the poet's name, and instead attributed the poem to the curious pseudonym "Quarles." Whether the American Review or the Evening Mirror printed it first, both had permission to legitimately print it and, either way, "The Raven" was first published some time in January 1845, and one of those early editions came out today, January 29 — the first time Poe's name was attached to "The Raven."

In thinking about where I wanted to go with this blog post, I debated on several options. "The Raven" by itself merits some discussion as Poe's most famous, most popular, and most successful poem. The story of its composition (which necessitates a discussion of Poe's theme of "the death of a beautiful woman" as "the most poetical topic in the world") and its publication (supposedly after George Rex Graham turned it down!) is fascinating. Nonetheless, I'll focus more on the importance of the January 29, 1845 date and introduce Nathaniel Parker Willis to this blog.

Willis was the editor of the Evening Mirror when it printed "The Raven." He introduced the poem with his now-famous note:

We are permitted to copy (in advance of publication) from the 2d No. of the American Review, the following remarkable poem by EDGAR POE. In our opinion, it is the most effective single example of "fugitive poetry" ever published in this country; and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent, sustaining of imaginative lift and "pokerishness." It is one of these "dainties bred in a book" which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.
Willis was a very important character in the story of Poe — not to mention the story of the development of American literature. He knew everyone, and counted among his friends Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and countless other literary and public figures. He was the highest-paid magazine writer of his day (he was the success story that Poe would have envied), earning the equivalent of over $300,000 a year, though his writing was cheap, frilly, and today is (rightfully) forgotten.

To understand Willis's writing, you must understand his personality; the two were intrinsically linked. A typically Willis essay took you, the reader, into his study, where he described to you his elaborate desk, the pen he held, the view from out his window to the wooded glen in his back yard by the Hudson River. He would tell you, the reader, that his wealth was not inherited like kings and princes — he was an American, and it was democracy and capitalism that made him successful. He was, after all, a regular fellow who happened to make it big — and you, the reader, could some day have the same luck.

In reality, Willis's success came from his over-the-top personality; his arsenal included a conviviality that did not allow exceptions to his offers of friendship, a wit and humor that made all others laugh, and a handsome face with wispy, innocent curls hanging by his temples (at least as a younger man; as the beard became fashionable, Willis adopted the popular haggled, sort of unkempt look that Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and others adopted). This personality, of course, was chosen, rather than his natural personality — chosen because Willis knew it would lead him far. It meant he made friends with publishers, writers, and politicians (including Mary Todd Lincoln), and it meant that even readers who never met him would say, "What a great guy! I should read his poetry!" Some, however, saw through this, including Longfellow, a fellow Portland-born poet who spent an evening with Willis at the Astor House in New York. After their meal, Longfellow noted how fake Willis was and admitted he suddenly liked his poetry a lot less.

But, Willis was a huge friend to Poe, and that relationship didn't seem fake. Willis had suffered nearly as much tragedy in his life as Poe — his own wife Mary Stace had died in childbirth in 1845 just as Poe's wife Virginia was in the final stages of tuberculosis. Willis published an ad in his Home Journal (the periodical he helped found for which he was editor is now known as Town & Country Magazine) asking for financial support to his friend Poe and his dying wife — unsolicited by Poe, by the way. Willis sent financial assistance, offers of work, and requests for writing to Poe throughout his life.

Willis also, of course, played an important role after Poe's death. Ultimately, it's hard to determine, however, if Willis can be labeled a "friend" of Poe. After Poe's death, Willis — in his unending battle to become everyone's friend — built up a convivial relationship with someone with whom he should have sparred over Poe: Rufus Wilmot Griswold. But, more on him later.

I'll conclude with what has likely become the most famous word ever written by Poe, in celebration of today's anniversary: "Nevermore."

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