Sunday, July 30, 2023

‘X-ing a Paragrab’

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

A case of cast metal type pieces and a composing stick. (Photo by Willi Heidelbach, Wikimedia Commons)

The University of Virginia Library is home to a fragment of a letter written by Edgar Allan Poe sometime around the beginning of March in 1849. He teases two pieces scheduled to be published in Flag of Our Union, a Boston weekly featuring new fiction and poetry: “The Flag has 2 of my tales now — Hop-Frog & another called ‘X-ing a Paragrab’: — guess what that is about if you can!”

“Hop Frog” has become one of the better known of Poe’s tales (we previously presented it as a Story of the Week selection), but “X-ing a Paragrab” holds a curious, marginal place in his bibliography. A light-hearted bagatelle, it would be the second to last prose piece published in his lifetime (the final sketch, “Landor’s Cottage,” appeared a month later), and it is often glossed over in the biographies of Poe and in critical appraisals of his work.

The anecdote at the center of the tale “is by no means original with Poe,” writes Thomas Ollive Mabbott, whose annotations for Poe’s story cite as examples two contemporary pieces in the New-York Mirror, both about the “printers’ custom of substituting X for a letter for which type is lacking.” Although Poe’s humorous take on the topic doesn’t evoke the dread or chills of his most famous works, it does speak to one of his own personal “terrors”: having his text mangled by a typesetter or printer. As Michael J. S. Williams notes in A World of Words: Language and Displacement in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, “On the most obvious thematic level, then, ‘X-ing a Paragrab’ dramatizes that element of risk, that ‘unknown quantity of X’ that intervenes between the act of writing a manuscript and its final printed version and threatens to deflate by X-ing an author’s sense of ‘conscious power’ in composition.”

Poe’s affiliation with Flag of Our Union fueled his anxieties. The four poems and four stories published during his lifetime after February 1849 all appeared in the popular weekly, and he felt the pieces were cheapened by their very presence in its pages. The rushed pace of publication for the journal exasperated him. When he was unable to make a handful of last-minute changes and corrections to the poem “For Annie,” he convinced editor Nathaniel Parker Willis to print, only days after it appeared in the Flag, a clean copy in The Home Journal, a subterfuge that angered his editors. Poe felt his work was tainted by association with the down-market fare that crowded the Flag’s newspaper format, but he desperately needed the money. “In this emergency I sell articles to the vulgar and trashy ⸺ – — ⸺, for $5 a piece,” he wrote to one friend. “I enclose my last, cut out, lest you should see by my sending the paper in what company I am forced to appear.” Against the backdrop of these challenges and humiliations, Poe wrote his satire of dueling editors, commercial printers, and corrupted texts.

Note: The “logic of a Brownson” is a sarcastic reference to the writings of Orestes Augustus Brownson, especially the didactic novel Charles Elwood, or The Infidel Converted (1840). Brownson ended a decade’s association with the Transcendentalists when he converted to Catholicism in 1844. “Oh, tempora! Oh, Moses!” is Mr. Bullet-head’s malapropism (or his apprentice’s typo?) for Cicero’s “O tempora, o mores” (“Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!”). Bullet-head hails from Frogpondium, Poe’s disparaging name for Boston, referring to the Frog Pond in the Boston Common. The line “Off with his head, So much for Buckingham!” is from Colley Cibber’s 1699 adaptation of Richard III, which was more commonly performed than Shakespeare’s original play. A printer’s devil was the term used for a young apprentice who performs small tasks, such as mixing ink, gathering type, and cleaning presses. XX and XXX were markings used by breweries to denote the quality and/or the strength of its ale.

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As it is well known that the ‘wise men’ came ‘from the East,’ and as Mr. Touch-and-go Bullet-head came from the East, it follows that Mr. Bullet-head was a wise man; and if collateral proof of the matter be needed, here we have it—Mr. B. was an editor. . . . 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.