Friday, November 20, 2009

Grotesque and Arabesque

Perhaps in ironic contrast to yesterday's post, publishers Lea and Blanchard wrote to Poe on November 20, 1839, declining to print more copies of a book of his writings.

The publishing history of Poe's prose collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was a horror story unto itself. The collection was two volumes, packaging a hefty 25 stories (including "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Man That Was Used Up," "Ligeia," and "William Wilson" in volume one; "Berenice," "Metzengerstein," "Von Jung," and "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" in volume two). The Philadelphia-based publishers originally offered a production run of 1750 copies. However, still reeling from the Bank Panic of 1837, the struggling economy forced them to cut back to 750 copies. It was released in the first week of December 1839, though it carried an 1840 copyright notice.

They offered to take all financial risk. This is substantial; Poe had to pay out of his own pocket for the publication of his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Having little money, he was limited to only about 50 copies. The book went virtually unnoticed. Typically, publishing in this period required authors personally to purchase any and all unsold copies after a certain time period. Lea & Blanchard were sure to point out their kindness, and their regret for such kindness. In their letter, they noted: "When we undertook their publication, it was solely to oblige you and not with any view to profit." In fact, they noted their concern about recovering their initial investment, and kindly noted Poe should consider contributing "to relieve us from the publication at cost, or even a small abatement."

Poe hoped he could persuade his publishers to eke out a few extra copies. After all, no less a literary luminary than Washington Irving had offered his endorsement of Poe's prose. Reviews noted the book showed "a power of vivid description, an opulence of imagination, a fecundity of invention, and a command over the elegances of diction which have seldom been displayed."

However, the response from Lea & Blanchard in their November 20 letter was straightforward. Hypothetically considering if they were to do it all over again, the publishers noted: "If the offer was now before us we should certainly decline it."


Anonymous said...

Rob, Remember your post about Poe's handwriting analysis? He wrote about Cooper, and I wondered at the time if Poe had ever read Twain's comments about Cooper's work. Well, Elyse at Gillray's Print Shop has a new post about T's criticims. Take a look--I think you might enjoy it.

Rob Velella said...

Well, remember that Poe had been dead for about 25 years when Twain wrote that essay, so it's not likely he'd heard of it. But, both Poe and Twain had perfectly valid complaints about Cooper!