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Biography 25.3 (2002) 477-492

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Poe, the Daguerreotype, and the Autobiographical Act

Kevin J. Hayes


Living in Philadelphia during the early 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe had an opportunity to observe the city's growing enthusiasm for daguerreotype portraiture, and to participate in its lively publishing scene. At the time, several editors and publishers were starting new magazines and newspapers, and Poe was keen to join them. The second week of December 1842, Thomas Cottrell Clarke issued the first number of his mammoth weekly, the Philadelphia Saturday Museum. Poe's precise involvement with this paper is unclear, yet he did befriend its proprietor to such an extent that Clarke agreed to publish Poe's long-planned magazine. What Poe formerly had intended to call the Pennsylvania Magazine he would now call The Stylus. To promote the magazine, which they hoped to launch during the first half of the following year, Clarke decided to include some advance publicity materials within the pages of the Saturday Museum. The February 25, 1843, issue, in fact, was chockful of Poe. His prospectus for The Stylus appeared on the back page, and the front page contained a lengthy biographical and critical essay accompanied by a wood-engraved portrait based on a recent daguerreotype, both of which generated sufficient interest to warrant reprinting in the following issue of the Museum. Taken together, the prospectus, the portrait, and the biography reveal much about Poe's attitude toward the literary and photographic depiction of the self.

The prospectus for The Stylus may offer the best starting point for recognizing how Poe understood the relationship between writing and the personal image. Renaming his ideal magazine The Stylus, Poe abandoned a title with a local association in favor of one with a wider resonance. Writing that same year, another American magazinist associated the word "stylus" with ancient Greece and Rome, yet also noted that it "afforded to the language of our own day its two widely different words—style and stiletto" ("Loose" 475). [End Page 477] In terms of both literary originality and critical incisiveness, these two associations suited Poe well. He had used the word "stylus" in his imaginative work to connote a centuries-old writing implement. The short story "Shadow: A Fable," for example, was purportedly inscribed with a stylus during the eighth century. In Poe's time, however, the word was more often used to refer to an engraver's tool. Poe therefore chose a title for his ideal magazine that not only associated ancient and modern, but also linked the written word with visual culture.

Describing the proposed contents of his ideal magazine in the prospectus, Poe affirmed the relationship between word and image as he emphasized the importance of illustration. The prospectus distinguishes two possible kinds of illustration that could appear in The Stylus: engravings and portraits. Since numerous engraved portraits had begun to appear regularly in the day's finest magazines starting in the early 1840s, Poe's distinction between engravings and portraits initially seems ambiguous, but he clarified what he meant as he elaborated on the place of illustrations in the ideal magazine he projected. "Engravings, when used," he explained, "will be in the highest style of Art, but are promised only in obvious illustration of the text, and in strict keeping with the Magazine character" (Essays 1033). An "important feature of the work," he continued, would be introduced as part of the opening number:

A series of Critical and Biographical Sketches of American Writers. These sketches will be accompanied with full length and characteristic portraits; will include every person of literary note in America; and will investigate carefully, and with rigorous impartiality, the individual claims of each. ( Essays 1035)

To Poe's mind, then, illustrations were unnecessary to imaginative literature, yet they were both pertinent and helpful for literary biography.

Poe emphasized the inclusion of portraiture in The Stylus for several reasons. The specific market niche he projected for his magazine made illustration appropriate. From the 1830s, engravings were becoming an important part of many of the finest, most widely read magazines (Mott 1...