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  • Poe in Richmond: The New Face of Thomas Willis White
  • Christopher P. Semtner

In late 2016, the Poe Museum in Richmond received an e-mail from collector Anders Rasmussen of Texas. He had recently purchased a portrait he thought would be of interest to the museum. It is not unusual for the Poe Museum to answer calls and emails from collectors who have made exciting new discoveries of previously unknown portraits and daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe and his associates. Regrettably, almost all of those are soon identified as fakes, forgeries, or misidentifications. Among these was a silhouette on which someone had already written “Forgery” and an albumen print carte de visite thought to depict Edgar Allan Poe but which actually represented John Wilkes Booth. In some cases, there is simply not enough information to tell who appears in an old photograph or painting. On a few rare occasions, however, a newly discovered portrait actually proves to be important contribution to the museum’s collection. That is the case with Rasmussen’s picture of Edgar Allan Poe’s employer Thomas Willis White (1788–1843).

In many ways, White can be credited with helping change the course of Poe’s literary career from poetry to journalism. As the owner of Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger, White provided Poe his first magazine job. The Messenger gave the twenty-six-year-old Poe a laboratory in which to experiment with a variety of literary ideas from his science-fiction tale “Hans Phaall—A Tale” to his first horror story “Berenice.” The periodical also published the first installments of Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; Poe’s only play, Politian; his first literary criticism; his piece of investigative journalism, “Maelzel’s Chess Player”; and his parody of handwriting analysis, Autography. During his eighteen months with the magazine, Poe gained a national reputation for his scathing literary reviews and inventive short stories. In the [End Page 77] meantime, the Messenger rebounded from the brink of destruction to become the South’s leading journal for the next three decades before the deprivations brought about by the Civil War hastened its closure in 1864.

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Fig. 1.

Portrait of Thomas Willis White acquired by Anders Rasmussen. (Courtesy of the Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia.)

Born in Yorktown, Virginia, White was a tailor’s son with no formal education when he became a printer’s apprentice. He operated printing presses in Boston and Norfolk before moving to Richmond, where, in 1834, he founded the Southern Literary Messenger, which was, in the words of the mission statement printed on the cover, “Devoted to Every Department of Literature and the Fine Arts.” At a time when Virginia was well-known as a birthplace of presidents and center for political thought, the Commonwealth could boast few creative writers and no literary magazine. The publications in the Virginia capital had long been devoted to partisan politics, with their editors engaging battle both on the page and on the dueling grounds over the new nation’s future. The fine [End Page 78]

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Fig. 2.

The desk and chair Edgar Allan Poe used while employed by the Southern Literary Messenger. (Courtesy of the Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia.)

arts in Richmond received little more appreciation than did literature. Founded in 1817 by artist James Warrell (before 1793–ca. 1854), Richmond’s first museum of fine arts so scandalized the public that some concerned citizens broke into the building to clothe the casts of nude classical statues. Afterwards, visitation declined until the institution closed in 1836. White sought to change the depressing state of Richmond’s creative community by launching a magazine [End Page 79] that would promote literature and the fine arts in Richmond and the South. From its inception, the Messenger published the works of nationally prominent writers in addition to pieces by local authors like Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, George Tucker, and White’s own daughter Eliza White.

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Fig. 3.

The building occupied by the Southern Literary Messenger’s offices during White’s ownership. (Courtesy of the Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia.)



Additional Information

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pp. 77-87
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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