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Thomas Willis White & Virginia Clemm

The Messenger and Marriage to Virginia Clemm

November 1834 - January 1837


Thomas Willis White, Richmond printer, began in the printing business at age eleven. In August 1834 he launched a new magazine, The Southern Literary Messenger. The magazine was, so to say, politically correct - made to be "a source of innocent amusement". Some would describe the magazine as boring but it was well received and after about ten months White claimed that he had nearly 1000 subscribers.
Despite the success he found himself hard-run for money and needed the help of a trained editor. Early in 1835 White began hearing from Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore. Edgar gave White many advice but at the same time he stated that "I have no intention of giving you advice". That was a good move since White was very eager on staying in control. Edgar's advice was welcomed and after Edgar's advice on changing the font, the magazine was praised for its typography.
White began publishing Poe's tales and book reviews and the money Edgar made on this came very much in handy since he had trouble supporting himself. He lived in poverty and starvation but tried to keep his appearances up. Despite his worn-out clothing he always tried to keep a respectable surface. Kennedy advised White to employ Edgar permanently, which was needed more than ever since Poe had fallen in love with his cousin Virginia, "my own darling", as he called her. He wished to marry her despite the fact that she was only two weeks past the age of thirteen. When Edgar's grandmother died they also lost a $240 annual pension that was granted for General David Poe's widow for life. Now Poe had a chance to support Virginia and Muddy, as Maria Clemm was familiarly know. In June White wrote to Edgar offering him a job.
In August Edgar went to Richmond and he was offered a monthly salary of $60. Two weeks after these good news Edgar received a shaking letter from Muddy. She complained about the poverty in which they lived and said that Neilson Poe had offered to take Virginia to live with him, and perhaps Muddy too. Neilson did this probably not only to rescue them from poverty but also to prevent the marriage between Edgar and Virginia.
Edgar was emotionally hurt and afraid to lose his beloved Virginia. His reply to the letter shows of his uproaring emotions and of a probable alcoholic blur. He expressed his strong love for Virginia and "blinded with tears" he said that he would be extremely hurt if they decided to leave him. He even claimed that if they would accept Neilson's offer he would think of killing himself.
Poe was successful in his work with the Messenger and White took fatherly care of Edgar, his own son having died at the age of nineteen, three years earlier. Poe also got acquainted with White's 18-year-old daughter, an intelligent and graceful blonde with blue eyes named Eliza. The possibility of losing Virginia might have caused Edgar to become romantically involved with her.
Poe was unable to take any pleasure of his success and by early September he turned to drinking. He wrote a desperate letter with a suicidal tone to Kennedy asking for help to convince him of the necessity of living. By the time Kennedy reached Richmond, Edgar had already left. Whether he quit or was fired is unknown but the editor felt somewhat relieved and said that he wouldn't be surprised "to hear that he had been guilty of suicide."
Poe had returned to Baltimore and on September 22 he and Virginia took out a marriage license and were perhaps privately married. To marry a first cousin was not unusual at the time but to marry at such a young age as Virginia was extremely rare. Edgar's way of calling her "sissy", "sis", or "my darling little wife" and that he had flirted with his fourteen-year-old cousin Elisabeth suggest that Edgar had a preference for child-like women rather than a mature or simply a young woman.
Whether married or only engaged, Poe hoped to return to Richmond and wrote White to get his job back. White desired to have Poe with him, but he was afraid that Edgar would turn to drinking again. Edgar was offered the possibility of getting his job back if he would not turn to the bottle again. If he did go back to drinking, their relation would end immediately. On Saturday evening, October 3, Poe returned to Richmond and with him he brought Muddy and Virginia.
At Christmas time Poe looked on the new year optimistically. He felt better that he had for years and he managed to support the three of them, living in a local boarding house for $9 a week. Muddy felt thankful and said "myself & daughter know that we have someone to love & care for us."

Writings in the Southern Literary Messenger

Poe performed all the duties of an editor at the Messenger. He advised White on articles, edited copy, checked proof, took care of the typography, and wrote on his own. His work gave him knowledge about the magazine business as well as contacts with respected literary figures.
Among the stories he published in the Messenger was "Berenice - a tale", "Morella", "Lionizing - a tale", and "Hans Phaal - A tale". In creating "Berenice", "Morella", and similar stories Poe drew on a widely popular tradition of Gothic fiction. In "Metzengerstein" Edgar had been influenced by British, American, and continental writing from nearly half a century back. He was particularly influenced by the so-called `German Tales' featured in Blackwood's and other English magazines of the period. These tales originated among German romantic writers who gave English Gothicism their own twists and, disregarding probability, greatly exaggerated elements of the horrible and the supernatural.
Gothic fiction aimed at creating the presence of something that suspends and calls into doubt the laws of the universe. Poe's influences from Gothic literature can be seen in his use of premature burials, animated portraits, physical decay, mansions, and castles. Egaeus and many of his other protagonists also share with the Gothic hero the isolation, sensibility, the degenerated lineage from an ancient family and often addiction to alcohol or opium. They often help in creating an uncertainty about the correct interpretation of reality.
Poe especially liked the kind of personal narration called "tale of sensation" where the persons are usually solitary victims of a life-threatening predicament, about to be executed, or about to have a fatal accident. This can be seen particularly in "Loss of Breath" (an expanded version of his "A Decided Loss").
Poe did not merely imitate the Gothic tales, he also enriched them by preserving a central action while adding philosophical speculations and lore that deepened the impressions of the tales. He also explored the Gothic tale's technical possibilities and structured his language rigorously to keep the prose moving and alive.
Poe made no radical changes in the conduct of the Messenger, except in greatly enlarging the magazine's critical department. In each issue he devoted about fifteen double-columned pages to reviews, most of which he wrote himself. He reviewed not only fiction and poetry but also explored new areas such as medical works, Latin grammars, dictionaries, other magazines etc. Poe built a reputation as a critic of blunt, unshakable principle and his frankness was welcomed by many, since they had developed a fear for "the tyranny of majority." Poe became a critic to be feared and was not afraid of giving bad criticism to respected authors. One of his reviews started with:

"The most remarkable feature in this production is the bad paper on which it is printed"

Poe drew some public attention to himself in December 1835 by reviewing "Norman Leslie", a much- heralded novel written by a New York lawyer, Theodore Fay, which became a best-seller. In the review Edgar called Fay's style "unworthy of a school-boy" and he completely ridiculed the novel.
Edgar did not only comment on the literary quality but also on the grammar, punctuation and syntax. As a proof reader he was unequaled and his criticism was often considered extremely picky, but in justification of his scrutiny it should be said that the grammar and punctuation in much American writing at the time were astonishingly corrupt. But on the other hand, Poe often made the same errors as he criticized others of doing. He often made mistakes when writing quotes in foreign languages since he lacked knowledge in them.
While becoming a prominent magazinist himself, Poe made the Messenger popular and respected. Praised for the originality of its verse and fiction, the eminence of its contributors, the neatness of its typography, and the fearlessness of its reviews, the magazine became an important regional journal.


Last modified: February 07 2006 19:07:45.