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The Southern Literary Messenger's building at the corner of 15th and Main streets. Image courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center
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A miniature painting of Thomas Willis White Image courtesy of the Poe Museum
The Southern Literary Messenger printed its first monthly issue in August 1834, and a year later, it added an assistant editor, Edgar Allan Poe. During the publication's 30 years of existence, it set the bar for literary periodicals throughout the South and the country. The national division that resulted in the Civil War eventually shuttered the magazine, which became a casualty of the conflict in 1864. By then, creeping partisanship dominated its editorial pages.
For most of its existence, energetic men in their mid-20s ran the Messenger, though they knew little to nothing about journalism. Theirs was a mission to bring some beauty and humor into the world before the clouds descended.
The endeavor began, though, with Thomas Willis White, an avuncular printer and a Williamsburg tailor's son. "Genial, optimistic and portly," was how Edward L. Tucker described White in a 1971 issue of Virginia Cavalcade, a history magazine published by the Library of Virginia. Possessing little formal education, White entered the printing trade as a boy. By the 1820s, he'd settled in Richmond, where he published the works of local writers such as James Ewell Heath, whose day job was working as the state auditor. He wrote novels on the side.
Heath and White collaborated to form the Messenger, "a magazine devoted to literature, science and art," which contained poems, short stories, book reviews and serialized fiction. The magazine ultimately published the work of some 300 Southern writers whose varied backgrounds — lawyers, educators, clergy and military men among them — distinguished the contributors from professional authors.
Heath declined payment from White for his services but realized the work demanded a full-time editor. He stepped aside in favor of the 34-year-old Maine-born writer and journalist Edward Vernon Sparhawk, who served a mere three months. But with Sparhawk as editor, the Messenger published three stories by the Richmond-raised Poe, struggling in near-penury as a poet in Baltimore.
In "Berenice," a husband is obsessed with his wife's teeth. After she's accidentally thought dead and is buried alive, in his craze of grief, the man disinters her to extract the teeth. The title character of "Morella" is a brilliant and beautiful woman who tells her husband that she'll die in childbirth but continue through her daughter. This comes true, and the widower is loath to name the child, who bears greater resemblance to her dead mother as she grows older. "The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall" details a trip to the moon — an early instance of science fiction.
Some readers complained about the Gothic horror elements. Publisher White passed these comments along to the author. Poe's response? The history of magazines showed that pieces that gained celebrity attracted readers. "Berenice" might border on bad taste, but people noticed.
Baltimore novelist John Pendleton Kennedy urged White to hire Poe for editing and writing to save the man from starvation. White, with some misgivings, brought Poe back to Richmond in August 1835.
Poe contributed rafts of reviews, nine or 10 each issue, some of them several pages long. His criticism often began as a well-balanced analysis but deteriorated into personal attacks — almost like a 19th-century contributor to Gawker.
Biographer James M. Hutchisson says that from his work on the Messenger and after, Poe set a national standard for reviews. Committed "to the idea that Americans should be taught to distinguish between ordinary or even commendable works and true masterpieces, Poe held up high standards that were usually at odds with the literary establishment."
In his recently released book Edgar Allan Poe's Richmond, Chris Semtner writes of various barbs by Poe, who called "Washington Irving the most overrated writer in America and declared that James Fenimore Cooper had no understanding of plot." He accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the period's best-known poet, of plagiarism.
Poe's assessment that reputation earned readership proved accurate. During the 17 months of his association, the Messenger's subscriptions ballooned seven-fold to a respectable 3,500 copies, perhaps closer to 5,000. Poe's name never appeared on the masthead, although his responsibilities included seeking submissions and handling the magazine's correspondence.
By his own admission, though, it was Poe's enjoyment of Southern and literary conviviality that undid his Messenger job. White wrote to him that no man is safe who begins drinking before breakfast. But despite Poe's talents, White became sick of his editor. As for Poe, he grew bitter and resentful toward White, in part because of his lack of learning, but mostly due to pay. Poe was married, with a home needing furnishing. He worked constantly but remained in debt. His childhood friends were doing well for themselves, while he felt cheated from the inheritance of his recently deceased warder, the prosperous merchant John Allan, whose former offices were next door to the Messenger. The specter of what-if and perhaps alcohol gnawed at Poe's ability, and eventually White let him go, permitting his editor to make a retirement announcement in the January 1837 issue.
White died of a paralytic stroke in January 1843. Benjamin Blake Minor, a 25-year-old lawyer, took up publishing duties. Under Minor's stewardship from August 1843 to October 1847, the Messenger bought Southern and Western Monthly Magazine. Minor eventually left for academia and was succeeded by lawyer John Reuben Thompson, who returned Poe to the pages but also began to run defenses of slavery and state's rights. Thompson left to edit Southern Field and Fireside in 1860 and was succeeded by physician turned editor Dr. George William Bagby, who abandoned most literary pretense to propagandize for secession. During the war, however, the Messenger was not uncritical of the Southern government. Frank H. Alfriend, later a biographer of Jefferson Davis, kept the Messenger alive until June 1864.
Its building was demolished in 1916 for a planned widening of Main Street that never occurred. Salvaged bricks were used in constructing the nearby Poe Museum's garden wall and pergola.
White reflected in 1840 about his surprise about the periodical's continued existence. He wrote, "In truth, it seemed a rash and perilous enterprize [sic.]."
The Messenger site today is the deck of an adult nightclub.