Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Business Man

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

“The Times,” July 1837, drawing by Edward Williams Clay (1799-1857), lithograph on wove paper printed and published by H.R. Robinson, New York. Library of Congress.

In May 1837, five months after Edgar Allan Poe moved to Manhattan, New York banks suspended the payment of specie for commercial papers in May, setting off an economic depression that lasted seven years. The cartoon depicts crowds outside a pawnshop (left), a bank (center), and the sheriff’s office (right). The spirit of Andrew Jackson, who was largely blamed for the crisis, hovers in the sky. “Principal figures” identified by the Library of Congress include “(from left to right): a mother with infant (sprawled on a straw mat), an intoxicated Bowery tough, a militiaman (seated, smoking), a banker or landlord encountering a begging widow with child, a barefoot sailor, a driver or husbandman, a Scotch mason (seated on the ground), and a carpenter. These are in contrast to the prosperous attorney ‘Peter Pillage,’ who is collected by an elegant carriage at the far right.”

“It is an evil growing out of our republican institutions, that here a man of large purse has usually a very little soul which he keeps in it,” observed Edgar Allan Poe in “The Philosophy of Furniture,” an essay about—of all things—interior decorating. “The corruption of taste is a portion or a pendant of the dollar-manufacture. As we grow rich, our ideas grow rusty.” Poe’s essay explains that the upper class in America has no sense of style because its sense of home decoration has been governed by “the display of wealth” and “the rage for glitter.” While Poe’s essay was meant humorously, its underlying message about the conflict between refinement and materialism, or between art and business, appears throughout his writings. And few things seem to agitate him more than the business of running a magazine.

In the summer of 1838, after living in Manhattan for eighteen months, Poe moved to Philadelphia, with his wife (and cousin), Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, and his mother-in-law (and aunt), Maria Poe Clemm. He had been unable to find employment, in part because of the recession that followed the Panic of 1837, when New York banks, their gold and silver reserves depleted, suspended payment on commercial paper. The family struggled to survive from his meager earnings for freelance articles and from Mrs. Clemm’s income as manager of a boarding house. His first and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, was a flop and the reviews were hostile; a typical critic, William E. Burton of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, declared that “a rapid succession of improbabilities destroys the interest of the reader, and the writer’s evident ignorance in all nautical matters forbids the possibility of belief.” Poe’s situation didn’t get any better after he moved to Philadelphia; as of May 1839, he had made less than two hundred dollars in the previous two and a half years.

Finally, in what must have been an awkward interview for both men, Poe met with Burton—the very critic who had trashed his novel—about obtaining an editorial position at the magazine. A British playwright and comic actor, Burton had arrived in Philadelphia in 1834, the year after his play Ellen Wareham was an enormous success in London. He ended up staying in the U.S. and, in 1837, established a new monthly magazine that (its advertisements promised) would feature fine paper and sturdy bindings, include an abundance of engravings, and contain in each issue “more reading matter than a volume of a novel.”

The economic depression and a shortfall in subscriptions had curbed Burton’s ambitions somewhat. Yet, since he was often on the road starring in stage productions, he needed an assistant editor and talked Poe down to a salary of $10 a week. Over the course of the next year, Poe would write most of the magazine’s reviews, numerous occasional pieces, and several stories and essays, including “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Man in the Crowd.” He also began serial publication of “The Journal of Julius Rodman,” about the first (entirely fictitious) transcontinental expedition in 1792.

Tensions between publisher and his new coeditor appeared within the first month. On May 30, 1839, Burton responded to a letter from Poe that has not survived:
I am sorry that you thought necessary to send me such a letter as your last. The troubles of the world have given a morbid tone to your feelings which it is your duty to discourage. . . . We shall agree very well, but you must get rid of your avowed ill-feelings towards your brother authors—you see that I speak plainly—indeed, I cannot speak otherwise. Several of my friends, hearing of our connexion, have warned me of your uncalled for severity in criticism. . . . The independence of my book reviews has been noticed throughout the Union, . . . but there is no necessity for undue severity.
Burton’s admonishment that Poe must tone down his reviews was largely ignored, and it was in the pages of Burton’s that Poe launched his multi-year “war” on Longfellow and accused the celebrated poet of the rather absurd charge of plagiarism.

As the economy worsened and money became scarcer, Burton—who refused to cut corners on the production of the magazine—simply stopped paying the authors. In November, facing the predictable shortfall of submissions, he promoted a contest offering $1,000 in prizes to authors of the best stories, essays, and poems that appeared in the magazine. Individual awards ranged from $50 to $250—amounts unheard of for short works in the first half of the nineteenth century. Joseph Evans Snodgrass, Poe’s close friend and one of the authors Burton had stiffed earlier in the year, asked about the details of the contest and Poe responded, “I can give you no information about their designation further than is shown in the advertisement itself. The truth is, I object, in toto, to the whole scheme—but merely followed in Mr B’s wake upon such matters of business.” (The emphasis, tellingly, is Poe’s.) Burton first postponed the deadline for the contest and then, citing a dearth of submissions, canceled it and didn’t award a cent to the entries that had already appeared in the magazine’s pages. In June 1840 Poe told Snodgrass, “I am firmly convinced that it was never his intention to pay one dollar of the money offered; and indeed his plain intimations to that effect, made to me personally and directly, were the immediate reasons of my cutting the connexion as abruptly as I did.”

In fact, Poe had been fired. Throughout his tenure, Poe had been scheming to establish his own (competing) magazine, while Burton had been hoping to build his own theater in Philadelphia—a project that would require him to raise funds by selling the magazine. In mid-May 1840, soon after Burton announced the magazine was for sale, Poe published a prospectus for his new magazine—which lowered the value of the magazine Burton was trying to sell. The two men went their own ways. Several months later Burton finally sold the magazine, and he used the $3,500 purchase price to lease and refurbish the abandoned Cooke’s Royal Circus building (which had been damaged in a fire) and reopen it as the National Theater. At first the venture was prosperous, but in July 1841 Burton lost most of his earnings after the collapse of the United States Bank of Pennsylvania, managed by Nicholas Biddle. Poe fared better; because of the financial crisis, he was unable to raise funds for his magazine, but he was soon hired by Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine—the new name of the very magazine Burton had sold. Poe did not, however, finish writing “The Journal of Julius Rodman,” which abruptly ended after the sixth installment in Burton’s.

It was amidst this tumultuous backdrop that Poe published “Peter Pendulum, The Business Man” in the February 1840 issue of Burton’s, the same month that the magazine’s “contest” was originally scheduled to end. Three years later, he added six paragraphs describing four more business scams, shortened the title to “The Business Man,” changed the character’s name to “Peter Proffit,” and reprinted it in the Saturday Museum. In 1845, when he was editor of The Broadway Journal, he made additional revisions and reprinted it a second time, which is the text we present below.

In his analysis of “The Business Man,” Thomas F. Marvin argues that, “seen in the light of Poe’s experiences in the publishing industry, . . . the story emerges as a pointed satire on the business of magazine publishing.” Other scholars have pointed to additional inspirations. J. A. Leo Lemay, who calls it “one of the cruelest burlesques of antebellum American materialism,” contends that it is both a rejection of the American concept of the “self-made” man and, more specifically, of the ideas presented in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin—whose profile adorned the title page of Burton’s. Several biographers have regarded the story as Poe’s repudiation of his deceased guardian, John Allan, a prosperous merchant in Richmond who had regarded his foster son as a wastrel and who had cut Poe entirely out of his will. All critics agree that, with slapstick and derision, the story satirizes American greed by pitting Peter Proffit against individuals and society without regard to culture, dignity, or morality.

Note: The abbreviation Nem. con. is Nemine contradicente, or “without opposition”.

Thomas F. Marvin’s article, “‘These Days of Double Dealing’: Edgar Allan Poe and the Business of Magazine Publishing,” American Periodicals (2001), provided several of the details on Poe’s experiences working with William Burton.

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I am a business man. I am a methodical man. Method is the thing, after all. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.