John May

2004 SeasonMay

John May has combined a business career with a lifelong love of books and writing. He received his MFA degree from Bennington College and is chairman of the board of directors of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro Friends of the Library. He lives with his wife in Greensboro, North Carolina. 


Poe & Fanny (2004)


New-York Mirror Friday, December 27, 1844

The end of the world. - It is with a collective sigh of relief that New Yorkers anticipate the New Year, grateful that the world did not end as the Right Reverend William Miller of the Adventist Church in Chrystie Street prophesied.

For those unfamiliar with Mr. Miller, he apparently reckoned the apocalypse by way of an aptitude for the mathematical. From the Prophecy of the Book of Daniel and precise calculations of the intervals between epochs, he determined that the world would end in early December give or take a fortnight.

The effect was remarkable. My bootmaker, for example, reduced his prices reasoning that, if the world ends, what good is profit from the sale of footwear. But it seems that pinpointing the final conflagration requires more Art than Science; therefore, we of the Mirror, being as we are, disciples of the Art of Discourse, shall be so bold as to declare our own prophesy:

The World will Not End in 1845.

-not at least for the majority of mortals upon this earth. On the contrary, we predict that the new year will be the best ever-that notion consistent with our conviction that the march of time brings more good than ill.

Willis set his pen in its cradle. Rising from his chair, he walked to one of the windows facing Ann Street and stared at the cold, overcast sky above St. Paul’s. As it was nearly two o’clock, he decided to stop for lunch; the interval would allow his thoughts to wander. He had a knack for bringing a piece full circle despite its meanderings.

Noticing his reflection in the windowpane, he drew in his stomach and squared his shoulders. In three weeks, he would turn thirty-nine, though his reflection seemed as youthful as ever. He was clean-shaven, and a lock of brown hair that showed not a trace of gray fell across his forehead. Women had always found him attractive in a mischievous sort of way, not just for his looks, but also for his wit, which one critic, as he suddenly remembered, had recently called trifling-“the trifling wit of Nathaniel Parker Willis.” Though he had ignored it at the time, the recollection irked him now. Who was lobbing missiles at him? He returned to his desk, considering a retort in his column. Appeal to my readers, he thought. He could cite the column-it was the Star, wasn’t it?-and promote a shower of irate letters. At the corner of the partner’s desk he shared with General Morris, he leafed through the stack of periodicals until he found the correct issue. Turning its pages, he dismissed the idea. He was being vain, and intuition told him not to reveal too much of himself. His readers adored his flirtatious style, and they didn’t care that he was middle-aged, but vanity would disappoint. He flung the Star into the trash basket.

Trifling or not, Willis’s wit attracted more readers than any other writer in America.

He walked to the coat rack, put on his gloves and seal-collared overcoat, deciding on the Astor House for lunch, a beefsteak and potatoes, steaming hot as befit the weather. Where was Morris? He should have returned from the printer’s by now. Willis hated to dine alone.

“Hiram,” he said, turning to Morris’s assistant, who was hunched over a worktable and wiping paste from his fingers. “Tell General Morris I’m at the Astor House.”

Hiram Stoddard nodded as Willis looped a muffler around his neck. He fitted his beaver top hat snugly on his head to withstand the wind that would be blowing down Broadway; then he reached for his walking stick and descended the stairs.

Upon opening the door to the street, he encountered a small boy huddled in the doorway out of the wind, his arms hugging his knees for warmth. The boy wore an old woolen mackinaw with a yarn of faded purple shot through the pattern-a color so unexpected, it caught Willis’s eye. Covering his feet was a bundle of magazines tied with string. Thinking to shoo him away, Willis noticed that the bundle hid bare feet.

“Afternoon, sir,” the boy said in a shivery Irish accent, looking up with wary eyes. He was not more than five.

Just up Ann Street toward Broadway, another boy, an older brother by the look of him, hawked the same magazine the younger one used as a foot warmer. The brother wore an ill-fitting pair of men’s boots.

“What’s this?” Willis asked, tapping the bundle with his walking stick.

Pulling one of the magazines from under the twine, the boy handed it to Willis, who studied the masthead: The Aristidean, Vol. 1, No. 1. Who was Aristides, Willis wondered, Whig or Democrat? As he read, he tucked his cane under his arm and reached into his pocket; then, glancing down at the coins, he selected a shilling and thumbed it into the newsboy’s palm, getting a strong whiff of him. No doubt the boy had never had a bath, and Willis suspected he lived in Five Points, which smelled of the cesspool on which it had been built.

“Go down to Grand Street,” Willis said, “and get a pair of secondhand shoes. You can find a decent pair for a nickel.” He saw by the look in the youngster’s eyes that he could not come home with shoes unless he had permission first-not even secondhand shoes. “Does your brother share his boots with you?”

The boy nodded and turned back to the bundle covering his feet.

“Well, you can’t stay here,” Willis said. “Sorry, but this is a place of business.” For his part Willis might have let him stay, but Morris would be furious. He watched the boy lift his bundle, cut him a surly glance, and trudge after his brother.

Another new magazine, Willis thought, following the two young hucksters toward Broadway. A deluge of print swamping the five hundred thousand residents of New York City, only a quarter of whom read with any hope of comprehension. Deciding this opinion was grossly unfair, he considered adding arrogance to vanity on his list of faults, and he chided himself. But it was ridiculous-a new magazine every week. How would he and Morris make a go of it with all these publications nibbling at their heels? At the corner of Ann and Park Row he heard a chorus of hucksters. “Here, sir, buy the Herald.” “Have the Express, madam. Only a penny.” The Sun, the Tribune, the Star, the Mirror . . . Newsboys besieged the crowd standing in line at the horsecar terminal. It was the best place in the city for selling newspapers, but the competition was intense.

Continuing his column in his head, Willis considered a second prediction for the new year, one regarding the number of new periodicals. He would predict a new one every week and the market already flooded, so flooded as to require a veritable Niagara of street urchins to provide distribution. Liking the word, Niagara, he began phrasing a sentence. Yes, he thought, that idea might work, and as he crossed through City Hall Park to avoid the mud and manure of the terminal, he smiled, thinking how grateful he was for this amazing gift of his-the parallel tracks on which his mind traveled, one experiencing life and the other describing it-and he recalled General Morris warning him to stop writing about the beautiful women he encountered on horsecars or at the theater, but Willis couldn’t stop. Beautiful women were like a melody playing in his mind to which he added lyrics.

He crossed Broadway and climbed the steps to the Greek Revival front portico of the Astor House, the five-story hotel where he lived. Built by John Jacob Astor, the Astor was the finest hotel in New York. As he opened the door, he met two women just leaving.

“Anna!” one of them exclaimed. “It’s Willis. Didn’t I say you’d meet him if you came?”

“Fanny,” Willis said, smiling, closing the door behind him and removing his hat.

Fanny offered her gloved hand, which Willis kissed, savoring its perfume.

“This is my sister, Anna,” she said, reaching for her companion, “Anna Harrington. And this is the famous N. P. Willis-or should I say, the infamous Willis-adored by every woman in America.”

Fanny stood just five feet tall, and, though in her early thirties, from a distance she could have passed for a girl in her teens. As bright and fresh as a shop window, she had dark brown, glossy hair and large, expectant eyes. She wore a scarf of purple satin neatly tucked beneath the collar of her gray woolen overcoat and, on her head, a bonnet tied under her chin with matching purple ribbons.

“Anna is from Albany,” Fanny continued, tilting her head slightly to one side as if sharing a secret. There was nothing in the least artificial or affected in the gesture. It was as if she longed for Willis to believe that what she said could not be truer-Anna Harrington was indeed from Albany and nowhere else.

“I am a devoted reader, Mr. Willis,” Anna said.

“It’s Willis-everyone calls me Willis,” he said, just as he had a thousand times, smiling and in his mind putting his admirer at her ease.

“Are you coming to Lynchie’s tomorrow night?” Fanny asked, referring to Anne Lynch, whose Saturday night conversaziones at her home in Greenwich Village were a literary institution in New York City.

“Of course,” Willis said, Fanny’s petiteness making him feel taller than his six-foot frame. “But it’s bitter cold. Stay and join me for lunch. I’ll go up and get Mary, and we’ll make a party of it.”

“Thank you, but no,” Fanny said. “We’ve lunched already. I’m taking Anna to Lynchie’s. I want her to meet all my New York literary friends. Will you read something for her, Willis? Please! One of your pencilings. Don’t let her to go back to Albany disappointed. Everyone there is so . . .” she broke off, almost out of breath, and turned to Anna as if Willis’s presence alone were proof of her boasting and she wished to see her reaction. Then Fanny turned back to him and smiled. “We’re on our way to Stewart’s to buy Anna a pair of gloves.”

“I saw Sam recently,” Willis said as he reached to open the door for them. “Is he still in town?” By Fanny’s reaction, he regretted the question. It was hard to know what to say. He knew she and Sam lived apart; in fact, Fanny and her two girls were the Willises’ near neighbors; they lived just down the hall from the Willises’ suite on the fifth floor. From this and things he had heard, Willis inferred that Fanny was somewhere between marriage and divorce, but divorce was still diYcult and expensive in New York.

“No,” she said. “Sam has gone to Baltimore and from there, south. He left yesterday. He will paint Mr. Elliot in Beaufort, then he’s on to New Orleans. We shall not see him encore une fois,” she paused, searching for a couplet, “ere ripens red la fraise du bois,” and she seemed to revel in the triumph of her rhyme. Through the frosted glass of the front door, Willis watched the two women descend the steps and turn up Broadway toward Stewart’s. Shaking his head, he decided Sam Osgood must be a fool to abandon a woman so precious as Fanny and go traveling around the country painting portraits. She had the charming habit of turning conversation into verse-writing poetry was like breathing air to Fanny Osgood.

He turned toward the table d’hôte. Where was he? Ah, yes. Niagara. He took his favorite table beside one of the large windows overlooking Vesey Street and the snow-covered cemetery surrounding St. Paul’s. After ordering a glass of claret, he unfolded his magazine.

The Aristidean. Thomas Dunn English, editor. Folly! Willis thought. Folly to go head-to-head with the American Whig Review-New York didn’t need another Whig magazine. Folly to get embroiled in politics with elections far off-Polk, just elected, would not take office for another three months. And folly to give a magazine a name newsboys could not possibly pronounce. Without thinking, a tune began playing in Willis’s mind, the lyrics breaking through into his consciousness.

Don’t you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt,-

Sweet Alice whose hair was so brown,

Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile,

And trembled with fear at your frown?

He chuckled at the recollection. Dunn English had written it three years earlier. Morris had commissioned a sea chanty, but English composed a sentimental poem instead, a drippy trifle. They published it anyway, needing a filler, as Willis recalled. Later someone put it to music-a doleful German melody-and the thing took off like a Roman candle. Now it was sung at bachelor parties once everyone was in their cups. It occurred to Willis that he might use the Aristidean as proof of his prediction-the first of fifty-two new periodicals. What made it tempting was that English was something of a hothead.

Hearing his name called, he turned to see the printer’s devil from his office. The maitre d’ was pointing to Willis.

“General Morris wants you, sir,” the boy said as he approached the table.

“What’s the matter?” Willis asked.

“I’d rather not say. I was told to fetch you at once.”

Willis stood, laid his napkin aside, and took up his overcoat. His first thought was his wife, Mary, who was six months pregnant. He stopped at the front desk to inquire; then, satisfied that Mary had not sent for him, he followed the young assistant back to his office.

At the top of the stairs, the door to Mirror office was flung open and standing in the doorway was Edgar Poe, unsteady, his top hat at an odd angle, his eyes glassy and unfocused.

“Mr. Poe seems to be in some distress,” General Morris boomed as Willis approached the landing.

“Edgar?” Willis exclaimed. “What’s the matter?”

“Willis!” Poe said in a slurred voice. “By God, Willis! I need a moment of your time.”

Though Poe made every effort to stand erect and though his tie was straight and his mustache combed, his voice, his eyes, and the odd angle of his hat betrayed his condition.

“Willis,” he said, as if the name consisted of but one syllable, “I’m in partnership with a fool and a damned fool at that.”

Beyond Poe stood the full muster of the New-York Mirror. Hiram Stoddard, with his back to the door, seemed eager for an altercation, and beside Stoddard, big-eyed and nervous, was the printer’s devil who had come to fetch Willis at the Astor. Beyond them two other clerks appeared to be enjoying the sport, but the commander of this army, Willis’s partner, General George Pope Morris-short, stout, immovable-brandished his cane like a saber.

Willis decided on retreat. “Come, Edgar,” he said, “I’ll buy you lunch.” Taking Poe’s arm, he led him away. Poe was shorter and slighter than Willis, but anticipating the usual bellicosity that accompanies drunkenness, he guided Poe down the stairs with a firm hand.

“Briggs is a damn fool and an idiot,” Poe said.

“We’ll have oysters,” Willis announced as they emerged onto Ann Street. He searched his mind for a suitable eating-house, one where Poe’s condition would not be an embarrassment. Turning onto Fulton, they walked arm in arm toward the river. Faced with a freezing wind, Poe grew quiet; Willis hoped the wind would have a sobering effect. Poe’s weakness for alcohol was rumored about, but in five months working for the Mirror, Willis had never seen him drunk. Now the smell of cheap wine was strong, and the odor of camphor rose from Poe’s overcoat, a military relic, judging from the shadow of the corporal’s stripes that had once adorned the sleeve. The cross streets were jammed with men from Wall Street going to lunch; a sea of bobbing top hats flowed all the way downtown. Poe drew curious attention when his hat blew off. Willis fetched it, placed it back on his head, and noticed pearls of perspiration on his forehead.

“Briggs is a damn fool,” Poe repeated. His breath reeked. “The man’s a greengrocer, for Christ’s sake. Doesn’t know publishing from parsnips.”

“What happened?”

“It’s Friday, is it not?” Poe shook his head. “The day every weekly in America goes on sale. Our first issue was due out, and where is it?” He stopped and turned to Willis, his hat about to fall off again. “The man belongs on Blackwell’s Island.”

Willis smiled, took Poe’s arm again, and nudged him on. “What’s the name again?”

“Broadway Journal,” Poe said, and he staggered into Willis, throwing them both off balance, and they nearly stumbled. Anyone seeing them would have thought them both drunk.

“That’s a fine name,” Willis said, thinking that at least it was one newsboys could pronounce.

“You think so?” Poe said. “Well, it’s a damn rare one.”

Willis chuckled to himself, thinking, This week the Aristidean, next week the Broadway Journal.

Two weeks earlier Poe had resigned his post as Willis’s assistant to start a new literary journal with Charles Briggs, a former wholesale grocer, now a writer. Older than Willis, Briggs was not without ability, but he was also something of a stuffed shirt, a trait Willis invariably associated with Boston.

“Let’s try this place?” Willis said, and he guided Poe into a tavern facing the wharfs, a place unknown to him, at the corner of John and Front Streets. Avoiding the patrons sitting at tables farther back, sailors mostly, Willis selected a corner of the bar near the front. He ordered coffee, oysters, and soda crackers as Poe took a stool and stared out the window across Front Street toward Burling Slip and the East River. A black-hulled China clipper, the Bonaventure, was moored in the slipway, the tip of its bowsprit almost touching a fourth-story window in the building across the street. The figurehead, a maiden shrouded in blue with one breast exposed to the cold, hovered twenty feet in the air. She held one hand aloft, seeming to bless the dock workers beneath her. Beyond the slip and as far up the river as one could see was a hive of ship’s masts, sails, and spars, huge ships, their hulls three stories tall, their bowsprits towering above the mass of hawsers, dock lines, and barrel-laden drays thronging the wharf.

“So you missed your deadline?” Willis asked, hoping coffee and conversation would bring Poe around.

Poe explained that Briggs had selected an unsuitable printer. On learning this, he had suggested the printer used by the Mirror, the firm of John Douglas. “For in all of America,” he declared, loud enough to draw the attention of other patrons, “who knows more about publishing than Morris and Willis?” And he praised their names such that Willis had to quiet him down. As it turned out, by the time Briggs and Poe had approached Mr. Douglas, it was too late to make the Friday deadline. They would have to delay their first issue for a week, and Poe would have to forgo a week’s wages.

He rambled on. Willis ate two oysters, decided they were rancid, and lunched on soda crackers instead. Poe gorged, sucking the shells dry of their pearly liquid and stuffing crackers in his mouth as if he’d not eaten for a week. It’s clear he wants to borrow money, Willis thought as he stared out the window, thinking also that the flood of new magazines might push up the price of printing. Maybe he should have a talk with John Douglas.

At last, his belly full, Poe lay his head on the bar and was soon sleeping. Willis tipped the proprietor to leave his companion undisturbed, then pulled the Aristidean from his pocket and started reading. It was an eight-pager and looked more like a newspaper than a magazine, thus qualifying for better postal rates. The brown newsprint was inferior, and typesetting and line spacing differed from article to article, giving it a patchwork appearance. Subscriptions were three dollars a year, pricy for a thing that looked so thrown-together. Single issues went for half a shilling.

The lead article, no doubt written by Dunn English, called for fresh perspectives in light of the sea changes transforming America at breathtaking speed-railroads, telegraphs, steamships, daguerreotypy, new and faster printing presses, modern waterworks. How would society cope? Willis suspected that the Aristidean was poised to provide the answers-at six and a quarter cents per copy.

He read the magazine through as Poe slept, snorting cracker crumbs that caught in the web of his mustache. Staring out at the clipper, Willis thought of his and Mary’s plans to go to England in the spring after the baby came. Her parents were eager to see the new child and also their granddaughter, Imogen, the Willises’ two-year-old. No doubt the second child would change their life; he would have to buy a house when they returned from abroad; therefore, the New-York Mirror needed to prosper.

Indeed, Mary longed to go home. She had even suggested that they live in England, but Willis did not want to leave for good. There were changes afoot, and not only those noted by the Aristidean. Culture was changing and it all had to do with wealth. The subject fascinated him, and who in all America was a better chronicler of such things than he?

Poe stirred and rubbed his eyes. His forehead was red where it had pressed upon the bar. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his overcoat and looked up at Willis. “I should never have left the Mirror,” he said.

“It will work out,” Willis reassured him, hoping Poe would not ask for his old job back.

“I never worked for finer men than you and Morris. But the pay! Fifteen dollars a week for a man with a sick wife and a mother-in-law who wants everything just so. Now I’ll have to move them into town. Briggs will never make it on his own.”

“Perhaps I can help,” Willis said, following an impulse. If this was going to cost him money, he may as well get something for it. “Did you intend to review Longfellow’s Christmas gift book?” he asked. “We’d pay you ten dollars.”

“Ten dollars,” Poe said, spurning the sum.

Willis smiled. “Well, as you know, it’s not our policy to pay contributors.”

“Yes, I know,” Poe said. He knew the drill. “‘Pay comes in the form of seeing one’s name in print.’ Unfortunately, my landlord insists on the coin of the realm.”

“And for that reason we will pay you ten dollars,” Willis said, laughing and relieved that Poe seemed to be sobering up. “Do you have a copy? It’s called The Waif. I’ll get it for you.”

“It’s old stuff,” Poe said, dismissing it and rising from his stool.

“I think you’ll find that it contains some new pieces,” Willis said, “and they may be . . . how shall I say . . . reminiscent?”

Poe eyed him suspiciously. “You want me to tomahawk the damn thing, don’t you?”

“Well, I thought . . .” Willis paused, smiling. “In the past you’ve suspected the professor of borrowing from his fellow poets, and I thought perhaps you might perceive the same trend this time. If so, you might amplify on that theme. I remember one of your reviews-how did it go?-‘the most barbarous class of literary robbery?’” He laughed out loud.

The idea was pure impulse. Controversy sold newspapers, and Willis could imagine a hailstorm of letters from Boston defending Longfellow. Had Poe not shown up in such a state of intoxication, the notion might never have occurred to him. Willis considered himself an exile from Boston: As a young magazinist fresh out of Yale, he had been attacked for his liberal ideas and expelled from the Park Street Congregational Church for missing communion and attending the theater. The rivalry between New York and Boston to be America’s foremost city was a contest decided long ago, so far as Willis was concerned, but this fact did not seem so clear to Bostonians. At bottom, however, was his reluctance to dirty his own hands. He’d learned to avoid controversy and limited his reviews to works he could praise, leaving serious criticism to men who believed in its nobility-men like Poe.

As for Poe, he was perhaps too intoxicated to notice that Willis was quoting from a review written five years earlier, but Willis had always found Poe’s reviews immensely entertaining. No one else could skewer a work as viciously and with such wit.

Poe brushed the crumbs from his overcoat as Willis paid the bill, and they left, heading up John Street toward Broadway.

“Shall I walk you to the terminal?” Willis said, thinking to ensure that Poe got safely home. “Next time you’re in town, I’ll have a copy of Longfellow’s book waiting for you.”

It was three-thirty. The gray sky had grown more ominous, and the cold wind persisted, now at their backs as they ascended the hill. When they reached the terminal, Willis searched for a Broadway line horsecar, steering Poe by the arm. “Do you have fare?” he asked.

“I was hoping you’d advance me for the Longfellow piece,” Poe said. “You know I’m good for it, and I’m behind with my landlord.”

“You’ll go straight home?”

“You have my word,” Poe said. “It’s the end of the line for me, then a three-mile walk to put me right. I don’t want my little wifey to think I’ve been back- sliding.”

Willis reached for his wallet and handed Poe a ten-dollar bill plus a shilling for fare. “Stop by next week,” he said. “Longfellow’s book will be waiting for you.”

Poe climbed the steps at the back of the horsecar, holding tight to the rail, offering neither thanks nor good-bye.

As Willis walked back to his office, he felt a nagging irritation. The cheeriness of the morning had disappeared. Why this sour mood, he wondered. He’d been in such high spirits earlier. His column remained unfinished, but that wasn’t it, and he recalled the word Niagara and the flood of new periodicals-his second prediction for 1845-the linchpin that would join the afternoon portion of his column with the morning portion. He pulled the folded copy of the Aristidean from his pocket and smoothed it flat, saving it for General Morris, who would want to see it, and just then he remembered the shoeless newsboy and the purple yarn shot through the plaid of his jacket, a color so unexpected on a street urchin, yet one so becoming to Fanny Osgood, those purple ribbons below her gray eyes. Was she not beautiful? And then Poe-drunk and broke. But it wasn’t Poe or any of those other things that had dampened Willis’s spirits. The culprit was that knife in his back-“the trifling wit of Nathaniel Parker Willis.”