Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Tales" by Edgar A. Poe announced

An advertisement in the March 22, 1845, issue of the New York-based Weekly News reported: "Wiley & Putnam have in press a volume of Poe's 'Tales by Edgar A. Poe'." Indeed, the work in question — with the very simple title Tales by Edgar A. Poe — was a long time coming. In early March, Wiley & Putnam agreed to issue the collection as the second volume in their "Library of American Books," purposely trying to capitalize on the recent success of Poe's poem "The Raven." The book was copyrighted on June 13 and released on June 25.

For Poe, this is a bit unusual. As a writer, Poe was generally writing exclusively for whatever magazine he was attached to — or, worse, stuck with freelancing. This meant that pay was low, as was circulation. Payments were often slow and Poe was, quite often, forced into drudgery writing just to make money (this has led many scholars to speculate as to which of Poe's works were meant to be taken seriously and which were merely an appeal for quick cash... amongst those on the latter list include "The Raven," "The Gold-Bug," and almost all of his horror tales). Copyright was also a major concern, as many magazines (likely due to their non-stop monthly or even weekly schedule) didn't bother copyrighting — Graham's Magazine is believed to be the first. Shorter works like Poe's were often pirated wholesale and reproduced — even legitimately as part of critical reviews in which massive quoting was the norm; beyond what today's "fair use" laws would allow. Some would say that Poe's focus on the magazine industry rather than the book industry was the sole catalyst for Poe's incessant financial woes; a writer like Washington Irving, for example, actually was capable of turning a profit by focusing on book publishing.

Truth be told, in Poe's lifetime, very few of his works were in book format, and even fewer were produced on a massive scale. Tales likely inspired a great sigh of relief from Poe — Wiley & Putnam even secured the copyright overseas and issued a British edition in July (cross-continental copyright was much more precarious than the magazine industry). The book was a success; by October 4, Poe was claiming 1500 copies sold in the U.S. Of course, Poe was not well-versed in the art of book publishing and did not secure a good deal with Wiley & Putnum; Tales did not make Poe any significant amount of money.

In case you're interested, the table of contents for Tales should really whet your appetite. Its contents were dictated by the influential-yet-forgotten Evert Augustus Duyckinck; Poe was not particularly pleased (noting an excessive focus on ratiocinative tales), but the list isn't so bad for a compact 12-tale book*: "The Gold-Bug," "The Black Cat," "Mesmeric Revelation," "Lionizing," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "A Descent into the Maelström," "The Colloquey of Monos and Una," "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie RogĂȘt," "The Purloined Letter," and "The Man of the Crowd."

*With the exception of "Lionizing," which is not worth the ink! It's also curious that "The Tell-Tale Heart" did not make the cut. Like Poe, I was also surprised by the lack of "Ligeia" and "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether."

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