By John S. McFarland
I have lived most of my life in or near St. Louis, Mo. And ever since I was old enough to realize that I actually liked being scared and unsettled, I have been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. I was surprised to learn, in recent years that there was a connection between the city and my literary hero, or at least one was in the making when Poe died. In fact, if Poe had lived another month or so, he very well could have been buried in one of the grand old cemeteries in the city which have been the last resting places of historical and literary figures for nearly 200 years.
When he died in Baltimore on Oct. 7, 1849, Poe was poised to move to St. Louis. There he hoped to realize his greatest ambition: the founding of his own literary magazine.
For many years, beginning in the early 1830s, Poe worked long hours for low pay, editing magazines for others. In addition to squabbles about his pitifully low salary, Poe also had frequent disagreements with his publishers about content, as well as the sporadic “irregularities” that were the result of his terrible alcoholism. Desperate for his own magazine, he issued a prospectus in 1840 for a periodical, solicited contributions from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and others and began years of futile attempts to raise money and begin publication.
Poe’s greatest friend as an adult was Frederick W. Thomas, a novelist and government bureaucrat who had moved to St. Louis from Baltimore. Thomas encouraged Poe in his dream and agreed to contribute articles. Eventually Thomas began soliciting subscriptions in St. Louis for the magazine, to be called the The Stylus.
Somehow, the needed capital was always just out of reach, and Poe’s plans were further set back by his debilitating bouts of alcoholism and tragic personal life. In 1847, Poe’s young wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis, as had his mother and foster mother. By 1849, Poe’s health and spirits had greatly deteriorated, and the prospect of his magazine ever coming into being seemed far-fetched. Then, out of nowhere, Poe received a letter from the little northwestern Illinois town of Oquawka that offered him the prospect of realizing his dream.
Edward Patterson was a well-to-do newspaper publisher and admired Poe, and he had heard of the failed plans for The Stylus. Patterson offered to finance the project in Oquawka. Poe responded excitedly, outlining his vision of a lofty literary journal and predicting a circulation of 20,000 within five years.
More letters between the two men followed. Poe convinced Patterson to publish the journal in St. Louis, where Poe had support from Thomas and Joseph Field, editor of the St. Louis Reveille. Patterson agreed and arranged to meet Poe in St. Louis on October 15, 1849, to work out details.
His dream at last in sight, Poe began a lecture tour in the south to raise money and sell subscriptions to the magazine. Unfortunately, after a brief hiatus of sobriety, he resumed drinking and began experiencing paranoia and occasional hallucinations. When his tour brought him to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, he joined The Sons of Temperance, and became engaged to an old childhood love.
Then he made the mistake of visiting Baltimore, his home for many years, where he again fell off the wagon. It is generally accepted that Poe, who was possibly already intoxicated when he arrived in Baltimore, was plied with liquor by crooked electioneers and sent with other inebriates to vote repeatedly for a Whig candidate in a city election.
He was found delirious near the Fourth Ward Club, and died on Oct. 7, eight days before he was to meet Patterson in St. Louis.
Could Poe have made a success of The Stylus in St. Louis? In Some Words With a Mummy, Poe wrote, probably self-analytically: “The truth is, I am heartily sick of this life, and of the 19th century in general.” Many biographers doubt that in the 41st year of a troubled life, Poe would have had enough strength to see the project through. It is likely that The Stylus, like so many women in Poe’s stories, represented to him an idealized and unattainable dream.
JOHN MCFARLAND’S first novel, The Black Garden, was published in 2010, and the story continues with Mother of Centuries. His work has appeared in The Twilight Zone Magazine, Eldritch Tales, National Lampoon, River Styx, Tornado Alley and the anthology A Treasury of American Horror Stories, which also included stories by Stephen King, Richard Matheson and H.P. Lovecraft. He has written extensively on historical and arts-related subjects and has been a guest lecturer in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a lifelong Bigfoot enthusiast, and Annette: A Big Hairy Mom is his first novel for young readers.