Oquawka Publisher Sought Partnership with Edgar Allan Poe


Story Courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic.

In the middle of the Bronx in New York City is a bustling neighborhood known as Fordham. In 1848, it was a sleepy rural village without even a post office, and perhaps its only claim to fame was a famous resident—the poet, author and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe, who was destined to die lonely and destitute on the streets of Baltimore the following year.

In December 1848, a thousand miles west of Fordham, an admiring young newspaper publisher named Edwin H. N. Patterson in Oquawka, Ill., wrote Poe a provocative letter, addressing it to him at Fordham, where Poe had written “The Raven” just three years earlier. Had Patterson known that Poe used a New York City post office for all his correspondence, Poe might have lived longer, and Oquawka might have become a literary hub on the western frontier.

Patterson, who at 21 had been handed the management of the weekly Oquawka Spectator by his father, had the audacious vision of publishing a monthly national literary magazine in the river town, which would be edited by his favorite literary critic, Edgar Allan Poe. Having read of Poe’s financial distress and depression following the recent death of his young wife from tuberculosis, Patterson penned a letter to his idol, proposing that he come west and begin a fresh life and career on the banks of the Mississippi.

Unfortunately, the letter ended up at a rural post office near Fordham and did not reach Poe until four months later. In his reply to Patterson, Poe wrote, “I deeply regret that I did not sooner receive it; and had it reached me in due season, I would have agreed to it unhesitatingly.”

Poe had long been contemplating founding his own literary magazine, to be titled The Stylus, but his financial situation, combined with an already saturated publishing market on the East coast had made the dream elusive. When he read Patterson’s offer to provide the publishing resources and release a magazine to the emerging western market, he was intrigued. And although the passage of time had made circumstances for a partnership less favorable, Poe did not dismiss the idea outright.

He wrote Patterson that he could not under any circumstances afford for such a partnership to fail, and that there were holes in his plan that would need to be corrected. He believed, for example, that Patterson’s suggested annual price of $3 was too low, and that it should be raised to $5 to appeal to a higher-income clientele.

Poe proposed that he would take a three-month lecture tour, speaking in small towns throughout the southern and western states, and predicted that by doing so he could collect 1,000 pledges for subscriptions. He requested that Patterson respond with a new proposal and offered to come visit him in Oquawka.

Patterson immediately responded with a detailed proposal. He gave Poe the option of selecting a name for the journal and offered to visit New York by the first of August, where he would purchase the necessary publishing materials. He would furnish an office, take upon himself the sole charge and expense of publishing a monthly 96-page magazine and provide Poe with full editorial control.

Poe’s reply on May 23 was somewhat guarded. One of his biggest concerns was the idea of the journal being published in the obscure river town of Oquawka. He suggested that the title page read “Published simultaneously at New-York & St. Louis.” Still, he was willing to proceed, with the first issue to be published the following January. He said he was headed to Boston and then to his hometown of Richmond, where he would await Patterson’s answer to his letter. He would then proceed to St. Louis, where the partners would at last meet in person. They would then go together to New York and make final preparations. He asked Patterson to advance him $50 to help fund his travel expenses, and enclosed a poem, asking that it be published in some paper, either in St. Louis or Oquawka.

On his way to Richmond, Poe came down with a case of cholera in Philadelphia, where he was detained for six weeks. He wrote Patterson from Richmond in early August that he had received the cash advance and was hoping his strength would soon return. He was still hesitant about the partnership—particularly the $3 subscription price—and asked that it be raised to $5.

Patterson responded—in what would be his last letter to Poe—that if he could guarantee 1,000 subscribers, he would commence publishing the following July. He asked that Poe begin his journey to St. Louis as soon as his health permitted and would meet him there on October 15.

Poe, as fate would have it, died October 7 in Baltimore, of mysterious causes—perhaps related to his long struggle with alcoholism. He was found lying incoherent in a gutter and taken to a hospital, where he died a few days later at the age of 40.

Patterson, who was naturally crushed, then sought to become the publisher of Poe’s complete works but was unsuccessful. The following year, he joined friends from his alma mater, Knox College, on an overland trip to the gold fields in California. He didn’t stay long, though, and returned to Oquawka on a ship, via the Isthmus of Panama.

At Oquawka, Patterson continued to publish the Spectator for another decade, but he left again on a quest for gold near Pikes Peak, and so enjoyed the mountains that he decided to stay there and publish a newspaper at Georgetown, Colorado. He died there in 1880.

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