Monday, October 19, 2009

$50 found in a bottle

On October 19, 1833, Baltimore's Saturday Visiter published Poe's tale "MS. Found in a Bottle." The tale is considered one of Poe's first major success. The newspaper was sponsoring a writing contest, as announced in their June 15, 1833 issue: "The proprietors of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter feeling desirous of encouraging literature, and at the same time serving their readers with the best that lies within their reach, offer a premium of 50 dollars for the best Tale and 25 dollars for the best Poem, not exceeding 100 lines." Though the newspaper claimed it was a national contest, both winners were identified as "Baltimoreans" — including Poe.

Interestingly, the paper had been founded in part by Lambert Wilmer, a friend of Poe's older brother. The judges for the contest, which included John Pendleton Kennedy, deliberated on October 7. Poe was chosen as the winner for prose and he was granted the $50 prize (apparently this translates to just over $1000 today). His prize-winning tale was published 12 days later with an introduction praising that it was "highly graphic in its style of composition."

"MS. Found in a Bottle" tells the story of an unnamed narrator ("Of my country and of my family I have little to say.") whose was a passenger aboard a ship caught in a hurricane/sandstorm/typhoon. Everyone aboard the ship is blown overboard — except the narrator and an old Swedish man. Driven south by the storm, this ship eventually collides with another, and the narrator climbs on board. It is while aboard this strange ship, continuously heading south, that the narrator begins to record a journal (the "manuscript" of the title). That manuscript is thrown into the sea just before... well, you'll have to read the story.

This incident was not without controversy. Shortly after "MS. Found in a Bottle" was published, Poe's poetry submission, "The Coliseum," was published as well. In fact, the poetry contest winner was "Henry Wilton" — a pseudonym for John H. Hewitt, one of the judges of the contest. Poe (and others) was outraged and suspected something was afoul. He, of course, presumed he would have been the poetry winner, if it wasn't for the whole contest being rigged. Decades later, in 1885, Hewitt claimed that he had a fistfight with Poe on the street over the accusation (no further evidence exists to substantiate this claim). A third judge, John H. B. Latrobe, later admitted that Poe was right: he would have won, if not for Hewitt.

Either way, "MS. Found in a Bottle" was a major financial boon for Poe, not to mention a morale boost for the struggling writer early in his career. Poe would continue writing adventures at sea for many years, including his only complete novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. He would later win another writing contest with his tale "The Gold-Bug."

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