Sunday, January 13, 2019

MS. Found in a Bottle

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

Two paintings illustrating scenes from Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle.” Left: “Upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship,” by British artist Byam Shaw (1872–1919), in Selected Tales of Mystery (London, 1909). Right: “The colossal waters rear their heads above us like demons of the deep,” by Irish artist Harry Clarke (1889–1931) in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London, 1923).
In the spring of 1833 Edgar Allan Poe, hoping to find with fiction the commercial success that had eluded him with his first three books of poetry, began working on a volume of stories. The unifying frame story for the collection featured members of a literary club, sharing each other’s tales at their meetings, amply fueled by alcohol. The members, who are “quite as ill-looking as they are stupid,” critique one another’s stories. “Their criticisms are intended as a burlesque upon criticism generally,” Poe wrote in a cover letter to one prospective publisher.

When the Baltimore Saturday Visiter announced a contest offering $50 for the best short story and $25 for the best poem, Poe submitted six of the stories he had written for the collection, as well as a poem. From the hundred entries to the story contest, Poe was the clear winner, and the judges wrote:
Among the prose articles offered were many of various and distinguished merit; but the singular force and beauty of those sent by the author of the Tales of the Folio Club, leave us no room for hesitation in that department. We have accordingly awarded the premium to a Tale entitled “MS. found in a Bottle.” It would hardly be doing justice to the writer of this collection to say that the Tale we have chosen is the best of the six offered by him. We cannot refrain from saying that the author owes it to his own reputation, as well as to the gratification of the community, to publish the entire volume. These Tales are eminently distinguished by a wild, vigorous, and poetical imagination — a rich style — a fertile invention — and varied and curious learning.
John Pendleton Kennedy, one of the judges for the award and future Secretary of the Navy, invited Poe to dinner. “I cannot come, for reasons of the most humiliating nature—my personal appearance,” Poe responded. “You may imagine my mortification in making this disclosure to you.” Kennedy immediately called on the young author and “found him in Baltimore in a state of starvation.” He gave him “clothing, free access to my table, and the use of a horse” and brought him up from “the very verge of despair.”

When Poe began circulating the manuscript of the Folio Club collection to publishers later that year, there were eleven tales in all, including five that had appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in 1832. By 1836 the book had grown to seventeen stories, all of which had been published in periodicals. By this time Poe was desperate to get his name before the public, and he offered the book at no charge to the publisher willing to take it on: “In regard to remuneration, as ¾ of the book will have been published before, I expect none beyond a few copies of the work.” (The other quarter of the book was the frame story.)

For three years Poe shopped his manuscript to publishers; all he received in return were rejection letters. The editors at Harper & Brothers sent a letter with comments that will surely seem familiar to many authors today:
Readers in this country have a decided and strong preference for works, (especially fictions) in which a single and connected story occupies the whole volume, or number of volumes, as the case may be; and we have always found that republications of Magazine articles, known to be such, are the most unsaleable of all literary performances. . . . The papers are too learned and mystical. They would be understood and relished only by a very few — not by the multitude. The number of readers in this country capable of appreciating and enjoying such writings as those you submitted to us is very small indeed. We were therefore inclined to believe that it was for your own interest not to publish them. It is all important to an author that his first work should be popular.
If Poe ever completed the frame story, in which the Folio Club members babble about their literary efforts, it is lost. All that survives is a draft of the introduction, presumably written for the book’s earliest eleven-story incarnation since it briefly describes eleven members of the club. Of these dunderheaded men, Mr. Solomon Seadrift (“who had every appearance of a fish”) was almost certainly to have been the narrator of “MS. Found in a Bottle.”

Mr. Seadrift might have been Poe’s parody of Captain Adam Seaborn, the pseudonymous author of Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery, a fictional travel adventure published in 1820 and often attributed to U.S. Army officer John Cleves Symmes Jr. The novel describes a journey to the Antarctic region and into the center of the earth. Whether or not Symmes was the actual author, Symzonia was inspired by his “scientific” theory that the earth was hollow and the entrances to the inner planet would be found at either pole. Poe scholar Richard P. Benton points out that the narrator of Poe’s story, shortly after finding paper for a record of the voyage, daubs “with a tar-brush” the word DISCOVERY on a barrel—possibly a coy reference to the subtitle of Symzonia.

After Poe gave up on finding a publisher for “Tales of the Folio Club,” he followed the advice he had received from publishers and finished his first (and only) novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1839). The last half of the work reimagines the sea voyage to the Antarctic Poe had first conjured in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” and it includes a lengthy passage from an address to Congress by Symmes acolyte Jeremiah N. Reynolds, who lobbied for an expedition to the South Pole to verify the Hollow Earth Theory. This time around Harper & Brothers agreed to publish the book, but alas, like the poems and tales that preceded it, the novel failed to provide Poe with the recognition and financial windfall he so desperately sought.

Notes: The epigraph by Philippe Quinault is from the French opera Atys (1676) and translates as “He whose life has only a moment left has nothing left to hide.” Pyrrhonism is skepticism, a reference to the Greek skeptic Pyrrho. The Latin phrase ignes fatui (foolish fire) refers to ghost lights or, figuratively, to misleading illusions. The port of Batavia is present-day Jakarta. Simoon (simoom) usually refers to a strong, dry, hot desert wind laden with dust; Poe is probably describing a typhoon. Jaggeree is made from a mixture of sugar cane juice and the sap from date or palm trees. New Holland was the name given to Australia by Dutch explorers. Eld is an archaic word for old age. Balbec (Baalbek, Lebanon), Tadmore (Palmyra, Syria), and Persepolis (Iran) are ancient ruins.

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Of my country and of my family I have little to say. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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